By Brandon Srot
In the 1960s, few venues in New York City welcomed gay patrons. Laws at the time had branded gays as second-class citizens. Yet, at the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn, doors were open to some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the community: drag queens, lesbians, transgender people, feminine men and homeless youth.
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, police raided this place of refuge. What followed was a series of demonstrations by the city’s gay community against the police, in favor of equality and inclusion. These uprisings – the Stonewall Riots – are among the watershed moments for the gay liberation movement.
A lot has changed since Stonewall. Marriage equality is now celebrated in over 25 countries. Laws pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights that decriminalize homosexuality, offer education, provide employment protections and address adoption rights have evolved dramatically in some places. Many Jewish organizations too, have reviewed their policies to ensure that their doors are open to the LGBTQ+ community. These laws and policies are essential, and we must always ensure that legal recognition and equality for all remains a priority.
But policies and laws alone don’t change the deeper issues – the values, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that live and breathe in peoples’ hearts and minds about ‘the other.’ These are the very things that make social equality difficult to achieve and that underpin so much of the mental illness, social isolation, low self-esteem and lack of purpose that is experienced in the Jewish LGBTQ+ community. It’s these incivilities that require the Jewish community’s attention; for they give life to the deep-seated shame and discrimination that many endure. So while there is much to celebrate, full equality remains an aspiration.
Perhaps G-d knew too, that laws alone don’t create a fruitful society; that people need to transition their hearts and minds first. Perhaps, through 40 years of wandering the desert, the Jewish people’s initial task was to reconfigure, question and change what was in their hearts and minds before becoming a free people.
The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots marks a time to honor those who came before us in the battle for human rights, celebrate the achievements and contributions of the LGBTQ+ community and rededicate ourselves to the advancement of an equality that spans not just across sexuality and gender, but also race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and much more.
So how can the Jewish community make further progress, beyond law and policy? How do we get beneath the surface to address those internal dynamics?
Here are three ideas:
1. We all have a role to play. So often, we place our hopes on authority figures to create change. And we blame them when it is not achieved. Maybe it’s G-d for some, a CEO for others, a parent, a Rabbi or the government. We look to them to set the standard, take action and raise the bar. But we don’t need a fancy title or a corner office to exercise leadership; we are all authorized to effect meaningful change in our personal, professional and communal circles. Rosa Parks knew this when she sat down on a bus in Alabama in 1955 to stand up for racial equality. Equality calls on each person to do their part in the system of change.
2. Own your voice and engage others. To change hearts and minds, we first need to traverse the boundaries that keep us divided. Have a conversation with someone different from you. Ask a question to break through an echo chamber of similar thought. Stand up to an injustice and speak up for those who are silenced. Be mindful of the impact of your words and know when silence says more. Empathy, trust, compassion and listening – these are some of the vital ingredients needed to remold our internal beliefs and assumptions about the other. And they are seeded through purposeful and mature interpersonal engagement.
3. Uphold and amplify Jewish values that fortify a culture of equality. According to tradition, we were all present at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. We learn that inclusion is not just a nice idea, but a Jewish value. Every person was present because every person is equally valued. The Gemara teaches that when Rabbinic law clashes with human dignity, we privilege human dignity because humiliating another person is akin to murder. Judaism holds the value and honor of lifeat its center, and we have a duty to protect each other’s dignity.
Our task is not an easy one, but an important one. By aligning our actions with our values, we can be a Stonewall Inn for others – creating space for difference to flourish. Perhaps, when our legal efforts are fortified by our interpersonal and social advances, we will really come to know equality. And perhaps then, we will truly be free. And proud.
May the memory of all those who fought for equality before us forever be a blessing. May they long mobilize us to continue this long walk to freedom.
Brandon Srot is a Senior Schusterman Fellow and a Sydney-based psychotherapist, leadership trainer, consultant and facilitator. He is also a member of the teaching team at the Masa Leadership Center in Israel, an endorsed sexuality and gender diversity trainer and a former pro bono therapist at the Aids Council of New South Wales, Australia.