This interview was conducted as part of the interview series LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
Similar to what it means to be queer, what it means to be Jewish is dramatically changing. TV writer and comedian H. Alan Scott has a new documentary, Latter Day Jew, that captures this change as Scott, a former Mormon, converts to Judaism, prepares for their bar mitzvah, and tries to figure out exactly what being Jewish looks like for them on a personal level. On this week's episode of the LGBTQ&A podcast, H. Alan Scott talks about surviving cancer, why they're uncomfortable with how gendered Judaism is, and how that gendering is something that will hopefully fade away.
Jeffrey Masters: What was it about getting cancer and going through chemotherapy that made decide to convert to Judaism?
H. Alan Scott: People want to say, Oh you got cancer, you were scared of dying, you converted to Judaism. That's the natural connection that people make, and it is the case for some people.
For me, it was more that I finally had some time on my hands. Jews make you work. Even Reform Jews make you work to become a Jew.
JM: Work how?
HAS: Reform is a little bit chiller, but you still have to take a class and you have to attend so many different things. I was on disability and then I had a bit of a mental breakdown after chemo, so that gave me another year to chill.
So I had a lot of time to convert.
JM: How did getting cancer change you in ways that you can see today?
HAS: There's the good and the bad of it. The good is that for me, cancer's allowed me to say no to things which I'm really grateful for. Before cancer and chemo, I would be obsessed with staying skinny or I would be obsessed with fitting in a certain circle.
After chemo, I got so tired of all of that and I hated half the people I was friends with because they weren't friends. I hated everything I was doing. So I stopped. I focused on a very small circle of people in my life and I focused my work in less attention-grabbing ways. I wanted to do the things I wanted to do and it's worked. I make money. Not a lot.
JM: If that was the good, what was that bad?
HAS: The bad is that now there's the constant layer of fear, which I'm in therapy for, but now whenever there's a problem, I'm always very suspicious of what that problem is. Because after the chemo that I had, there's a 10-year window for leukemia. I'm always scared of, Is this chest pain this? Is this pain this? What is this?
I'm not afraid of dying at all, but there's a fear of not being able to do the things that I really love to do again, because I had to take three years off and that was hard for someone who's 30 and just got on a TV show. It got really hard.
JM: When I think about my Jewish upbringing, I think about Jewish people's connection to history and a big part of my own connection is because it’s my literal blood ancestors. Similar to being LGBTQ, biological connections aren’t a requirement, right?
HAS: There is a sense, I think, for a lot of Jews by choice — I don't necessarily like that phrase, but it is the phrase people use. There is a sense of being a fraud, that you'll never be taken authentically as a Jew. I've experienced that. There's Orthodox or Hasidic Jews that love to be very vocal and loud about not liking me.
One of the things I think that is hard for Judaism is that people are leaving religion. I think in a weird way, my role as a Jew is to communicate about my experience as a Jew in order to continue the conversation about pushing back the boundaries of what we think of as Judaism and understanding that it is a people and a spirituality.
It isn't necessarily an organized religion in the sense that you go to one place and that's what you do and then you leave. You are authentically Jewish at all times and Shabbat can mean a lot of things. It doesn't just necessarily have to mean at a temple.
I think by having that conversation, the best way to be of use is by using my voice and continuing to tell my story. That's how I fit into the Jewish timeline, and I am very happy with that.
JM: Judaism is very gendered. On the cover of the poster for your documentary, it says, “It's Time To Become A Man”.
HAS: I hate that. I had no doing in that. I understand the need to market it. I get it. I get the Hollywood machine behind it.
I have grown in recent years really uncomfortable with gender norms in general and gender labels, and I personally am not strict about using they/them pronouns, but I prefer that most of the time.
Being labeled a man is really toxic, and that's an area of the film that we couldn't really get into because it took away from the story. It wasn't my idea to do this film. This woman who was producing the show I was working on read my stuff and she's also Jewish and she thought it would be a great story to tell because I was planning to have a low key bar mitzvah. But then she was like, "Well, why don't we blow it up and do it in fashion?" I said, "Yeah, only if we can tell a larger story about what it means to be a Jew right now."
JM: And how what it means is quickly changing.
HAS: Yeah, exactly. I strictly wanted it to be that. I didn't want it to be just about me getting ready for a bar mitzvah. I needed to tell a larger story about what it means to be queer, what it means to be a queer Jew, what it means to find yourself in a different age and not necessarily do what you're expected to do.
JM: Just a few weeks ago, you tweeted about using they/them pronouns.
HAS: I never really said it publicly. I mean, in my life, that's just how I live.
JM: How recent of a change is this?
HAS: It's been in the past few years that I have grown uncomfortable with the level of toxic male energy that exists both in this industry that I work in, but also just in society and on the internet in general. I think masculinity influences a lot of the hate on the internet.
I don't subscribe to it. I would confess that I think I'm male-presenting, in my own way. I mean, I still have nails, but I don't want to try to co-opt the experience of an authentically trans person or someone who is gender nonbinary because I don't think anyone walking down the street is going to see me as anything other than stereotypically male.
That said, I think as a political statement and as an outlook for the future that I want to see and is possible, if we get rid of the gender roles in the way that they exist now and understand that gender can be a little bit fluid, that we'd be a lot happier and nicer to each other. That's why I want they/them.
JM: Do you identify as nonbinary?
HAS: I only want to use H. Alan Scott or Sadie Pines. That's my gender. That's who I am, and I've always felt that words like gender nonbinary or even pronouns like they/them are there to make other people feel comfortable with how they talk about me.
I'll push back if I am uncomfortable with how you're describing me or talking about me, if I feel it's necessary. But I don't like any of the words. I just want to be me.
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