As a part of Penn’s Sex Week, Jay Michaelson spoke here last Wednesday. I’d read his book (God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality) over the summer and knew that he had a similar background and world-view to my own, and I was thrilled to find that his talk exceeded my already high expectations. The title was “Reclaiming Pleasure: Constructing a Non-Oppressive, Non-Repressive Sexual Ethic in the Shadow of Religion.” A lot of the subject matter was directly linked to sex, sexual energy, and the ways that religion tries to control sex, but the biggest takeaway for me was a distinction that he drew between “good gays” and “radical queers.”
The labeling is something that had never occurred to me, but the issue that it raises is something that I now realize I’ve of course been dealing with since I came out. What it comes down to is this: “good gays”, now that they are largely being admitted to the metaphorical “country club” of straight society, are happy to exclude or are at least complicit in excluding others from the club. “Radical queers”, on the other hand, recognize and remember the oppression that they themselves dealt with when seeking admission and want to use their new-found power to improve the system. A conflict arises when you’re someone who recognizes oppression, remembers the struggle, and wants to change the system while also being informed by tradition: a religious “radical queer.”
No one fits into either of these categories precisely. I imagine if I didn’t already feel such an outsider to Orthodoxy, I would be more of a “good gay.” At this point I know that I can call myself a frum Conservative Jew and claim the right to speak about being gay and argue with the halacha without marginalization on an institutional level. Being a “radical queer” Conservative Jew does not mean giving up on being a Conservative Jew. My BT* status in Orthodoxy makes any such assertions or arguments more precarious, and the question arises: how much time would it take to become an “insider” before any criticisms I would make couldn’t be written off as coming from someone who actually just isn’t part of the community? Rabbi Steven Greenberg started becoming observant at 15, and this specific charge doesn’t seem to be leveled against him (though of course there are many who would still like to write him off as not part of the Orthodox community).
In November, I had an upsetting argument with a close friend. What he said to hurt me, however, turned out to be one of the most helpful things anyone said to me this year. We were talking about the prospect of my dating a non-Jewish friend of his. He told me, “Ben, there are already going to be questions about your commitment to Judaism based on your non-observant background. Why would you do something else now which would only amplify those concerns?” At that time, I was stunned not only that my shidduch resume was a topic of concern for some people, but also that what I had thought was only internal insecurity about my lack of observant upbringing might have a real-life manifestation. This was helpful though, because this was the conversation that allowed me to say “Forget the Orthodox establishment” and to therefore go and figure some important things out for myself.
A week later, after a date with said non-Jewish friend, we walked around campus holding hands. I was proud in that moment to be wearing a kippah, to know that the religion and denomination I was so visibly identifying with was becoming a place where gay people could begin to think about full inclusion, and to feel that this situation was weird only because the guy I was walking with wasn’t Jewish and not because he was a guy. That was enough to let me believe that I can someday “radically queer” the action of wearing a kippah, just by wearing one while walking around with my future partner. I’m still looking for ways to be an activist (in real life, not on the internet) that don’t involve finding a boyfriend.
When coming up against policies or institutions tailored only to a heterosexual majority, “sitting down and shutting up” is clearly the “good gay” option. The element of speech is an important point to note: “radical queers” are not necessarily asking for changes or to be the ones to propose changes. All I’m personally asking for is a more vocal acknowledgement of the questions — such as, how should queer people see and interact with societal institutions like the mechitza and shomer negiah? This would require first and foremost that allies, and not just LGBT people, are talking about these issues as well.
*Baal Teshuva, literally “master of return/repentance,” refers to someone who embraces Orthodox Judaism later in life. I hate this label, because I’ve had a strong connection to Judaism since birth and my God-consciousness hasn’t really changed since my Bar Mitzvah. It appears, however, to be the least imperfect way to identify myself in Orthodoxy.