I am grateful to the organizers of this program for asking me to participate. This issue of LGBTQ inclusion is one that essentially thrust itself into the center of my rabbinate over 20 years ago.
It began with a presentation at the Topeka, Kansas Area Clergy Association by the minister of the local Metropolitan Community Church. He had been our Temple organist and keyboardist already for some time, so I knew him well.
He was a Presbyterian minister who came to Topeka in order to transition to living as an openly gay man and clergy person. He spoke of the freedom and equanimity that he experienced when he acknowledged his true sexual orientation.
I would say that it was his story that most influenced me to truly open my ears to listen and my eyes to see what I, a heterosexual rabbi, needed to do to advocate for fellow human beings who needed support to be who they really are.
In 1991, the Westboro Baptist Church began its daily picketing of a local park and, eventually, religious congregations and businesses. Their horrifying picket signs spoke freely of what they saw as God's hatred against gays and lesbians and their allies. They believed that they, God's elect, needed to tell us all that, if we didn't change our ways, God's wrath would come down upon our country. They would stand on public sidewalks and in places where the law could not touch them, holding their signs and singing songs that ridiculed everyone for being reprobates and children of Sodom.
Coalitions began to organize to oppose the WBC appearances around town. I was part of those efforts even while my congregation had not yet been picketed.
That happened soon enough. 22 years ago, I received a call from someone in town about my last name being featured on a picket sign with the F-short A-G word right before it. My answer came out as biting sarcasm: "Gee, I wonder what my father will say, given that he gave me my last name. And my grandfather is probably turning over in his grave." Of course, I didn't mean a word of it.
And, of course, the caller was a member of the WBC, and my tongue-in-cheek words appeared on one of their church's FAX/FLIERS as if I had meant them seriously. The reason for my being picketed was that the state Holocaust commemoration which I had organized had mentioned that homosexuals were among the victims of the Nazis. They were singled out for their behavior that was seen as weak and non-conformist by the Nazis and anathema to the plan of creating a master race.
In March of 2000, my rabbinic organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, met for its annual convention in Greensboro, North Carolina. One issue we were considering was a resolution to permit rabbis, if they so chose, to perform religiously-based same gender ceremonies for couples that desired to formally unite their lives. 4 of my fellow Topekans, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, were present. Each of them attempted to engage my colleagues in harassing conversations. Ultimately, the resolution passed overwhelmingly.
The picket sign with my name on it appeared all over Topeka for 12 years, until I left in 2006. People told me it was a badge of honor. And it put me in a place where I knew I needed to be - an ally, an advocate, and a friend of the LGBTQ community.
One of my greatest joys was a moment in 2010 when I officiated at the wedding of two women whom I had come to know well. After their marriage, I had the privilege of filling out and signing an official New Hampshire state marriage license that I proudly mailed in to the authorities the next day.
I can't always control the positions and views of individual congregants or my co-religionists. I know, though, that I can control my views, and be welcoming on my own. So that is what I try to do.
We are all created in the divine image. We are all called upon to love our neighbors as ourselves. Those are two fundamental views of Judaism that, as far as many are concerned, are essential to how we should treat other people. That is the foundation on which I try to teach and to build my own approach to a beloved community