Isn’t it difficult to be gay and Jewish?

Please introduce yourselves and tell us which gender pronoun you prefer to be known by.

This was the first task for participants at an inclusivity training seminar run by Keshet, an organisation which works towards greater inclusion of LGBT individuals across the UK Jewish community. The three-part seminar, held at Limmud 2013 (the UK’s biggest Jewish conference), drew participants from a range of backgrounds, some of them more familiar with the terminology than others.

To be honest, I have never thought about which gender pronoun I preferred to be known by. I have always felt comfortable in my own skin, so to speak. However an encounter just a few months ago made me question how much (or how little) I know about inclusivity. I was confronted with someone who insisted I refer to them as ‘they’ and that I do not assume their gender. I wasn’t sure how to react.

Other activities including asking various questions, framed as questions asked of heterosexuals. Haven’t you ever considered sleeping with someone of the same sex? Perhaps it’s a phase you’ll grow out of? Have you heard about conversion therapy? Unfortunately all too many of us are used to such questions, be they from prejudiced relatives or well-meaning work colleagues.

Some participants were shocked by statistics on self-harm and bullying in schools. While I also found the self-harm statistics disturbing, having been on the receiving end of taunts at school I was unfortunately all too familiar with the situation young LGBT people face at schools up and down the country today.

Issues faced by Jewish LGBT people in the UK today include a fear of ostracisation by family and community, a feeling of isolation and an inability to reach out to those in similar situations. Keshet is working to change this.

While there are a number of challenging issues facing the Jewish community when it comes to LGBT rights, there is also much to be proud of. Norwood, the main Jewish adoption agency, is open to LGBT couples while both Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism – who collectively represent just under 30% of synagogue affiliated Jews – will be conducting LGBT marriage ceremonies from the beginning. The Orthodox Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has also gone on the record saying that gay people should feel at home in Orthodox synagogues. In the Jewish professional world, LGBT individuals like myself can be found working in a number of communal organisations and face fewer barriers than previous generations.

However there is still much to be accomplished.

For those working in communal organisations the training can be invaluable. Those who work in the education sector and in the various Jewish youth movements are often confronted with challenging situations where they are not sure how to react. What should one do when a teenager comes out to a youth worker as a lesbian and the worker knows that their family may not react with understanding and compassion? How do Jewish schools address bullying within the framework of their ethos and how do they react to the increasing number of pupils with out LGBT parents? These are some of the scenarios tackled by Keshet, giving workers in these sectors the tools to treat such cases with the necessary sensitivity.

This is not to say that as LGBT individuals we ourselves also do not have much to learn, as has been proven by struggle to understand the situation facing those who define themselves as gender queer.

But the time has come to go beyond LGBT friendly spaces and social activities and become included in as many aspects of the wider community as possible.

Once we achieve this, I will be able to wholeheartedly answer a question posed all too often on Grindr, Atraf and other dating sites: Isn’t it difficult to be gay and Jewish?

It doesn’t have to be.

About the Author
International Affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Fluent Turkish speaker and LGBT rights advocate.
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