Forward Thinking

An 'Imperfect Jew' and LGBT Leader

By Michael Kaminer

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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.


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