When I was in Rabbinic school in the late 1980s the world was far less inclusive. Few congregations openly welcomed members of the LGBTQ+ community. The question of whether or not rabbis should officiate at the weddings of same sex couples (often referred to as “commitment ceremonies” at the time) was hotly debated. And one of my professors had stopped signing graduating students’ smichah—certificate of rabbinic ordination—lest he inadvertently endorse the ordination of a gay or lesbian rabbi.
One day during my third year of rabbinic studies I invited a classmate to lunch. Outspoken about being a gay rabbinic student, he refused to hide his sexuality. The lunch began warmly enough. We talked about our school experience and joked about some of our teachers. We shared stories about growing up. The conversation was warm, fluid and had become fairy personal. I realized that I, a white cis male (a term I didn’t use, let alone know, at the time), had an opportunity to learn from his experience and, hopefully, become a better ally as our Reform Movement worked toward greater inclusivity.
“I’m wondering,“ I asked, “if you might be willing to share your experience coming out of the closet?”
His affect and tone changed. “It’s ‘coming out,’ not ‘coming out of the closet.’ Get the damn terms right before you put your ignorance on display.”
Needless to say, he didn’t shared his story, I didn’t ask any follow up questions and the remainder of lunch was “quietly polite.”
Fast forward two years. I had become close to one of my professors and her partner, now wife. At dinner with them one night I asked, “I know how little I know about the LGBTQ+ community, but I want to know more. I want to be better. But I’m afraid to ask anything lest I say something stupid and am inadvertently hurtful or insulting.”
“We appreciate the question and sensitivity,” they said, “but the only way you can learn is by asking. So ask your questions and don’t worry, Dan. We’ll be as open as we can, and if the question is problematic, we’ll tell you.”
Their willingness to engage with me—even when my ignorance might lead to my using problematic language—allowed me to begin to learn… and grow.
The difference between the two encounters could not be more different. In both cases I was the same curious person desiring to learn. But the harsh, judgmental response of my classmate shut down conversation and kept me from growing, while my teacher’s openness to helping me learn opened one of the most important doors that has ever been opened for me.
My professor and her wife could have responded to my ignorance with judgment, the way my classmate had. Thankfully, they gave me the benefit of the doubt and took the time to lovingly help me learn. I have no doubt that many of the questions I asked that evening were dumb, naive or even offensive. They could have written me off. But by engaging with me patiently, they helped me learn, grow and become an advocate for full communal inclusion.
As Pride Month begins, I am grateful to see how far we have come. Marriage equality is now the law of the land. Our Reform Movement’s inclusivity increasingly matches our rhetoric. And in the years prior to his death, even the professor who refused to sign ordination certificates recognized that he had been wrong and began signing smichah once again. But there is still work to do.
Yes, there are forces in this country who are actively antagonistic to the LGBTQ+ community. They are hard at work trying to pass laws to limit the hard-won equality and roll back the advances of recent years. Rather than try to change their ossified views, we simply need to work harder than ever to insure that policies granting full rights and inclusion remain in place.
There are others, however, who want to be inclusive but don’t fully understand how hurtful their behavior and language can be. They understand the importance of welcoming and celebrating every person who seeks to become part of the community, but may inadvertently say or do things that are hurtful. This doesn’t make them bad people. It doesn’t make them closed-minded. It simply makes them people who need to learn.
In recent years I have grown increasingly concerned that there are people who assume everyone they meet understands the ethical mandate to build communities that are fully inclusive and welcome. They take it as a matter of faith that people know the right words and terminology to use (or at least they SHOULD) and react with harsh judgement when someone doesn’t. At times, they go so far as to embarrass others by interrupting them mid-sentence to “correct” them, neglecting to realize that demanding respect by being disrespectful rarely works. To put it bluntly, there are times when those who are among the most vocal supporters of inclusion are as closed-minded and judgmental as those they criticize. Like my classmate, they shut down conversation and inadvertently perpetuate the very social ills they seek to address.
If we truly seek a world that is inclusive and equitable, we might consider taking the path walked by my professor. We can assume people’s good intentions. We can help them better understand how their language may be hurtful and create feelings of rejection. By embodying patience and generosity of spirit, not to mention the respect for my need to learn, they taught me an invaluable lesson that night. They showed me that the path toward respecting each and every person as created in the Divine image can only be achieved when those demanding respect from others show that same respect as well.
Rabbi Daniel M Cohen