For the first time ever, the Forward 50 was launched with a profile celebrating a gay Jewish woman — and the kvelling was just starting for gay Jewish achievers.
Edie Windsor made the Top 5 for her role in the fight for marriage equality: on June 26, she won her suit at the Supreme Court, a decision that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
While the most visible victory for gay rights this year, it was far from the only one, a fact reflected in this year’s list. Six of the honorees are gay, reflecting a more general acceptance of gays in the wider Jewish community, as well as the prominence of Jews in the struggle for equality.
“As a former F50 honoree myself, I think it’s a combination of two factors,” Jay Michaelson, author of “God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality,” wrote in an email to the Forward. “The struggle for equality is among the great civil rights issues of our time, and so it’s natural that those involved with it are recognized in this way.”
Three of the honorees won their place on the list because of their work promoting LGBT issues. As executive director of Keshet, Idit Klein has turned what started as a grassroots group advocating the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jewish life into a national organization that has educators in more than 200 communities around the country; Alan Van Capelle has a long record of fighting for gay rights and headed a New York lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights lobby before stepping in as CEO of Bend the Arc.
But Michaelson identified a second trend at work, namely that “more LGBT people are out of the closet — there were almost certainly past honorees whose sexual identities were unknown to us.”
Three of the honorees reflect precisely that: Glenn Greenwald, Harvey Fierstein and Mitchell Davis were all chosen for their outstanding contribution to their respective fields: Greenwald for breaking one of the biggest stories of the last decade; Fierstein for his Midas touch when it comes to Broadway hits, and Davis for his achievements in the tasty realm of Jewish food. In the past, they would have been recognized for their achievements, completely independent from their sexuality, but with a part of their identity cloaked in silence.
It’s a small step in the right direction.
This week, the Forward launched our month-long series on the lives of transgender Jews. Our project kicked off with six profiles of transgender rabbis and rabbinical students.
As the editor of the series, I first became interested in transgender issues after I spent a year reporting on gay and lesbian inclusion in Jewish settings. In the past several decades, the non-Orthodox Jewish world has made enormous strides in welcoming gays and lesbians as congregants, rabbis and community leaders.
But there are still many questions regarding inclusion, particularly when it comes to halacha, or Jewish law. For instance, after the Conservative movement officially sanctioned gay marriage in 2006, it took another six years to provide guidance on how rabbis should conduct a gay wedding ceremony that meets the requirements of Jewish law.
In the course of my year of reporting on gay and lesbian Jews, I began to wonder about the untold stories of the “T” folks in the LGBT Jewish world. Of course, there have always been transgender people in synagogues and in other Jewish settings. And it’s been a full five years since Joy Ladin — formerly Jay — made headlines when she returned to Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women as a woman.
Yet after a few Jewish LGBT advocates told me that transgender inclusion was the “new frontier,” I began to look more closely at how Jewish settings are welcoming trans Jews, and at how trans Jews are creating communities of their own.
I was assisted in my research by Michael Berson, the teenage son of a friend of the Forward, who spent a month looking into the topic for me. He mailed me an inches-thick pile of printouts on everything that has ever been written about transgender Judaism, it seemed. (Or at least everything that’s available on the Internet.)
On a bus ride from New York City to Maine, I pored over his findings and delved into the book of essays he included with the packet: “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community.” As I suspected, the story of transgender Judaism is rich, complicated and evolving, with a fascinating cast of characters — a recipe for great journalism.
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?
Last year, Israeli adult film star and newly-minted right wing activist Michael Lucas used his financial clout to bar an anti-Israel group from meeting at New York’s LGBT Center. I was one of many who protested: LGBT community centers are meant for the entire community, including groups with whom we may disagree.
But in case we needed a lesson that intolerance exists on the Left as well as the Right, a reciprocal outrage took place last week in Seattle. There, an anti-Israel LGBT activist pressured the city of Seattle’s LGBT Commission to cancel an event featuring three LGBT activists from Israel, scheduled for March 16 at City Hall. I write to protest this action as well. It is unconscionable, reprehensible, and ignorant. And the fact that it was undertaken in the name of fighting oppression, led by transgender activist Dean Spade, makes it even worse.
There are some differences between the two cases. First, the Seattle LGBT Commission’s meeting was in City Hall, not an LGBT community center, and thus conveys a higher level of endorsement of the program’s views. On the other hand, unlike the Siegebusters/Queers Against Israeli Apartheid meeting in New York, this program had absolutely nothing to do with the Israel/Palestine conflict. In fact, I happen to know some of the intended speakers personally, and they happen to hold quite left-wing views on that conflict. This program — one of many coordinated by the American organization A Wider Bridge, seeking to unite LGBT Jews and Israel — was purely about the struggles and successes LGBT people have faced inside green-line Israel.