Gay,Jewish—and no­tafraid­tosayso

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY CHAR­LOTTE OLIVER

BEN­JAMIN KAYE has one re­gret. He never as­sured his el­derly great-un­cle he was not alone and did not have to suf­fer in si­lence.

Mr Kaye’s un­cle, like him, was gay. But he never said so. His gen­er­a­tion rarely did and he died, aged 88, never hav­ing spo­ken of it.

“He died alone, never mar­ry­ing or hav­ing kids, just a bit­ter old man,” said Mr Kaye. “He never came out dur­ing the whole of his life­time. Back in the 1920s, when he was born, you couldn’t be who you wanted to be. It’s sad re­ally. His fam­ily never knew the real him and he found it dif­fi­cult to re­late to me, be­cause I wasn’t shy about who I was.”

For the 36-year-old au­di­tor from Maida Vale, the cul­tural land­scape has changed be­yond recog­ni­tion.

Where his grand­fa­ther feared os­tracism, he came out with ease, prompted by his mother turn­ing to him one day and say­ing: “All we would like is for you to meet a nice Jewish boy.”

He now runs the Gay Jews in Lon­don so­cial group, con­fi­dent one can be gay, les­bian, bi­sex­ual, trans­gen­der, and still very much Jewish.

“It is im­por­tant to have the Jewish side of LGBT be­cause when you meet a Jew, straight away you have an un­der­stand­ing of their cul­ture and their morals. If you’re gay and Jewish, you have that two-fold. There is a lot in your life you don’t need to ex­plain, not least the guilt, the over­bear­ing mother, or how you could pos­si­bly look for­ward to eat­ing eggs dipped in salt wa­ter. That is a nice feel­ing.”

Mr Kaye’s group caters for 650 mem­bers, or­gan­is­ing so­cial events, fes­ti­val cel­e­bra­tions like the “postPe­sach pizza fest”, and march­ing at the an­nual Pride Lon­don pa­rade. But they are far from unique.

In­creas­ing sup­port from syn­a­gogues across a grow­ing num­ber of move­ments, as well as the grow­ing suc­cess of groups such as Keshet UK, Beit Klal Yis­rael, Rain­bow Jews and the Jewish Gay and Les­bian Group (JGLB), has re­vealed a di­verse spec­trum of LGBT Jewry, all with voices and roles to play.

“For some, we pro­vide the only sort of Jewish­ness in their lives,” said Peggy Sher­wood, pres­i­dent of the JGLG. It has 200 mem­bers, and has re­cently cre­ated an off­shoot, Young Jewish LGBT+, for people aged 16-22. It holds reg­u­lar so­cial events, as well as monthly Chavurot, which are hosted in nearby Syn­a­gogues.

“While the Pro­gres­sive move­ment is in­cred­i­bly sup­port­ive and the Re­form move­ment is catch­ing up, there is not much sup­port from the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity. Some mem­bers of the Charedi are con­fi­den­tially in the group,” Ms Sher­wood said.

“Of course, be­ing Jewish and LGBT does have its chal­lenges, but not so much as it did when I came out 20 years ago.

“For me, ac­cep­tance is the way for­ward. People are still able to have a han­dle on their Ju­daism while keep­ing their own iden­tity – that keeps people within the faith. That is the way of guar­an­tee­ing Ju­daism’s fu­ture.”

For many who are al­ready out, the plethora of or­gan­i­sa­tions avail­able pro­vides a rich so­cial life, or a plat­form to cam­paign about is­sues that af­fect them. But there are still many s t r u g - gling to come to terms with their iden­tity – and here again these groups are in­valu­able.

Karen Lewis who runs Young Jewish LGBT+ said: “So far, ev­ery­one has had mostly pos­i­tive com­ing out ex­pe­ri­ences. Some haven’t made that fi­nal step and are anx­ious about it, but they know they don’t need to be pushed into it.

“Our mem­bers range from be­ing com­pletely sec­u­lar to frum.”

The cli­mate for LGBT jewry has

“There is a lot in your life you don’t need to ex­plain, not least the guilt or the over­bear­ing mother”

im­proved, thanks in part to strong ac­tivism from within the com­mu­nity, cou­pled with chang­ing at­ti­tudes and leg­is­la­tion. Fol­low­ing the Equal­ity Act 2010, same-sex mar­riage of­fi­cially came into ef­fect in March and, while re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions have been slow in putting this into prac­tice, many pro­gres­sive syn­a­gogues have been en­cour­ag­ing cou­ples to come for­ward.

But for all the progress made, there are those urg­ing the need to avoid com­pla­cency. Rabbi El­iz­a­beth Tik­vah Sarah, a pioneer in the ad­vance­ment of Jewish LGBT rights, said: “People still have to be pre­pared to be the odd les­bian or gay Jew and they don’t want to be that, so many don’t come to syn­a­gogue. When you’re a mi­nor­ity, you’re ‘other’.

“It’s also im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that, when we say LGBT, we’re of­ten only ad­vanc­ing the ‘L’ and the ‘G’. Sim­ple things, like gen­dered toi­lets in shuls, can be alien­at­ing. ”

Su­rat Rathge­ber Knan, project man­ager of Lib­eral Ju­daism’s Rain­bow Jews, is one such per­son rais­ing aware­ness for mi­nor­ity groups.

Su­rat, who was re­cently nom­i­nated by Haaretz as one of seven in­ter­na­tional Jewish LGBT pi­o­neers, is cur­rently un­der­go­ing a gen­der tran­si­tion from fe­male to male, and said it was im­por­tant to keep push­ing for ac­cep­tance for all – not just les­bians and gay people.

For Su­rat, who would pre­fer to be re­ferred to in the plu­ral but will ac­cept “he” as a pro­noun, know­ing how to re­fer to a trans per­son, or how to ac­com­mo­date them i n s h u l , n e e d s at­ten­tion. He said: “People are aware that the LGBT com­mu­nity is not just ‘L’ and ‘G’, but most are not think­ing how to put that into prac­tice. We’re still in the black and white zone. It is all about in­creas­ing vis­i­bil­ity, whether that is prac­ti­cal in­clu­sion, like chang­ing the liturgy, or silly things, like hav­ing at least one uni­sex toi­let in ev­ery com­mu­nity build­ing.

“If you com­pare it with the US or Is­rael, UK is be­hind. They have so many dif­fer­ent aware­ness pro­grammes and tool­kits to help make com­mu­ni­ties more in­clu­sive. We’re still in our baby shoes, but at least ask­ing ques­tions.”

There is gen­eral con­sen­sus that, among wider so­ci­ety, both sec­u­lar and non-sec­u­lar, pro­gres­sive move­ments are at the head of the curve, in par­tic­u­lar ahead of the Catholic Church and Church of Eng­land.

The wide range of or­gan­i­sa­tions now avail­able shows a cli­mate where be­ing both LGBT and Jewish is no longer mu­tu­ally exclusive. But for those leading the way, it is es­sen­tial to keep teach­ing, rais­ing aware­ness, and trail­blaz­ing for­ward.

“Ac­cep­tance is the way for­ward. People can have a han­dle on Ju­daism and keep their iden­tity ”

Jewish par­tic­i­pants at the Gay Pride 2014 event in Lon­don

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