Joy Ladin: “Religious Communities and Leaders Need to Stop Seeing LGBT* People as Other, as Them, and Start Seeing Them as Us”

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Joy Ladin: “Religious Communities and Leaders Need to Stop Seeing LGBT* People as Other, as Them, and Start Seeing Them as Us”

Yeshiva University English professor and poet on how to do the hard, holy work of inclusion by knowing the soul of the stranger

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Aug 11, 2020

This blog is part of a series for the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum’s program on LGBT* and Faith. Read more here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/LGBT/blog 

To fully promote the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT* people, religious communities and leaders need to stop seeing LGBT people as other, as them, and start seeing them as us. 

I don’t mean that leaders and communities should ignore, or pretend not to notice, ways in which LGBT people are different. Because I teach at an Orthodox Jewish college in New York City where it is uncomfortable even to say “LGBT,” I know that such responses, however well-meaning, never lead to inclusion. They imply that LGBT identities are in some way unspeakable, shameful, or wrong, that LGBT people will be tolerated by the community only as long as they don’t talk about their lives and struggles, that they shouldn’t expect anyone in the community to value or be interested in them. In short, these responses institutionalize the sense that however long they are members (I’ve taught at my school for 16 years), LGBT will always be seen as them.

But how can we simultaneously recognize others’ differences, and also see those people as us rather than them?

This is not an LGBT-specific question; it is a question for all of us. There are innumerable ways of being human, and I, like everyone I know, find some of them as uncomfortably or incomprehensibly different as others may find my transgender identity. 

Fortunately, religious leaders and communities, even the most traditional, pious, homogenous, gender- and hetero-normative, already know how to see those who are different as us rather than them. For example, most communities include – consider us – people of all ages, from newborns to the elderly. The differences between infants and elders, and the communal work required to include them, are far greater than differences between LGBT and non-LGBT people. 

Most religious communities don’t just tolerate wide differences in age: we value and delight in them. When children, or elders, or teens, are no longer there, we miss their voices, their laughter, their insights into ancient texts and traditions, the ways they greet us and say goodbye, the strengths they summon forth from us, the ways they teach us and remind us what it means to be human. 

That is what inclusion means: it means our communities feel incomplete when those we see as different in certain ways aren’t there. 

But age is a familiar form of difference. What about people who are different in ways that we don’t know or understand, which is how many religious communities see LGBT people? How can we see people who are human in ways we find unfamiliar or uncomfortable as us rather than them?

When I was a child, I grew up believing that my sense that I was female despite being born and raised male made me different in ways others could never accept or understand. Like many LGBT kids today, I lived in hiding, certain that if they knew who I really was, my parents, friends, and community would go from seeing me as one of us to seeing me as them – a stranger they didn’t want around, who they could never love. 

The only one who knew and accepted and loved me was God. God knew – God had made me – who I was, and still God listened, loved, never went away. 

I even felt a kinship with God. Both of us lived among and loved human beings who couldn’t understand us, because neither of us fit the categories people use to identify and make sense of one another. Because we both were strangers to the human world, I never doubted that God belonged to me, and I belonged to God.

As a child, I thought God and I were the only strangers, the only ones too different to belong. Now I know that no one feels completely seen or understood or fits the roles and identities we are assigned. We all know how it feels to be different, to feel like, to be seen as, strangers. 

Human beings tend to avoid and repress these feelings, but the God who speaks in the Hebrew Bible insists that we actively remember them, make them central to our sense of who we are and how we relate to others. Over and over, God reminds the Israelites that their community and relationship with God is based on their shared experience of being strangers in the land of Egypt, even introducing the Ten Commandments by saying, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). Over and over, God commands the Israelites that when they deal with others in their community they see as strangers, as them, they must remember that they know the soul of the stranger. 

In these passages, God reminds us that the experience of feeling like them is something we all have in common, that it can and should be the basis for our relations with God and with one another. 

This spiritual discipline – remembering that we know, and have, the soul of the stranger – is the answer to how we can embrace those we see as fundamentally different as us rather than them. If we want to fully include LGBT people and others who seem like strangers, we have to make this spiritual discipline foundational to our communities, as God did with Israelite community. When we do, we have truly begun the hard, holy work of inclusion.

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"I chose this image, George Segal's sculpture "Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael," both for this blog post and for the cover of my book, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, because to me it dramatizes how intimately and inescapably the experience of being seen as them is to Biblical tradition and to being human. Abraham's farewell permanently estranged Ishmael and his descendants from the children of Israel; the women, Ishmael's mother Hagar and Abraham's wife Sarah, are relegated to the margins, estranged from one another even before this parting. To me, this is a family portrait of the soul of the stranger." - Joy Ladin

Joy Ladin is an American poet and the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, New York, NY, USA. She is the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution.

As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.