Jewschool.com: Debbie Friedman and the Tragedy of the Closet

Originally published on Jewschool.com. This is unquestionably the most controversial piece I’ve ever written, and it provoked a lot of strong, emotional responses. I regret publishing it as close to Debbie Friedman’s death as I did; my only explanation is that I was feeling her loss emotionally as well. Many misread this post as a criticism of Debbie’s choices, but that was not my intention at all. It’s a critique of the society we live in that created a situation in which she made the choices she made. A couple months after this post, I had a long phone conversation with Debbie’s sister Cheryl, who I am so sorry to have hurt with my words. I am grateful that she reached out to me to try to understand what I was trying to say, and I think after our conversation ended, she did. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced such incredible openness of spirit as I did from Cheryl that day, and I hope that I can find such grace in the face of people I’m challenged by in my life.

When I heard that Debbie Friedman had passed away, I was sitting in a conference room at the San Francisco Federation, participating in a board meeting for Keshet, a nonprofit organization working for the full inclusion of GLBT Jews in Jewish Life. I learned of Debbie’s passing via a message posted on Twitter by a lesbian Jewish educator with whom I used to work. The news hit our meeting hard. We stopped for a moment of silence. After all, she was one of us.  Continue reading

It’s Not Where You Start: Not On Your Nellie

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

I don’t believe I have ever voted against a Democratic candidate for office, unless you count the primaries when we choose one over the other. For years I was registered to vote unaffiliated — in part because my parents brought me up to value maximizing my flexibility. In Massachusetts, where the Democratic candidates are often (but, alas, not always) assured victory, it can be strategic to vote in a Republican primary. But several years ago I decided to make my Democratic affiliation official. The party gets my support at the polls, they deserve to be able to count me in their membership rolls.

I did not vote for President Obama in the primaries, but once he became our candidate, I have supported him wholeheartedly. But that doesn’t mean I have supported him blindly. Continue reading

It’s Not Where You Start: The Day After That

Originally posted on It’s Not Where You Start.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an ally. With the recent surge in online awareness-raising around GLBT teen suicides, I’ve noticed many of my straight friends are hearing the word ally used in this sense for the first time. But I’m going to reflect on myself as an ally, specifically with regards to transgender inclusion and rights.

Some of us in the queer world say “GLBT” out of habit all the time, when the truth is, we often only mean “gay,” or “gay & lesbian,” or somewhat less often, “gay, lesbian, and bisexual.” Gender-variant people — whether they identify as a gender other than the one that usually goes with their biological makeup, or they experience gender in a way that doesn’t fit neatly into the two boxes our society provides — have a lot in common with GLB people in terms of being second-class citizens. But the ways in which transgender, genderqueer, and other gender-variant people are threatened in our society are unique — and often exist within gay/lesbian/bisexual spaces as well.

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It’s Not Where You Start: By My Side

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, particularly online, for the various movements to stem the tide of GLBT-suicides and anti-GLBT bullying. From It Gets Better to Make It Better to Do Not Stand Idly By to Spirit Day, my Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds have been overwhelmed with friends, acquaintances, and strangers proclaiming their support.

In the past, I have generally been somewhat skeptical about these sorts of campaigns. What real impact do we make by proclaiming our support for something that most people who know us already assume we support?

But this time around, for me, it’s been difference. The recent string of gay teen suicides has really upset me. I’ve been involved in GLBT activism for years now, so the abhorrent statistics about GLBT teen suicides aren’t news to me. But the juxtaposition of these suicides against the news of the day — the battles around Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell, gay marriage, even the publication of gay wedding announcements!! — it was too much for me. It reminded me of the days in 2004 when we waited for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision about gay marriage. Although I felt the arc of history curving in the right direction, I had to stop reading the newspaper every morning. The pages were filled with quotes from the anti-marriage people filled with such hatred — how could I not take it personally?

What has sustained me through this current crisis has been the public support of so many friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Instead of taking the words of the haters personally, I have chosen to take the words of those expressing support personally.

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It’s Not Where You Start: Freedom

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

With all of the activism I’ve been doing over the past couple of weeks around GLBT visibility and rights, I’ve been thinking a lot about queer ethics. I spent high school figuring out what gay identity meant for myself and how that got negotiated in individual relationships. I was, generally speaking, in the closet.

And yet by the time I graduated I had a close circle of a dozen or so friends whom I had told, and another half-dozen or so guys with whom I had never had a conversation about gay identity, but I assure you they got the message.

I came out to my parents the day they dropped me off at college. A week later, as the period for choosing classes began, I discovered a freshman seminar on the subject of Homosexuality in American Literature and Culture since 18something something. Freshmen seminars were small classes of fifteen or fewer students with one professor. They were highly selective, with an application process that involved writing essays and having a one-on-one interview with the professor. And I knew I had to be in this class. Thus began stage two of my gay-identity formation: understanding who I was in relationship to a community and a history.
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It’s Not Where You Start: God Help the Outcasts

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

Today is National Coming Out Day.

Coming out is an ongoing process. The first time I told someone (out loud!) that I was gay was in 1993. It was New Year’s Eve, and for some reason I was home alone. TBS had a triple-feature of “sing-along” musicals — Grease, Viva Las Vegas, and West Side Story, each outfitted with lyrics & a bouncing ball to earn them the sing-along moniker — hosted by Tommy Tune. I watched the entire triple feature, and then some, while on the phone with my friend Amy, who was also spending the night at home, across town.

Why didn’t we just decide to meet somewhere? Neither of us drove yet, and I guess it didn’t occur to us to take a cab? Who knows. In some ways, the simultaneous intimacy and distance the phone provided was just what we needed. We were already at that point best friends. And we each had something we wanted to share with the other. So unfolded what we have come to refer to as our Epic 13-Hour Phone Call. (And yes, we called it that before epic became the most overused adjective of our generation.) I was so sure Amy was going to tell me she was gay. She didn’t. That didn’t come until many, many years later. She had a different revelation, but knowing that we each had something to share, something that made us worried and vulnerable, made it easier for me. Coming out is always a risk. Coming out the first time is terrifying. But knowing that we each were taking a risk equalized what is normally a treacherously uneven power dynamic. Of course, we both knew that we were devoted to each other and there was pretty much nothing either of us could have said that would have threatened our relationship. But that didn’t make it any less scary.  Continue reading

It’s Not Where You Start: Let Go (Canto de Ossanha)

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start

Ever since I saw this clip, in the documentary Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years, I’ve been obsessed with this song. It turns out I had heard it before — Rosemary Clooney & John Pizzarelli covered it on their album Brazil — but their version doesn’t have any of Mitzi’s fire. (Astrud Gilberto did a great version, though.)

Of course, the only reason I rented the Mitzi Gaynor DVD was because I was going to see Mitzi Gaynor live and in person, doing her one-woman-show (which was basically a club act with extra patter) at a theater in Boca. My parents are retirees, which means they have fulfilled the ultimate dream of their lives: they are snowbirds. For the goyim in the audience, “snowbirds” are what Jews call their parents (and grandparents) who spend summers in the north and winters in Florida. This means that when I go to visit them, I am often treated to shows aimed at their demographic, both on the condo circuit and beyond.  Continue reading

It’s Not Where You Start: Better

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

[Edited 10/7: Turns out that Make It Better and It Gets Better aren’t the same project. Both are worth checking out.]

Chances are, if you read my blog, then you’re probably aware of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project. In response to the recent uptick in visibility of gay teen suicides — which I suspect is just that, an increase in visibility and not an increase in suicide incidence, since every study I’ve ever read has warned of the high suicide rate of gay teens in the USA — Savage and his husband made a YouTube video talking about their own difficult teen years and reassuring viewers that life got better for them, and it can get better for teens today.

The video has spawned an online movement of others making It Gets Better videos. And since many of my friends know I like to make online videos every now and then, I started getting messages asking if I was going to make one.  Continue reading

It’s Not Where You Start: Cornet Man

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

Outside of the relationship that I am currently trying to get over repair sort out understand, I haven’t really had serious relationships. That is, I’ve never dated anyone long enough for the relationships to coalesce into anything resembling depth. But looking back, I have several people with whom I had long-term, ongoing… arrangements… and I have grouped them in my mind as my retroactive exes.

My retroactive exes are a group of five or so guys from various parts of my life that I didn’t “date” for a variety of reasons — we were too young and in the closet, or I was too hung up on one thing or another, or… well, you get the idea. But each was someone I cared about and who helped create the person I’ve become. So I consider them retroactive exes, which means I get all the benefits of having exes — great memories, a history to reflect on — with none of the downside — namely, we never really had to break up.

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It’s Not Where You Start: I’m Hip

Originally published on It’s Not Where You Start.

Tonight I attended the Boston premiere of Howl, the Allen Ginsberg bio-pic starring James Franco as the preeminent beat poet. I have been looking forward to this movie for about a year, and not only for the promise of seeing James Franco make out with Aaron Tveit.

It may not surprise you to know that I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Ginsberg. As a gay Jewish kid growing up in a town with few gay or Jewish (and no gay, Jewish) peers, I found both Ginsberg’s biography and his poetry resonated with me quite a bit when I first encountered it at age 14 or so. Looking back, I wonder if that’s entirely accurate, or if I knew that beat poetry was supposed to appeal to alienated youth, so I convinced myself I liked it. I do remember getting a thrill from “Please Master” that had as much to do with seeing a portrayal of my sexuality as it did with seeing any portrayal of sexuality.
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