Anatomy of an Activist

It took a long time for me to be comfortable calling myself an activist. Although I have been in positions of leadership of some sort or another ever since the fateful night towards the end of the fifth grade when I forgot about Kadima elections and got voted in as the Religious Education Vice President in absentio (when I found out I sobbed), I’ve always seen a difference between “leadership” and “activism.”

When I look back, I can now trace the origin of my career as an activist to one moment, on Shabbat Shuva of 1997. The fall of 1997 began my sophomore year of college. True to form, I had found my way into several leadership positions on campus: I was director of a musical, co-chair of Hillel’s Shabbat committee, and one of four gabbaim (organizers) of the Conservative minyan.

A year earlier, I had kicked off my time in college by coming out to my parents. I had set a deadline with myself that I wanted to be out of the closet by the time I started college, and since I’m bad with deadlines, I told them as they were getting back into the car after unloading everything I owned into my dorm room. I imagined that once I told my parents, I would be “out” and it would cease to be a big deal in my life. Of course, that’s not how it works, and when a half-hour later I found myself in a room full of 40 other new freshmen, I couldn’t figure out how to share this newly open piece of my identity, so I kept quiet about it.

Luckily, I happened into a really marvelous group of friends at school, and by the end of first semester I had come out to pretty much everyone I knew at school… except for the Jews. Although there wasn’t any antagonism at Hillel, there weren’t any signals that it would be okay to be queer in the religious community either. My years of leadership in the Conservative movement had imprinted on me that it wasn’t okay to be gay and be a Jewish leader, and since I didn’t see anything in college to indicate otherwise, I kept up the double life I had perfected as a USY regional president.

By the time I had become one of the gabbaim of my minyan, I got tired of this bifurcation of my identity. I also had my first wrestling match with an annoying little gnome called Integrity that has continued to harass me throughout my career in the Jewish world. (Don’t worry, Integrity and I have since become friends.) And just in case I needed a sign from God (or whoever runs the Jewish calendar) that the issue was coming to a head, National Coming Out Day 1997 coincided with Yom Kippur.

I made up my mind to come out to my Jewish community. I just didn’t know how. Being me, I turned to Jewish text. I fixated on a particular section of Pirkei Avot that discusses ethics for interacting with one’s community. I wasn’t sure when I’d have the opportunity to act on it, but I felt the words of Hillel telling me that in order to remain connected to my community, I could not keep secrets. After all, they’d be heard in the end anyway. And I felt reassured that in the same breath, Hillel cautioned us not to judge, and hoped my community wouldn’t judge me.

Once again, I felt the deadline of Yom Kippur / National Coming Out Day looming, and I’m bad with deadlines. However, I knew that Yom Kippur itself would not be an appropriate day for the conversations I needed to have. Luckily, the decision made itself. My minyan had a tradition of learning a piece of mishnah from a different member of the community each week at the end of the service. The Shabbat morning before Yom Kippur, one of the other gabbaim came up to me during the Torah service and “reminded” me that I was on for the mishnah this week. I put “reminded” in quotes because I didn’t remember signing up, but I knew this was my chance. After all, Pirkei Avot is mishnah.

Well, you can imagine the rest of the story. The end of the service came, and I got up in front of my community to talk about why I believed that Pirkei Avot required me to come out, and required our community to accept that. Despite being a seasoned public speaker, I was visibly shaking as I stood in front of my friends. And although I did speak about myself, I focused more on how the calendrical coincidence should make us mindful of how we can ensure that everyone in our community can be a part of our community. I slipped in the bit about which side of the line I stood on so quickly that I could see plenty of faces reflecting the “did I just hear that” spreading through the crowd.

Almost twelve years later, I can still remember every detail of that morning and replay it in slow motion. I remember the awkward silence when I finished speaking, and which gabbai invited the congregation to rise and say Kaddish d’Rabbanan. I remember sitting back down next to my roommate, who knew I was gay but didn’t know I was planning on coming out that morning. I know who spoke to me during kiddush and who sat with me at lunch. It was, in the truest sense of the word, momentous.

Getting up and speaking was an act of activism, but it wasn’t what made me an activist. What made me an activist is what came next. What came next is I continued being a gabbai, I continued co-chairing the Shabbat committee, and I continued all the hundreds of little things I did as part of the Jewish community each week. I can’t say that every moment was entirely comfortable, but it was much easier than I imagined and I was able to be a visible role model to some and a reminder to others. (It was particularly gratifying to me to see that by opening the conversation in this way, others in the Hillel community started talking about gay and lesbian inclusion in our religious communities and planning programs on the theme, even when I wasn’t there!) I soon added another position of Jewish leadership to my resume, becoming a co-chair of our Jewish gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender student group, a position I held longer than any other position of leadership in college. I don’t think it’s accidental that today, my activism continues to focus on inclusion work in the Jewish community.

And yet, I’m still uncomfortable with the label of “activist.” Maybe I’m ashamed that I got tired of coming out — because believe me, even when you’re an adult and happy and comfortable with yourself, it still takes energy — and so I often let incorrect assumptions stay. My own first cousins, with whom I’m very close, only recently “figured it out” because they have all joined facebook this year and saw my pictures from Pride. (I admit, I’m relieved that the pictures did the trick and I didn’t have to sit down and have a whole conversation with each of them.) How is it that I can stand up in front of the students and faculty of a rabbinical school and talk about how the policies of the Conservative Movement tormented me as a teen, but I can’t find the right way to speak about such a huge part of my life to people whom I know love me? I suppose I have nothing to lose when advocating to strangers. (And even though I have never once had someone react badly to my coming out, a lifetime of films and books and plays and news articles about gay kids getting rejected makes me think it’s got to happen sooner or later, right?)

Every year I have a new crop of students, and because I guess we’ve done a good job obliterating gossip in our community, I need to come out again to the school, if there’s a moment when it’s appropriate. Finding that moment isn’t so easy, but I do think it’s important. Today, I was having lunch with an old friend in the center of town, and some of my students who just finished seventh-grade saw us. They asked me if she was my “soul mate,” and when I said no, they kept at it as only pubescent boys can. I told them she’s married, and one said to me, “I think you like her anyway.” So I turned to him and said, “But I don’t date girls,” and even though I think of myself as “fully out,” I could feel the familiar hollowness in the pit of my stomach while I awaited his response. He froze as the mechanisms of his brain processed the words, and then he walked away, signaling to the rest of his friends that they should too. They were behind me, but I know he had to share the information. I’m not sure what reactions came next; the kids left me alone for the rest of lunch. Was that an activist moment? I wish it wasn’t, but I might be the first gay person he’s known as well as he knows me. I hope the encounter influenced him for good, but I suspect I’ll never know.

And so here I am, a grown-up activist who goes to rallies, writes letters to legislators, advocates for change to strangers in synagogues, friends on facebook, and readers on blogs and on twitter… and yet still the hardest action is the one-to-one conversation with those closest to me. But there’s an important lesson here. Going to rallies, writing letters, posting links to articles is easy. Really being an activist means taking risks — risking that speaking up for your beliefs, being open about who you are, might place barriers between you and those you love, those with whom you work, and sometimes those who hold the keys to your own advancement. And no matter how comfortable you get with stating your case, raising funds or rousing rabble, I don’t think you can ever really feel comfortable putting yourself out there. But that’s a good thing. Because feeling that risk, feeling it in your bones or in your gut, and moving forward anyway is how you know you can really make a difference.

14 Responses to “Anatomy of an Activist”

  1. David, I wanted to thank you for this post. I have looked up to you as a role model for a few years, even if I was at a different place in my process than you were in college. I think a lot of people in the LGBT community underestimate the importance of having role models. Thanks for being a role model.

    Alex of Lowell · June 24th, 2009 at 12:38 am
  2. this is a great post, thank you for sharing it!! :)

    spice · June 24th, 2009 at 8:25 am
  3. Thanks for this, David. Though neither of us are leaders in our communities (although we’re both involved in nascent organizations so I suppose that puts is in more-than-spectator roles) my partner and I see our simply showing up for services and simchas in our Orthodox community to be a form of activism/advocacy, and have seen the changes it has made – Giving people the opportunity to be their best selves (inclusive, tolerant) although some don’t choose to take that opportunity. By coming out in appropriate ways, places and times… We’ve made some of our religious friends realize the importance of defending our place in the Jewish (and frum) community, which has been powerful to see. I don’t know if we’re role models but we can only hope that after getting to know us the religious people we interact with will be a little kinder or more considerate to the next LGBT person they interact with. In the secular world, coming out doesn’t feel like that big a deal to me, maybe because I’ve always been perceived as queer without saying anything. But in the religious world I could have a rainbow flag tattooed on my forehead and people still wouldn’t know, and many people have never personally known a gay person, so it becomes a much bigger deal and each interaction has more potential to make change (however small and seemingly insignificant it might seem to outsiders). It’s hard for me to call it activism – it’s certainly not organizing – but it’s not nothing.

    T · June 24th, 2009 at 8:49 am
  4. [...] activist, or just living over on another blog (which I look up to a fair bit) called jewschool, a pretty great post has just been put up. it’s about coming out, and being an activist, and the scariness of being different in what feels like and often is a hegemonic community. Have a read [...]

    activist, or just living « jew on this · June 24th, 2009 at 8:59 am
  5. David,
    Thank you for this beautiful piece. If I remember correctly, in our very first conversation I referred to you as an activist and you patiently explained to me why you were a leader but not an activist. I’m so glad we were able to recruit you for Keshet anyway!

    I completely share your feeling that the hardest, scariest part is coming out to someone who matters. It’s been over 15 years since I came out in the Jewish community and being out is what I do professionally, but I still feel the difference in the moment before and after sharing. I still always notice the did-she-just-say-that look. Thankfully, I also get the opportunity more and more to notice that sometimes there is no look at all. I still feel a quiet rush of gratitude and relief at those moments. I look forward to the day when we no longer notice these moments, when at least in this regard, telling the truth of our lives will no longer be called activism.

    Idit Klein · June 24th, 2009 at 8:08 pm
  6. “Really being an activist is taking risks”
    Really ? I think that being a regular person involves taking risks.Please read ” The Epidemic of Narcisism” by the author of Generation Me. Only in an age of extreme narcisism could “coming out ” be considered activism. The people fighting for freedom in the streets of Teheran are activists. MLK was an activist.Let’s not get too carried away here .

    i love jewschool · June 24th, 2009 at 11:56 pm
  7. i love jewschool, I think you missed the point. dlevy wasn’t saying that all activism happens on the same level, he didn’t compare himself to the folks in Teheran or MLK. But, sadly, coming out still has an inherent risk factor. And, like the activists you cited, dlevy’s brand of activism includes taking risks. He wasn’t saying that activists are the only risk takers, but it’s part of the job.

    feygele · June 25th, 2009 at 9:15 am
  8. Thanks for clarification. Speaking of iran I can’t believe the GOP haven’t held any support rallies. So much for wanting to bring democracy to the mid east.
    Please don’t forget to set your twitter time and location to Teharan to help stop the Iranian jamming of twitter.

    i love jewschool · June 25th, 2009 at 9:34 pm
  9. This article about the president of the Jewish Labor Committee was just forwarded to me, and it resonated with me for a bit of what I was trying to say here:

    dlevy · June 29th, 2009 at 8:52 pm
  10. David,

    You shared with me the link to this a while ago, but somehow I only clicked through and read it today. But it is a wonderful piece. While I cannot relate to the specific issues surrounding coming out in a religious community (as I do not belong to one), other parts of this piece resonated very strongly with me, and the parts I couldn’t immediately connect with on that personal level still, I believe, were very valuable for me to read.

    Keep on keepin’ on, I guess! (I am bad at concluding things).

    Dorian · April 2nd, 2011 at 10:34 pm
  11. [...] they dropped me off at college, but it took me until about a month into my sophomore year, when I made a speech at Hillel for National Coming Out Day, to feel like I was really out to the entire community. At my first job, running the business side [...]

    Keep On Coming Out » Keshet – My Jewish Learning · October 11th, 2012 at 10:51 am
  12. [...] published on A slightly revised version was later published in the anthology Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a [...] Anatomy of an Activist | untitled itsdlevy project · December 27th, 2013 at 11:55 pm
  13. [...] And even though the rest of the campus knew I was gay, the Jews at Hillel didn’t clue in until I made a speech on the Shabbat prior to National Coming Out Day — which happened to coincide with Yom Kippur that year. When I went to work in a synagogue, as a [...]

    It’s Not Where You Start: God Help the Outcasts | untitled itsdlevy project · December 28th, 2013 at 4:44 pm
  14. [...] they dropped me off at college, but it took me until about a month into my sophomore year, when I made a speech at Hillel for National Coming Out Day, to feel like I was really out to the entire community. At my first job, running the business side [...]

    Keshet: Keep On Coming Out | untitled itsdlevy project · December 28th, 2013 at 6:43 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik