In God’s image: LGBTQ+ Jews in England

Mie Astrup Jensen is an ESRC-funded PhD Candidate at the Departments of Hebrew and Jewish Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies UCL. She explores how the negative perceptions around being religious and LGBTQ+ is being broken down by developments that are making religious spaces and LGTBQ+ groups more inclusive.

While it is by no means news that being LGBTQ+ and religious is not only possible but also embraced by many individuals, many people still consider it an oxymoron. This is often because of religiously motivated LGBTQphobia, which includes derogatory comments, conversion therapy, and excommunication of members. Beneath these socio-cultural views, perceptions, and values is another story. A story I discovered when I researched how progressive rabbis make synagogues LGBTQ+ friendly.

From the bedroom to the synagogue: why does sexuality matter?

Scholars tend to agree that non-heterosexual people have historically been hyper-sexualised, which is also the case in the religious sphere. In other words, same-sex relationships have often been perceived as sexual rather than being emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. With wider societal changes, this image has also started to change in the religious sphere. Alas, one might ask: ‘why does this matter?’

I have frequently encountered of version of this statement when I discuss my work: ‘it’s none of my business what people do in their bedroom, as long as it stays there. It’s not something to discuss in religious places’. Two things are notable. First, the hyper-sexualisation of same-sex relationships. This ignores other aspects of intimacy, love, communication, and care – the kind of things emphasised when discussing the holiness of marriage. Second, the bedroom is, in fact, part of the wider social context. Religions have historically, and despite secularisation continue to, influence bodily rights such as birth control and abortion, marriage, divorce, family structures, and a wealth of sexual scripts about what is considered ‘good’ and ‘appropriate’ sex.

Existing research on being LGBQ and religious has found that many non-heterosexual people are often asked to choose between their identities. Accordingly, the options presented to them are often: be religious and repress their sexuality, remain celibate, or be LGBQ and secular. Additionally, traditional religious teachings on family and romantic relationships do often not reflect LGBTQ+ experiences; rather, they primarily discuss cis heterosexual partnerships (i.e., the sanctification of the relationship between husband and wife), and traditional nuclear families. This inevitably affects non-heterosexual people’s lived experiences and self-perceptions.

Psycho-social studies have found that covert and overt LGBTQphobia in religious spaces, as well as anti-religion sentiments within LGBTQ+ communities, can lead to feelings of shame, depression, suicidal ideation, and identity fragmentation. Contrastingly, LGB people who successfully integrate their identities and lived experiences are more likely to report increased self-acceptance, better mental health, and discover a healthier religious/spiritual identity.

Despite progress within religious and secular spheres, most prominently marriage equality and the ordination of religious LGBTQ+ leaders, there remains a perception that you cannot be both religious and LGBTQ+. By contextualising recent historical developments and contemporary experiences and practices, however, we are increasingly moving from asking if you can be religious and LGBTQ+ to how you can be LGBTQ+ and religious.

LGBTQ+ Jewish communities and activism

Rainbow Jews, a project that collects and showcases British Jewish LGBTQ+ history, notes there have been significant socio-cultural, political, and legal developments that have positively impacted LGBTQ+ Jews’ identities. The world’s first Jewish LGBTQ+ organisation, the Jewish LGBT+ Group (formerly the Jewish Gay Group – JGG) was established in London in 1972, five years after the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. In its early years, they primarily focused on two things: AIDS response and ordaining LGB rabbis.

The first openly gay and lesbian rabbis were Lionel Blue in 1981, and Elli Tikvah Sarah and Sheila Shulman in 1984. Since then, more than twenty openly LGB rabbis have been ordained in Britain. Jewish LGBTQ+ people also gained a presence at Pride in the 1980s. Here, JGG made a ‘bagel and cream cheese’ stall and promoted the Jewish LGBTQ+ helpline. They always sold out and some joined the group because of the shared conversations they had while eating a bagel.

The AIDS epidemic swept across the world in the 1980s. Some people referred to it as ‘a plague from God’. AIDS was, and to some extent still is, stigmatised and accompanied by fear, shame, and guilt. Many gays were discriminated against when they tried to organise funerals for themselves or their loved ones. Followed by the historic UAHC (General Assembly of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) decision to abolish discrimination against HIV positive people in 1985, Liberal and Reform congregations in the UK also emphasised the need for pastoral care before the AIDS stigma (this is related to the mitzvoth bikkur cholim – visit the sick, performing acts of kindness, and preserving human life). Gradually, Jews began advocating for acceptance of non-heterosexual Jews in religious spaces.

Transforming religious views on LGBTQ+ people

Alongside the developments in the secular sphere, LGBTQ+ rabbis and congregants, as well as allies, have done tremendous work to transform religious views on LGBTQ+ people. Elli Tikvah Sarah started working on commitment ceremonies in 1995, long before there was a wider societal conversation on the matter. When civil partnership was legalised in 2005, they had prepared a book on the ceremony and equal treatment of same-sex couples and their children. This was extended in 2014 when marriage equality was legalised. Accordingly, Peggy Sherwood, notes:

The merging of my Jewish and my lesbian self was something that I had never believed would happen. And it has happened, and now these two parts of me are merged together. It’s wonderful actually.

Additionally, some progressive prayer books have become less heteronormative and more gender inclusive – i.e., there are prayers for non-binary Jews and for those coming out. There are also more inclusive life cycle rituals for LGBTQ+ families. Recently, Liberal Judaism added the option of using gender-neutral pronouns on ketubot (marriage contracts) and they have started promoting b-mitzvah as an alternative to the gendered bar/bat mitzvah. Furthermore, a great number of Reform and Liberal congregations celebrate Pride Shabbat, recognise LGBTQ+ people on Holocaust Memorial Day, and mark Trans Remembrance Day and World AIDS Day. As such, Rainbow Jews declares:

Fifty years ago, being Jewish and LGBT meant that you were invisible and unwanted. Over time, wider social changes, as well as shifts in the thinking of progressive Jewish communities, have enabled people to embrace their Jewish LGBT identity.

That is not to say it has been a linear progress. Liberal and Reform synagogues in Britain are autonomous, so while they subscribe to principles of inclusion on paper, it is up to the rabbis and communities to actively promote it. A Liberal rabbi that I have interviewed observed that LGBTQ+ inclusion is affirmed and celebrated on a national level, and there are multiple synagogues that make it clear in what they do and their literature, but there are also many where their inclusion work is less visible.

To elaborate, some congregations primarily discuss LGBTQ+ matters on Pride Shabbat and Trans Remembrance Day. Others incorporate it more in their sermons. One lesbian rabbi I interviewed sometimes finished her shabbat kabbalat service by quoting RuPaul’s Drag Race’s catchphrase ‘If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an amen?’. Another rabbi deliberately says ‘partners’ and ‘spouses’ when discussing relationships, and repeatedly affirms LGBTQ+ relationships and families, which also contributes to deconstructing the gender binary and promoting egalitarianism.

 It took decades to gradually move from asking if to how you can be religious and LGBTQ+. And many continue to experience overt and covert anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments in religious spaces and anti-religion attitudes in LGBTQ+ communities. As such, there is much more to be done. Assumptions and prejudices about faith and sexuality must be addressed. Silence, which is just as important as explicit LGBTQ/religion-phobia, must be dealt with in the coming decades.

Image (Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0).

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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