Like Yehoshua, We Were Salty and Sassy

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

Two people share a glance in the bet midrash. The person on the left is seated, and the person on the right is standing and wearing fairy wings. The two seem to be in cheerful conversation together.

I recently had a meeting in downtown San Francisco. I got off BART (aka the subway) and was greeted by rainbows everywhere. Above ground on Market Street, the main arterial, wildly flapping rainbow and trans flags were proudly announcing that June had arrived. I headed towards my meeting sporting a big queer smile. I was standing, waiting to cross the street when I heard the unmistakable sound of hate. Emanating from a small PA system cranked up to 11, a man’s voice was delivering a message of hellfire, misery, and God’s wrath for the Gays. I looked up and down Market Street and noticed that there were several more pop-up hate and salvation stations blaring away. My smile fell off my face, and I did my best to just steel my way to my appointment.

It took me right back to my own coming out in the 1970s, and my first Gay March in Portland, Oregon 45 years ago. We were an intrepid bunch, maybe 300 or so marchers. Which was just about equal to the number of homophobic hecklers. Those of us marching were plodding along in a state of double shock—first from the acid rhetoric being hurled at us, and second from who we found marching alongside us. Our faces betrayed three thoughts; “What the hell am I doing out here?”; “What?! You’re gay too?!? NO WAY!!!”; and “Aha!! Thought so!!”

That I would make it through the socio-political gauntlet of the late 20th century as a queer person to find myself sorting out how to get on Medicare, cashing out my teeny tiny IRA, and living with peripheral neuralgia was not a forgone conclusion when I hit my 20s in the late 1970s. The queer scene was still largely underground while Anita Bryant and John Briggs were spreading homophobic vitriol from California to the Gulf Stream waters which asserted this land was not made for you or me. The country was embroiled in one legal battle after the other challenging the rights of homosexuals (not to mention women and ethnic minorities). Most states had “sodomy” laws which deemed non-procreative sex illegal and flat-out targeted Gays and Lesbians. Coming out was dangerous and done very selectively, lest the business end of one of those laws found you. As I remember it, the closet was a prison for sure, but sometimes it provided a haven. In 1978 who would have ever guessed that those fledgling marches would lay the ground work for the phenom we now call Pride Month?

On the other hand, by 1977 Harvey Milk had been elected as the first openly Gay candidate to win an election for public office; In New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago the post-Stonewall Gay liberation marches were slowly but surely growing into formidable and celebratory Pride Parades; in addition to Gay bars, Women’s bookstores, and the occasional Gay neighborhood, the world’s first queer synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, was established in Los Angeles providing an embracing and safe place for queer folks to practice Judaism. Anti-queer harassment continued on the streets but through the continuous effort of human rights lawyers, scholars, and the slowly burgeoning groundswell of visibility, the fight for legal protection and social dignity advanced.

Before the decade was over, gay activist Thomas L. Higgins would be seen on television pushing a banana cream pie into Anita Bryant’s face during a press conference in which she was promoting “Anita Bryant Centers” where, she claimed, queerdos could be reprogrammed into heteros. To her credit, dripping with whipped cream, she reacted to the pieing with the now famous quip, “Well, at least it’s a fruit pie”. Security was told to leave Higgins alone, Bryant said she loved him, and proceeded to pray for him. No arrests were made. Higgins responded, “We love you as a person, but we can’t stand the garbage that you spout.” A year later Dan White, a disgruntled and homophobic former San Francisco city supervisor, assassinated mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. He claimed he had diminished capacity to control his actions due to depression caused by eating too many Twinkies. White received a 7-year sentence, of which he served 5 years. Two years after his release, in 1985, the AIDS crisis was billowing across the land, Dan White took his own life.   

The vitriol, drama, and instability of those days had a big impact on my generation. The pervasive ugliness of homophobia (transphobia hadn’t even been given a name yet) was corrosive to many and annealing to others. Some lost themselves to alcohol, drugs, and suicide, while others found their voices, went to law school, and perfected the fine art of effective activism for human rights. Despite the tumult and acrimony of the times, progress was made due to the efforts of these advocates. Slowly but surely, we got domestic partnership, legal rights of survivorship, and AIDS research and treatment. The Supreme Court’s Lawrence decision finally overturned the so-called sodomy laws in 2003, and of course Ellen, Rosie, and eventually even Martina came out!! “Gay” became “Gay and Lesbian” which in a nod to feminism and the middle of the Kinsey scale became “Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual”, and then “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender” which, being a little unwieldy, morphed into “LGBT” which continues to evolve (but is currently clocking in at an impressive “LGBTQQINBPA2S+”). In 2015 the Obergefell decision guaranteed same sex couples the right to marry just in time for most Pride Parades that year. Out queer folks could be found in every sector of society—queer ministers and cops, athletes and elected officials, military personnel and rappers, plumbers and nurses—there was still prejudice and queerphobia, but the needle had moved considerably towards justice and understanding.

And then? You got it… CRASH!!

While it never fully disappeared, nastiness is heating up again. The same state that gave us Anita Bryant’s anti-Gay “Save Our Children” movement in the 1970s is now leading the way backwards with the Parental Rights in Education bill, (aka Don’t Say Gay) and other forms of anti-LGBTQ hysteria. Hundreds of bills that would limit LGBT rights, especially those targeting trans youth, have been introduced in the last two years. And make no mistake about it, where there is one phobia, there are others, because ugly travels in a pack—misogyny, racism, nationalism, antisemitism, xenophobia, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and a giant dollop of classism have teamed up and are on a road trip to spread fear and loathing across the country. Digital platforms have provided a very fast and very loud megaphone to a lot of freaked out people who are howling at the wind and stirring each other up about being replaced, grooming children to be trans, and dredging up religious justification for an old and dangerous trope: wholesale hatred. That’s what I heard yesterday on Market street, and it sent me looking for some solace from our pack of ancient, sideways Rabbis. 

רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹמֵר, עַיִן הָרָע, וְיֵצֶר הָרָע, וְשִׂנְאַת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם

Rabbi Yehoshua says, “Ill will, nastiness, and hatred of other people exclude a person from the future.” Pirke Avot 2:16 (outside translation)

Rabbi Yehoshua (ben Hananyah) a 2nd century sage who lived most of his life in the mayhem and disruption that followed the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, was no stranger to Roman persecution, hostility, and oppressive rule. He fled Jerusalem for Yavne where he flourished as a Torah learner. And while Yehoshua was part of the Talmud’s rockstar generation (his crew included Yochannan b. Zakkai, Eliezer b. Hurcanus, and Rabbi Akiva) he was also friendly with dangerously powerful Romans. This a story from the Babylonian Talmud, (Nedarim 50b) about a conversation between Yehoshua and the Roman Emperor’s daughter:

אמרה ליה בת קיסר לרבי יהושע בן חנניה תורה מפוארה בכלי מכוער א”ל למדי מבית אבוך במה מניחין יין אמרה ליה במאני דפחרא אמר לה כולי עלמא בפחרא ואתון במאני דפחרא אתון אחיתון במאני דכספא ודהבא אזלת ורמת חמרא במאני דכספא ודהבא וסרי אמר לה אף אורייתא כן והאיכא שפירין וגמירין אמר לה אי הוו סנו הוו גמירין טפי

She said to him, “How can such beautiful Torah come out of such an ugly guy?”

Yehoshua pinged back, “Learn from your father’s house, what does he store his wine in?”

She says, “In clay jars.”

“But mere commoners store wine in clay vessels!” he said, “It would befit the likes of you to keep your wine in vessels of and silver and gold!”

She, having no understanding of wine whatsoever, went and replaced the royal wine in silver and gold vessels. In no time it turned nasty.

“The same goes for Torah,” he said.

“But aren’t there handsome people who are learned?” she asked

He answered, “If they were ugly, they would be even more learned.”

I must admit that yesterday as I heard those street evangelists hawking their spiteful ideas about queer people I could feel a bitter and intense anger rise up in me, and I don’t know what made me more uncomfortable—them or my own easily triggered capacity to hate. Later, as I was reflecting on my reaction, I remembered just how much community helped ease that feeling back in the day. How we joked, partied, and danced our way through it, how we stood up for ourselves and each other, how we reminded people that viruses didn’t discriminate and maybe that was something to think about before suggesting that AIDS was God’s wrath on Gay folks. Like Yehoshua, we were salty and sassy and we managed to lurch our way forward against incredible odds. And yeah, we threw the occasional pie.

As my generation slowly ages out, my thoughts have been turning to what Pride might look like in the years to come. By me, one of SVARA’s greatest teachings is that we are in the midst of creating an unrecognizable future. So, on the one hand, LGBTQueer Jews are filling a fair percentage of seats at rabbinical schools (a good many who launched their studies at SVARA!!), and Queer rabbis are taking their places on pulpits, boards, and faculty positions across the country. While I’ve watched this transformation unfold, the current result is yielding something amazing and unrecognizable to the Jewish world of even 50 years ago. And on the other hand, for those of us who lived through the 70’s these last few years have been unfortunately far too recognizable—the malice and misinformation is back, the legal moves are being played, and queer folks, kids especially, are suffering.

As we steel ourselves for another wave of political struggle and social activism, I think it’s a good time to consider the teachings of Yehoshua, our queerheaded ancestor: Let us not become consumed with the evil of hatred lest it take us out of the world; Let us speak our truth–honest, funny, clever, compelling, and wise—even with those who we might consider “other”; and may we never let those who see us as ugly diminish the bright light of Torah that we carry inside. Indeed it is that light that will illuminate our way through this shadowy landscape. Happy, fiesty, festive, and powerful pride y’all. 

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