Nine U.S. Jewish LGBTQ Activists You Should Know

From Stonewall to the legalization of same-sex marriage, Jews have been at the forefront of the fight for LGBT rights in the U.S.

Gabe Friedman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Parade grand marshal Jazz Jennings, 15-year-old honorary co-founder of the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation, rides in a car during the New York City Pride March, U.S., June 26, 2016.
Parade grand marshal Jazz Jennings, 15-year-old honorary co-founder of the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation, rides in a car during the New York City Pride March, U.S., June 26, 2016.Credit: Drew Angerer, AFP
Gabe Friedman

JTA — New York City’s gay pride parade was full of highlights on Sunday. The NBA and WNBA became the first professional sports leagues to march. A Syrian refugee whose life was threatened by an ISIS operative served as a grand marshal. Even Hillary Clinton made a surprise appearance.

Also, the parade brought out a new gun control group, Gays Against Guns, inspired by the shooting this month at an Orlando nightclub that left 49 dead.

The deadliest such attack in U.S. history has thrust the LGBTQ community into the national spotlight for weeks. The shooting also happened in the middle of LGBT Pride Month, which has been officially recognized by U.S. presidents since Bill Clinton signed a proclamation in 2000.

Why June, you ask? The monthlong celebration is technically a tribute to the Stonewall riots, which galvanized the LGBT-rights movement following the police raid of Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. (Kicking off a tradition, the first pride parade happened the following year.)

From Stonewall to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states — also in June — Jews have been at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ rights. Here are nine of the most influential Jews who have helped make LGBTQ issues visible and are still working to enact change.

Jazz Jennings

Jazz Jennings arrives at WE Day California at the Forum in Inglewood, California, U.S., April 7, 2016. Credit: Richard Shotwell, AP

Jazz Jennings — who was born with a longer, “very Jewish” last name — has accomplished a lot for a 15-year-old: She’s a reality TV star, a published author and a face of Johnson & Johnson’s Clean & Clear campaign. (She was also the youngest grand marshal of New York’s Pride Parade on Sunday.)

It probably helped that she got a head start in the public eye at the age of 7, when she became one of the youngest people to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria — a condition in which a person experiences clinical distress with the gender she or he was assigned at birth (in Jennings’ case, male).

Jennings’ book and popular TLC show “I Am Jazz,” which focus on her life and obstacles as a trans teen, have made her the unofficial face of America’s transgender youth.

Barney Frank

Representative Barney Frank during a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee in Washington, D.C., U.S., March 20, 2012. Credit: Jay Mallin, Bloomberg

Before publicly coming out in 1986, Barney Frank admitted he was gay to then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” O’Neill said. “I thought you might become the first Jewish speaker.”

Frank, of course, never became speaker — but his coming out during the height of the AIDS crisis (and becoming one of the first openly gay U.S. congressmen) remains a big piece of his professional legacy. In addition to passing prominent legislation like the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, he became the first person to marry someone of the same sex while serving in Congress in 2012.

Fran Drescher

U.S. actress Fran Drescher testifies before the U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee in Washington, U.S., May 11, 2005.Credit: Mannie Garcia, Reuters

Fran Drescher is known for happy things, like her signature nasal laugh and comedic roles in shows like “The Nanny.” But her personal life took what appeared to be an unfunny turn when she divorced her husband of 20-plus years, Peter Marc Jacobson, and he came out as gay.

But here’s what happened: Drescher stayed close with Jacobson, and the pair produced a show based on the ordeal, “Happily Divorced.” She was so inspired that she lent her voice in 2010 to the campaign for legalizing same-sex marriage in New York (it became legal in 2011). Then, in 2012, she became an ordained minister just so she could wed same-sex couples.

“Even though I am Jewish, I take no offense at being a minister or called Reverend Drescher,” she told The New York Times. “Love is love. I’m not a divisionist; I am a uniter.”

Tony Kushner

Writer Tony Kushner accepts the award for Best Original Screenplay for 'Lincoln' at the 2013 Critics' Choice Awards.Credit: Reuters

If you surveyed Americans about the most important works of art symbolizing the LGBTQ community’s struggles and triumphs, Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America” would likely be near the top of the list.

The epic two-part opus, which examines the complexity of gay life and relationships in the 1980s, premiered in 1991 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award for best play and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play.

It’s still produced around the world and has been made into an HBO miniseries and an opera — in other words, it has been a prominent part of the American cultural lexicon for more than two decades.

But Kushner didn’t stop and rest on his laurels. In addition to writing screenplays for films like “Munich” and “Lincoln,” he has since written defenses of gay idealism and spoken publicly about the AIDS crisis. Although his criticism of Israeli government policies has riled many in the pro-Israel community, he also insists, “If I were to imagine laying down my life for any country, it would be Israel as much as any other.”

Abby Stein

An undated screenshot of Abby Stein, seen after leaving the Hasidic community.Credit: YouTube / JTA

“In the community that I was raised in, Trans did not exist, neither was it ever discussed,” Abby (nee Srully) Stein wrote on her blog last year.

Stein’s community was a Hasidic Jewish one — in fact Stein, from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is descended from a long line of influential Hasidic rabbis. That made her decision to leave the haredi Orthodox community last year even more shocking.

Stein’s two transitions — from out of the Hasidic world and from man to woman — made headlines from the New York Post to the Daily Mail.

“My main goal is to get people to talk about it,” she said. “I don’t care how hateful the reaction might be within the Orthodox community.”

Larry Kramer

Writer Larry Kramer has been called the “angriest man in America.” Fortunately he has channeled most of that anger toward fighting AIDS and combating anti-LGBTQ forces in American society.

His 1978 novel “Faggots,” about the hedonistic lifestyles of many gay men in New York at the time, earned him enemies both gay and straight. His semi-autobiographical 1985 play “A Normal Heart” — inspired by a visit to the Dachau concentration camp — portrayed an angry gay activist fed up with the more polite strategies adopted by his colleagues.

Kramer was a co-founder of the massively influential Gay Men’s Health Crisis, now one of the biggest AIDS service organizations in the world, but was forced out due to his confrontational demeanor and went on to found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.

Kramer will be remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of LGBTQ activism. And his worldview was undoubtedly shaped by his Jewish identity.

“In a way, like a lot of Jewish men of Larry’s generation, the Holocaust is a defining historical moment, and what happened in the early 1980s with AIDS felt, and was in fact, holocaustal to Larry,” Tony Kushner said in 2005.

Rabbi Denise Eger

Rabbi Denise Eger at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA, March 12, 2015.Credit: AP

When Rabbi Denise Eger became the president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis last year, she did not become the first openly gay or lesbian clergy member to lead a rabbinical group. That honor belongs to Rabbi Tova Spitzer, who became president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association in 2007.

But Eger’s accomplishment was just as momentous, if not more so, since the Reform movement is by far the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., and the Central Conference of American Rabbis is the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in North America.

Eger’s professional and activist career arc — from coming out to the L.A. Times in an article in 1990 to founding Los Angeles’ pioneering LGBTQ-friendly Kol Ami synagogue in 1992 — closely parallels the arc of LGBTQ rights in America.

And she knows it. “I smile a lot — with a smile of incredulousness,” Eger told The New York Times last year.

Evan Wolfson

An undated photo of attorney Evan Wolfson, recognized as the architect of the modern marriage equality movement. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / JTA

In recent years, many celebrities have lent their voices to the push for LGBTQ rights, particularly the fight for same-sex marriage. But the man recognized as the architect of the modern marriage equality movement is a Jewish lawyer named Evan Wolfson.

As a Harvard Law student in 1983, Wolfson wrote a thesis on the legal basis for same-sex marriage, well before the topic had been seriously considered anywhere around the world. His book “Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality and Gay People’s Right To Marry” earned him a spot on the Time 100 list in 2004. The Freedom to Marry nonprofit, which he formed in 2003, would go on to be credited with driving the Supreme Court’s decision last year to protect same-sex marriage in every state.

Wolfson’s successful strategy was to change the way people think about same-sex marriage — to convince them that it was a matter of constitutionally protected freedom.

“Marriage is not defined by who is excluded by it,” he wrote in 2011.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg

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

Boston resident Steve Greenberg was the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, coming out in 1999. This was no easy task, since being a gay member of the Orthodox community was and is still not a fully accepted idea.

When he first told one of his teachers he was gay, he was asked: “Stevie, have you gotten help?”

So it was a momentous occasion — and perhaps partial vindication for his work within his community — when a group of Orthodox rabbis participated last year in a discussion about the treatment of Orthodox LGBTQ Jews.

Greenberg, who holds an ordination from Yeshiva University’s Orthodox rabbinical seminary, helped found Eshel, a national Orthodox LGBT support and education organization. He has not been hired by an Orthodox congregation, but he has propelled the conversation about LGBTQ acceptance in the Orthodox community. His book “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish tradition” won the Koret Foundation’s Jewish Book Award in 2005.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


בן גוריון

'Strangers in My House': Letters Expelled Palestinian Sent Ben-Gurion in 1948, Revealed

The Orion nebula, photographed in 2009 by the Spitzer Telescope.

What if the Big Bang Never Actually Happened?


AIPAC vs. American Jews: The Toxic Victories of the 'pro-Israel' Lobby

Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic speaks during a press conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia in May.

‘This Is Crazy’: Israeli Embassy Memo Stirs Political Storm in the Balkans

Hamas militants take part in a military parade in Gaza.

Israel Rewards Hamas for Its Restraint During Gaza Op

Palestinians search through the rubble of a building in which Khaled Mansour, a top Islamic Jihad militant was killed following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza strip, on Sunday.

Gazans Are Tired of Pointless Wars and Destruction, and Hamas Listens to Them