This Pride, Queer Jews Must Remember Our History

As a white cis gay rabbi, I am obligated to remember the bravery of our Black queer ancestors who risked their lives for our collective liberation.

For most of my adult life, June has meant the celebration of Pride: a profusion of color, song, and movement that brightens the entire country, from small town gatherings to the multi-week festivals of big cities. While we have only recently engaged in the necessary work of diversifying the faces and bodies represented in our parties and parades, it is – at its core – a time of lifting up the beautiful rainbow of the LGBTQ+ community.

As a queer Jew and rabbi, it is one of those rare moments I am given permission to lean in to my whole self: to walk hand-in-hand with my husband down joy-filled streets, wearing kippot embroidered with the words “Born This Way.”

Yet this year is not like other years. Storefronts that had capitalized on the celebratory appeal of Pride are dark and boarded up. Where there were rainbow flags, there are protest signs. Police lines have replaced happy spectators. The same streets that had been filled with song and dance are now writhing with pain 400 years in the making. The persistence of racism and violence that punctuates the history of this country and inordinately effects the everyday lives of Black people has (yet again) given us no choice but to understand how it continues to warp society and shape our lives. As Abraham Joshua Heschel warned us nearly 60 years ago, when taking account of these sins, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

Like the other white and white-passing members of our Jewish community, I benefit from the privileges of whiteness and wealth that have shielded me from the physical and psychic burdens borne by so many people of color. Any talent I was born with or effort I have applied has been amplified by the color of my skin, an uncomfortable realization that can challenge our feelings of self-worth. For all the obstacles of anti-Semitism and homophobia I have overcome, I have also been buoyed by the unearned advantages of being a white person in America. How do I begin taking apart my own privilege, much less participate in the dismantling of systemic racism?

I begin by listening. This is, after all, the most profound statement of what it means to be a Jew: Shema Yisrael — listen, you God-wrestlers. The commandment is not simply to hear what is being said, but to seek understanding by finding the parts of ourselves that resonate with the pain and anger of our neighbors. To listen, to truly listen, means revisiting the scars of the past — to tear ourselves open and rediscover those tender parts of our being that allow us to meet others at their most vulnerable.

Judaism is grounded in a call toward empathy: We understand the soul of the stranger, having been strangers ourselves. Through our liturgy and holidays, we remind ourselves of and reenact the moments that our people have stood on the margins of society — whether as slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, or refugees from the Old Country. By revisiting these wounds, we develop an acute sensitivity for the pain of other people. This is why Jews have stood on the front lines of every major civil rights movement of the past century, and why we must continue to do so. When we join the call for a more equal and just society, we take up a prophetic mandate that reaches back through history from Harvey Milk and Edie Windsor to Amos and Isaiah.

And once we’ve listened, we need to act.

This year, it’s more important than ever to remember the real origin of Pride — that audacious demonstration of our collective pain and righteous anger, when a few brave individuals (primarily drag queens, trans people, and cisgender women of color) allowed their voices and bodies to become conduits for the prophetic censure of state-sanctioned tyranny. On that warm summer evening in 1969, people like Marsha P. Johnson, a Black drag queen, Zazu Nova, a Black trans woman, Jackie Hormona, a white sex worker, and Stormé DeLarverie, a biracial butch lesbian, had come to the Village for the simple comfort of shedding the confines of the closet and stepping into their whole selves. But when the police arrived at the Stonewall Inn, when fear and hopelessness gripped the streets, they refused to turn away — for the pain of their companions was theirs as well. The first punch thrown was propelled just as much by personal indignation as it was the rage of an entire community.

As a white and cisgender member of the LGBTQ+ community, I am obligated to remember that if not for the bravery of our Black, female, trans, and genderqueer ancestors, who risked their lives for our collective liberation — because as we have seen, when people of color stand up to the police their lives are on the line — I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the simple freedom of holding my husband’s hand.

For Jews, especially those of us who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, this is our inheritance: a history of grief and anger that reignites when we encounter the pain of those on the margins. While we remember the crushing forces of anti-Semitism and homophobia, a heaviness that has been deadly to so many in our communities, we can also find that these wounds are a source of incredible power. For they demand that we listen. They give us the ability to connect and the courage to act. They remind us that we are all responsible.

Header image design by Grace Yagel. Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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