Trove of Jewish LGBT History Goes on Display in U.K.

'Rainbow Jews' archive displays stories from the Holocaust through the persecution of gays in the 1960s to the present day.

Blanka Horakova

On a sodden evening last week, veteran gay activist Peter Tatchell stepped up to a podium at the London School of Economics and described how in the 1980s he battled to allow pink-triangle memorial wreaths to be laid at the Cenotaph war memorial in London’s Whitehall.

Campaigning alongside him was a lesbian who had escaped Nazi rule, coming to England in the Kindertransport, he said. Her parents perished and her uncle, who was gay as well as Jewish, was rounded up early on and died in Sachenhausen concentration camp.

“The Jewish and LGBT communities have many shared experiences. Different but shared,” Tatchell noted. “And of course in Jewish LGBT people, the two experiences are combined. The legacy – the history of struggle against persecution and injustice – is one that both our communities have endured, and still endure.”

He was speaking at the launch of Rainbow Jews, the United Kingdom’s first archive of Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, and despite torrential rainstorms and a Tube strike, the auditorium was packed to capacity.

Central to Rainbow Jews is an oral history project that gathers a vast cache of lived experience. Allowing the past to be told through the personal, it begins with stories dating back to World War II and stretching through the 1960s, when homosexuality was still a crime in Britain, and into the present day.

The founder and project manager of Rainbow Jews is Surat Rathgeber Knan, who had scattered rainbow pins across the lapel of his jacket. “It was like a puzzle with zillions of pieces,” he said. In a documentary that strings together highlights from the archive and that was screened after Tatchell’s address, the puzzle resolves into a story of triumph.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain in 1967, and in the ‘70s groups like the Jewish Gay Group JGG began to emerge, providing support and opportunities for nice Jewish boys to meet other nice Jewish boys. When a newfound sense of purpose and solidarity gave rise to Pride marches in the 1980s and ’90s, the JGG was there with a bagel-and-cream-cheese stall.

The ’80s also brought the AIDS crisis; a display case in a companion exhibition at the London School of Economics holds a denim memorial quilt, decorated with pearls and bearing the initials, in Hebrew and English, of people who have died from the condition. A sequin menorah symbolizes hope and light.

Together, the archive and exhibition, which additionally offers an LGBT walking tour of London’s Soho with a Jewish twist, show that Jewishness – be it faith or a sense of cultural identity – can play an intensely positive role in the LGBT experience. For instance, a man who grew up gay in 1960s Scotland said his sexuality was never something he struggled against.

“I knew I was different, but I accepted that. But then I was different being Jewish, I was different being vegetarian, and so I was always different.”

Others have a tougher time navigating their feelings. Yet even then, that double difference seems to make for a double dose of belonging when they finally find their way. A woman who says she had been attracted to women since her teens described how she nonetheless married a man, waiting until her mid-30s to have her first lesbian experience. She spoke of finally being able to “marry” the two parts of her life, her religion and her sexuality, after attending a Shabbat service for lesbians.

Being LGBT within the Orthodox Jewish community can be more challenging. “I always tell people I grew up in London, but I didn’t really grow up in London, I grew up in Stamford Hill,” says a woman who was brought up Hasidic. She was married with five children before she came out, and doing so meant leaving her ultra-Orthodox community.

There are stories that surprise, too, like that of Abi, the only known Jewish intersex person in the United Kingdom. After gender reassignment, the rabbi at her Orthodox shul gave his blessing for her to sit beside her mother, in the women’s section, during services. “That’s a nice feeling,” Abi says.

Afterward, at a cocktail reception featuring bowls of peanuts and live music, Juliet, the owner of the lesbian dating site Pink Lobster, explained that she had never dated a Jew until she got together with her partner Emma, a sex expert who was previously married to a man. The two women met through, but not on, the site, when Juliet hired Emma. “I never wanted it before but now I want a Jewish wedding,” Juliet said. “It’s about the tradition side of it,” Emma added.

One person who couldn’t be there was Lionel Blue, the beloved author and broadcaster who was Britain’s first openly gay rabbi. He was in hospital for heart problems, but since the opening of the archive coincided with his 84th birthday the assembled crowd sang “Happy Birthday,” recorded on a cellphone to be played back to him later.