When I met my first girlfriend at 22 years old, I fell head over heels. My mind was swirling for at least a year—processing how this person would change my life, when and how I would tell my parents I might be a lesbian and how her more conservative parents would take the news. But mostly it was swirling from being in love. The last thing on my mind was the fact that she wasn’t Jewish. And that isn’t because I didn’t care about Judaism; in fact, I was on a path to become a rabbi. I knew I would always live a Jewish life and any kids I might have would be raised Jewish as well. On the list of things to fret about, her religious identity was far from the top.
Since then, these overlapping identities have profoundly shaped my work. My two greatest passions are supporting people in interfaith relationships and exploring the intersections between LGBTQI identities and religion. In some ways, they are distinct: The first deals with choice in a modern landscape while the other is usually thought to be a non-choice that pushes against the foundations of many of the world’s religions, including Judaism.
The two converge around the principle of otherness. Because both challenge entrenched religious boundaries, people identifying as interfaith or LGBTQI often feel like the quintessential other. In the 20-some years since that first girlfriend became my life partner, I have found that both realities inform the way I see our relationship and my connection to Judaism. In working with other interfaith LGBTQI couples, it seems that some of my personal revelations are far from unique.
In honor of LGBTQI Pride Month this June, I set out to explore how we can best honor LGBTQI Jews and their partners who aren’t Jewish. What is particular about the cross-section of identities when LGBTQI people are in interfaith, interracial or intercultural relationships?
- Interfaith LGBTQI couples live at the intersection of multiple minority identities. LGBTQI people may identify themselves as living at the margins or on the fringe. Being Jewish and part of other minority groups can provide a space to celebrate being the “other” on multiple levels. Deep within Jewish history and thought is a cognizance of having been the stranger in a strange land, forever lifting those who are on the outside of power structures.
- There is a high number of interfaith relationships in the Jewish LGBTQI community, much higher than for non-LGBTQI Jews. If you identify as LGBTQI and you are in a relationship, chances are very good that your loved one is from a different religious, racial or cultural background. One study showed (and I am not certain the origin of these numbers) that 11 percent of LGBTQI Jews are in relationships with other Jews. Eighty-nine percent are either in interfaith relationships or single. Why? We are beginning with a small pool of people. In addition, we already break down boundaries and categories as LGBTQI people. Choosing someone from a different background is sometimes viewed as a furthering of that sense of boundary crossing or breaking. In other instances, this issue seems unimportant when weighed against other challenges of being LGBTQI.
- Children are not a given for most LGBTQI people. LGBTQI couples can teach Judaism a great lesson on this front since Judaism is often perceived as being overly next-generation focused. When the Jewish establishment frets about intermarriage, the focus is usually on ensuring that the children of such unions are raised Jewish. LGBTQI interfaith couples challenge this and force us to redirect our focus to meaningful ways an interfaith couple without children navigates their differences or may need support. Some queer interfaith couples sense a difference in their families of origin about having children at all. Religious background can also affect whether couples feel pressured to raise children or are discouraged from it.
- For those who do choose to have children, issues may arise about how to raise them in an interfaith LGBTQI home. Questions of patrilineal or matrilineal descent may arise. While Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism both accept a child of a Jewish mother or father as Jewish, Conservative and Orthodox only accept a child of a Jewish mother as Jewish. Is a child of a mother who is not Jewish accepted as Jewish? What about surrogacy? A Jewish or not Jewish father’s sperm? Adoption? Fostering? Does using a Jewish sperm donor make a difference? What about alternative family models outside the two-parent model?
- When two people come together from distinct religious backgrounds, they have not one but two or more religions to contend with regarding LGBTQI issues.
- There tend to be more inter-ethnic relationships within the LGBQI community, so an interfaith LGBTQI couple may have a third aspect to explore if they come from different ethnic or racial backgrounds.
- “Coming out” to family or community as LGBTQI might feel a lot like “coming out” as being in an interfaith relationship. Coming out as interfaith dating in some Jewish families or communities might be harder than coming out as queer (many rabbis who will marry LGBTQI couples will not officiate at an intermarriage). Different religious traditions will affect how the couple is received. Some may be open to gay and lesbian couples, but will still be grappling with bisexuality or transgender identities.
- There is often a severe rejection of religion in LGBTQI communities. Much of the exclusion, discrimination, violence and institutionalized oppression LGBTQI people have experienced is rooted in religion. This difficult history can make it challenging to adhere to a spiritual or religious identity as an LGBTQI person. This can play out for couples as well if they hold different opinions about religious involvement. In addition, finding queer-friendly religious or spiritual institutions can be tough—add to that finding one that is also interfaith friendly can make the task feel daunting.
When my partner and I offered our vows to one another, we recalled words from the Book of Ruth. In this biblical story, Ruth, the Moabite, vows to follow the Israelite, Naomi, declaring, “Wherever you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.” Acknowledging that they come from distinct cultural backgrounds, Ruth tells Naomi that they will always be family. This Pride month, let’s celebrate the diversity in our LGBTQI relationships.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland served as director of IFF/Bay Area until June 2017 and is the incoming rabbi at Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.
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