Forward Thinking

An 'Imperfect Jew' and LGBT Leader

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share
Jessica Stern

When the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission was founded in 1990, sodomy laws were prevalent. Amnesty International’s platform didn’t include LGBT rights. The United States wouldn’t grant asylum to refugees on the basis of sexual orientation.

The world’s changed since then, and so has IGLHRC. Since earning consultative status at the United Nations in 2010, the organization has been a powerful voice for sexual rights at the international body, often taking on governments with less-than-friendly policies toward LGBT citizens. It’s also become a ferocious watchdog on abuse on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, shining a spotlight on serial human-rights violators across the world.

IGLHRC was founded by a Jewish woman, Julie Dorf. This month, another Jewish woman takes over as executive director. Jessica Stern, 36, had been the organization’s program director, and played a pivotal role in its U.N. accreditation. A native of Setauket, Long Island, Stern lives in Brooklyn with her partner, CUNY Law School clinical-law professor Lisa Davis, whose mother “desperately hopes we’ll get married by a lesbian rabbi.”

The Forward caught up with Stern from her office up the street from the Forward’s still-flooded building on Maiden Lane in Manhattan.

IGLHRC’s been around for 22 years. Now that you’re executive director, what do you plan to change? What do you want to continue?

There’s a lot I’d like to see continue. In a nutshell, we prioritize the voices of LGBT communities advocating for themselves around the world and human-rights documentation. We also prioritize what our movement is known as advocacy. We focus on opportunities to seek justice before regional and international human-rights bodies. If you can’t seek justice at the domestic level, you have to have somewhere else to turn.

In terms of what I’d like to change, I’d like governments around the world to more frequently hear from LGBT communities about their needs. And I want IGLHRC to help bridge the distance between the realities of experience for these communities and the policy priorities that governments set.

In an interview with a national gay magazine, you said: “I think LGBT people are tired of being painted as victims, and I don’t know if the term survivor encompasses all that we are, but we need to set the bar higher for what we can accomplish and how we move forward in our lives.” Is it fair to draw parallels with the Jewish experience?

I do think it’s fair to draw parallels. The experience of being part of group perceived to be a subculture or minority means you’re forever saying “I exist, and I need to have my experiences reflected in history books, taught in school curriculum, and addressed in policy priorities.”

If we didn’t recognize the potential similarities, we’d also miss opportunities to work in coalition. As an organization working with LGBT rights, we’ll never achieve justice working alone. Whether we’re working with religious or cultural or racial minorities, a framework of intersectional oppression is how we see change as possible.

Does IGLHRC maintain alliances with Jewish organizations?

Absolutely. One of the organizations we’re privileged to work with is the American Jewish World Service, which has been at the forefront of supporting grassroots LGBT communities, human-rights defenders, and organizations around the world. AJWS has been a crucial source of not only financial resources, but also knowledge and information-sharing. They’re amazing partners.

Leaving aside post-Sandy comments by some Orthodox clergy, how do you think most Jews relate to the struggles of LGBT people?

I’m probably biased as someone who’s Jewish and is privileged to have a very vibrant Jewish community around me around me. I find the Jews in my life incredibly responsive to LGBT rights. Perhaps it goes back to that notion of commonalities of experience. I can’t generalize for everyone, but from my experience, it’s been true.
There’s a level of empathy, awareness, and compassion even from my own Jewish family members to plight of LGBT people that I’m deeply grateful for.

You helped lead the fight for IGLHRC’s accreditation at the United Nations. How has that changed IGLHRC’s engagement with the world?

When people hear we have official status at the United Nations, it sounds very abstract. I explain it in very simple terms: It quite literally gives you a pass to enter front door. When IGLHRC obtained accreditation, it meant we didn’t have to go through side door through another groups’ accreditation. We could sit at the table as an LGBT international organization, raise our concerns, and voice the concerns of our colleagues around the world
So when the government of the Philippines, Turkey, or Chile comes up for review by a UN treaty body, we make sure LGBT communities in those countries are aware of those opportunities and challenges, and also have the means to get to UN and testify about human-rights conditions they experience every day.

Did your Jewish upbringing influence your path toward human-rights work?

I grew up in a predominantly Christian community. My upbringing was secular, but culturally Jewish. I’m very proud that my introduction to human rights came through my own search for meaning in my Jewish identity.Growing up where I did, and learning that I was somehow “other”, I needed to understand what it meant to be Jewish. Other eight-year-olds were reading teen-romance novels; I was studying the Holocaust. I think I learned how to be an LGBT activist through my Jewishness.

I feel lucky to have been raised in a subculture that values justice, intellectual pursuits, and cares enough about humanity that there’s a place for me – this imperfect Jew who happens to be an LGBT activist.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: lgbt, lesbian, julie dorf, International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission, gay, ilghrc, jessica stern, jewish

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.