Today, the annual Pride parade is taking place through the streets of Brighton. To mark the 25th anniversary of Pride in the city, the assembly point has reverted to Hove Lawns, the gathering point in the early years. I have often been among the marchers, but here I am today talking about Pride, rather than walking in Pride.
Pride. Nowadays, all you have to do is say the word, and people immediately recognise it as shorthand for ‘LGBT Pride’. So, what is LGBT? On lesbian and gay pride demonstrations in the 1970s and early 1980s, the most common badge on display was the ‘pink triangle’, in memory of the persecution of gay men by the Nazis. Lesbians – myself included – used to wear the Labyris, the double-axe, the symbol of the Minoan goddess civilisation of ancient Crete. And then, by the late 1980s the ‘rainbow flag’, first designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker of San Francisco, had become the dominant emblem, proclaiming an alliance of solidarity encompassing ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ people – hence: LGBT.
So, no longer simply about lesbians and gay men, Pride, like the rainbow flag, embraces a plurality of identities. While ‘bisexuality’ challenges binary assumptions concerning sexual orientation, the inclusion of ‘transgender’ challenges binary male/female notions of gender. For years, lesbians and gay men had been asserting that being lesbian and gay was not just about who you ‘slept with’, and had been presenting ourselves in ways that did not match with ‘female’/’male’ gender stereotypes. With the adoption of the rainbow flag, issues of gender came to the fore.
Since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act decriminalised ‘homosexual acts’ between two consenting males over the age of 21 in private, and the progressive lowering of the ‘gay’ age of consent from 21 to 18 (1994), then to 16 (2000), new laws in Britain have recognised the transgender phenomenon. The 2004 Gender Recognition Act provides a mechanism to enable trans people to obtain recognition of their preferred gender. More recently, the 2010 Equality Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone in employment and the provision of goods, services, housing and facilities, because they are intending to undergo, are undergoing, or have undergone, gender reassignment.
Just as the 2005 Civil Partnership Act and now the 2013 Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act, both reflect and reinforce the increasing social recognition of lesbian and gay relationships, the same can be said of the legal acknowledgement and protection of trans people. But transgender is more complex than many realise. On one level, transgender refers, simply, to those who make the decision to transition from the gender assigned to them at birth to the gender with which they identify. But while those transitioning undergo hormone treatment, they don’t always choose surgical adjustment. Further, since the 1990s, the emergence of a ‘queer’ consciousness has been challenging gender binary identity. In recognition of those of varying sexualities and genders, who consider themselves primarily as ‘gender queer’ or ‘gender fluid’, LGBT has been extended to encompass ‘Q’ – Queer. The rainbow umbrella has also been extended further to embrace those who are ‘intersex’ in their internal and/or external sexual characteristics – hence: LGBTQI.
Over the past 50 years, the lives of LGBT people have changed beyond recognition, in particular in Britain, northern Europe, the United States, Canada and Israel, where struggles for liberation are achieving equality before the law and a revolution in social attitudes. Within the Jewish world, too, there has been a huge transformation, as a result of LGBT people including ourselves in Jewish life, and making the case for equality. To take myself as an example, after being a lesbian separatist for 5 years, in 1983 I made a conscious choice to participate in the mainstream Jewish community with the aim of contributing to the transformation of Jewish life and teaching into an inclusive inheritance. 
I started learning to read Hebrew and then, in 1984, I embarked on the five year rabbinic training programme at the Leo Baeck College in London. I took this path because I knew I had to strive to be all of who I was, as a lesbian and as a Jew, in every context. I felt impelled by a sense of obligation to help create a space for myself and others on the margins within the Jewish community. I felt compelled by a sense of responsibility to help ensure the future of the Jewish people after the Sho’ah – the Holocaust. In 1989, Sheila Shulman, zichronah livrachah, may her memory be for blessing, who died last year, and myself were the first lesbians to be ordained as rabbis. Indeed, until that moment, my tutor, Rabbi Lionel Blue, was the only gay rabbi altogether.
To appreciate the significance of 1989 as a milestone, let me tell you a little more. At the rabbinic programme interviews in 1984, Sheila and I were given two psychological assessments apiece – other applicants, just one – and were then put on probation for the entire five years, rather than the usual one year. We were told that we could be asked to leave at any time if there was a ‘problem’. When we enquired about what sort of ‘problem’, we were told that no one knew because the situation was ‘unprecedented’.
There were some superb rabbis and laypeople who supported us, but it was a strain. And even after receiving s’mikhah, the Reform Assembly of Rabbis held a day-long meeting to discuss whether or not to admit us as members – usually an automatic process for any rabbi taking a position in a Reform congregation. Fortunately, the vote went our way.
So, Sheila became rabbi of Beit Klal Yisrael, the synagogue she co-founded, which has been a beacon of inclusivity in the Jewish community over the past 25 years. Meanwhile, I became rabbi of the mainstream Reform synagogue that I had served in my 5th year. I’m not going to recite the litany of prejudice and persecution I have experienced, which included a small group lobbying to oust me from my first congregation, and a major furore within the Reform movement in 1996-97 around same-sex ceremonies. That particular persecutory period was sparked by a sermon exploring the meaning of covenant that I gave at Kol Nidrey, as a guest preacher at a Reform congregation when I was Director of Programmes for the then Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Those were very challenging times to be a lesbian pioneer in the Jewish community to say the least. However, on balance, most of the members of Reform – and Liberal – congregations I have encountered over the years have been open, and many of those who were initially sceptical and fearful changed their attitudes.
I left the RSGB for Liberal Judaism in 1997, and before too long helped to initiate a Rabbinic Conference-led process of creating a policy of equality and inclusion for lesbian and gay Jews, which resulted in the publication of a liturgy for same-sex ceremonies at the time that the Civil Partnership Act came into force in December 2005. As the Equal Marriage Campaign gained momentum, once again the Rabbinic Conference provided a lead, and soon Liberal Judaism began to give public support for equal marriage and also begun working with Queer and Trans Jews UK. In October 2012, the Rainbow Jews project was launched with support from Liberal Judaism and funding from the Heritage Lottery. Recording Jewish LGBT history from the 1950s to today, the project has produced a film, an exhibition and educational materials. In the past year, LJ has given support to the trans interfaith project Twilight People, which is gathering ‘stories of faith and gender beyond the binary.’ Thankfully, in recent years, the Reform movement has also become more LGBT inclusive.
So, LGBT: A tale of progress and inclusion. And also, still, a story of continuing persecution. The notion of an ever more encompassing rainbow – recently extended even further, with an extra, ‘Q’ to acknowledge those who are ‘questioning’ of their gender and/or sexuality – is very cheering, until you become aware of the extent of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, which, if anything, has increased in response to the heightened visibility of LGBT people.
81 countries continue to criminalise LGBT people, including 37 African nations, 22 nations of the Middle East and Asia, 11 nations in the Americas, and 10 nations in Oceania. In addition, while not outlawing ‘homosexuality’, in 2013 Russia enacted an ‘anti-gay propaganda law’. And hatred of LGBT people doesn’t only happen in those places where persecution is enshrined in the law. In recent years, November 20 has been designated as Transgender Day of Remembrance in honour of Rita Hester, a transgender woman of colour, who was murdered in her home in Allston, Mass., USA, on November 28, 1998. Originating in the USA, TDOR has also gone global, and in November 2014, events were organised in the UK, in Brighton, Croydon, Coventry and Edinburgh, in Ontario, Canada, Umea, Sweden – and in Tel Aviv, Israel, at the LGBT centre in Meir Garden.
Speaking of Israel, progressive Tel Aviv may be just 40 miles from ancient Jerusalem, but it is a world away. On Thursday (July 30), a haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jew stabbed six people on the Pride March in Jerusalem. He had only come out of prison three weeks earlier, after serving ten years of a twelve year sentence for stabbing three people on the Jerusalem Pride Parade in 2005. Of course, anti-LGBT assaults and abuse isn’t confined to other countries. The statistics on homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crimes in ‘progressive’ London, for example, make interesting reading.
Much more work remains to be done before bigotry is neutralised and LGBT people realise their full human rights. Even a special congregation like Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, committed to inclusion and equality, has work to do – in particular, in the arena of the inclusion of transgender people. For trans people to feel welcome here, those who constitute the majority need to inform ourselves of the issues – by, for example, reading the articles on the Jewish News online LGBT page.
The beginning of awareness is the recognition of binary gender assumptions. For example, most people only know how to relate to a baby once they’ve been told whether it’s a ‘girl’ or a ‘boy’. For transgender people who make the decision to take hormones but not have surgery, or to opt out of both, or for those who define themselves as ‘gender queer’, there is a preference for gender neutral pronouns. In the effort to move beyond the imposition of binary gender on others, avoiding perpetual ‘he’ or ‘she’ references is a good way to start. In some quarters, a new pronoun, zie, is now being used. In others, there is a preference for using ‘they’.  And the issue is not just how we directly address those who are transgender or gender queer. Every time a group is welcomed with the words, ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, or, we use references to ‘he’ and ‘she’, when we speak or write, binary gender is being reinforced.
Synagogues and Jewish communal venues also impose binary gender with the provision of toilet facilities, differentiated by binary-gendered toilet signs. What are we telling children with the use of stick people with and without skirts? And are urinals really appropriate in multigenerational settings? Surely all that’s required are secure toilet doors. I’m pleased to say that our congregation has made the decision to be as inclusive of everyone’s needs as possible by ensuring that in the new building, in addition to ‘female’ and ‘male’ toilets – minus urinals – the accessible toilet downstairs and the single toilet upstairs will both be available to all genders, and labelled accordingly.
But that’s not the end of it. For transgender and gender queer Jews to feel fully welcome everything – services, ritual, prayer-language, study, life cycle and social activities – needs to be inclusive, reflecting a plural gender reality. These are goals to set ourselves for the future.
Needless to say, the transformation within Jewish life in relation to LGBT finds no precedent in Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, the re-statement of the Aseret Ha-Dibrot, ‘the Ten Statements’, known as ‘the Ten Commandments’,and the declaration of the unity of the Eternal found in the first paragraph of the Sh’ma, remind us that, ultimately, Jewish teaching is rooted in universal ethics and the pursuit of justice – to paraphrase from another passage in the Book of Deuteronomy. The word ha-yom, ‘today’, found in our parashah, is re-iterated again and again in Deuteronomy, heightening the sense of immediacy and urgency. And so, in our own time, it is our task ha-yom – today – to widen the circle of ethical concern and the remit of just action to embrace kol yosh’vey teiveil – all the inhabitants of the earth.
Interestingly, there is a narrative in the Torah that hints at a perspective that goes beyond binary gender and the rule of fathers and husbands that otherwise predominates in ‘the Five Books of Moses’. I’m referring to the four-portion-long saga of Joseph and his special coat – k’tonnet passim – literally, a ‘coat’ that reached to the ‘palms’ of the hands and feet.  It is fascinating to discover that in the Second Book of Samuel, King David’s daughter, Tamar, is presented wearing a k’tonnet passim, which is described as the garment of ‘maiden princesses’.  Further: the figure of Joseph, presented as ‘beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance’, just like his mother Rachel when she was young, invites us to question our gender assumptions. As they say, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ – and there is only one sun that shines on us all, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, questioning and heterosexual, Jews and non-Jews alike. It’s just a question of opening our hearts and minds, transforming our perspective, and opening the doors of our shul ever-wider. As we approach the moment when we cross the threshold of our new building for the first time, may we also prepare ourselves to go on this new journey of openness and inclusion. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
1st August 2015 – 16th Av 5775
- www.hardenet.com/homocaust/pinktriangles.htm ↑
- http://potnia.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/symbols-of-the-minoan-goddess-religion/ ↑
- Queer theory acknowledges that gender is socially constructed, and that ‘identities’ are not essential and fixed, but rather, who we are, is expressed by what we do – and what we do is varied and subject to change. Perhaps the most influential work in this arena was Judith Butler’s ground-breaking book, Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge,1990). ↑
- I write about my experience at greater length in the Preface to my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012).↑
- My sermon, entitled, ‘Choosing the B’rit – Covenant’ is included as an appendix in Trouble-Making Judaism. ↑
- Covenant of Love – B’tit Ahavah (Liberal Judaism, 2005). See www.liberaljudaism.org . Also see ‘Marriage By Any Name’ in Trouble-Making Judaism. ↑
- See http://www.liberaljudaism.org/news/588-a-summary-of-liberal-judaisms-response-to-the-governments-equal-marriage-consultation.html ↑
- http://transgenderjews.org.uk/ ↑
- http://www.rainbowjews.com/about-us/the-project/ ↑
- www,twilightpeople.com ↑
- Full name: Movement for Reform Judaism. For LJ and MRJ websites see: www.liberaljudaism.org www.reformjudaism.org.uk ↑
- http://76crimes.com/76-countries-where-homosexuality-is-illegal/ Updated in June 2014 to a list of 81 countries. ↑
- Human Rights Campaign, which works for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, states on its website: ‘TDOR … provides a forum for transgender communities and allies to raise awareness of the threat of violence faced by gender variant people and the persistence of prejudice felt by the transgender community. Communities organize events and activities including town hall style “teach-ins,” photography and poetry exhibits and candlelit vigils. These activities make anti-transgender violence visible to stakeholders like police, the media and elected officials.’ http://www.hrc.org/campaigns/transgender-day-remembrance. ↑
- Another attack on Israel’s LGBT community occurred in 2009 when a gunman attacked a centre for young LGBT people in Tel Aviv, killing two and wounding 15 others. Israel repealed a ban on consensual same-sex sexual acts in 1988. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/30/up-to-six-stabbed-at-gay-pride-march-in-jerusalem ↑
- see http://www.galop.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/The-Hate-Crime-Report-2013.pdf ↑
- http://www.jewishnews.co.uk/transgender-jew/ See , in particular, Surat-Shaan Knan’s regular blog, ‘Twilight Journeys.’ ↑
- https://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/ http://blog.oup.com/2014/09/facebook-gender-binary-third-person-pronouns/↑
- Traditional Jewish teaching prohibits sexual acts between two men. Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22, states: ‘Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.’ And Leviticus chapter 20, verse 13, states: ‘If a man lies with a male as one does with woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their blood guilt is upon them.’ These verses appear in texts dealing with prohibited sexual practices that include incest, bestiality and adultery. From a Jewish point of view, the context is very important. Leviticus chapter 18 opens by saying: ‘You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, nor of the land of Canaan where I’m taking you; neither shall you follow their laws.’ (18:3). In other words the motivation behind the sexual prohibitions is the need to forge a separate identity, rather than a concern with ethics. In addition to these verses, men – but not women – have the obligation to be fruitful. So, homosexual acts are also regarded as unacceptable because they involve the spilling of seed (see: Genesis 38 – the story of Judah and Tamar, which involves Judah’s second son, Onan, spilling his seed, rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife in order to produce a child in the name of his dead brother). There is no specific prohibition against sexual acts between women in the Torah. However, rabbinic exegesis ensured that women were included in the prohibition, although sex between women was seen as a less serious offence than sex between men (see: ‘Judaism and Lesbianism: A Tale of Life on the Margins of the Text’ in Trouble-Making Judaism). For a gay Orthodox rabbi’s approach to wrestling with traditional Jewish teaching concerning homosexuality, see: Wrestling with God and Men. Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. Elsewhere in the Torah, and later in rabbinic law, prescriptions concerning the strict separation of men and women and the differentiation of their roles, has implications for transgender people. Deuteronomy 2:5, for example, we find the source text on the absolute distinction in apparel for men and women: ‘A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garments; anyone who does these things is an abhorrence to the Eternal One your God.’ ↑
- Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The See Exodus 30: 1-14 within the narrative of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, for the earlier version of Aseret Ha-Dibrot. ↑
- Deut. 6:4-9. ↑
- Deut. 16:20. ↑
- Deut. 4:8. See also, in the Sh’ma: Deut. 6:6. ↑
- Va-yieshev, Mikkeitz, Va-yiggash, Va-y’chi: Genesis chapters 37-50. For Joseph’s special coat – k’tonet passim – see: Gen. 37:3. ↑
- Second Book of Samuel, 13:18. ↑
- Gen. 39:6. ↑
- Gen. 29:17. ↑