Stories of the fight by gay, lesbian, and transgender people for acceptance inside and outside the Jewish community resonated through the social hall of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange on Oct. 29.
The panel discussion, “Rainbow Journeys: The Times, They Are A-Changing,” was sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women’s Essex County section.
Speakers included a transgender woman, a lesbian couple, a male gay activist, and the mother of a gay son.
Kicking off the proceedings at the Reform synagogue, Rabbi Daniel Cohen spoke of strident opposition to marriage equality by other rabbis he has met.
“It was clear they were abusing sacred tradition, that they had forgotten the part of the Torah which talks about the fact that we are all created in God’s image,” said Cohen.
Kearny resident Jennifer Long, who is Catholic, spoke of her life as Edward Long and her decision to transition after four combat tours in the United States Army. She and another transgender woman fought a difficult but ultimately successful battle, resolved earlier this year, to have their names and gender identities changed on their military records.
“It became a landmark case in the United States,” she said.
Long said that as a transgender person “you go through a lot of dark periods,” and at one point she contemplated suicide. “In the transgender community there are so many who do,” she said.
After disclosing her secret to others in her military unit, Long was urged to retire. “But I retired without all of the fanfare for someone with 30 years of service, and it was kind of sad,” she said.
Fellow panelists Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster made their own legal mark on gay equality in New Jersey, winning a state Division on Civil Rights ruling in 2008 that they could hold their civil union ceremony in a gazebo on the boardwalk in their hometown of Ocean Grove. They battled an affiliate of the United Methodist Church, which owns the boardwalk.
“How did a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx, who had been married twice and had two kids, become a lesbian?” said Bernstein. “As expected by my parents, I got married and lived the American dream with a house in the suburbs and two children, two dogs, two cars, and everything seemed rosy — except it was not.”
After two divorces, Bernstein said, “the lightbulb went off. I realized this is not what I want.”
She met her partner Paster 15 years ago, through the Lesbian & Gay Havurah in Edison.
One part of Bernstein’s story has not yet had a happy ending. One of her two sons became Orthodox, and the woman he married “kept my four grandchildren away from us. I still can’t talk about it. It is one of the most terrible things that has happened in my life,” she said tearfully.
But now that her son has divorced, she said, “we are working at reuniting with my grandchildren.”
Paster grew up in an Orthodox home in Boston. “I was brought up with a very strong sense of social justice and the Jewish tradition of doing what’s fair and right,” she said. “But I must confess that I never did come out to my parents because I was afraid of how they would react.”
She said her mother, “who was nobody’s fool,” came to realize Paster’s sexual preference, but her father “was kind of oblivious. He didn’t even know what a lesbian was.”
Panelist Hannah Lieberman described how her son Josh, then a sophomore in high school, left a note for her and her husband telling them he was gay. Unlike many parents, they were totally supportive. Lieberman is active in PFLAG, an organization formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
“When your kids come out of the closet, you go in,” she said; many are anxious at first to keep the secret that their children have disclosed.
She worried that Josh would be bullied, and that he and the rest of their family would be ostracized. Despite her fears, he and a friend organized and recruited 75 people for the Gay-Straight Alliance at Westfield High School.
She advised others with LGBT sons and daughters to approach homophobic adversaries with humor and honesty. “If you have a sense of humor and you come from a place of strength and a place of truth you can change minds and educate people,” she said.
Lee Rosenfield of Lambertville said he realized he was gay at the age of five. But as an adolescent, “I also dated girls,” he said. “I had a steady girlfriend in high school, and her father was a member of the religious Right. He warned me, ‘Don’t touch my daughter,’ and I said, ‘No problem.’”
Today Rosenfield works as a fund-raising consultant for Jewish organizations. “I met the love of my life 20 years ago at our temple,” he said. They are now married and the fathers of a son and daughter.
At one point, audience members were asked whether anyone in their family was LGBT. An estimated 75 of the 100 people in the room raised their hands.