May 11, 2006
‘Wagging’: My Story as Gay Jewish Male
A couple of years ago, I heard about an oral history project for older gay men and women that resulted in a staged play. I didn't see it, but when Bob Baker, the adapter-director, sent out the call for a new cast, I signed up.
We listened to each other's stories, wrote up the most telling ones and turned remembered conversations into dialogue. After nine months, out came a play.
Everyone's life is a book, a saga of depth, dreams, passion. The art is all in the telling. This is our story.
We performed "Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation" to three sold-out houses one weekend in February at Highways Performance Space. And we're about to perform the show again.
Stonewall, for those not up on queer history, was the bar in Greenwich Village where, in 1969, drag queens and minority gay patrons revolted against yet another police raid and said, "enough!" From sexual liberation to AIDS to gay politics and so on, no other generation of gays or lesbians has quite the same perspective that we do.
Here are some of my stories:
When I became the director of the Workmen's Circle in Southern California in 1995, we opened A Shenere Velt Gallery, which is now celebrating 10 years of Jewish and socially conscious art. A show I mounted in early 1996, while still in my six-month probation, presented photographs by Albert Winn, a gay man seriously ill with AIDS.
None of us knew whether Al would survive until the opening. But I considered it the special mitzvah (praiseworthy deed) I was uniquely positioned to provide. I was willing, in fact, to put my job on this line.
Older members might inform our board that they could not approve of Al's photo studies of pill bottles in the form of a menorah. But no one complained.
Even better, that spring, the new AIDS treatments came in and saved his life. He's a thriving artist today. I believe that his resilience to hold out for his "last show" kept him alive until that Shehecheyanu (blessing that thanks God for a long life) moment.
Here's another: Our youth branch here in Los Angeles was the first in The Workmen's Circle to endorse same-gender marriage. There were some who felt this was not an appropriate issue for us, but within a couple of years, it had become our national policy.
Like society in general, Judaism has always responded to changing times. We always need to hear the voice of the "outsider," the "stranger" and the "other" to advance our sense of righteousness in the world.
Coming out is an ongoing process. As new people come into your life, it matters or it doesn't that you're gay, and you have to determine their need to know. At first, my 70- and 80-something doyennes of Yiddish socialism had daughters to fix me up with, but after a few months, that stopped. Funny, though, they never mentioned their gay son or nephew.
The story of my life as a gay man also is a Jewish tale. Today, in the bloom of our GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender) movement, we have rabbis and others who hold leadership positions in myriad Jewish communal organizations, who reveal new paradigms of Jewish life. Our homosexuality is simply one more aspect of life to factor in.
With others, it might be their left-handedness, their disability, their shyness, their aptitude, their love for a non-Jew, their political orientation, their crisis of faith. Being gay is qualitatively different, however, because social pressure causes boys and girls, young men and women, to turn against themselves.
What comes up in our play so insistently is that for kids who are genetically wired to turn out gay -- and a certain percentage always are -- the signs are there early on. Removing shame and disgust from the social equation will make those kids, and all of us, a whole lot happier.
When my sexual thoughts and urgings started, I took note. A few early relationships with women ultimately gave way to the openly gay person I am now, since coming out definitively in 1971. My gayness exerts no less active a presence in my life than the next guy's heterosexuality, with all his attendant affairs, relationships, marriages, children, divorces, alimonies, moves.
For me, gay liberation came more easily than for some. From my teen years on, I had already defined myself in opposition to the establishment -- opposition to Christian hegemony, to banal popular culture, to racism, to war, to imperialism.
Gay oppression was another thing to protest. It became almost a habit. That also partly explains why I felt drawn more to Yiddish than to Hebrew.
Homosexuality is never really a private matter, as some of our liberal and tolerant friends demand. How can it be? The social structures and prejudices that continue to bring misery, depression and worse to our queer sisters and brothers must be changed as part of the work of tikkun olam (healing the world).
I think my gayness has been an asset to my work. I give my time -- evenings, weekends, holidays -- in ways that I simply would not be able to if I had a family. I love my work, and I know it needs my full dedication.
But mine is a very special marriage of personality to career. I am not suggesting that gay people can therefore be loaded down with extra work assignments.
One Sunday, as I drove to work for an afternoon program, I had this epiphany. Asking myself, "Why am I doing this? No weekends, little time to myself? No fun?" I suddenly realized that being director of the Workmen's Circle right here, right now, is who I am in this life. It's what I do. It's my contribution to the world.
People say the best way to meet someone is just by going about your business, and if it's beshert (ordained), they'll turn up. I'm not big on bars and drinking, anyway. So this guy attended a gallery opening recently, and ...well, another meise (tale), another time.
That's part of my story. Come see our show to hear more. Just as importantly, listen to the voices around you.
"Wagging Tales: Stories From the Stonewall Generation" will be performed on May 13 at 8:30 p.m, May 14 at 2:30 p.m. (followed by a meet the cast), May 19 and May 20 at 8:30 p.m. at The Workmen's Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. $10-$12.