August 19, 2010
Checking Boxes and Changing Institutions
In general, I’ve been fortunate to find Jewish spaces to be affirming of my sexual orientation. Perhaps this is a result of self-selecting to only participate in communities that are already affirming, but whatever it is, I’m pretty thankful for it.
I recently moved to Chicago, and as a way to start my engagement with the Jewish community, I went to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. I signed up for lots of email lists, including the Young Women’s group and the volunteer list. I purposely avoided the Young Adult group, because I’ve found these settings to be meat markets – let’s find you a Jewish spouse – at particularly heteronormative. (Not sure what that means? Look it up here.) Given that I’m already in a relationship – albeit with a non-Jew – I’m not interested.
Apparently as part of the “coding” process at the Federation, participants’ demographic information is recorded, including marital status. Now, as a reminder, in Illinois, much like in 45 other states, same-sex couples cannot legally marry.
The person with whom I was emailing asked, “Are you single or married?”
Well, hmm. First, I’m in a committed relationship of three years. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself single, but we’re taking lots of baby steps toward marriage. We just moved in together, so I wouldn’t consider us married. And, of course, we can’t be legally married in Illinois.
So, I simply stated, “Well, I’m in a committed, long-term relationship, so neither of those categories really work for me.”
The person responded, “Okay, for coding purposes, I’ll list you as single.”
I was shocked. I could not have been the first person to not easily fit into the single/married dichotomy. As data would show, there are lots of us in between – dating, cohabiters, domestic partners, civil unioners (??), etc.
And, mind you, I hadn’t disclosed that my person, with whom I’m in this committed, long-term relationship, is a woman.
After some ranting on Facebook and gathering the support of my friends, I wrote a calm, but firm email to the Federation. Families come in all shapes and sizes – some of us can’t legally marry, while some of us choose not to. Our families should be respected just the same. And, is a single/married classification so utterly important to the work of the Federation?
From my work with an incredible organization called Keshet, I knew that changes in forms were low-hanging fruit in terms of ways for Jewish organizations to be more welcoming of LGBT people and families, but also lots of people who don’t fit into the standard boxes - Jews by choice, Jews of color. So, maybe my email would help the Federation here in Chicago become more welcoming.
And, it turns out that this attempt to “code” me as a participant, I helped changed the Federation.
I was pleased to receive a very apologetic voicemail from the VP of Marketing at the Federation. She admitted that this was a change that, “frankly, we need to make” and that she appreciated my bringing it to their attention.
This may be a small change, but it is my hope that this single/married box and the conversation that we started may influence other forms – mother/father on children forms, male/female on the sex boxes. One can hope, right?