For years I have been an active volunteer for many local and national Jewish organizations. Locally, I have worked hard to climb the ladder of involvement and become our federation’s president. It is only now I can truly find the words to describe a frustrating problem that, from years of experience, I now have the clarity and vision to express.
I am the first gay president our federation has ever had in a volunteer capacity. Arguably, I am one of the first gay men across the country to be president of a major Jewish organization. I say this with humility but also because I have learned many lessons from this vantage point about advocacy.
There are too few gay and lesbian lay leaders and professionals in senior positions of Jewish institutional leadership. Many believe that this is because the world isn’t ready or willing to accept us in such roles. My experience has shown me that this is simply not the situation today. It is often a perpetuated myth, one of several, that I want to question today because it is one of many assumptions that we cannot afford to nurture if the voice of serious gay and lesbian potential leaders is to be heard. We can be our own biggest stumbling block, and my diagnosis of the problem lies with three central myths.
Myth No. 1: We are about grassroots advocacy and do not want to align ourselves with the establishment. This may have been true in the infancy of our movement. We were an oppressed minority whose voice had been quelled for decades. But this is no longer true, even though we are still fighting. Being a gay, Jewish American is normative today. When a gay poet composes an original work and recites it at a presidential inauguration, we know that we have arrived. Many activists perceive that the only meaningful work they will ever do is at the periphery, instigating those who find no home at the center. I challenge you to lead from the center and push the mainstream to become more inclusive. In my leadership experience — both as an attorney and as a volunteer — I have been at the center and pushed from there. And you don’t always have to push hard. I believe we’ve become too comfortable on the sidelines criticizing the establishment. Now it’s time to be part of it and change it from within. The door is wide open.
Myth No. 2: The interests of the broad Jewish community are not the same as the interests of the LGBT community. On some level, this is true. When different parts of our identities combine, we discover that no one organization or layer of identity can capture all of our complexity. But that is not the whole story. Most of the organizations I’m involved with from a Jewish perspective care about formal and informal education, senior care and social justice, Israel and the global Jewish community, engagement and identity. These are not straight issues or gay issues. They are our issues because we are part of a universal family and members of a particular family — the Jewish family, which needs our love and concern. Being gay is not the sum total of my identity. It is a piece of a rich identity that begs for wholeness, and one can find it in a community that is subtle and textured. The door is wide open.
Myth No. 3: Others don’t want us at the table. We have spent so much time complaining about not being included that we have, ironically, often excluded ourselves from the table. We have internalized an attitude that says that others will not see value in having us as part of the conversation of Jewish life. We will only take part in the gay or the gay Jewish conversation. We have become, from a Jewish communal perspective, self-limiting. These limitations prevent us from leading from a position of strength. We have not checked the assumptions we make about the Jewish community with the current reality of that community. The door is wide open.
These myths all came from somewhere. There was a time not so long ago when they were descriptive of the way the established Jewish community related to the gay and lesbian community, and vice-versa. But times have changed and in many ways gay and lesbian Jews have not changed with them. I am not just saying that. I am living it. I grew up in a home where the established Jewish community was not an opponent but a very close friend, and it has remained that ever since. I want to introduce that close friend to other close friends, but many myths are standing in the way. I want other gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer Jews at the leadership table next to me and at leadership tables throughout the Jewish leadership establishment locally and nationally to urge us to step forward and take a more active role in the leadership of the collective Jewish community. We are truly all in it together. Our future and our destiny is a shared one. The door is wide open.
Stuart S. Kurlander is president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.