Reminder Days: LGBT Movement’s 50th Anniversary

This month, the National Constitution Center and the William Way LGBT Community Center announced a partnership for an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first LGBT protests in the nation. In 1965, and for the next 4 years, gay rights activists gathered outside Independence Hall carrying picket signs and demanding legislation that would secure the rights of LGBT Americans. Thirty-nine people attended the first picket.  These early annual protests, called “Reminder Days” did just that– they reminded our nation that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were not yet accessible to all Americans.

This week, as we begin the book of Leviticus, we learn about animal sacrifice from parashat Vayikra: “Make the offering a male without blemish.”   Zachar tamim.  The word for male, zachar, shares the same Hebrew root for the word, memory.  A creative translation might read: Make the offering a memory without blemish.  Or, Remember, and make no mistake.  Well, none of our memories are perfect.  We need reminders so that the omissions of our memories might be corrected, so that we remember that the accomplishments we see today, were gained only after generations of injustice, pain and struggle; and so that we remember that LGBT civil rights are incomplete, still.

So, 50 years after that first “Reminder Day,” where are we now, in March of 2015? We live in a state that now allows for same sex marriage but that does not protect LGBT basic civil rights.  What does this mean?: a gay person can put a wedding picture on an office desk, and legally can be fired from that very job for sexual orientation.  The work is not yet complete.  Still, America and Judaism have come a long way.  This very month, we have witnessed some extraordinary moments that I don’t want to let pass by.

Two moments from the art world:

This month, one of our own congregants, Shelley Spector, has just had an exhibit open in the Philadelphia Museum of Art!  The show’s title, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” was inspired by a phrase that Spector found in a letter from a woman to her partner.  A lesbian relationship serves as a foundational element in this major exhibit in our city’s largest institution of fine arts.

Also this month, another of our congregants, Rachelle Lee Smith exhibited photography from her book, called: Speaking Out: Queer Youth in Focus.  The book, and the current exhibit of it shown at the University of Connecticut, is a photographic essay that collectively explores a wide spectrum of experience told from the perspective of a diverse group of youth identifying as queer.  Two weeks ago, the photographs in Rachelle’s exhibit were vandalized with messages such as, quote, “God hates the gays.”  Incredibly, rather than voicing the concerns of a victim — which would be perfectly understandable — Rachelle has shared that the hateful, cowardly, homophobic event has become an important element of discussion and understanding, creating a dialogue about the very real hate and fear that still faces our communities.

50 years after that first Reminder Day, our society has come a long way.  Even as we celebrate great heights, we need to remember and make no mistake, that injustice existed then and remains today, still.

Now, a moment from the Jewish world:

This week, along with Rabbi Kuhn and Rabbi Freedman, I attended the annual convention for Reform rabbis, where we all witnessed history.  The Central Conference of American Rabbis installed its first openly gay president, Rabbi Denise Eger.  The entire convention stood in ovation, many with tears in their eyes, and pride in their stance.

Yet even in the celebration, we needed to remember and make no mistake — the story of inclusion could not be told without the reckoning from the shame and homophobia of our past.  And so even as we rejoiced, our hearts were heavy with remorse.

Most of us could only imagine the secrets that lesbian rabbis such as Rabbi Eger had to protect in the early years of her rabbinate.  Gay Reform Jews who wanted to serve in the rabbinate had to lie about their lives and about their beloved partners.  They kept their heads down in fear and disguised who they were to their seminary professors and to their congregations.  The painful closet was the only place where they were safe from career-ending ostracization.

In the 1980’s, this now-president of the Rabbinical conference participated in an underground meeting of gay rabbis.  If you were a gay or lesbian rabbi, and another gay rabbi knew your secret, then you could be invited to this support group.  Each rabbi received only the name of a city.  They went to that city and were given a phone number.  Finally, with a Mission Impossible – like process, these rabbis could exist with one another in a room rather than in a closet.  To this day, because of the oath of protection these rabbis took, they still cannot disclose the location or participants of the meeting.  In some ways, the installation of Rabbi Eger served as a Reminder Day.

Such Reminder Days will always be important to us, especially at Rodeph Shalom.  We are blessed that Congregation Beth Ahavah–established in 1975 to be a welcoming synagogue for LGBT Jews–has made its home here at Rodeph Shalom.  Our shared values and purpose are something to celebrate.  But let us remember and make no mistake, about why Beth Ahavah opened its doors in the first place.   There was a time not so long ago, when our Jewish institutions were far from welcoming gays and lesbians.  And so we make room for the pain of the past and of today, and we celebrate how far we have come as a Jewish community.

The 50th anniversary of the first Reminder Day, has so much to teach us about social justice and human dignity.  LGBT activists bring profound lessons for our work for economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice.  They teach us perseverance and strength, courage and compassion.

Soon we observe the festival of Pesach, the celebration of our people’s liberation.  We remember not only the redemption–the freedom.  We remember the pain of slavery.  We have since come out of Egypt in many different ways.  Yet there are still chains of bondage that exist.  May we continue to remember the degradations of the past, celebrate heights reached, and may we continue to endeavor towards the Promised Land.