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Monday, August 3, 2009

How to Hate the Gays

Last night I was working at our local co-op market. The crowd there is pretty diverse -- Hasidic Jews, Caribbean immigrants, Park Slope people with $50 t-shirts (ironic, baby, ironic!)...and anyone else in search of good, cheap food. Once a month, I wait in front of the store in a loud orange vest and carry people's groceries. Sometimes you get some good conversations. Other times, you can't believe the people you're talking to.

food co-opIt was almost the end of my shift. An woman in her late 60s showed up (danger, my mind flashed, slow walker) asking for an escort to the subway station (another danger sign: it's 15 minutes away). I smiled and said sure. She was an old black woman with one of those hairdos that is frozen into place and pastel pink church clothes. It turned out that she lived a block or two away from me.

We made conversation for a few minutes, and I could tell she was gunning up to ask me something. (When you've got a beard and sidelocks and a t-shirt, it's only a matter of time until people ask, in one phrasing or another, what's up with you.) She prefaced it: "Now, don't feel you have to answer this..."

Oh, boy. This was going to be a good one.

She told me how she was a God-fearing, church-going woman, and she believed in every word of the Bible ("Old and New," she said). And she didn't think homosexuality was right. But what, she asked me, do I think about that man in the homosexual club?

"The gay club murders, you mean?" I said. "In Tel Aviv?"

She nodded. "I mean, I know those people have it comin'," she said. "But that thing that happened, it just seems...wrong."

This next part, I don't understand at all. I could have told her how some of the holiest people I know are gay; how the most devout Christian I've ever met was a gay man who believes that Jesus made him gay as one more way of accentuating how we'll never truly understand the mysteries of Creation, and how one of the most Godly books that's been written this generation, Wrestling with God and Men, is about the incomparable onus of being queer and religious, and was written by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi and a gay man. Or I could just tell her how I helped start the straight-gay alliance in my high school and how a group of tranny boys showed me that being a man was okay (or just showed her the book I wrote about it).

But I didn't.

Instead, I said, "Of course it's wrong -- it's just as wrong as opening fire on people because they're spending money on the Sabbath or wearing the wrong color of clothes." I told her I believed that God made everyone the way they are for a reason, and it's not up to any of us to try and decide what that reason is -- it's between them and God."

She went "Mm-hmm" -- that kind of conversational combination of amen and keep on talking that I learned about when I was doing fieldwork in college at black Baptist churches and haven't heard anywhere else. "It's like Sodom and Gomorrah," she said. "People there were doin' all kind of Lord knows what, and God took care of them. And I know that day's coming, but I ain't gonna be the one to tell 'em that. He told Abraham and his nephew to leave that city, and only after they left, God swept down the destruction."

I said, "Who knows what God's really thinking? God's got an agenda. He didn't put us down here to be the Angel of Death; He's got angels for that. All He told us was to love our neighbors."

He? Since when had I referred to God as He? And why was I agreeing with her?

At this point, my brain split up into a few parts. Part of me was freaked that she was asking me as a typical Orthodox Jew, and I was supposed to answer like some sort of spokesman or something. And then part of me saw it as a teaching opportunity, like I was undercover as a gay-people-supporter and I could subvert all her bigoted views and show her the One True Path.

And then there was a part of me that wasn't being subversive at all, but was instead trying to reconcile my own personal beliefs about homosexuality -- as a person -- with the beliefs of everyone around me. And, perhaps, with the beliefs that I am supposed to hold.

And I realized, I'm kind of answering her truthfully. How do I know what God believes about gay people? How does anyone? For all I know, maybe God really did give the queer gene to certain people in order to test their willpower. That sure as hell doesn't sound like the God I believe in -- but, then again, I really firmly believe that God is both more powerful and more clever than anything that we give God credit for.

So, yeah -- I didn't say any of that to her. And she didn't say much more to me -- just took her bags from my hands, nodded like she agreed with me, and started to descend to the subway.

"I think you're right," she said. She'd stopped on the third step down, turned around, and cocked her head, that universal gesture of going into Deep Thought mode. "The Bible doesn't say 'Abraham destroyed the city of Sodom,' it says that God did. I'm going to think about that."

With that, she disappeared into the belly of the subway system, leaving me stunned and thinking. Of all the lessons I could have gotten from her, this was what I least expected: using texual analysis to combat hate -- or, at least, to learn how to hate more lovingly.

She was absolutely right. Man, if she walked into the club in Tel Aviv, I bet she would've given those people a hug. And possibly taught them a thing or two about how to wear floral pastels.

And more illuminatingly, I think she hit upon the basic flaw of fundamentalists -- or, at least, fundamentalists like the Tel Aviv gay club murderer: They really never read what the Bible actually says.


Julie Tonti said...

matthue - you rock.

Anonymous said...

If she thinks "those people have it comin'," I don't agree she'd be hugging them. I think you let her off easy, on the street and in your post.

FrumSatire2 said...

I love this post and I love old black ladies from church and I love gay people and I love you in a non-gay type of way

matthue said...

Anon, I didn't think that the experience was about "letting her off" or not. This is a woman who didn't have to listen to me, and had no reason to.

As far as not hugging people who she thinks "have it comin'," I know it's not a notion we're comfortable with, but there is a notion of hating the sin and loving the sinner. I didn't accurately learn this until junior year in high school, when the girl I was crushing on (and who, I think, was crushing on me) told me, in the middle of a hug, "I'm gonna be so sad when you go to hell."

matthue said...

And, Frum -- thanks! I'm all tingly. In a non-gay kind of way.

Mark said...

"The Bible doesn't say 'Abraham destroyed the city of Sodom,' it says that God did.

Powerful. Now if only everyone would realize that and take it to heart.


Religion and State in Israel said...

Matthue, you are…

Chaim Bertman said...

This is all really poignant, Matthue. By the way, I've always thought that in this passage Abraham embodies the best response for a righteous person: He doesn't encourage destruction; he doesn't rationalize it, and sigh, "Well, G-d knows best"; and he doesn't simply ask the question, "Will not the Judge of all the Earth do right?" Instead, even though he's probably completely freaked out to do so, he argues SIX TIMES in favor of preserving the cities. In contrast to Jonah, ironically named, "Dove," whom G-d scolds for wishing to see Ninevah go up in flames.

Ronit said...

I completely agree that "G-d made everyone the way they are for a reason, and it's not up to any of us to try and decide what that reason is -- it's between them and G-d."
As for not knowing what G-d thinks about gay people - well, as an Orthodox Jew who believes we received the Torah from G-d at Sinai, I think it's pretty clear that G-d does not approve of homosexual relations. That said, I think that all people are worthy of love and respect as long as they don't abuse it - regardless of what they do in the privacy of their bedrooms. As I said, it's not my place to judge.
Incidentally, it's the 'obvious assumption' that the perpetrator was some "fundamentalist" as you and many others have said...but you know what they say about those who assume... Just my $0.02!

elisheva said...
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elisheva said...


Miriam Tzipora said...

Good post. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this lately, and you managed to crystalize what I've been doing circles around. Thanks for sharing.

matthue said...

Ronit: totally true -- re. assumptions on everyone's POV! I've seen a lot of follow-up comments in the queer community about how Orthodox Jews are scummy/dirty/evil because of this. G*d put us on the planet for a reason, and I don't know what it is exactly, but I'm pretty sure it's not to point out how crappy other parts of G*d's creation are.

PunkTorah said...

as usual, you totally kick ass my friend :-)

see ya sunday.

Marjolein Reads said...

Wow, this rocks! I totally agree with your point of view matthue!

Milhouse said...

...or, at least, fundamentalists like the Tel Aviv gay club murderer

What makes you think that the murderer was anything of the sort? Or that the murder had anything to do with religion? That is not an obvious assumption, and without evidence it's just a smear against religious people, and an excuse to make political hay out of the incident. Unless and until the murderer is caught, we cannot know why he did it, and shouldn't speculate.

matthue said...

Very, very true. For all we know, it was an act of terrorism, or just some jilted ex-bartender at the club.

I was thinking less about the actual murderer, and more about the woman who said this to me. But it's an important thing to keep in mind: that the reason actual for these murders might have nothing at all to do with what we think it is.

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