As we mark December 2019, the last month of an eventful year, I reflect on how much progress has been made by LGBTQ and HIV-positive people, together with their friends and allies. And, how much work still remains to be done. Unfortunately, there are still 30 states, including North Carolina, that do not have comprehensive laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces, and many people living with HIV experience anti-LGBTQ discrimination even more acutely.
I recently moved to North Carolina to be the Jewish chaplain at Temple Kol Tikvah of Lake Norman and the rabbinik professor at Davidson College. It feels meaningful to support the spiritual journeys of people here, including the LGBTQ community. I began my journey to become a lifelong ally of LGBTQ people in rabbinic school in 1983. I took a clinic pastoral class at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston. There I was assigned to a wing where most of the areas AIDS patients were being cared for. At first, the environment felt cold and unsettling, and a “hands off,” non-contact protocol was enforced. I listened to story after story of love and loss. I realized I needed to do more than personally affirm these patients in their time of need. I needed to educate others and get involved in advocacy.
It can be difficult to have conversations with people who do not yet understand the struggles of LGBTQ and HIV-positive people. My extended family panicked when they discovered that our local florist was gay and had recently contracted HIV — they believed, incorrectly, that the flowers could transmit the disease. I realized just how misinformed the average person was, how that led to discrimination based upon fear, not fact. When people believe misinformation about HIV, it can lead to people living with HIV being fired from their jobs, denied housing or kicked out of public spaces simply for being who they are. I began telling people that Judaism says to love your neighbor as you love yourself, and that everything we do as a people is based on that edict. So many of us ask where God is, and I tell everyone that God lives in your neighbor, and in all of us.
I served a temple in Milwaukee when I was invited to the historic unveiling of the AIDS Quilt on the Washington, D.C. Mall. The beauty, profound love, and unity these panels represented moved me beyond words. When I returned to my own temple, I knew we needed to duplicate the quilt locally. I placed ads and called upon folks from all over the Jewish community and beyond who knew or loved someone who died of AIDS to create a panel in their loved one’s memory. People came from all over to see it. It became an amazing healing experience for all. It allowed for people who had grieved in secret to open up and celebrate the lives of the ones they had lost.
Unfortunately, there’s still so much more we need to do to build awareness and support. First, the Supreme Court must affirm that all LGBTQ people should be protected from employment discrimination when it rules on three employments discrimination cases it heard in October. I, along with many other faith leaders, signed an amicus brief to the court as a faith leader, strongly supporting a ruling in favor of the LGBTQ plaintiffs.
But we cannot rest there; we need Congress to pass federal legislation like the Equality Act that provides protections for LGBTQ people more broadly — in the workplace, in housing and in public spaces. As we wait for Congress to act, states like North Carolina should lead the charge by passing a comprehensive, statewide nondiscrimination bill that ensures protections for LGBTQ North Carolinians. I’m ready and willing to raise my voice alongside LGBTQ people. I want to be as supportive as I can be in a state where LGBTQ people and people living with HIV face discrimination every day.
I’ll close with a passage I wrote for a recent pride Sabbath:
As an ally, I want to tell the LGBTQ community this: I stand with you. I will hold you steady when the hate becomes overbearing. I will be the shoulder to lean on when you cannot stand on your own. I will do my best to understand the things you go through. I will grieve with you when hate takes the life of someone in your community. I will welcome you with open arms where other people would turn you away. I am your ally, and together we will build a world based on love that is stronger than hate.