Secular Is Not the New Queer

By Joanna Ware

In his April 12th piece, “The New LGBTQ Community Within (or excluded from) the Jewish People,” David Steiner, a secular humanist Jew and rabbinical student, explains that he has learned empathy and understanding for the experiences of LGBTQ Jews as a result of his own experiences of marginalization as a secular Jew.

I am the Boston Regional Director at Keshet; I work as an educator and advocate for LGBTQ people in Jewish communities, and this experience of deepening empathy is a familiar one. I often ask the Jewish leaders with whom I work to identify a time in their own lives in which they felt excluded or marginalized because of who they are, and to act from that place of empathy and understanding to create greater space for LGBTQ Jews in Jewish communities. This is a deeply Jewish impulse and tendency: to strive to see ourselves in the eyes of the other and deepen our capacity for empathy and compassion in the process.

There is, however, a crucial next step if we are to be responsible allies: listening to what other communities need, and acting in solidarity with them. This important next step is where David Steiner slipped up. In foregrounding LGBTQ people’s marginalization and oppression in making the case for more proactively welcoming secular humanist Jews, he wound up writing a piece that read like a slap in the face to LGBTQ people, regardless of affiliation.

I am not arguing with the core assertion of Mr. Steiner’s piece, that secular and non-theistic Jews are often overlooked and marginalized in purportedly pluralistic spaces. Even as a progressive Jew who has wrestled mightily with my own relationship with God and Jewish theology, I have made missteps; forgotten to include non-theistic programming on Shabbat mornings, and I have undoubtedly used language that may have alienated secular humanistic Jews. I will own these actions and commit myself to working hard to create truly pluralistic Jewish spaces. This argument, that the needs and experiences of secular humanistic Jews ought to be reflected in the fabric of the Jewish tent, stands on its own.

However, in Mr. Steiner’s essay, LGBTQ people – our oppression, liberation, and ongoing marginalization in Jewish spaces – served as a prop, as a rhetorical device to catch the reader’s interest. To compare use of the word “spiritual” to LGBTQ conversion therapy isn’t just uncomfortable, it is painful and dangerous. This piece asserts that LGBTQ people have “made it” in the Jewish community, that our oppression is no longer worth attention, and that secular is the new queer, so to speak. And yet, since February, at least two LGBTQ Jewish teens have killed themselves. With 45% of trans people between 18-44 having reported attempting suicide, it is a heartbreaking reality that we can assume that those two are not the only attempts in our community, but just the two that have crossed my desk in the last three months.

News in the US has been dominated in the last several weeks by reports of states fast-tracking legislation that directly targets LGBTQ people – trans people in particular – by repealing anti-discrimination legislation, pre-emptively forbidding municipalities from passing pro-LGBTQ protections, and encoding discrimination into the states’ legal codes. In North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and dozens of states across the country, LGBTQ Jews are as much under attack as LGBTQ people of all faiths or no faith at all.

To argue that LGBTQ people’s struggle for justice and equality is passé – as Mr. Steiner implied – is precisely the opposite of what LGBTQ people need from our allies right now. We need Jewish communities across the country, of all affiliations and denominations, to be vocal advocates in their homes, social circles, religious communities, and in their state legislatures. Now is the time to be asserting that, as Jews, we stand against discrimination and in favor of a world where each one of us is treated with dignity and equality under the law.

Mr. Steiner, I join my voice with your call for Jewish communities to do pluralism better. I can’t speak to CLAL’s program, but I am very much your ally in the work for a wide Jewish communal tent. There is important work to do in the U.S. as well as in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox dominance and control is a dangerous reality for secular Jews, progressive Jews, Palestinians, and LGBTQ people of all faiths and ethnicities. I am on your team.

But please, stop using LGBTQ people as a rhetorical device, and show up for us in true solidarity – not by erasing the reality of our ongoing struggle for the sake of your headline, but by advocating, beside us, for a world in which all of us are warmly embraced by our communities, families, and municipalities. Please, don’t use my life, and the lives of my people, as a strategy. Instead, let us pledge to show up for each other in solidarity and allyship, bringing our full selves to the work – queer and trans, straight, secular, and religious. May we go from strength to strength in the process..

Joanna Ware is Boston Regional Director at Keshet.