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Reflections on Anger as a Political Tool: A Jewish Journey through the LGBTQ Struggle

July 17, 2012
by Peri L. Rainbow “Sometimes,” my rabbi once whispered to me, “it’s better to be quiet than to be right.” I was horrified! How could he believe that? “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” — doesn’t the Bible tell us that we should not bear witness to the suffering of another without taking action? “What should I do?” I asked. “Just keep showing up,” he said. As a Jew, I identify with struggle organically. This sensibility was heightened in me early on by my childhood sexual victimization by an adult, which fueled my sense of outrage against the exercise of power-over, especially power over women. In the 1980s I was a college student, energized by the feminist movement, and I joined the effort to end oppression. I experienced righteous indignation on a daily basis. “The personal is the political” was my battle cry, and I brought it into every walk of life. I helped coordinate a campus rape crisis center. I organized the first “Take Back the Night” rally in my town of New Paltz, New York. We chanted, “Women unite, take back the night!” as we marched, about sixty of us, carrying glowing candles through the campus and down Main Street. College students hung out the doors and windows of the crowded bars to holler their support, while the police videotaped us, “just in case.” The radicals among us sneaked away to draw chalk figures on sidewalks where we knew sexual assaults had occurred. Vandalism! The knowledge that it was illegal made us giddy. The last “Take Back the Night” event I helped organize was in 2001. Then 41, I was the director of Sexual Assault Services at Bard College and on the faculty of the State University at New Paltz. That April evening, five hundred of us marched by candlelight over the Mid-Hudson Bridge. We chanted and cried in memory of our own histories and the histories of those we loved. The march, rally, and survivor speak-out were charged with every form of energy imaginable. Overwhelmingly though, we were driven by anger at the sexual violence that we and our sisters (and brothers) face daily. I was very comfortable there. On that same night, my future wife, Tamela, held my hand for the very first time! Amazing! I had met her seven years earlier, in 1994, at the Sojourners’ Women’s Gathering Space, a collective of women who organized events at the Unitarian Fellowship in Kingston, New York. This was the only “women-only” space between New York City and Albany, an important safe place for lesbians and feminists, and one of the few that survived almost three decades. I was unabashedly, unapologetically out as a lesbian. That took some courage back then, and inspired courage in other women. We hosted many women artists, writers, entertainers, and political leaders. It was there that I attended my first feminist Passover seder, my first pivotal attempt to find and reclaim my people. They forgave me my dish of peas with walnuts, just left it outside as they welcomed me in. I had accepted an invitation from the Sojourners Collective to lead a discussion on “butch-femme relationships in our community,” after a screening of the young filmmaker Tamela Sloan’s newly acclaimed short, Dare To Be Butch. I fell in love with Tamela that night. We began to see each other once or twice a year, whenever I had occasion to invite her to present the film in my class — and, of course, to take her out to dinner afterwards to “thank her.” Tamela was a bit of a rogue at the time, working as a stagehand in the rock ’n’ roll industry. She always left my students swooning, handing her their phone numbers. Although it took seven years before we touched, I always knew that I loved Tamela and wanted to be with her. In 2002, after a year of marriage, Tamela and I were denied the right to adopt our daughter as a couple. The next battle in my fight for peace and justice was laid out before me. Why should we be denied our right to make a family? How dare they? Before this, I had been trying for years to conceive through artificial insemination. Then Tamela and I had decided to get married, and to try to create a family together. We discussed this intimately with our rabbi — I now had a rabbi! — who agreed, after careful discussion with Tamela, who is not Jewish, to officiate our wedding. I had journeyed closer to Judaism in the years since that lesbian potluck seder, and had shared many conversations with my rabbi about my disconnected Jewish past, its association with my sexual abuse, and my intentions and desires for my Jewish future. I still felt raw when I attended services, but I kept going sporadically, while reading parts of the Torah to try to understand both the text and my inclination towards it. Our daughter Cecilia had been removed from a horribly abusive birth home at age 4 and exiled to a year in foster care. She met us at an orphanage of sorts, where Tamela worked while completing her graduate studies. Carrying the names of both my and Tamela’s grandmothers, Cecilia seemed meant to be our child. We didn’t want to fight for her, just the opposite: I had actually begun to imagine a peaceful life with my basherte and my baby. But I was always ready to battle for justice . . . There were three county agencies and a faith-based housing agency involved, putting us through multi-layered investigations and home studies. All the evaluations were glowing and every social worker filed a positive recommendation. Two county commissioners signed off on our adoption request before I received the call: The attorney for the county in which our daughter had been born said with disdain that her county had never released a child to a same-sex couple and were not about to now. She had three months to find a way to deny our petition. Just shy of three months later, she called and said that we had “desecrated legal documentation” by crossing out the words “adoptive father” and instead writing “adoptive mother” or “adoptive parent” on our forms (which had been approved by two other counties). There was only room for one adoptive mother, said this county attorney — and so they were prepared to release the child to one of us. I was ready to sue the county commissioner, call the press, and file a discrimination charge. Then my wife — part Buddha and part Peter Pan -— suggested that we breathe deeply and then contact our attorney and our county’s family court judge. Both of them suggested that I remain quiet and that we simply adopt our daughter one parent at a time. Sometimes it is better to be quiet than to be right. “Aren’t you gay?” That was the response from the human resources staffer at the college in 2005, when I applied for spousal health benefits after our fourth and only legal marriage ceremony in Niagara Falls, Canada. I expressed my familiar rage at her without filter, tired of having to defend my rights, especially after having spent a beautiful weekend as a legally married (at last!) woman. We had gone on the Maid of the Mist, just like our grandparents! Now I had to defend my right to health insurance? How dare they! Yet during the next few years, this head of human resources and I worked together quite well. I agreed to withdraw my formal complaint; she filed our application for spousal benefits with the state. It took a year for them to respond. Under the direction of Governor George Pataki, they rejected our application. We joined a lawsuit with Lambda Legal Defense. After winning three cases brought against us by the fundamentalist Alliance Defense Fund, we helped change New York State case law three times and won legal recognition of health care benefits for all legally married New York State employees. At a press conference early in our campaign, our attorney directed me to “say less.” But there is so much to say, I thought. Then she fed me a line: “We are here to protect our family.” It was brilliant, and quiet. It defused everything. No fight necessary, just the simple truth. I spent the better part of my daughter’s elementary- and middle-school years fighting angrily on her behalf. I fought for gender-neutral language on all parental forms (“parent/guardian” rather than “father /mother”), and I let it be known that I expected all families to be represented in curricula and in the school’s libraries. I made sure that the Harvest Festival did not take place during the Jewish High Holy Days, and I demanded that the very traditional 8th-grade “home and careers” teacher include “other” ways that people can become parents as he taught about family, parenting, and child development. I was even hired to facilitate in-service professional development training on cultural competency for school staff. Looking back, I’m not sure I gave them much room to refuse — which sounds a lot like bullying. My e-mails were cutting, and my face-to-face conversations were brutally honest. “How can my daughter receive a grade of 85 when she is failing every test?” I asked her 9th grade math teacher. “What do you mean they ‘self-correct’ and you do not look at their work? How dare you?” When I saw this teacher take a step back, I softened my approach. I expressed understanding and empathy for her impossible workload. I was aware of her perception that I was a “helicopter mom,” hovering around my daughter’s school. My self-righteous anger, born of oppression, no longer seemed to serve me well. An adjustment was desperately needed. But such an adjustment does not come easily. Each time I am set on fire by the latest injustice, I feel the power of my anger immediately. The intimate connection I feel to the oppression of women, Jews, and Queer people validates my stance. Clearly, positive changes have occurred in the status of the LGBTQ community. Six U.S. states and ten countries around the world now grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, and President Obama has at last endorsed marriage equality. The federal government has lifted the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and the New York State Board of Education has joined the anti-bullying movement by passing the Dignity for All Students Act. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and its reauthorizations have begun to reflect the actual experience of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Much oppression remains in place, however, and the progress we have made is precarious at best. The U.S. government still does not recognize same-sex marriage, which greatly limits our rights and benefits. Thirty-one states have banned same-sex marriage outright — and in many jurisdictions, adoption by lesbian and gay people is also prohibited. The New York State Marriage Equality legislation passed only with an addendum that permits discrimination by faith-based organizations, and our gay and lesbian military personnel are well-aware that the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” may only last as long as Obama’s presidency. There is still an epidemic of suicides among young people tormented by their peers because of real or perceived homosexuality. Every semester I counsel students, often LGBTQ-identified, mostly young women, who have experienced sexual assault and harassment on our campus. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trangender history, which includes many important people, cultural traditions, and social movements, remains invisible in school curricula. The merging of public hospitals with faith-based ones keeps us vulnerable at times when we most need dignity, respect and protection. Public institutions still fail to recognize our existence with inclusive language on documents and within facilities — try finding a gender-neutral bathroom anywhere! Homophobia has shaped all of our thinking and permeates our society. When a group of people fail to see themselves represented in popular culture and institutions, when this group does not share equal rights or representation in our educational and legal systems, and when this group is constantly and self-righteously railed against, all people, including the group’s constituents themselves, learn that there must be something wrong with them —for how can everything/everyone else be wrong? I lecture on “cultural competency” these days, using my own family and personal journey as examples with which to teach educators and human service professionals about safety and diversity. “You seem really nice,” commented one workshop participant recently, “but I am religious and I just don’t believe in homosexuality.” My stomach tightened and I felt rage flooding my body. I began my fiery retort: I am not the tooth-fairy, so you don’t get to ‘believe in me’ or not. Unfortunately, you do get to vote on my civil rights! Then I took a deep breath while looking directly into the eyes of this young African-American woman. “I am here,” I said quietly. “And I’m going to continue to be here.” Then I left her to contemplate my “demands.” Sometimes it is better to be quiet, and just keep showing up. My gender and sexuality class has been a showcase for real change, personal and political. Students are responsible for creating effective ways to end oppression and violence; their research projects throughout the years have included panel discussions, curricula and lesson plans for all grades, art, music, children’s literature, and web pages. Their work is often amazing. I am blessed! As I go into my 50s and reflect on the role of anger throughout my life, however, I realize that I have so often focused on “fighting the good fight” that I have sometimes neglected to seek peace. I have not always created a safe space for those who disagree with me (based on everything they have learned in our homophobic society). My classroom has been a charged environment, and while those who “get it” feel liberated, I fear that those who do not “get it” remain alienated. Usually well-intentioned, those people have their own stories, their own truths, which must be told, and heard, and understood, before any real progress can be made, not only in writing new laws, but in opening hearts. I now see how my deep anger about injustice and oppression has been a thread running through my life’s tapestry. I have intimidated people with my knowledge and passion. I have demanded an almost impossible standard of understanding and behavior from them. I have forced concessions more than I have won understanding; I have forced justice to bloom like a hothouse flower, not like something cultivated in my garden. Although I am generally “right,” I am not at peace — and I do not create peace around me. Yet whenever I look into the eyes of my wife and daughter, I see the life I want for myself and for everyone. It is a life of peace with justice, and love and respect. It is what Tamela and I vowed to give each other ten years ago in our ketubah. I want to live that peace and effect change through it, as I have effected change in the past through struggle. Can it be done? Can I find compassion for my oppressor? Can I effect social change by living mindfully and remaining aware of the need for quiet consideration? Can I make this an effective activist tool to pass along as part of my legacy? And at what point do I get to celebrate the cultures I have helped to nurture? Is my fate only to be wandering and wrestling — or can I step into the land of milk and honey and rejoice? Every year at our house we celebrate Purim. Yet I am anti-Purim! I do not want to celebrate war or reenact brutality, no matter how much humor is invoked. I take offense, on behalf of my Queer community, at the idea that dressing in drag is impossibly ridiculous. Still, we read the Book of Esther; we discuss issues of women’s power and how we must use our bodies and our sexuality to survive; we honor the quiet leadership of our foremother, her shrewdly submissive approach to King Ahasuerus. My tradition — my Jewish, Queer, female, feminist tradition — honors all voices, even the quiet ones. Sometimes it is better to be quiet, to wait, to use our calm to help others find their own voices, and to learn how to safely listen to each other. Quiet is not passive, but active and intentional. Quiet is an invitation to learn, to join, to understand, to celebrate. I am learning the lessons of our long-enduring, righteous indignation, and I now seek to couple that with the ability to take pleasure in our accomplishments, and in our survival against all odds — and to live the peace we have fought so desperately to achieve. Peri L. Rainbow is a noted author, clinician, and educator with over twenty years of experience in her field. Recognized for her treatment of post-traumatic stress, safety, and diversity, she has been a member of the faculty of the State University of New York at New Paltz since 1991. Rainbow currently provides education, consultation, mediation, and marriage officiation. She is the proprietor of Family Traditions, a center for learning, healing, and celebrating life in Stone Ridge, New York. Her most recent publication, “Making Sense of the Experience of Incest Survivors,” appears in Women: Images and Realities, A Multicultural Anthology (2012). She is co-author of The Trauma Safety Drop-In Group, A Clinical Model of Group Treatment for Survivors of Trauma (1998).