Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector


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Navigating life as a Jew-bi

It’s been a busy year since I last posted around Bi Visibility Day last year, and it feels right to pause and take stock on a year of activism in the bi community and reflect on how far Bi Pride UK has come in that time, but what’s really prompting this blog post is a bizarre gut ache of FOMO and nostalgia I got a few days ago while listening to some cheesy Rosh Hashanah-themed a capella in the office while a lot of people I know were in various places, celebrating the Jewish New Year in various ways.

Hard for me to believe, but it’s been about three and a half years since the night many things came to a head and I went ‘nope’ to the Modern Orthodox Judaism in which I was raised. The tale I’ve been telling over the years is that I finally let myself explore the hidden part of my identity, and then when I found Jewish LGBT spaces through organisations like Keshet UK, I was at last able to find a way to reconcile the two sides of my identity and live as one whole self.

I call bullshit.

There are many things to be said for the Jewish side of my identity over the last three and a half years, but ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ do not feature. I’ve used this ‘Jewish’ identifier in a loose sense, but when pushed, and I mean really pushed, I’ve got no idea what that’s really meant to me. I’ve sometimes described myself as ‘historically Jewish,’ by which I’ve meant my Jewish identity derives from an appreciation of and identification with the historical context from which I come (both in terms of the formative experiences I had when I was young and in terms of my ancestors and family tree), but that doesn’t get away from the fact that the very term ‘historically’ anything puts something into the past and removes it from the present.

There are many things to be said for the Jewish side of my identity over the last three and a half years, but ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ do not feature.

So what does it mean to me to be Jewish? I’m going to set that question to the side for the moment, and explore the other side of things: my bi identity.

Looking back through my past, I can identify many very different chapters in my life with regards to my sexual and romantic orientations, and I kind of wish that it could have just carried on the way it began, but society and heteronormativity are always on hand to mess things up.

I’m pretty sure that as a young child, I had crushes on both boys and girls, but I never thought about the crushes on girls as crushes, because I didn’t realise that was possible. I can think of at least two or three girls I had some kind of stronger feelings or connection to by the time I left primary school, though.

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Anne Shirley and Diana Barry – bosom friends, whatever that means

As a child, I think my sense of what a friendship or relationship with other girls could be was heavily influenced by two Annes: Anne Shirley (of Anne of Green Gables), and Anne Frank (of the Diary). The way that these two girls interacted with their female friends was passionate, close and all-in, and that was the kind of friendships that I sought for myself, hoping to emulate the feelings that I could read in these books. I hadn’t realised how influential these two figures were on my childhood until recently, when I read various articles which explore the possibility that both Anne Shirley and Anne Frank might be or have been less straight than the world has implicitly tried to categorise them.

Now, I don’t agree with force-labelling people as bi, and I don’t think it’s right to apply a label to someone (fictional or real) that they didn’t use themselves, especially given that both narratives exist in very different contexts to the modern world and its much more public conversations about sexuality and romantic attraction beyond the heteronormative. What I cannot deny, though, is that the ways that these girls interacted with other girls (as well as with boys) is something I wanted deeply. And with a few girls, although I didn’t have the language or framework to articulate it, I wanted that all-consuming ‘we only have eyes for each other’ friendship. Looking back from where I am now, that screams ‘crush’ to me.

As I got a bit older, and puberty kicked in, there was some point at which I realised that I was fascinated with the assigned-female-at-birth body. Everyone I saw around me, though, was doing love, marriage and babies in a hetero way, or else there were people called gay or lesbian who did the opposite, and I liked boys enough to know I wasn’t one of them. This was probably the first real inkling I had that there was something else going on, but because I didn’t have the language or the framework, I concluded that I must just be a pervert, and I needed to train myself out of these feelings and urges. I tried several different things – reward, punishment, exaggerated fixation on boys – but nothing worked, and I hated myself for it.

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Bench Crew love ❤

In my mid-teens, I found a group of people who changed my life in many ways. They were the first real group of friends I’d had at school, and they accepted me for who I was, with no back-stabbing, no rumour spreading and no bullying. The fact that many of them identified as gay or bi probably helped, but that wasn’t what brought me in (because, honestly, I had a huge amount of internalised biphobia, and some of the things I said at the time about bi people in other contexts I’m still ashamed of). What it gave me, though, was the first space in which I could safely begin to explore my identity and feelings, and it gave me the confidence to start experimenting with the label ‘bi-curious,’ which was just a way for me to express something of how I’d possibly been experiencing attraction.

If the story ended here, that would be wonderful, but of course it didn’t. There were people beyond that space who teased me for my label, first and foremost the boyfriend I had at the time. It’s amazing how easy it is to let the world around you push you down and make you conform. I had a heteronormative long-term boyfriend, and I was a religious Jew, and I was headed towards the marriage and babies thing, and I was neither equipped nor prepared to entertain anything beyond that, because if I did, things would start to unravel. This was my life and I was signed up for the long haul.

It’s amazing how easy it is to let the world around you push you down and make you conform.

It took until my final year of university for anything to change again. The previous nearly 4-year relationship had ended in the summer after first year, my world had fallen apart and begun to rebuild after Mummy died in second year, and I was back in the dating game, looking for marriage as soon as possible please because I needed something which would allow me to ignore the raw ache where my mother had been and make me ‘whole’ again. It was during this period of time that some of the Jewish student activism I was doing at university lead me to work more closely with the Pride society, and that lead to reading and researching and eventually to a late-night conversation with a new friend, and finally I was there: I knew that I was bi, and that my identity was a real and valid thing, and I was ready to say so.

What I wasn’t ready to do was allow this ‘new’ identity to change my life in any way. Yes, I was bi, but that didn’t mean anything was going to change about my relationships. I was still looking for marriage, and that meant finding a man. The man I was dating at the time turned out not to be the right man (lovely as he was), but nevertheless, a woman would not fit the life-plan I had carved out for myself (heavily influenced by the religious Jewish world I had chosen to be part of), and so a man it must be, regardless of my sexuality.

My first kiss with a woman was about 6 months after I came out. I was still religious at the time, and it was very much a drunken ‘I’ve never actually kissed a woman before,’ ‘oh, ok, let’s change that’ jokey kind of situation. What it led to, though, was me spending a lot of mental energy and time trying to work out why that kiss would be considered so much worse by so many people and by some religious perspectives just because the lips belonged to someone who identified as a woman rather than as a man, and had breasts and a vagina rather than a penis. I mean, it was just a kiss, right? Why does it matter who the person is?

It was another 6 months or so before things came to a head, and the homophobia (and occasional biphobia) I was seeing in the Jewish community I’d chosen to be a part of, combined with some theological stuff I was grappling with internally, made me go ‘nope.’ Overnight I decided that it was time for me to start exploring what Judaism meant to me without external influences, and time for me to stop suppressing the part of my identity I hadn’t even acknowledged until a year beforehand. What it led to was a prolonged period of going out of my way to be and do things that I’d never been able to before, and no small measure of feeling like ‘such a rebel’ (whilst simultaneously having a little voice saying ‘if you were still religious and cared, you’d totally be in cherem [sort of the Jewish version of excommunication] right now’). In truth, most of the last three and a half years has been about actively pushing Judaism away and wanting little or nothing to do with it.

In truth, most of the last three and a half years has been about actively pushing Judaism away and wanting little or nothing to do with it.

So why am I sharing this detailed and protracted account of my coming to terms with my bi identity in this context? It’s a painful thing to write and lay out in front of people, and it’s probably pretty painful for people who know me to read as well, especially those people who might have known me in any of the different ‘stages’ of my life without knowing what was going on inside. But I think it’s essential to understanding why, when I finally worked out who I was and the context I was in wasn’t allowing me to be that person fully, I had to break free and be true to myself. For my own peace of mind. For self-honesty. For my personal safety.

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The Keshet UK banner at Pride in London 2014

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found other LGBT Jews, and even got involved a bit with that world. Using the ‘Jewish’ label for myself in that context, I’ve told myself and others that I’d found my way to be both Jewish and bi. Being intellectually and emotionally honest, though, I’ve not. I’ve found the way to be bi with a suppressed Jewishness. In the same way that when I realised I was bi, I accepted it with the caveat of ‘but I’ll only date men,’ my relationship with Judaism since leaving religious practice has been ‘I’ll use the label, but only because it’s something that’s interesting about me, not because it’s something that I make an important part of my life.’

My relationship with Judaism has had quite a lot of fluctuations over the years, as I’ve talked about a bit in other blog posts, but the potted summary is that my family gradually became more religious through my childhood, and then through Bnei Akiva, a more religious youth movement I joined in my early teens, I became more religious still. There was a fairly constant pattern of having periods of time where I would go much more religious (‘flip out’, in the community lingo) before returning to some kind of baseline which was usually slightly more observant than I’d previously been. That all changed, of course, when I made a decision to leave that life behind and focus on shucking anything that didn’t have direct significance for me. It turned out that very little of Jewish practice actually held any real, non-performative significance to me.

And now we’re back in the present. Nostalgia and FOMO about the Jews I know off doing Rosh Hashanah things. Thinking about the fact that tonight/tomorrow is Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in a way which isn’t just ‘…and I’m going to eat consciously all day knowing that it’s against what I was brought up doing.’ Planning to go to shul (synagogue) voluntarily tomorrow, even if just for Yizkor (the memorial service for dead relatives bit). So I return to the question: what does it mean to me to be Jewish?

I can think of a few answers off the top of my head. The core principles of tzedakah (charity), chesed (kindness) and living in consciousness of the needs of others are really important to me, and I try to do what I can for other people when energy allows for it. Knowing that, as a Jew, I share things with my ancestors, even across temporal and physical distance, and that there are things which are constant through me, back to my parents, their parents, their grandparents, feels enormously powerful. Hearing Hebrew being spoken or sung gives me an involuntary feeling of connection and evokes a strong emotional response in me. I love listening to the music of my Ashkenazi upbringing and Modern Orthodox/dati leumi teenage years, even if some of it is of questionable musical quality; it makes me feel things which I can’t sum up in words. And yes, I love being able to understand Jewish in-jokes and self-deprecating humour, and groan at the really awful puns!

You can be born Jewish, but actually being Jewish is a choice, and I think that’s something I might now be ready to explore and try again.

All of these things are probably valid, but I think there’s only one answer right now which really matters. What does it mean to me to be Jewish? It is choosing to identify in that way, and meaning it. Yes, I was ‘born Jewish’ because my mother was Jewish, but when I stopped practicing, I pushed away the bit where I meant what I was saying. I would tell people I was Jewish, but I would qualify that with ‘because that’s the way I was born and brought up and that’s influenced me, but I’m not really active now.’ You can be born Jewish, but actually being Jewish is a choice, and I think that’s something I might now be ready to explore and try again. I want to see what life might be like as a newbie Jew-bi.

(See what I meant by awful puns?)

When I start looking at things through this lens, I see certain parallels between my Jewish and bi identities. Yes, I was probably born bi (or at least experienced attraction beyond gender from a young age), but there’s more to my bi identity than that. There’s a world of bi culture, social groups, differences of opinions around labels (bi? bisexual? biromantic? pan? pansexual? panromantic? queer? and so on…), and, of course, so many puns. And I’ve consciously chosen to identify into all of that, even where my opinions differ to others on a variety of topics.

At the end of the day, I’m Jewish because I want to be – some bits of my young Jewishness were shit, and some bits of other people’s Jewishness were and are shitty to me and others, and I don’t really believe in the supernatural side of things, but I agree with most of the distilled ethical code (which is common to most faith and belief traditions), and the familiarity of wrapping it up in the cultural and historical things I grew up in appeals to me. In the same way, I’m bi both because that’s who I am, but also because that’s who I want to be. Some bits of the bi community are shit and I disagree with, and some bits of what other people do and say in relation to bi identities are shitty to me and others, but other parts of this life are so wonderful and nourishing. And I wouldn’t change who I am on either count for the world.

So, in honour of Rosh Hashanah and Bi Visibility Day falling one day apart this year, I have some new year resolutions based on reflecting on the different aspects of my identity and the activism I’ve been involved in over the year:

  1. I will try to remember that my identity is not performative. Being bi is not about who I’m attracted to right now, nor who’ve I’ve been attracted to in the past, it is about who I am capable of being attracted to, and that is always 100% bi. Neither is being Jewish about what other people think about or see of my Judaism, it is about me consciously identifying as Jewish and acting on that in the way that feels most appropriate to me.
  2. I will try to remember that it is ok not to have all the answers right now. I don’t need to know exactly what being Jewish or being bi looks like to me, because identity is about constant self-exploration. I don’t need to know exactly what my bi activism will look like in 5 years’ times right now, and I don’t need to know right now how I might manifest my Judaism in the future.
  3. I will strive to assume good will in others more. Most people are working towards similar goals, to make things better for people, and it’s fine to challenge people to explore whether they’re bringing everyone along with them or leaving people behind, and for me to be challenged with that same question. If my Jewish identity or my bi identity is not working to make the world better for others, then I am not doing what I should be doing.
  4. I will try to remember that I do not need to defend my life, my choices, or my actions. My life is my own to live, and as long I am doing no one harm, I will live it in my own way. It is no one else’s concern who I am dating or not dating, or what belief systems I incorporate into my life, and I do not owe anyone my time or energy to justify it.
  5. But most of all, I will strive to become a Jew-bi who is self-reflective and authentic to every element of a multi-faceted identity. For too long my Jewish and bi identities have been in conflict. It’s time to bring them back together where they belong.
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There are no words…

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

12 Years a Slave has so far taken $50m at the box office, and is nominated for 9 Oscars.

…so herein I try to articulate my speechlessness.

A few days ago, I went to the cinema to see a 2hr15 film, and was quite unsure about whether my attention-span (severely diminished by depression) would be able to deal with the whole of it, but I really wanted to see the film, so I took the risk. That film was 12 Years a Slave, and I didn’t notice the hours pass.

It’s taken me quite a while to get to the point at which I have collected my thoughts enough to be able to pull together anything coherent. My initial reaction when the credits rolled was to sit there immobile, just blinking rapidly, and it took a while for my sentence construction to improve beyond ‘that was… I just… I mean… Wow.’ Even attempting to write this blog post is taking all the concentration I can muster, because I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.

My starting point, I guess, is the initial reaction of the person I went to see the film with. To paraphrase, it was something along the following lines: ‘The film told me that black people were enslaved by white people, and white people treated them horrifically. But I thought I already knew that, so if that’s it, what’s new?’ To be sure, that does seem to be the basic gist of the film, and several more public reactions and reviews have this idea at their outset. Take Orville Lloyd Douglas’ opinion piece in The Guardian, for example. In his eyes, whatever your race, the film is ‘unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know’; instead, it seems to be intended to ‘engender white guilt’ (which it certainly did with me!) with no other further purpose.

What Douglas would prefer to see is a film which examines conflict experienced by people of colour without putting the spotlight on their race – which recognises that a black person has the same struggles as a white person, be it with sexuality, bereavement or anything else, and which looks at those candidly without the fact that they are black even entering the narrative’s consciousness. There is much to be said for this attitude, and I’ve heard something very similar said about LGBT+ films like Blue is the Warmest Colour (also an amazing film, but too long); sometimes, in a director’s effort to represent a liberation issue to a general release audience, they seem to feel the need to fixate on the differences between that group and wider society, rather than portraying them as just the same as anyone else, and that unwittingly reinforces the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. When was the last time you saw a ‘Happily Ever After’ film in which the protagonists were two men or two women?

Until the world at large comes to recognise that life has been pretty sucky for minorities, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble.

On the flip side – and perhaps I’m playing devil’s advocate here – life in general has been pretty sucky for black people, and for the LGBT+ community, and for any number of other minorities you can name, and perhaps until the world at large comes to recognise that, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble, even at the cost of playing to these stereotyping tendencies. I strongly applaud the move by the National School Boards Association in America to include this story in their curricula, using both the film and the memoirs upon which it was based as pedagogical tools to approach black history and institutional discrimination. This utility is certainly no reason not to have the other types of film as well, the ones which deal with black people struggling with their sexuality or which have a gay couple as the main characters, romcom-style, but I would never dismiss the power and importance of a film like 12 Years as Douglas seems to.

I do wonder, though, whether all of what I’ve said thus far is simply me speaking from a position of white privilege. Other than a small amount of racial prejudice I’ve been on the receiving end of as a Jew – never more than name-calling or misguided jibes – I have no lived experience of being a person of colour in a majority white society, and so the emotions evoked by a film like 12 Years are naturally going to be a mixture of shock, pity, revulsion and guilt. Empathy comes much less naturally, and it is difficult to generate it inorganically, whereas if I were myself black, I might have more of an inherent understanding. Frankly, though, even the majority of people of colour watching the film today (thankfully) have no personal experience of that level of cruelty. How, then, can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

How can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?

Well, I’ll tell you what was running through my head for much of the film. Before I do so, though, I’ll preface it with the acknowledgement that, however much I ponder the idea, I still can’t work out whether my thoughts are entirey justifiable, or whether they are offensive and/or repulsive to the people involved. I’d be interested to hear what t’Interwebs thinks about it.

Basically, the only film I’ve ever seen before which can give me a frame of reference to compare 12 Years with is Schindler’s List, and I’m far from the only person to draw similar comparisons. The graphic depiction of violence and cruelty, the blasé dehumanisation of one group by another, the moral dilemmas thrown up by members of the persecuted group taking positions of power over their peers, the primacy of survival being put over all other ethical concerns, the occasional ‘more merciful’ member of the persecuting group – I found the parallels to be enormous and incredibly striking, and they gave me as a Jew a way to connect more closely with what the director was attempting to portray. That said, though, I’ve always found it very difficult to connect with Schindler’s List and with anything connected to the Shoah in general; just under a year ago, I was standing inside an intact gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau, looking at the claw marks covering the walls, and I still couldn’t process it. I am one of a privileged group of Jews who can say that they have no direct family connection to the mass extermination of 1939-1945 Europe, and I think that makes it much more difficult for me personally to comprehend the enormity of it all. Nonetheless, having seen Schindler’s List allowed me to be able to look at the slaves in this film and think ‘we were treated like that too, and I know a bit more of what that could be like’. In that sense, a comparison can only be positive.

I think. Or maybe not. Superficially, the representation is in many ways similar, but how much of that is down to film directors knowing what sells? It can’t be ignored that Schindler’s List is about a form of persecution which was an attempt at mass extermination; Hilter’s ideal world was one in which ‘the Jewish problem’ no longer existed, and all forms of cruelty and exploitation had as their ultimate end vision the deaths of their victims. 12 Years, however, presents persecution wherein the persecuted become commodities to be bought, sold, beaten, manipulated, played with, and used in whatever manner the owner wishes; black slaves might die as a result, but that generally speaking wouldn’t be the explicit aim – after all, a slave is a valuable piece of property, and who beyond the most extreme sadist purchases something just to get the pleasure of destroying it? I make no presumption here to cast any opinion on whether one form of persecution is more terrible than the other, because that would be like having an opinion one whether it’s preferable to be mauled by a lion or a tiger. Both sound pretty horrible. All I seek to do is highlight a difference between the nature of persecution in black and Jewish history, and having done so, to demonstrate why I feel a little uncomfortable with my mind drawing parallels between the two while I watched 12 Years the other night.

Its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence.

All that said, though, I think on balance I would be happy to accept the comparison as valid. Ultimately, I think there is more to this film than ‘blacks treated badly by whites’; the way I see it is that its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence. Whenever a slave owner speaks in any way of the justification of the social order, it is in terms of the slaves being their ‘property’ rather than being human beings in their own right. When an abolitionist throws that worldview into question, the veiled threat he receives in return comes from a position of absolute certainty that the slaves could not possibly be equally human. This is where there is an indisputable parallel with Schindler’s List: every Nazi character speaks of Jews in precisely the same way, particularly in the unforgettable scene in which Amon Goeth beats his maid Helen Hirsch because he believes she is to blame when he realises that he is giving serious thought to the possibility of being attracted to her, a ‘sub-human’.

If, then, as I’ve come to believe, the point of 12 Years a Slave is to highlight the terrible consequences of dehumanisation, I don’t see too much issue with comparing it to Schindler’s List on the condition that the comparison is to be recognised as limited. But in saying that, I bear in mind also that I am neither a person of colour nor a direct relation of anyone murdered by Hitler, so I don’t know how valid my opinion can really be. Which is why I’d like to hear yours too, whether you are either of those things or neither.


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A Series of Fortunate Events

A few days ago, someone I admire very much posted an article about her experiences as a student with hearing loss. When I started to explore the website it appeared on, it came as a little bit of a surprise to me to realise that of the six categories of minority or liberation group covered by the website, I could self-identify into five. I’d already noticed that my diversity monitoring forms are usually slightly more ‘interesting’ than most people’s, but this was something pretty stark staring me in the face!

Liberate Yourself homepage, dedicated to the lived experiences of liberation students.

That evening, I was having a conversation with another friend I have huge admiration for, and I was speaking to her about this apparent ‘collection’ of minority identities I seem to have. Having reflected a little more on it, I’d come to the conclusion that I have at least six such identities (or even seven in situations where being under 25 can be a disadvantage), but when she went on to guess them, she missed two and picked up on one or two more of which I hadn’t really thought.

Still ruminating on this, the following morning I headed off to a learning day for Charityworks, the charity management graduate scheme I am on. The afternoon, it turned out, was a workshop on equality and diversity in the workplace, given by Jordana Ramalho, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at St Mungo’s (a charity well-known for its commitment to diversity). Timely! Not only did those two-and-a-half hours really open my eyes to issues I’d never fully contemplated before, but they also gave me another personal awakening. Divided at one point into six groups, we were given a number of different minority/liberation group to reflect upon, discussing the forms of discrimination such people could experience in the workplace and how, as managers, we could tackle such situations. When I heard the six categories, sure enough – I have some extent of lived experience in each.

All of this got me thinking and reflecting on how I might be able to put my experiences to use in breaking some of the silence surrounding certain forms of discrimination in wider society, opening channels of dialogue regarding topics that people might regard as taboo. I ‘ummm’ed and ‘ahhh’ed a little over creating this blog, wondering if some of what I have to say on certain topics might be too personal or unsuitable for broadcasting publicly on this wonderful Internetland, but I concluded that the more people speak about such things, the less taboo they will seem.

You will eventually find on this blog, then, very personal reflections on a range of topics, covering what it is to be a young, bisexual, practising Jewish woman with an invisible physical disability and clinical depression, who is a child survivor of sexual abuse and who lost her mother before the age of 21, but also thoughts on the many ways in which I experience privilege. The hope is to be able to relate all of this to how minority status is approached in wider society. Please note that there could be a possibility of triggers throughout what I may write, but I tend to write in a pretty lighthearted style, so I’ll want to avoid the heavy triggering material as much as possible anyway!

Happy reading! 😛