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Gay vs. Jew

Gay vs. Jew

Zackrosenmain_4

COMMENTARY: My 2011 got off to an inauspicious start. I woke up after a great, raucous, lesbians-having-sex-in-my-bedroom-at-11:30 p.m. New Year's Party to find two unfortunate things. The first was that someone had stolen my wallet. The second was that a well-known D.C. culture blog, which has always prided itself on being a safe space for the homos, had posted a truly terrible comment to its own weekend preview. In response to a comment-field criticism of a blogger's journalistic skills (and let's face it, a blogger who can't stand criticism is like a lawyer who can't stand documents) one of the blog's straight contributors fired back with this:

"How about you take an AIDS class and die, you stupid whore."

I went on a quiet rampage, mumbling to myself about how anyone could think it was OK to say that, especially on a blog with a substantial and respected queer readership base. Said commenter went on to post some half-assed apologies, and I stayed angry for weeks. Not because it was purely a dumb thing to say, but because someone didn't think about the way that such a remark could hurt so many people.

Flash forward to last week. After an invigorating Royksopp concert at the 9:30 Club, I decided to extend my night by one more drink at a nearby dive. I was talking to a friend of a friend, who by every account seemed really cool. It turned out she had grown up near where I went to college and was familiar with many of the Ohio suburbs that I had been to, year after year, for track meets. I mentioned how there was one town that I found very charming except for the fact that its university had a square track. Not oval, not slightly oblong, but square. Her response?

"That's because it's Jewish!" (With a guttural emphasis on the final word, the way you'd scream "That's what she said" at a bar with your friends.)

The town was a sort of a Buckeye State equivalent of Skokie or Scarsdale, yes, but I didn't see how the number of menorahs in the surrounding windows affected a school's ability to confuse curves and right angles. Before this happened, I would've said that nothing could offend me as deeply as the "AIDS class" comment. Not because it was stupid or insensitive, but because it shows such a deep lack of awareness of the people around you and the basic tact most human beings employ to get themselves through public life. I'd gotten so focused on the prevalence of stupid gay-related comments in the world that I forgot that's not my only identity.

Without realizing it, my relationship to my own gay culture has mirrored that of my parents' slow descent into deep (if not quasi-militant) cultural Judaism. I used to chuckle at their near-paranoid level of commitment. They subscribed to the Forward (ne Forverts), peppered their conversations with Yiddish, compared every other ethnic group to the Jews ("Italians are just like the Jews," "The Irish are just like the Jews"), and, most tellingly, viewed every reported incident of anti-Semitism with a deep, dreadful gravity.

Take a step back, though, and look at me. I not only read the Blade, but I worked there. My everyday speech is littered with such foreign descriptors as "otter," "power bottom," and "indie twink." I can go on hour-long discourses on the ways that the alt kids, the dorks, and punks can sympathize with the gay experience no matter what their orientation. And my sensors for antigay speech are as finely honed as my dog's ear for a vacuum cleaner running two blocks away.

Nose, hair, and penis aside, I'd be hard-pressed to call myself a visible minority. My kind of intersectionality comes with much more privilege than most. In contemporary times, at least, and in this country, being Jewish is not a liablility. This wasn't the case for my parents. Born in the shadow of the Holocaust, at a time when casual anti-Semitism was as prevalent as poodle skirts, they had to build up defenses that last to this day.

And that's a good thing. I may live to see a world when gay folks can do whatever they want without persecution, but if that happens, it'll be my duty to remember how a small word or deed can herald larger iniquities down the road. Even when I was little and my sense of "gay" had more to do with a game of doctor than a march on the White House, I knew how frustrating it was for people to say ignorant things about being Jewish. While I never had anyone ask about my horns, I did have to deal with my invisibility come Christmas time or worse, people telling me not to worry about it becuase I already "had my Christmas." I had to deal with my college track captain saying my mom was "So-o-o proud" of my last race in an accent rivaling Barbra Streisand's in Meet the Fockers.

The difference then is that people knew I was Jewish but didn't know I was gay. I could excuse the homophobic remarks around me because the people saying them didn't know why they'd be offending me and because I didn't want to stick my neck out and risk exposure. Now that I'm openly both, I'm realizing how much I let one part my identity go while embracing the other one. I've tried to do some queer Jewish writing, but it doesn't always roll off the keyboard. The same way I let annoying gay jokes slide with my straight friends, I've started to let unnecessary Jewish comments slide with my gentile gay buddies.

I figured that gay folks have enough in common with me and my marginalia that I can let them slide on the occasional baffling, left-field Jewish joke. I'm among family, right? So I can let some slights on my other family slide. I've really been remembering later, though, that I am two things. I am gay and I am Jewish. The twain don't meet as often as I would like, but they're both there. My intersectional identity might not be as frustrating, othering, or prevalently excluding in my life as those of individuals of more visible or subjugated minorities, but it's something I'm aware of.

When I ran open-armed into gay culture, it was a great excuse to leave aspects of my old life aside. I broke with many of my straight acquaintances, ensuring that miserable nights out in Adams Morgan frat boy hell were a thing of the past. I told my family that I would no longer be attending each and every family event, cutting my annual trips to New York and Chicago down from about 13 to 4. Hell, I skipped Yom Kippur in 2008 to see a Hot Chip show.

But now that I'm secure enough in who I am fag-wise I've started reassamble those foundations. I see my family quite frequently now, attending brises and weddings with reckless abandon. My old straight friends are back in my life, and they serve to remind me of the other parts of life instead of tearing me screaming from night after night of man-on-man-on-whiskey debauchery. And I'm realizing just how much I miss being a Jew. Dipping apples into honey at home while I cuddle my boyfriend just isn't enough for me anymore. Short of getting recircumsised (which I'm picturing as a sort of medieval rabbinical torture), I think the best thing I can do is be just as out about being Jewish, and taking it just as seriously, as I am about being gay.

So back to the Ohio girl who made me uncomfortable. I stopped the conversation to shoot her a withering "Excuse me, what does that mean?" and kept her stammering with questions until she realized she'd made an ass of herself and until I was thoroughly sure that she'd think twice before saying something that stupid in public again. It felt good.
Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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