When those of us in the faith and LGBTQI+ communities think of Rabbi Lionel Blue OBE, one word is always used… legend.
He can claim that accolade for so many reasons, from his inspiring teaching at Leo Baeck College to the radio work that made him a household name well beyond our Progressive Jewish communities.
But for me, and so many others, he was the great Jewish LGBTQI+ pioneer. As the first British rabbi to publicly come out as gay back in the 1980s, and to be so proud of being both gay and Jewish, he provided two sets of inspiration.
The first was for the many of us struggling to come out and worrying about finding acceptance in our families and faith communities. The second, equally as important and often overlooked, was to show us that there was a place for us for in the synagogue.
It is not overstating things to say that Lionel’s personal example, and the sequence of events that followed, means a generation of LGBTQI+ people now feel included by Judaism. People that otherwise would have been lost to the religion are now rabbis, chairs, lay leaders and proud members of our Progressive Jewish communities.
I had the privilege to meet Lionel for the first time when we started collecting oral histories for Liberal Judaism’s pioneering Rainbow Jews project in 2012, for which I was project manager.
I remember his Finchley home oozing warmth and hospitality the numerous bookshelves, and his partner Jim refilling big mugs of tea.
Despite being visibly frail, and needing to pause the interview a number of times, his presence was just so incredibly charismatic and his somewhat cheeky glimmer in his eyes was captivating.
It was moving, and also exhilarating, to listen to his stories, his journey. The lightness in the tone of his voice sometimes made me nearly forget how much courage it must have taken to be openly gay in 1960s and 70s Britain. This was a time when being gay was not just newsworthy, in a bad way, but also punishable by law until 1967.
In his own word: “It was a forbidden subject, you didn’t dare talk about it. You have to remember it was a criminal offence in England. Unless you lived in a certain type of society, like café society, where things like Noel Coward existed or that sort of thing.”
Views on sexual diversity have certainly changed ever since. And Lionel was surely a trailblazer, who helped and supported many people in their coming out journeys, as well as through the AIDS crisis.
We were gutted when Lionel had to miss the Rainbow Jews launch at the LSE in February 2014, which coincided with his birthday, but we sent him a ‘Happy Birthday’ recording – more than 500 out and proud LGBTQI+ Jews and their friends singing for their pioneer Lionel. Times really had changed.
My next meeting with Lionel was when he agreed to have his portrait shot on the occasion of the Through a Queer Lens exhibition at the Jewish Museum London for LGBT History Month 2016.
Ajamu, a black, queer photographer who has worked with many celebrities, was simply star-struck on shooting him, telling me: “I was humbled in the presence of Rabbi Lionel Blue. He remarks were that the work is beautiful.”
Indeed, seeing a packed foyer with people from all walks of life celebrating Jewish LGBTQI+ lives at a mainstream museum is something that Lionel was able to not only experience, but inspire, in his lifetime.
As Lionel said himself in his Rainbow Jews history: “There have been two revolutions in life in the 20th century. One has been the change of women’s status. And the other one is the emancipation of the sexual minorities; both of them have changed the dialogue very much indeed. I don’t think people mind if the rabbi is gay, lesbian or whatever, but only that the person is kind and decent.
“What else do I think? Also that gays can give the Jewish world humour, which it needs very badly.”
For me, this pretty much sums up why me love him so much. Rabbi Lionel Blue was a true pioneer and his legacy is surely to inspire generations to come.
Thank you, Lionel. You will always be a legend.
Surat-Shaan Knan is the LGBTQI+ Project Manager for Liberal Judaism. His latest project is Rainbow Pilgrims: The Rites and Passages of LGBTQI+ Migrants in Britain. For more information, please visit www.rainbowpilgrims.com