Young, Jewish & proud: a queer activist’s manifesto
When I was 19, I developed a huge crush on my best friend. We kissed during a sleepover, dated for one long, closeted, emotion-ridden year, and broke up before anyone in my life knew I had a girlfriend. Fully coming out to myself and to my family took another four years.
What finally enabled me to come out of the closet was discovering the word queer. At the most basic level, queer held room for me as a person who does not find gender to be the most helpful determining factor in whom I might fall in love or have sex with. I also loved, however, how it grounded and integrated my sexuality into a broader queer ethic of living oriented toward liberation and self-determination.
Last Saturday, in the tradition of what 20th century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called praying with his feet, I spent Shabbat participating in the echoing liturgy of the “human mic” as I occupied New York’s LGBT Community Center with 150 other people. It has been almost a year since the Center imposed a ban on Palestine solidarity activists. The center does not allow such groups to meet in the center, and they have instituted a moratorium on any discussion of the Israeli occupation.
Since we are not allowed to book a room for our queer organizing, we packed the lobby instead to demand an end to the ban and a re-institution of the Center’s original access policy of full inclusion for all queers who organize for liberation.
During the initial controversy last February, Executive Director Glenda Testone justified the cancellation of an Israeli Apartheid Week activity as a way to make the Center “safe haven for LGBT groups and individuals.” In its most recent statement on the topic, the Center asserted that “our priority must be to ensure that all LGBT people feel comfortable coming here.”
Whose safety does the ban protect? In announcing the ban, the Center said that its staff was not prepared to negotiate issues of anti-Semitism in political expression. Organizing to resist occupation — even when the occupiers are Jewish — is not anti-Semitic, and I resent the implication that it is. Resistance and liberation are very Jewish values that appear again and again in our sacred texts, our holidays and rituals, and our very history of surviving under centuries of hostile governments. Earlier this week we celebrated Purim, a fabulously queer holiday that employs cross-dressing and spectacle to commemorate escaping state-sanctioned genocide.
My Jewish identity, like my queer identity, grounds and sustains my activism. I am a member of Young, Jewish and Proud, a group of Palestine solidarity activists who are, as our name suggests, mostly young and Jewish. We work within Jewish Voice for Peace, America’s largest Jewish grassroots peace group dedicated to reaching a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on the principles of equality and international human rights law.
I spent Shabbat occupying the LGBT Community Center because as I am not proud when Jewish comfort is privileged over discussing occupation and Jewish “safety” is invoked to justify the exclusion of groups and individuals working for liberation. I agree that the Center should be a safe haven. Safety is, after all, a very queer and Jewish value. But let’s talk about what safety for queers actually entails.
Queers are safe when our rights related to our gender and sexual diversity are recognized and protected by our communities. We are safe when our queer bodies are protected — from AIDS, from bigoted violence, from our own self-loathing. We are safe when we have access to the resources we need to live into our varied sexual and gendered selves. Queers are safe when we can forge our own paths to self-determination. Queers are safe when we can safely be queer.
Queers are also safe, however, when we can safely be. We are safe only when all of our human rights are recognized and protected by our communities. We are safe when our bodies are protected from all violence. We are safe when we have access to the resources we need to live. Queers are safe when we can forge our own paths to self-determination as individuals and as communities.
A safe haven for queers is space we can seek refuge in when our safety is violated. It is a haven where we can strategize, energize, and organize to fight for our safety outside of that space. A safe haven is not space where we ignore the reasons we need safe space. It is not space where we stay closeted about the struggles in our lives. And it is definitely not a space where wealthy donors decide who is in and who is out.
Saturday afternoon, the Center was a truly safe haven for queers. By occupying that lobby, we re-oriented the space from one that closets queers back toward mobilizing against an occupation that threatens the safety of all Palestinians, including Palestinian queers.
Carolyn Klaasen is currently earning her M.A. in Bible at Union Theological Seminary. She is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and an activist within Young, Jewish and Proud.