50 years after Stonewall: the British Jews who fight for LGBT rights
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50 years after Stonewall: the British Jews who fight for LGBT rights

'Jews, no matter from which strand, have always been at the forefront of the LGBT movement'

Jewish Rainbow flags at a Pride parade (Credit: Gilad Visotsky)
Jewish Rainbow flags at a Pride parade (Credit: Gilad Visotsky)

50 years ago, clashes between police and protesters outside a gay bar in  New York City’s Greenwich Village galvanised a generation, inspiring Pride parades around the world.

“I always felt proud of them, and that they were heroes and not victims,” LGBT campaigner Shaan Knan told Jewish News, referring to the patrons of the Stonewall Inn who helped spark the modern gay rights movement.

Across the pond, British Jewish activists championed LGBT rights from the 1960s and 70s to this day, right through the AIDS outbreak of the late 1980s. “During the AIDS crisis, a lot of Jews stepped up and have been taking care of people who were in a bad situation. Jews, no matter from which strand, have always been at the forefront,” Knan said.

Knan is the project manager of Rainbow Jews, an oral history project hosted by Liberal Judaism after a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund which shines a spotlight on the lives of LGBT people in the Jewish community from the 1960s to today. “Projects such as Rainbow Jews have helped not just grow awareness, but also ensure that recognition of people who have been involved,” he said.

The Stonewall Inn in New York, where the Stonewall riots of 1969 catalysed the gay liberation movement in the US. Photo: Francois Lubbe for HSB&M

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, from Brighton and Hove Progressive Shul, said that the Jewish contribution to the movement has not been recognised. “We are a terribly insignificant minority, and yet we have played a big role,” she said. “There’s amazing things going on in the Jewish world that’s offering leadership on global issues that people don’t recognise.”

She became one of the first ‘out’ lesbians to be ordained in 1989. “We’ve been part of a phenomenon,” she said.  “Liberal Judaism were the first – the Quakers also at a similar time – we led the way on the campaign for same-sex marriage in the religious world.”

Jewish communities, particularly among Liberal Judaism congregations, made great strides, she said. “In December, one of our young people who’s on a transgender journey had a special ceremony where she changed to a new Hebrew name and I barmiztvad her as a him when she was he,” she said.

Only last year, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis together with the LGBT+ group Keshet UK produced a 33-page guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools urging tolerance and duty of care towards young Jews discovering their sexuality.

Yet, challenges still persist. “There remains a lot to be done. There’s transphobia, bullying in schools. We can’t be complacent at all. You know, what they say, ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’,” rabbi Sarah said.

Indeed, LGBT people, like Jewish communities, need allies to fight intolerance, Knan added.  That is why, he said, it’s vital to stay informed, contact organisations like Keshet UK, and speak out against injustices.

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