Let’s face it: Many major religions have not been kind to the LGBT community. Most Christian denominations preach that same-sex relationships are sinful, and some — invoking the name of God — subject LGBT members to harmful conversion therapies. Some Muslim imams call homosexuality “one of the greatest of crimes” and recommend the death penalty for gays and lesbians. Orthodox Jewish sects prohibit homosexual conduct. Many of us in the LGBT community who may have felt a desire for spirituality have suppressed our potential beliefs because of the way organizations and institutions have chosen to treat us.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
On Monday, I had the incredible honor of being installed as the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. This conference — the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism, North America’s largest and oldest denomination — has a remarkable history at the forefront of advancing LGBT and human rights that includes a 1977 resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality and an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation. My installation coincides with the 25th anniversary of a CCAR resolution calling for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian Reform rabbis. I am proud of the conference’s progress, and proud to bring my experiences as a social justice advocate to this role.
Faith can inform our lives and our activism if we let it — and if our religious organizations are inclusive enough. When I was a rabbinic student in the mid-1980s, I advocated for the inclusion of LGBT individuals into the CCAR and rabbinic schools. Not yet able to be fully out, I wrote a then-anonymous letter to a committee member working on the issue of homosexuality and ordination, encouraging him to push for the full inclusion of LGBT people of faith in our community of spiritual leaders. I told him that the horrible policy of not ordaining openly gay or lesbian people was forcing me to live a lie, because I knew that I was called to serve God and the Jewish people. By the time I was ordained in 1988 in New York, I was in a funny position of being out but not open. Many knew — but many did not. I took a job in the only pulpit that would have me: an LGBT pulpit in Los Angeles. Every other job I interviewed for plainly told me they were not ready to hire a lesbian rabbi.
How blessed I was to have a supportive family. I had come out to my parents as an undergraduate. They were loving and welcoming. Most of my fellow classmates knew of my sexual orientation during seminary but respected the fact that we didn’t talk about it at school. My partner of those years and I lived in a borough far from where the other students lived and far from campus, so we didn’t socialize too much with others. It was lonely for us save for a few good friends. Even though we lived in New York City, which had a vibrant gay community and a gay synagogue, I remained far away from gay communal life because I was a rabbinic student attending a seminary that would not ordain openly LGBT people.
In 1990, two years after I was ordained and working as a rabbi in Los Angeles at an LGBT outreach synagogue, the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed its resolution calling for the open ordination of LGBT rabbis. I breathed a sigh of relief — as did many others. We have come so far in not only changing policy but also the culture of the Reform Movement of Judaism. In doing so, we have challenged other denominations to open their tents wider. In 2006, the Conservative movement of Judaism also opened its doors to LGBT candidates for the rabbinate. And even in some corners of the Open Orthodox movement there is progress and tolerance for LGBT individuals, if not acceptance.
There is still a lot of progress to be made on LGBT rights within Reform Judaism, but we’ve come a long way since I started out, and the CCAR is making even more strides to be inclusive. My installation as president is not just a tremendous honor for me personally, but a significant statement about the CCAR’s commitment to LGBT rights and inclusion. Additionally, our recently-updated High Holiday prayer book no longer refers to a husband and wife specifically, but to a gender-neutral couple. And the voices of LGBT members, women, and people with disabilities have been incorporated into the creation of the prayer book and the text itself.
We must do even more to be inclusive, to educate on issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender discrimination — and we will. Other religious organizations would do well to seek this same progress. Instead of casting out members of our community, religious organizations could benefit from the participation of LGBT individuals who can bring the wealth of their experience and knowledge to faith-based movements. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people of faith could find strength in these communities to accomplish tremendous things. And the power of these movements could do so much to advance LGBT rights and combat discrimination.
The CCAR has always taken the lead on major issues of social justice, often positions that are controversial for religious organizations in the United States. Our members have marched for civil rights in the 1960s, joined a federal lawsuit against North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban, and supported refugee children from Central America. The CCAR’s example and participation with these and many other issues including income inequality, reproductive justice and more, have helped lead to significant shifts in our society as a whole.
It’s time for all religious organizations to open the door — and the closet — to LGBT members. We have so much to offer and so much to gain.
DENISE L. EGER is an American Reform rabbi who has just become President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the Reform Judaism movement. She is the first openly gay person to hold that position. She is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.