'Chosen Queers': 10 Epic LGBT Jews

Happy Tel Aviv Pride! A selection of quotes, songs, feats and other inspirations from a vanguard of legends.

Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid
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American poet Allen Ginsberg.
American poet Allen Ginsberg.Credit: Doron Flam
Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid

As double minorities, LGBT Jews are small in numbers yet boast a string of trailblazers. From the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the ‘Einstein of Sex,’ to iconic poets and the Middle East’s first openly gay parliamentarian, their stories demonstrate audacity, adversity and a hunger for equality – often under threat of death.

Whether by poetry or litigation, music or novel research, their contributions have led to a more compassionate and open-minded world, fighting not only homophobia or transphobia, but also scourges like sexism, militarism and censorship.

In honor of Tel Aviv Pride, here’s a selection of sayings, creations and groundbreaking achievements by some of history’s most consequential queer Jews. And no, it’s not pinkwashing – it’s about being justifiably, and unapologetically, proud.

Uzi Even being sworn in to the 15th Knesset in 2002. (Credit: Lior Mizrachi)

Nuclear expert Prof. Uzi Even has spearheaded Israel's transformation into one of the world’s most gay-friendly countries. It was Even – who was fired from his post at Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona following his outing in 1984 – that catalyzed the 1993 repeal of the Israeli army's ban on service by openly gay soldiers. He then became the first openly gay parliamentarian in the Middle East when he entered the Knesset in 2002. Even has also won a number of landmark court cases, including a 2009 ruling that marked the first time a gay couple had their right to adoption recognized in Israel.

Rabbi Greenberg (L) with husband Steven Goldstein, and their daughter Amalia, in 2013. (Credit: Yanai Yechiel)

Years after his ordination as an Orthodox rabbi, Steven Greenberg wrote a letter to an Israeli newspaper in which he disclosed his homosexuality, citing his inability to live a lie. He’s never looked back, except maybe in his landmark book, “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” in which he tells the controversial history of same-sex love in the millennia-old tapestry of Jewish tradition.

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” – gay rights icon Harvey Milk

A Harvey Milk poster displayed at the California State Capitol in 2009. (Credit: Kelly B. Huston/Flickr)

With his election in 1977 as a San Francisco City Councilor for his adopted Castro District, Harvey Milk become one of the first openly gay Americans to hold public office, and quickly moved to sponsor a bill outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace that, when signed into law, became the most progressive such measure in the U.S. And though his life was violently cut short – assassinated in 1978 together with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone – Milk’s fight proved not in vain.

Bonus quote: “I know you can't live on hope alone; but without hope, life is not worth living."

“Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.” – feminist writer Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich in 2006. (Credit: AP)

During her illustrious career spanning more than 60 years, Adrienne Rich wrote over 30 volumes of poetry and prose, in which she confronted everything from sexism and homophobia to racism and militarism. Considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential poets and feminist leaders, Rich earned numerous prizes and accolades, including the National Book Award. Prolific and pervasively political, Rich, as a woman, a lesbian and a Jew, employed her writing to empower marginalized identities, espousing a vision of a world where no one group dominated the other.

Bonus quote: “Not biology, but ignorance of ourselves, has been the key to our powerlessness.”

"Per scientiam ad justitiam" ("Through science to justice") was the motto of the world’s first LGBT rights organization, founded by German physician Magnus Hirschfeld in 1897. Homosexuality, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee argued when defending men charged under Germany’s anti-gay laws, was natural and innate, not criminal or a choice. In 1919, Hirschfeld also co-founded the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, a first-of-its-kind center that carried out pioneering sexolological research and provided counseling and medical services to tens of thousands each year. It was also the venue at which Hirschfeld, who coined the term "transsexual", performed the world’s first sexual reassignment surgery.

Renee Richards competing in a professional women’s tennis tournament in 1978. (Credit: AP)

In 1976, tennis player Renee Richards – who had completed her gender transition the year before – was banned from playing in the U.S. Open women’s singles tournament by the United States Tennis Association, which cited a women-born-women policy. Richards appealed the decision, and, after the New York Supreme Court ruled in her favor, she entered the 1977 U.S. Open women's competition, marking the first time a post-transition transsexual athlete was allowed to play in competitive sport.

“Follow your inner moonlight; don't hide the madness.” ― American poet Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg stands in Jack Kerouac Alley next to City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, 1994. (Credit: AP)

One of the iconoclastic writers known as the ‘Beats,’ Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Howl” – a near 3000-word long declaration of war on the stone norms of 1950s America – caused outrage, leading to an ‘obscenity’ trial in 1957. Strewn with profanities, anti-establishment themes, and graphic references to mental illness, drug abuse and homosexuality (illegal at the time), the charges were nevertheless thrown out in a verdict hailed as a victory for anti-censorship. Now regarded a goliath of American literature, Ginsberg is also seen as a forbearer of the hippy movement, even coining the term “flower power.”

Bonus quote: “Our heads are round so thought can change direction.”

As well as historic legislative and court victories, the past two decades have witnessed cultural breakthroughs for gay Israelis, too. Pivotal in this trend of mainstream-ization has been a generation of gay-themed films. Director Eytan Fox’s movies – including the love story of two gay soldiers, “Yossi and Jagger” – have afforded wide swaths of Israeli society a window into the struggles of their gay compatriots, as well as exporting Israeli queer cinema to screens around the world

Judith Butler in 2013. (Credit: University of California, Berkeley/Wikimedia Commons)

“Masculine and feminine roles are not biologically fixed but socially constructed.” – philosopher Judith Butler, whose radical theory of “gender performativity” has rocked traditional understandings of how we’re made – or not made.

Bonus quote: “What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is liveable only for some, and similarly, to refrain from proscribing for all lives what is unlivable for some.”

“Tel Aviv loves all genders” is this year’s pride motto – focusing attention on the struggles facing Israel’s transgender community. And while discrimination and transphobic violence remain nearly two decades after her historic triumph at the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest, no one did more for trans visibility in Israel than pop star Dana International (Sharon Cohen). Born into a family of Yemenite Jewish descent, she came out as a transgender woman at the age of 13, and released her first album in 1993, the same year as she completed her gender transition. Five years later, Cohen entered Eurovision as Israel’s contestant. Despite religious Israelis demonstrating against her in the streets – and even death threats – Cohen became the first transgender person to win Eurovision, with her Hebrew song “Diva.”

Whatever your sexuality and gender identity, and whether you believe it to be innate, fluid or constructed, here’s wishing you a Happy Pride ’15.

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