By Erika Grumet
“That’s why her hair is so big. Because it’s full of secrets.”
-Damian, Mean GIrls
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
A hundred and fifty-ish years apart, and we queers are still talking about secrets and contradictions and the things that we’re hiding…
The story I really want to tell for my Big Think is not the story I’m going to tell. I can’t tell the story I really want to tell because it’s not only my story, and the center of the story involves two other people who are not ready to share the story yet. And because it is my story but not my story alone, I will keep that story to myself until and unless they allow it to be shared. This is not that story, but it’s a sort of origin story for the story I really want to tell.
Six years ago, my father died. His death was sudden and shocking. Although he’d been sick with progressive supranuclear palsy for a few years, the doctors had helped him to stabilize his condition. I was watching an episode of Saturday Night Live when I got the call from my mother telling me that they had been watching TV, and he’d decided he was tired and wanted to go to bed. She had work to finish, (and she’d always been more of a night person than he had anyway), so he began to make his way upstairs, but about halfway up, he fell, collapsing at the bottom of the stairs, momentarily conscious before succumbing to a massive head injury. Within eight hours, I was prepped, packed, and on an airplane to New York. In keeping with Jewish tradition, my father was buried as soon as we possibly could, and we sat shiva at the home I grew up in. And, as is traditional, my father was buried with a tallis with the tzitzit (fringes) removed. This meant deciding of course, what to do about a tallis? Do we bury him in the one he’d been given when he turned thirteen at his Bar Mitzvah? Do we bury him in the gigantic one that had been brought for him as a gift from Israel? Or do we hold on to those as family heirlooms and purchase an inexpensive, simple one through the funeral home? My father and I didn’t see eye to eye on all things religious, but, of his children, I definitely had the closest ties with him, and deepest conversations, and my family looked to me for leadership on the religious matters. Had he been aware, he’d have struggled with the idea of a daughter, or any woman, making those decisions for him when he had sons who, in his mind, should have been doing it. I like to think he would simultaneously have been relieved or comforted at the idea that at least one of his children knew enough to make the decisions according to his preferences and beliefs. (My father had a complicated relationship with feminism… when they tried to push my sister to teach math instead of going into engineering, Dad was right there insisting that she have those opportunities… but when it came to religion, he had a much harder time accepting women in certain roles… he also struggled greatly with having female bosses.) So Dad was buried with a new tallis, and I returned home with his big, giant, Israeli tallis, which I left in its bag, in my closet, for months and months.
I didn’t grow up wearing a tallis in the synagogue. Women didn’t wear yarmulkes either when I was growing up. If they covered their heads, they either wore hats or pinned on these little lace doily-things that were in a basket next to the yarmulkes. There were clear divisions between what was for men and what was for women, even without the formal divisions like a mechitza, or separate women’s section. In fact, until college, most of my Jewish experiences were entirely egalitarian; there were a few exceptions… my Dad bought each of my brothers a tallis and tefillin when they turned 13, while my sisters and I didn’t have that experience; there was a synagogue where some of my friends (not my family–we went elsewhere,) went that would allow bat mitzvah services only on Friday evening or Saturday evening, but bar mitzvah services could also be held on Saturday morning. But most other things that I can recall weren’t divided by gender.
In spite of knowing that I’d never be quite enough for my Dad when it came to matters of religion, I still worked hard to meet his expectations and live up to his standards… and by the time I got to college, I was confused. I’d struggled all along with the idea of an omnipotent higher power who had that much control in the universe (there are things I didn’t figure out about this until I was in my 40s, and the key to figuring some of this out has been my friendship with a Presbyterian minister.) I couldn’t figure out what parts of my Jewishness were cultural, what parts were about belief or faith, what was important, what wasn’t. ”Jewish” was just a label I applied like a sticker to myself, like “New Yorker” or “redhead.” I spent my first year in college putting distance between myself and Jewish stuff, which helped me unlock the things and the ways that my Jewishness was important to me. I had Jewish friends, but mostly avoided affiliating myself with the Jewish community on campus… I think I happened upon a Hanukkah candle-lighting event one night, but that was about it. I didn’t tell my family about pushing my Jewish identity away… I just did it. I didn’t talk about it much with anyone, actually, I just did my thing. I needed that year off though; that year helped me see how that Jewish identity fit into my whole self as a person, was one piece of me, New Yorker, feminist, student; each piece part of the whole picture. When I returned to campus for the fall semester of my second year, I had a new perspective on how being Jewish fit into the whole picture I had of myself.
I’d figured out the Jewish part for the moment, but things still weren’t right–like when you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle and the last piece has gotten a little damp and is now swollen and peeling apart in layers, so it doesn’t quite fit into the last space of the puzzle. And I didn’t know who to talk to about it either. I was hardly ready to consider it myself, but as the easier questions were answered, the lack of answers for the harder questions was more and more noticeable. I couldn’t even figure out how to talk to my two closest companions about the biggest question–one, woman I met while performing Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the other, a roommate of a guy I dated my first year in college Certainly not people I should have been afraid to share my overwhelming question with…but I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t avoid it any longer though. Pieces of adult-me were becoming solidified, and whether I liked it or not, I needed to figure out what all the recrimination, avoidance, shame, self-doubt, and general self-hatred I directed at myself, along with the way I felt when I looked at (or kissed or danced the horizontal hora with) people whose gender matched my own. I’d been dancing that dance for three years… and had been watching from the sidelines a lot longer than that. I’d developed strong connections and friendships in queer communities–first as a peer educator about HIV, and then because of friends I’d made in college. I’d spent hours exploring on my own what I thought claiming queer identity might mean… read books and articles, watched movies and talk shows (I recall Donahue in particular airing episodes about bisexuality; in fact I’ve dated at least two people who appeared on one particular episode).
When you begin to put irregularly shaped stickers on a page though, first you have plenty of room. Each sticker can be seen in its entirety. After a while though, you begin to try and squeeze stickers in wherever they’ll fit…and eventually, they overlap, covering parts of others, intruding on the edges, and becoming a collage of images, words and colors. And that’s the place I was at with my own self. I suddenly found my labels were impossible to separate from each other. As I discovered more about myself, as I began owning my labels as an adult, those labels began exerting their influence on each other, swirling together to create something entirely unfamiliar and yet still mine. But how to bring this new idea in? It doesn’t just stack neatly on top. There’s not a simple way to splice it like when I’m knitting and need to add more yarn to my project. Feminism and my Jewish identity? That was easy. There are so many Jewish feminist role models. And we have Rosh Chodesh each month. I’d become one of the people who planned and led Rosh Chodesh programming and services. New Yorker and Jewish? People use “New Yorker” as code for “Jewish” sometimes when they don’t want to sound anti-Semitic. And the same was true for many other labels I’d apply to myself. But queer? I knew queer men, sure, and one or two were Jewish, but not women, not other girls. My Jewish life on campus and my queer involvement on campus were both known in student leadership circles, but they existed in mostly separate universes, just like my involvement with Rocky Horror Picture Show or the Student Activities Board, they all fell under “campus activities” but rarely intersected with each other unless it was at something like a leadership training for executive board members for student clubs.
The hours I’d been spending at Hillel would turn out to be so important in helping me to figure things out. Hillel staff–not students, not interns–knew I was involved in both Jewish and queer activities on campus. Somehow, the rabbi passed a copy of the book Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish to me, and suggested I might like it. (It was the 90s. Just including “Lesbian” was progressive at the time.) Someone else got me involved in the collection of information about various synagogues that were welcoming to students and I ended up visiting several that were in walking distance to campus…but one that I was asked to go visit happened to be the local queer synagogue. And this is where I first saw women doing things that were traditionally “for men” like wearing a tallis. I tried it out in this space, learning the blessing for putting one on, learning how to gather the four corners with their fringes and make sure they were carefully placed–left and right in front, left and right in back. I read Torah for the first time in years, with more confidence than I’d felt ever before. I felt safe and comfortable, wrapped in the borrowed fabric… but I knew my father would never be okay with it, and nor would my mother. This probably should have been an indication that coming out to them would be a disaster (and it was, too.)
I don’t know if I was telegraphing a message that I was struggling with big questions, or if those helpful things happened because I had my feet in both the Jewish world and and queer world. I do know that I wasn’t telling anyone, wasn’t talking to anyone about what I was trying to figure out. What was I? What label actually fit? “Lesbian” definitely didn’t feel right. “Bisexual” kind of worked, but was that a real thing for women, and not just something in porn films or done for the interest and pleasure of men? (It existed, in my head, for men; my work in HIV and a couple of celebrities–David Bowie, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, who were or had previously been labeled bisexual at the time ensured that.) All around me were messages about bisexuality that made it seem fake, either it was something women did because guys liked it, or it was just something women did on the way to becoming lesbians. Neither of those ideas worked for me, but the idea that you could “embrace the ‘and’” did. I didn’t know any bisexual adults at the time, and wouldn’t meet any for a while, but I had finally found a sort of comfortable space. In between. In the middle. Like the overlapping part of a Venn diagram.
I say “sort of comfortable” because the label “bisexual” can be complicated; most people have a hard time with the idea that people stay in that “either/or” space–it goes against our nature as humans; to try and conserve our thinking energy, we prefer to simplify things as much as we can. Duality confounds us. It was complicated because I knew gay men, I knew lesbians, but no one in my “real life” was bi… and in exploring queer identity I had grown in my understanding of the expansive nature of gender, too. Within the bi communities I had checked out online, there was a lot of debate too, about the label…was “bisexual” exlusionary because of how it treated gender as binary and not a spectrum…a lot of talk about pansexual vs bisexual, and a lot of talk also about how “gay” or “lesbian” made it sound like people were more than just the sex part of “homosexual” but there was no comparable way to express that one might be interested in both/and, rather than either/or. It was the early 90s, and, as a young person who had grown up in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, where so much hate and anger had been directed towards the LGBTQ+ community, it was starting to feel like things might change a little. Hawaii was talking about legislating marriage equality. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had begun. Cracks in the mask of anti-LGBTQ+ hate were showing. Using the label “queer” to describe myself felt a little transgressive, a little angry, but it also helped me to acknowledge, and to share with others that sharing that part of myself was about more than just who I wanted to kiss, it was about being able to live an open, out and authentic life no matter who my partner might or might not be. The label I prefer for myself is queer (often “queer as a football bat,” which you’ve heard me say on part I of our podcast episode about queerness and allyship.)
I came out to friends, and, bit by bit, to a few family members, and finally, and disastrously, to my mother (there was screaming and yelling and a lot of other stuff…and nearly three decades later, I can’t say things have changed.) Most importantly though, I learned about my wholeness; that I am this and that, and I cannot be this without that. I have to be all of me. Parts may appear brighter or more in view in some places or with some people, but being me is additive, not compartmentalized. Even if someone doesn’t know I’m Jewish or queer, or a parent or any of the other labels I wear, those labels all influence me, they shape how I move through the world and every part of my experience. My queer identity and my Jewish identity, my gender and the complicated feelings that go along with it, my feminist identity; each one is intricately knotted together in a macreme pattern with others, lifting up or holding back different pieces depending on what needs to be seen.
I am now in my forties, and chronic illness has left me disabled. It’s not easy to find that you’re increasingly reliant on other people to do things you feel like you should be doing on your own, to find yourself struggling to be independent and or to find that you are less and less able to do things you love or that brought you comfort and joy, especially when your children are reaching an age where you’re more able to do those things. But that’s what happened to me. Being disabled adds another layer of complications to everything. There’s pragmatic stuff like getting around, going to places; there’s learning how to navigate obstacles like what happens when you’re using a wheelchair and the curb-cut or sidewalk is blocked. How do I respond to the fact that it seems like when I decide to use my wheelchair, I become stupid, invisible or both to people around me–sometimes even people who I’m acquainted with, like at a doctor’s office or favorite restaurant. How do you explain to people that using a wheelchair doesn’t mean I can’t walk at all, but perhaps it means that my hands aren’t doing well enough to grip my cane or walker that day, or that my balance is not stable enough that day and the chair is safer? What do you say to someone who treats you like a piece of furniture when you’re in the chair; I’ve had people who need to get by me when I’m in my chair say “Excuse me,” and then move me as if I were a table or ottoman. The chair is an extension of my body. It enables me to do more things, safely, comfortably and with less pain. There’s so much more, too.
I can’t be not-disabled now anymore than I can be not-queer. But by having had to confront my own queer identity, when it became clear that “disabled” was going to be a new label I was going to have to take on, I had to go through an expected process of confusion, grief and acceptance…but I knew how to do that. I’d confronted all kinds of feelings and learned how to see a new picture of who I was when I’d come out of the closet as queer 25 years prior. And I learned how to incorporate that new label into my whole experience in the world. And, I also knew how to speak up when I needed to, to be able to say “If you put the trashcan there, a wheelchair user can’t get into the bathroom without crashing into your trashcan.” Because of the experience I had learning to be a queer person, I knew how to learn how to be a disabled person, and to incorporate that into being me. I was able to speak with (some) authority as a disabled person…and that empowered me to call out some uncomfortable language-use recently. That completeness (though temporary, because we are all, of course, changing always) wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone through the experience of uncovering what it meant to me to be Jewish, of coming out as a queer person, and then synthesizing that disabled identity into the whole me.
Our “Big Think” this month was to reflect on Andrew’s statement,”I don’t have to wait for you to give me the key,” I realize that I am carrying the keys myself, although I may not always recognize them for what they are, or be able to find the right lock to match with the right key at times. Sometimes I need to seek out a little graphite from someone else to help fit the key in, but the keys are in my possession the whole time. It happens that one of the keys on my keyring happens to be rainbow colored.