Last month LGBT Americans observed National Coming Out Day, which serves as a call to be out and proud and a recognition that showcasing your identity is an empowering act that can also help change anti-LGBT attitudes. But one’s religious beliefs can sometimes complicate coming out. The Advocate has interviewed people from a variety of faiths about how their religion affected their coming-out and vice versa. In the third in this series, we speak to a lesbian rabbi.
Like most LGBT people, Rabbi Denise Eger has come out more than once — to herself, friends, family, and so on. But her most public coming-out happened at a key moment in her faith community.
It was 1990, and the governing body of Reform Judaism, the most liberal of the faith’s three major branches, was voting on whether to ordain lesbian, gay, and bisexual rabbis. Eger, then serving the largely gay Beth Chayim Chadashim congregation in Los Angeles, decided it was time to come out publicly as a lesbian.
“I came out in advance of that vote to kind of humanize the issue,” says Eger, who had been closeted, as far as the religious hierarchy was concerned, when she was ordained a few years earlier. She gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times, and the story was picked up nationally.
She had been counseled against coming out, and some people were shocked by her disclosure, but her congregation was proud, she recalls. And the governing body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, did indeed vote to ordain qualified aspirants as rabbis regardless of sexual orientation. (The Reform movement went on to ordain its first openly transgender rabbis in the 2000s.) Reform Judaism, Eger notes, had long welcomed LGB members and supported their civil rights, but hadn’t been ready until that vote to accept them as leaders.
But Eger couldn’t imagine herself not coming out. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice [other than] to live in integrity,” she says. “I felt I had to live authentically as who I was.”
For her, it was a culmination of coming-out experiences. “We’re always coming out in some ways,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a process that happens just once.”
Eger came out to herself when she was 12 years old. “I knew that I was different,” she says. “I knew that I liked girls, not boys.” She found information about lesbians in a book, and it was like a light went on, she recalls. “I knew early on who I was,” she says.
But this was the late 1960s–early 1970s in Memphis, Tenn., “a city that has more churches than gas stations,” Eger notes. “It was not a safe place.” So Eger remained closeted through her school years in the largely conservative Christian city, even dating a boy who happened to be gay too. She moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, where she began to be more open. She came out to her parents during college, and they, also Reform Jews, were very supportive of her.
After finishing her undergraduate studies at USC in 1982, Eger, who had long felt called to be a rabbi, went to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She received her master’s degree in religion there in 1985 and was ordained at the school’s New York campus in 1988. Reform Judaism had been ordaining women rabbis since 1972.
After four years as Beth Chayim Chadashim’s first full-time rabbi, she became the founding rabbi of L.A.’s Congregation Kol Ami, which is also largely LGBT, and she has been at the synagogue for 26 years. In the 1990s, being one of just a handful of openly gay clergy members was “both a burden and an honor,” she notes.
It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and she spent a lot of time visiting hospitals and conducting funeral services. She also got arrested at a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting while protesting a lack of funding for AIDS services. “We did a lot of activism in those days,” Eger recalls, often with such fellow out clergy as Rev. Nancy Wilson of the Metropolitan Community Church and Rev. Malcolm Boyd of the Episcopal Church.
In succeeding years, Eger has been involved in the fights against anti–marriage equality ballot measures in California (Proposition 22 and Proposition 8), been instrumental in persuading the Reform movement to approve same-sex unions and coauthored the movement’s official same-sex wedding liturgy, and officiated Los Angeles County’s first legally recognized same-sex wedding in 2008. She was the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi to serve as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the first woman or gay/lesbian president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. She has received numerous awards for her work. Now 57, she is married to Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, director of religious education at Temple Beth Hillel in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, and mother of a 23-year-old son.
While times have changed and there has been progress in both religion and civil life (along with rollbacks), the need for accepting faith communities remains, Eger says. She understands if LGBT people want to try changing their religious group from within, she says, but she wants them to know there are plenty of accepting faiths. “We don’t have to sit and get bullied by the Bible,” she says.
“In the Jewish religion, being gay is not really a sin,” she adds. Even though some conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews cite the antigay passages from the book of Leviticus, “the Bible says much more about violating the laws of the Sabbath,” Eger says. Those who focus on the antigay language “are really ignorant of what the Bible teaches,” she says.
She also encourages those coming out to find support in both secular LGBT groups and accepting faith organizations. Coming out is important, she says, and Harvey Milk’s advice on coming out to destroy the misconceptions about LGBT people still matters. She’s never regretted coming out, she says.
“I’ve been blessed to say LGBT lives matter,” she says. “Coming out is that first step.”