With the debate about same-sex marriage in the U.S. making headlines this month, one Jewish community in a midsize Canadian city is getting set to welcome the World Conference of GLBT Jews this summer. From July 5-7, gay, lesbian and transgender Jews and their supporters will gather in Winnipeg to discuss current issues connected to holding those dual identities.
By coincidence, Winnipeg is one of my two hometowns, and I am keenly aware of the apparent tension between tradition and progressiveness that represents the city of 720,000, including 17,000 Jews. A longstanding tight-knit, geographically isolated Jewish community with a strong commitment to Jewish institutional expressions, Jewish literacy, and Jewish continuity, an atmosphere like that can pose particular challenges for those who perceive themselves as different.
Arthur Blankstein, co-chair of the conference, is now 68, and didn’t come out as a gay man until his 50s: “I never denied who I was, but I never admitted who I was,” Blankstein told me. In 2004, as same-sex marriage became legal across Canada, Blankstein married his partner in a civil ceremony. Two years later, Blankstein’s husband Ken converted to Judaism. A year ago, they married again, this time marking their union as the first synagogue-based, same-sex Jewish wedding in Winnipeg. Their ketubah is now part of the collection of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
The conference organizers have lined up a top-flight array of speakers, including the transgender memoirist and poet Joy Ladin, who I interviewed last fall in these pages, and Jay Michaelson. Founder of Nehirim and author of five books, most recently God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, Michaelson spoke to me this week by phone.
Michaelson articulated three simple messages he hopes to share with the delegates: How do we build communities that are truly welcoming in practice, and not only on paper? What are the gifts to everyone that sexual and gender diversity bring? And how do we, as Jews, relate to larger questions of social justice?
While Michaelson estimated that “80 percent of North American Jews are part of movements that are fully inclusive,” I can’t help but be struck by the gap between the generally liberal attitudes so many Jews hold on issues of social justice, and the fact that so many synagogues within Judaism’s most popular denominations still won’t perform same-sex marriages.
This may soon change, of course, now that the Conservative movement (Canadian Jewry’s most populous denomination and American Jewry’s second most populous) has liturgy available for same-sex weddings. Michaelson echoed this sentiment by calling himself an optimist. “Tradition has space for seeing one another and recognizing each other’s humanity, including affirming the importance of love and companionship,” Michaelson said, citing the Judaic injunction that it is “not good to be alone.”
But Michaelson stressed that marriage equality is only one of many challenges facing GLBT communities today. “In the U.S., you can be fired for being gay in a number of states, and you can be fired for being transgender in almost every state. There are issues surrounding immigration; LGBT youth homelessness has gone up rather than down over last 5 years, kids are coming out earlier, and some are getting thrown out onto the street. Some of the most vulnerable members of our community are really at risk.”
There is indeed much to be done to address these pressing public issues -- both within Jewish institutions and in the broader society. Michaelson laments what he calls the “Orthodox veto” which he thinks forces mainstream Jewish institutions to believe they must act by consensus, rather than following what is typically a more liberal tenor of attitudes held by the community at large.
But I also asked Michaelson whether there are any problems he sees as existing within the GLBT community. One is what he sees as “unresolved sexism, misogyny and transphobia among gay men is appalling. There is a contingent of gay [male] Jews who would like to be in gay synagogues because there are fewer women around.” And then there’s the issue of Israel-Palestine. Michaelson explained that there are LGBT people who cannot understand how a gay person could ever be against Israel because of Israel’s superior record on GLBT rights. Conversely, he added, there are others who have a sense of Palestinian solidarity stemming from their own identity as an oppressed minority. “These communities tend to talk past each other,” he added.
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, Michaelson emphasizes that his mission goes far beyond the basic drive to be accepted. “I’m much more interested in diversity and distinctiveness. I want to transform the everybody else.”