It’s the first night of Hannukah. I’m bathed in the light from the menorah as I write this. I think almost everyone is familiar with the story about the oil that lasted for eight nights when there was only enough to last for one day.
I’ve got my holiday music playlist on and my Hannukah decorations up. It’s a little way I get to assert my Jewish identity in a world of oppressive Christianity, which I’m feeling even more than usual this year as I recuperate in a Seventh Day Adventist hospital.
We’re Going to Party like it’s the Year of the Great Disappointment
I’m grateful to be here, certainly, but I’m also very aware of the way being Jewish makes me stand out. The number of times nurses and CNAs have talked about G-d with me and asked if I believe. The chaplains who come visit and talk about Bible study and offer to pray–and who have trouble finding a rabbi to talk to when I ask for one. And most of all Pastor Tom who wanders the hallways here and makes regular visits to my room. He’s the pastor of a local church, one that even if I weren’t Jewish would be totally wrong for me.
Today I even believably faked my way through a conversation about very serious things with someone who believes that my (Christian) faith is as deep as hers. I’m more upset at the fact that I was able to do it believably than I am at having faked my way through it.
Hannukah and Assimilation
In the middle of all of this Christmas stuff, I’m really trying to hold onto who I am. Who I truly am, not the version of me people think I am. I’ve always looked to the stories of big-deal women heroes like Judith. She seduced Holofernes with cheese (and probably also sex). She slinked her way into his good graces and his tent. And then cut off his head. There’s a lesson there. Even our greatest fighters sometimes have to disguise who they are. But my story is a lot more disguising who I am and a lot less decapitation of my political enemies. My story is about hiding myself enough to stay safe while still clinging powerfully to myself.
After all, in spite of the whole miracles story, isn’t the real story of Hannukah about resilience? About a small band of guerilla rebels standing up and defeating a much bigger, more powerful army? Isn’t it about how they were inspired to rebel against a king who was forcing them to assimilate? To give up their culture, their identity? And isn’t it about (re)dedication?
Staying True to Myself is the Lesson of Hannukah and the Lesson of My Life
There are a lot of lessons I’ve learned during my convalescence. One of them is about how important it is for me to be boldly myself wherever and whenever I can, to whatever degree I safely can be.
I thought I knew that already. I thought I was already doing that. Maybe I was.
Before landing in Florida, I’d bounced back and forth up and down the mid-Atlantic coast. Mostly I’d spent time in New York or in Washington DC. In New York, I was boldly, unapologetically Jewish. And as far as being queer, it was one of those things that I didn’t actually hide. No. It was one of those things that I chose to reveal or not, and to what degree, as with any kind. Coming out advice, whether it’s the advice I’d give myself or it comes from someone else, almost always warns you about making sure you’re safe when you do it.
But then Florida happened…
There were a lot of things that surprised me about living here. Especially when it came to being Jewish. A preschool teacher asking me if I had any Hannukah books they could borrow. Being asked if my kids could participate in Halloween. Parent-teacher conferences scheduled for the same night as the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Being assigned a letter to Santa as a first grade writing assignment. And when I called to explain that this wasn’t an appropriate assignment, my explanation about why this wasn’t an appropriate assignment was met with confusion and attempts to placate me as the parent who was making trouble.
All of that was bad, but in some ways it pales in comparison to how I felt when rumors got back to me that the parents in the scout troop I had been leading for a year and a half already wanted to get rid of me because they were afraid that I wouldn’t allow the troop to celebrate Christmas. (Not true, of course. I just wanted to include other stuff in our celebration.)
New Rule: Hospital Chaplains Should not be Trying to Convert Me
I’d never experienced a hospital–religious or secular–not asking about my religion when I checked in. Not until I went to the Adventist hospital here in Orlando for the first time. When the hospital chaplains came to visit, their understanding of Judaism ranged from needing me to explain very basic things about Judaism like “no, Jesus Christ has nothing to do with it,” to being able to carry on a very nice conversation with me and even pray a little while offering to contact a rabbi for me. Based on those experiences, I did not expect to find allies here. Sometimes though, allies are there but you don’t know it. And when you find them, it’s a pleasant surprise. I’ve found a few here.
Allyship among the CNAs
I spend a lot of time right now with the CNAs. They’re the ones that help with everything from getting something to drink to getting a shower to helping find out where your mail has gone. When you spend that much time together, with the good ones, you get to know each other a little.
There’s Maria, who I’m practicing my Spanish with. There’s Kim, my favorite night time CNA, who preemptively gets me set up with all the things I like at night: tea, a cup of ice water and a cup of ice that melts so I have ice water when I finish the first cup. And sometimes a little extra treat like a cup of ice cream or a Rice Krispie treat.
Little Connections go a Long Way
Then there’s Tianna, my favorite daytime CNA. I’ve learned about her family. We’ve talked about planning her daughter’s wedding. How she came to the US from Jamaica and lived in New York for a long time. How she worked for an Orthodox Jewish family in New York. I think I lit up when I learned that. It was such a relief to know that someone here might understand some of my frustration with simple things. She might not share that frustration, but she was someone who understood how much I hate the drop in visits from pastors who wander the hallways or how much I appreciate the absence of pork on the menu here.
You might hear these little gestures and not think of them as allyship, but I do. Because I’m not just my religion and I’m not just my sexuality. Though of course I am both of those things. The people who help me get through the day are allies. Period. But the people who will go out of their way just for your comfort are often the same people who will help you deal with the minority stress of being a Jewish person in a Christian hospital. Not always. Not guaranteed. But often.
Moishe’s Law: If there are Only Two Jews in a Place, they Automatically Become Friends
Tianna let Danielle, who was already one of my favorite daytime nurses know, too. She’s the only other person I’ve met here who is Jewish. She does her best to steer the pastors away from my room if she sees them. She recognizes the Yiddish words that are just part of my vocabulary, words I use without really thinking about it, and have to think about how to explain when people ask about them.
I’m not talking about next-level words like “zitzfleich” (the ability or patience to endure or persevere.) I mean basic words like saying “gesundheit,” after someone sneezes. When Danielle got her new puppy and wanted “a Jewish name” for her, I told her about dogs my parents had had named Tsuris (trouble) and Mazel (luck.) Last night she sent me a Happy Hannukah text message. And I sent back a photo of my menorah.
Light Unto the Nations
And speaking of that menorah…it’s an LED menorah which was sent to me by another ally. My friend Laura, who decided that I needed to be able to epically troll the pastor of a nearby church who visits me weekly to try and convince me to join his church. (See? I practice the value of not assimilating at least once a week!)
When Tianna helped me unpack and set up the menorah, we realized that in addition to the USB plug, it needed batteries. Yesterday, as I was trying to figure out how to get some, someone appeared at my door, wearing a green hoodie, and of course, a mask. I didn’t recognize her at first, until she came in and began messing with the menorah. Tianna had come in on her day off, when she was getting ready to leave for a vacation to bring me batteries so I could have light on the first night of Hannukah.
Just because I can Come Out to you as Jewish… Doesn’t Mean I can Come Out to you as Queer
I don’t think it’s hard to imagine how I felt about it. How much I struggled with words to adequately convey my gratitude. There was no reason to make a special trip here on a day off to do that. I certainly can’t return the favor. But she did that for me. As soon as she left, the tears began.
In spite of that, I’m still uncertain about the safety of coming out as queer to either Tianna or Danielle. It’s not a guarantee that someone who is one kind of an ally will be an ally in other ways. So to them, I stay closeted. I carefully choose my words, I do a lot of code switching.
Compromises with the Closet
I can’t bring myself to stay entirely, completely buried at the back of the wardrobe though. Some of the bracelets I wear could give clues that I’m queer if someone was paying attention. I suppose just like the rest of the hanky code, the rainbow bandanna I usually wear on my head is a way of flagging. And if you know, you know.
Sometimes allies recognize the rainbow for what it is. My way of signaling my own queerness and that it’s safe to be open with me. And other times they don’t realize it, but they open up anyway. I’ve met both here.
An Unexpected Ally
There’s Gideon. He’s the type that doesn’t get it. He’s also someone I never would have expected might be an ally. This place tends to hire their own–there are a lot of Seventh-Day Adventists on the staff here, and even more conservative Christian types. I wasn’t surprised when Gideon told me he’d been raised Mormon, even if he doesn’t practice anymore and has told me he goes to a different church now.
Gideon and I have talked about our families. We each have a kid around the same age. His sister has one of the same chronic health issues that I do. His mom also knits and crochets. We spend enough time together doing physical therapy that we need to talk about something other than what I’m frustrated that I can’t do. I noticed him using the word “partner” to describe his mother’s relationship. My ears pricked up, for sure. But he’s not someone I’d expect as an ally. That whole pesky Mormon thing led me to believe he wouldn’t be.
On the other hand, all of the people I know who use “partner” to describe non-queer, non-business relationships are all pretty liberal, which would conflict with what I’d expect from a Mormon. He spoke about his mother’s partner and used her name–a gender neutral name that gave me no hints about his mother. So when he finally said “My mom’s gay. I don’t know if you knew that, “ and said it as though he were checking to see how I felt about it. And I responded, probably with a little more sass than necessary, “I know. I kind of figured that out already.” He was incredulous. He looked confused and asked if “partner” had been a clue. “No,” I said. “I know a lot of people who use ‘partner’ and some of them are straight. You used gendered pronouns.”
I couldn’t tell much from his expression. The mask he was wearing made it so I couldn’t see the bottom half of his face. I think he was relieved to have said it and received a positive response. It mattered to him that he had a safe space to talk about what was going out at home.
You would think I’d have come out to him already, wouldn’t you? I haven’t. Some of it is nerves. No matter how many times I’ve come out to people in the almost thirty years I’ve been out, I’m still scared every time I do it. Knowing someone is an ally doesn’t make it easier. I don’t really know why, but my best guess is that it’s too easy for people to fall into the trap of “it’s okay as long as it’s those people. When it comes into my circle, it’s not okay anymore.”
When you Meet Someone and it Just Feels like Home
A week or so ago though, I suddenly found the other kind of ally. The one you’re almost certain from the beginning that it’s safe to share with and who will be totally okay with it. One of the night nurses I hadn’t met before came in at shift change as the nurses often do for medication or vital signs. He complimented my rainbow bandana. I wondered if he knew exactly what I was saying with it. I thanked him and let it be.
The next day, Tianna came in and as we were going through our routine I told her that my least favorite CNA had been in the night before. She’d already heard plenty of complaints about it from other residents. I continued, telling her that we’d had a nurse I hadn’t met before, Enrique and that I’d really liked him. “Is he gay,” she asked. Again, with a little more sass than necessary, I answered, “I don’t know. He didn’t tell me. I didn’t ask, either.”
A few nights later, he was back. I often ask for certain medications as I get ready to try and sleep. They’re not scheduled, so I have to call a nurse and wait for them to bring it. It’s usually late, after most people are asleep, when there’s not much going on, and so the nurses and CNAs will be sitting in the lounge charting together. Sometimes the nurses and CNAs are a little chatty with me late at night, too. Small talk about safe topics usually, like the weather. And Enrique and I began talking about the unusually cold weather expected here soon. The possibility of snow on Christmas has even been mentioned. Snow! In Florida! I think we had flurries once, about ten or fifteen years ago.
He’d never seen snow, he said, but he was hoping that he would see some when he traveled to Canada soon. I’ve spent a bit of time in Canada, so I asked where, and our conversation continued. Then: “my husband is the one who makes the plans.”
No doubt about it now. I don’t know which of us relaxed more. We talked more about the trip. About our families. We did the queer trauma bonding thing about coming out.
An Island of Authenticity in a Sea of Pretending
He sat down and we kept talking. No code switching. No obscuring details. I didn’t have to think about whether it was safe to use pronouns or keep track of where I’d switched things around or what details I left out. He showed me photos of his dogs. I showed him photos of my kids and of my cats. I didn’t have to hide anything and neither did he.
He’s back tonight. He stopped in to see me as soon as the shift change had actually happened. His husband is working on a different floor tonight, and he’s going to bring him around so I can meet him. It’s safe to be open about things. Because in spite of the fact that some of the CNAs have figured out that he’s queer (because he and his husband arrive and leave together, they often take breaks together, things that are in the maybe/maybe not territory) for whatever reason, he has determined that it’s not safe to be completely open. I can understand that.
It’s Less Safe than Ever to be Out in Florida
In spite of the Florida Commissioner on Human Rights following the Bostock v. Clayton County ruling and President Biden’s Executive Order Preventing and Combatting Discrimination on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, there are no actual laws in Florida protecting people from these things. No one should have to worry about losing a job or housing because of those things. And yet we’re in 2022 and people still have to worry about it.
We all need allies. I talk a lot about what was like for me to grow up without queer role models, but I’ve never really talked about how terrible the isolation is when you feel so alone. When you’re always watching your language, or trying not to appear to be “too much.” It was painful to go through that as a closeted kid. I was angry and sad and depressed. And the loneliness is unbelievable. The fear, though, is never ending.
Fear of Coming Out Started Early for Many of Us
When my high school guidance counselor indicated that she might have figured it out (by showing me a guide to colleges that included a section on the climate for “lesbian and gay students” on campus) I was horrified. I acted indignant to my friends, ranting for hours about how she was so totally wrong and I wasn’t like that and how dare she. (I wonder if any of them, by the third hour, started thinking: “‘the lady protests too much, methinks.”) It was the fear talking. I couldn’t bear the thought that someone might find out because of what I imagined might happen. Perhaps nothing would have. Perhaps it’s only because many years have passed that the high school friends who know that I’m queer don’t seem to have anything to say about it.
That fear doesn’t go away just because I’m grown. I’m still afraid of people finding out. I still need people who I just don’t have to explain some things to. I need people who I don’t have to explain why I can’t put cheese or anything dairy on the over-spiced chili that I made. (An actual conversation I had one night with Adam not too long before I got sick.) Who I don’t have to watch my language with or worry that I’m acting feminine enough and not too dykey. Who aren’t going to be uncomfortable when they come in and hear me talking to an ex-girlfriend about our relationship, ending the conversation with “I love you.”
The “Gay” Agenda is to be Safe. That’s it.
I need to feel safe–in my body, in my environment, in everything. I don’t feel that way right now. I’m afraid to rock the boat too much right now. To be too out. Too Jewish. Too much.
I shouldn’t have to carry the burden of knowing when to be less than honest about who I am. To be less than fully myself. Just like when I talk about being a rape survivor, I shouldn’t live with the expectation that I should soften things to make others comfortable. No one should.
This year in addition to just being alive, I’ve been given the gift of allies. Not just the allies themselves, but the reminder that they’re lurking everywhere, even when you don’t expect it. I’ve learned that I need to be better about being open to receiving that allyship when it’s given. And in return, you’ll get all of me.