Some parts of this piece have been percolating for a bit. There are a lot of things here that are just always gnawing at the back of my mind, waiting for the right story to come together for me to share. In fact, I even thought about writing it last week, but the truth is, I needed to step back and think about something that wasn’t entirely traumatic for a moment. I’ve written so much about trauma this year. And I’ve lived through so much this year that I haven’t written about. I needed to take the time to celebrate the one year anniversary of this website, and all of the incredible people I’ve met because of it. I needed a few moments of joy to keep dealing with so much darkness. Which is appropriate for the weeks leading into Hannukah.
The end of the year is an exhausting time no matter what else is going on. The shorter, darker day, the many obligations of the holiday season, they wear me down. It’s pretty safe to assume I’m not the only one who feels that way, too. As a queer person, I find myself extra stressed at this time of year, dealing with all of the social and family events, having to be around people who it may not be safe for me to be out to, in situations where I have to deal with immense homophobia and heterosexism. Sometimes even from people who tell me that they love me and only want what’s best for me, too.
Watching my words, trying carefully not to slip up. In order to stay safe. No matter what, I omit a lot of details and do a lot of code switching, but I do even more at this time of year.
And then there’s the experience of being Jewish in a world of Christian hegemony. It was frustrating but tolerable when I lived in New York, where people expected to be around Jewish people. Where the supermarket knew that we needed Hanukkah candles, potatoes, sour cream, apple sauce and little bags of chocolate Hanukkah gelt. And where I could go to one store and find Chanukah wrapping paper and have several choices, and if I went into another store, I’d have even more choices. I didn’t realize how much I really appreciated the safety of being Jewish in that environment until I moved away and was suddenly the only Jew around. South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker weren’t exactly wrong when they had Kyle singing:
I’m a Jew
A lonely Jew
So this time of year isn’t easy. It’s not like the rest of the year is a piece of cake either. I’m a disabled, queer Jew. Minority stress is a real thing. I’m already working at a disadvantage here. It hasn’t been getting easier, either.
This Hannukah we get: Eight Days of Antisemitism
Antisemitism is on the rise. Just in time for Hannukah. Donald Trump. Kanye West. Kyrie Irving. Each of them have suggested that Jewish people are somehow responsible for the misery of others. That kind of talk from famous people with large followings and big platforms has tremendous power to influence others, putting Jews everywhere at risk for harassment and violence. There’s been a steady increase in antisemitism over the last five years. Big things like the Unite the Right Rally in 2017. The Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018. The Coleyville, Texas hostage situation at the beginning of this year as well as countless smaller acts of violence towards Jews. Just last week at Colgate University in New York, a menorah on campus was knocked over by vandals.
None of this is helped by people like Elon Musk joking that Kanye’s Tweets, including an image of a swastika circumscribed by a Mogen David (a Jewish star,) “incited him to violence” or allowing Donald Trump back on Twitter after he was banned. These incidents only serve to encourage and embolden antisemites.
The ADL has found that in the two weeks between November 2, and November 17, Twitter went from taking action on 60 percent of reported antisemitism to taking action on only 30 percent of reported Tweets.
That’s the sort of contemporary trauma. There’s a lot more where that came from. But trauma isn’t just what’s happening now. Some of it is bone deep.
Minority Stress is Encoded in the DNA
When your people have a history of being expelled from just about every country you’ve settled in, when someone-or-other has tried to exterminate your people so many times throughout history it’s hard even to keep track, that kind of history weighs on you. It builds up. It’s tiring. We’re just starting to understand epigenetics, the impact of generational trauma–the way that these things permanently affect your DNA. And how trauma experienced by your ancestors can cause problems much later on.
It’s probably part of the reason there’s so much Jewish humor, along with things like judging each other, and harping on our mistakes and being distrustful of outsiders. I’ve come to expect that I’ll experience antisemitism–it’s certainly made its presence known here in Orlando with bomb threats at our JCC, vandalism of all sorts, and even a neo-Nazi rally earlier this year. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, we’ve hardly heard anything in the news about David Newstat, who was assaulted when he stopped to try and confront the protestors.
Homophobia is on the Rise
It’s not exactly like the public at large are throwing parades for the queer people either. In Florida HB 1557, the, “Don’t Say Gay” bill is just one piece of the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation from Florida politicians this year. And Texas’s effort to criminalize gender affirming care for minors is just the first of many similar bills that have been on the docket for state legislators all over the country.
Legislative and judicial violence aren’t the only types of violence targeting the queer community. Incidents of physical violence have increased fourfold between 2020 and 2021 and we are on track to see an even greater increase in 2022. The threats are moving away from “just” demonstrations at events ranging from Pride Parades to Drag Queen Story Hours and everything in between. There have been a series of violent robberies and murders, all following the same pattern, all targeting queer men in New York, While Congress has passed the Respect for Marriage Act this month, it hardly goes far enough.
Roe v Wade was Just the Beginning
While the overturning of Roe v Wade puts things like Obergefell v Hodges at risk (which the Respect for Marriage is trying to mitigate) it still allows for the reversal of the decision that made marriage equality the law of the land and returns the choice to the states, forcing them to recognize legal marriages in other states but allowing them to choose not to perform same sex marriages in that state. I can’t celebrate that. It’s a step backwards.
I can’t enjoy the passing of the Respect for Marriage Act because of the hate that fuels the need for it in the first place. Hate which has meant that in the last few weeks we’ve experienced another mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado. More than 35,000 people were left without power for days in Moore County North Carolina when multiple electrical substations were hit with gunfire. The person who has claimed responsibility for it, Emily Grace Rainey has linked the shootings with efforts to try and stop an 18+ drag show taking place at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines. A drag show for and by consenting adults.
Just last week, in Kentucky, a Drag Queen Story Hour was canceled because of terroristic threats. The week before, a man entered an LGBTQ bar in Minneapolis, brandishing a gun and yelling anti-queer slurs. The Proud Boys showed up at a Drag Queen Story Hour event in Ohio, forcing its cancellation. Perhaps most painful to me is that right here in Orlando, a Halloween themed Drag Queen Story Hour was canceled because of neo-Nazi threats.
Those stories rarely make national news, but they’re happening all the time, all over the country.
The Uptick in Hate Crime Means More for All of us Than How it Affects the Families Involved
One incident here, one there. Hate crimes in general are on the rise. You can put the pins in the map and see how the numbers are increasing. And each of these incidents is a story. So are the ones we don’t know about, the ones that we don’t have pins for. The kid who has two dads at home but no longer sees books in her classroom or the media center at school which reflect her lived experience. Whose teacher can’t even recommend a book that might show someone living a life like hers. The middle schooler who is trying to sort out their own identity but keeps hearing “that’s so gay” or “no homo” while drowning in confusion about their own identity.
It doesn’t tell us the story of the person who is afraid that coming out will affect their health care even though not coming out also means they’re not getting comprehensive care because they’re not out. Or the story of every Jewish kid who has to go to Hebrew school or to religious services under armed guard.
Persistent Threats of Violence
But when the Department of Homeland Security releases a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin specifically the LGBTQ+, Jewish and migrant communities at risk from violent extremists, maybe yours ears perk up a little. Maybe when the person giving the briefing on the bulletin says Americans motivated by violent ideologies pose a “persistent and lethal threat,” you think a little harder about what your friends who wear one or more of those labels might be feeling. Maybe that makes you listen a little more.
The fear is real. It’s that same kind of hypervigilance that I feel when I’m somewhere alone at night. Like a cat with my ears pricked up. There’s always someone right around the corner waiting to hurt me.
The threats just keep piling on. It’s been almost a year since I wrote “The Nazis are Getting Worse.” I was tired then. I was feeling the strain of constantly living with the expectation that I’d have to deal with antisemitism right in my face at some point. And homophobia is always there, too. I’ve been arguing against homophobia since before I could articulate that I was queer as a football bat. The expectations of violence are something I’ve lived with for years. I’ve probably had hundreds, if not thousands of conversations about handling antisemitism, about handling homophobia. About finding ways to make myself small enough, quiet enough, assimilated enough to not set off any alarms, not to attract the wrong kind of attention, not to create any extra risk for myself.
But if you Protest, Make Sure it’s “The Right Kind” of Protest
I’ve learned all about “the right kind” of activism. The kind that would ruffle feathers just enough to shake things up and maybe, somewhere down the road, move the dial incrementally. Not the bold activism that ACT-UP created with Die Ins to speed up the process of HIV drug approval. Or the kind of activism that covered Senator Jesse Helms’ house with a giant condom that read , “A Condom to Stop Unsafe Politics: Helms is Deadlier than a Virus.”
There’s something ironic about finding myself writing about learning how to assimilate on the heels of a holiday (Hanukkah) which places so much emphasis on not assimilating. That experience of living your truth is high up on the list of Jewish values that have had the greatest influence on me.
Anniversary… and Hannukah
As the anniversary of the launch of this website approached, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it has meant to me to have this platform. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to dig really deeply into things I care so much about. It’s become a way that I can stay engaged in activism even though almost three years of COVID and day to day management of chronic illness makes it so much more difficult (and at times dangerous) to be out doing some of the things I used to do. No matter how much I appreciate having a platform to speak up, and a way to safely continue to participate in tikkun olam, repairing the world, it seems like each terrible story just comes right on the heels of the last.
Two steps forward, one step back, right?
The fight is exhausting. Book banning? Been working on it since junior high. Marriage equality? Since high school. Comprehensive sex ed? Also high school when I started working with HIV prevention education. I’m staring at my thirtieth high school reunion and I’m still doing the same things. I need to keep going but the burnout is real.
I’ve been at this long enough to have not only learned about activist fatigue but run workshops about it. I know how important self-care is in everyone’s life, but especially when you put so much emotion into your work. I’ll admit, I’m notoriously bad at self-care. If you’re queer, a person of color, disabled, or hold other minority status, you’re at an even higher risk of burnout because you’ve got minority stress to deal with as well.
Do you know what one of the signs of activist burnout is? Cynicism about the work that you’re doing. Do you know what another one is? Inefficacy. Having an activist community helps reduce these things, but once again, COVID ruins things.
Doing too Much… But not Enough
I wish I felt like I could step back from the work of making change. I don’t feel like I can. Because as my own worst critic, I feel like I’m not doing enough. And the isolation of the last few years hasn’t helped that. Nor has become increasingly disabled over the last several years. The truth is, the longer I fight for the things I care about the more I feel like the work is never going to be finished. On one hand, that’s not okay. On the other hand, it’s exactly what Rabbi Tarfon said a thousand years ago about not having to finish the work but also not abandoning it.
But in Pirkei Avot, the same book that includes those words from Rabbi Tarfon is also a quote from Rabbi Hillel “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
I care just as much about things as I did before. Some days it feels like the work is never going to be finished. I’m just struggling to find the bravery I need to keep going as the fight drags on and on. All I have to do is look at today’s headlines about President Biden signing the Marriage Equality Act as the government rushes to keep legalized marriage equality sort of intact. How fragile our successes can be.
I’m doing my best to find all the bravery, all the strength I have right now. There are a lot of fights left. Endless fights. And all the emotions that go with them.
Hannukah: Just Keep a Little Light Burning
Some twenty five years ago, when I was working for a youth agency in New York, I was asked at the last minute to attend ceremony where they were going to light the town Christmas tree and the town menorah. Oh, and could I also please give a little speech about Hannukah.
I sat down at the computer and hastily scribbled down something. About how we all have the power to create light in the world, just as the candles do at this time of year. I talked about how we use the shamash, the helper candle, to light the other candles in our menorah. And how each of us has the power to light the way for others. And to use our light to inspire others to take action about things they care about. I still believe in all of that. I’ve never stopped.
This time of year isn’t just a time when candles light things up. It’s also a time when we reflect on the year that’s passed and the year ahead. I’ve been very good about listening to the words about not completing the work and not abandoning the work. Maybe 2023 needs to be the year I also remember the part that says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” and not just the part about “If I am only for myself, who am I?”
If you’ve enjoyed the work you’ve read this year from any of our 2 Rules of Writing contributors, please join us on Saturday, December 17, 2022 at 11 AM EST for a live reading on Zoom. Email us at [email protected] for more information or the Zoom link.