Gifts of the Queers

I was asked to attend and speak at my neighbor congregation, Beth Ami's, first Rainbow Shabbat. Their Keshet Committee put together a beautiful service (and a kiddush that included rainbow sherbet, inter alia). I am grateful for their work and their welcome. This is what I shared.

I'm honored to be asked to give a drash in honor of Beth Ami's Rainbow Shabbat, although the Virgo in me would have preferred a Rainbow Shabbat a month ago during Parashat Noach, the flood story, so that we could have coordinated our symbolism. But I understand the exigencies of scheduling. And anyway, here in Northern California, it's rainbow season all winter long.

So let's start with the rainbow, and how curious it is that it has come to be associated with us, with queer people – by which shorthand I mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people, as well as others who will still emerge – and it's important to anticipate this in a non-joking way – who will have been marginalized or challenged somehow by the world of gender or sexuality or conformity in ways that we don't currently perceive or have language for. But as I was saying – how curious that the rainbow, this ephemeral play of light and moisture, has come to stand for our growing queer collective. We are a polychromatic people.

At this moment, you can go anywhere in the world – well, maybe not anywhere, but many, many places, including unexpected places – and see a rainbow flag waving at you, indicating that queer people are present and accounted for, giving the same feeling of excitement and home that Jews feel stumbling on a synagogue in an unusual corner of the world. Or maybe you will find the rainbow flag not waving but winking surreptitiously at you, the way earlier queer generations had to rely on furtive glances. Or maybe you will see a rainbow flag deployed as a kind of defiance. Like Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins Ice Cream, planting a rainbow flag atop Mt. Kilamanjaro, to protest Uganda's anti-gay law that prescribes life imprisonment for gay sex. Or the more cautious defiance of gay activists in Nigeria, who do their work at great personal risk and who cannot, at the end of the day, get on a plane and come home to Northern California.

For better or for worse, the rainbow is ours. It is so associated with us and, for some people, with the unwelcome cultural change that we've brought about, that in this year of backlash, there have even been flag burnings – rightwing churches burning rainbow flags in protest. Which in itself shows you how far we've come and how much we've accomplished, far more than any of us would have dreamed when we were young.

So how many of us in this room know the origin of the rainbow flag? In the earliest days of modern gay liberation many of us used a pink triangle as our symbol – the very pink triangle that the Nazis forced homosexuals to wear in concentration camps. It was a powerful symbol; too powerful, and it could not overcome its history. It was far easier to reclaim the word "queer" which, although used against us by schoolyard bullies, was an equal opportunity word of the English language. It was not a word invented to hurt us. The pink triangle was invented to hurt us.

So when did the rainbow take over? Anyone know?

It was the work of San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker, sometimes called the gay Betsy Ross. He created the first rainbow flag for San Francisco gay pride, June of 1978. Imagine that moment. It was eleven years after the Summer of Love. Just nine years after Stonewall. And it was the first gay pride since Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was, sadly, Supervisor Milk's only gay pride. But it was a moment of triumph and hope and celebration. A moment when anything (and everything) seemed possible.

Gilbert Baker made those first two rainbow flags that were hoisted above United Nations Plaza with eight colors, each one representing what he saw as a critical element of a proud, queer community and a proud, queer future. Hot pink represented sexuality. Red was life. Orange was healing. Yellow was sunlight; green, nature. Turquoise was magic and blue was harmony. When the flag started getting produced commercially, it became a 6-color thing, the one we now use, with red at the top, purple on the bottom, and hot pink and turquoise eliminated. And while it is tempting to find a sinister, mainstreaming reason for losing gay sexuality and magic, rather than, say, sunshine, Gilbert Baker reports that his reason was tachlis. He had run through San Francisco's entire stock of hot pink and turquoise fabric and decided there would never be enough to meet demand.

So those were Gilbert's associations, one for each color. But bundled together as a rainbow: what is the symbolism? If you ask a queer person now, they might say it has something to do with diversity. Beauty. Our community's bright, light-filled future after a dark history. It is a new symbol, and so still open for suggestion.

In antiquity the rainbow had other meanings. In Greek and Roman mythology, it is the path of the goddess Iris heading to earth from Olympus with a message from the gods. So if the rainbow is a message, what is the message now that we have to give?

And in our Jewish tradition, the rainbow is a promise. A terrible thing has happened. The world has been exposed to the most destructive show of God's force since Creation. The losses have been terrible, uncountable. But, God promises, it will never be like that again. That is the covenant God makes; and God says zot ot habrit, this rainbow is the signature on the contract.

It is these meanings of the rainbow – the message and the promise – that I think make it a good symbol for us. Because we do have messages to deliver: hard learned lessons and hard earned wisdom. And those messages are in themselves a kind of promise. We have a role in this unfolding universe, in this country, and among the Jewish people. And we promise to be there for it.

So I spent some time thinking, what are our messages? And our promises? We've seen the book The Gifts of the Jews. What are the gifts of the queers? Here are a six that occurred to me, one for each stripe.

Gift 1. Survival.

We have something to say about survival against the odds. Not just survival, but flourishing. How to grow like weeds in the cracks of sidewalks, so many of us having grown like weeds in the cracked pavement of convention, only to burst forth with wild purples and pinks. We have survived bashings, burnings and a plague. Families that rejected us. Years of shame and secrecy. But we survived, like Noah's rainbow menagerie. The skill of survival is a message and promise that we have to offer to all who experience dark times.

Gift 2. Love.

We have lots to say about love. We know what it is like to risk everything for it. We know what it is like to negotiate love without being able to rely on the crutch of gender roles. We know what it was like, for so many years, to love without benefit of marriage or any other kind of legal or social recognition. We know what it is like to love lavishly, sequentially and simultaneously, without the constraints of convention. Loving out of the box is something we have to share.

Gift 3. Family.

We have something to say about what family can be. Many of us left families of origin to form families of friends. Many of us brought children into the world in complicated and creative family arrangements – with multiple adults, exes, friends, all playing a role in raising children who will never have cause to doubt just how wanted they were. Yes, those of us in queer families know the difference between kinship and biology, and that is something we can teach the Jewish world. Kinship as different from biology is important when we start deciding who is a Jew and who isn't. And it's not a new idea. Look at Ruth and Naomi, Torah's premiere alternative family. They committed to being kin and they found a technology to bring a baby into the world, a baby born to Ruth but called by the neighbors Naomi's child. Yes, we have a lot to say about family.

Gift 4. Gender.

All queer people have had to negotiate gender. Many straight, typically-bodied people have too. But I'd say all queer people have. Many of us have developed, from experience, a healthy skepticism about dividing the world and all its attributes into male and female. We have an awareness of what Judith Butler calls the performative nature of gender. That is, it is something we enact rather than something that just comes with the equipment. We make conscious choices about how we choose to appear to the world from a gender perspective. We have flexibility in this; we can even be playful about it. But it makes us critical audiences for custom, ritual and lore that are based on a strict gender binary. We are automatic mechitzah defiers, because no matter what section you put us in, we are in some way trespassing. We are natural questioners of mitzvot that apply only to men or only to women. And while we might be comforted in some ways by the renewed emphasis on the Divine Feminine in Judaism, we also realize that offering up Shekhinah as alternative to a male god-concept is still ridiculously limiting.

Gift 5. Outside Outlook.

Sometimes when you stand in the center, you don't know which way to look. But the perspective of the outsider sometimes brings great clarity. When you're outside of a system, you might have a greater handle on what the presumptions of the system are, and you can articulate that. This is a lesson that all Jews know as well. Jewish humor, at least 20th Century Jewish humor, is all about observing convention and revealing it as arbitrary. My friend Gale Kissin tells what has become one of my favorite Jewish jokes. Malkah and Sonja are talking over the fence. Malka says, "Sonja, did you hear? We're not in Russia anymore. Now we're in Poland!" Sonja responds, "Thank God. I couldn't stand another Russian winter."

For the Gentile world, national boundaries were natural and essential. For Jews they were arbitrary to the point of comedic. This is the role of the margin: to point to the center and question it. A delicious quality shared by Jews and Queers.

Gift 6. Joy.

It was recently pointed out to me that even in the direst moments of the AIDS epidemic, gay pride festivals were still grand celebrations. It is true that queer culture and queer community-building have always had elements of celebration, laughter, joy. From underground drag performance of decades past or the women's music scene of our youth, queer people engineered opportunities to take delight in each other and in what we share. This is an important lesson moving forward – we should not be together only in our shared suffering. Instead, bring song, dance, laughter to all or work, all our activism, all our gatherings. If we are looking to build a future worth celebrating, then let's get in the celebrating habit now.

These are just some of the gifts of our rainbow collective. In deepening our queer involvement in the Jewish world, the goal is not solely to make Jewish institutions welcoming to LGBTQI people, but to transform the institutions themselves; to bring about new wisdom, new practices and rituals – for everybody, not just for us. To rethink what we teach our children and what we celebrate. This is the message and this is the promise.

And so on Rainbow Shabbat, we can look at this multi-colored promise, and recite with full heart the rainbow blessing:

ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם זוכר הברית בנאמן בבריתו וקיים במאמרו

Blessed is the Source of All Being, made manifest in the ways of this world, who remembers the promise of the rainbow and faithfully makes it so.

Ken yehi ratzon.


Note: I initially wrote this with only 5 gifts enumerated. I'd wanted 6, one for every color. But it didn't come to me. Then Deborah Edelman came over to me at kiddush and pointed out that joy was missing from my list, when it was present at Pride even in the most painful years of the epidemic. And she was right, of course.