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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What equals marriage?

Yesterday, I went to the wedding of a good friend, and I’m so happy for her and her new husband. What’s just as exciting is that, this weekend just gone, there have been same-sex couples able to enter the same form of partnership across England and Wales.

 This weekend there became one definition of marriage: love, irrespective of gender. 

 Far from introducing a second definition of marriage into British law, this weekend there became one definition of marriage: love, irrespective of gender. And that is beyond awesome. The law in England and Wales (and soon Scotland) now recognises same-sex marriage and same-sex partners’ right to marry the person they love. Not all religions or religious denominations are offering the same opportunities, but I personally don’t have too much of an issue with that. As long as a religion isn’t being a douchebag to same-sex couples and is recognising their right to love whomsoever they choose, I’m happy to say to a religious community, ‘OK, a religious marriage of two people of the same sex isn’t something your principles can accommodate for, so don’t do it, but play nice, please’.

In recent days and weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my own attitude to same-sex marriage. I don’t mean my attitude to whether it should be possible, because on that front, I’m 100% for it. No, I’m talking about for myself. As a bisexual, I now know that whoever I ultimately fall in love with, whatever their gender or sex, I can marry them. In the law, at least. As a practicing Jew, though, I have to put myself within the Modern Orthodox label when I want to be ‘establishment,’ because it’s the closest denomination to my beliefs and practices; Modern Orthodoxy says that I cannot have a marriage with a woman under religious auspices, and I’m not sure that I would want to change that.

 Modern Orthodoxy says that I cannot have a marriage with a woman under religious auspices, and I’m not sure that I would want to change that.

 Now, this raises some interesting and slightly unsettling questions for me. Do I recognise a secular marriage as a valid marriage, or would I only be properly married if it was under a chuppah (marriage canopy)? Is the answer to the previous question applicable in equal measure whether my partner is male or female, or would I recognise a secular marriage to a woman but only a religious marriage to a man? Do I want to marry a woman if I can’t marry her ‘fully’ in the eyes of my religious denomination? Do I even want to ultimately end up with a woman if I can’t have the religious, Jewish, heteronormative lifestyle of chuppah and babies? As someone attracted to both men and women, is that even something I can actively choose (by only dating men, for example), or do I just have to see what happens and cross that bridge if the road leads to it?

Could this really respresent a marriage for me personally if both rings were worn by women?

Could this really respresent a marriage for me personally if both rings were worn by women?

I think that ultimately I want an Orthodox wedding, because I’ve grown up with a strong sense that a registry office ceremony is only a part of a wedding for me, and unless I involve the traditional aspects of a Jewish wedding, performed in an Orthodox manner, it won’t feel like I’m as married as I could be. For myself, as for many, marriage is more than the legal status of the two partners; it’s about commitment and love, and my Judaism is inextricable from that, so I will need both aspects. And that means a heterosexual marriage, which means trying to have only heterosexual relationships in the hope of meeting the man I want to marry.

You’re probably seeing the massive problem there. However firm my resolve, I can’t guarantee that I won’t meet and fall in love with a woman, because human emotions just don’t work that way. So, should that happen, will I get married to her through civil law and live with her as wife and wife? Will I marry her under a different denomination of Judaism which allows same-sex weddings so that I can have a Jewish wedding and feel like my marriage is authentic? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to know what I would do in that hypothetical situation, and honestly I hope that I never have to make the decision. I guess I’m back to the best course of action being heteronormativity.

I’ve just finished watching a series called Queer as Folk, written and aired about 15 years ago on Channel 4, which (as the name might suggest) is about the gay community contemporary to the time of its airing. It was actually written by Russell T. Davies, a gay man who spent a lot of time in the Canal Street area of Manchester, where the TV series is itself based. My feelings about the series are pretty mixed. On the one hand, I applaud Channel 4’s willingness to explore issues like homophobia and acceptance through a lense of experiences common to everyone regardless of their sexuality: the characters deal with things like the responsibility of parenthood, the death of a friend, financial troubles and unrequited love, and their responses are for the most part realistic. On the other hand, homosexuality is always laid on heavily as a motif, and the specifics of the scenarios are almost always such that you could not replace the characters with heterosexual ones without changing the details dramatically, generally because of a heavily homophobic attitude from another character. As such, it really manages to portray the basic inequality surrounding sexuality, and perhaps highlights the fact that prejudice has been engrained so deeply within society that it has the potential to taint every aspect of life for non-heterosexuals.

 Prejudice has been engrained so deeply within society that it has the potential to taint every aspect of life for non-heterosexuals.

 There was a lot in the 10 episodes which I found deeply upsetting, and I sincerely hope that society has progressed in the 15 years since it was written. Obviously, one major development we’ve now had is the opening up of the institution of marriage to same-sex couples, and there was an exchange between two characters which stood out particularly to me in relation to that…

Stuart and Vince have been friends for 16 years, since the time that they were both exploring their sexuality in secondary school, but they are very different in personality. Stuart is the self-assured, confident, man’s man, always seeking the next one-night-stand and caring nothing for social niceties or the feelings of others, while Vince is the quiet, sensitive, ‘sidekick’ type who is a little bit geeky and always gets overlooked for the more in-your-face Stuart. After Vince has been treated particularly badly by Stuart (and has forgiven him without being asked), the atmosphere between them is a little tense, and a conversation in which Vince expresses disinterest in participating in a threesome ends with Stuart saying to dismissively that Vince ‘just wants a wife’. At a later point, in the heat of an argument completely unrelated to relationships or sex, Stuart shouts at Vince, ‘you’re just a straight man who fucks men’.

The Pride flag, an international symbol of the LGBT+ community and its quest for equality.

The Pride flag, an international symbol of the LGBT+ community and its quest for equality.

Now, I had to spend a while reflecting on exactly what all of this signified, and what it said on a deeper level about societal and stereotypical perceptions within both heterosexual and homosexual communities. To me, the second comment seems to use ‘straight man’ as an insult in just the same way that ‘gay’ is used by many homophobes as an insult, in this case perhaps to mean ‘conformist’ or ‘boring.’ By adding in the ‘who fucks men’, Stuart is basically saying to Vince that the latter tries too hard to fit in with the community he wants to be a part of, but is inherently out of place because he has a radically different worldview. In reality, this difference is almost certainly much more due to the two characters being so radically different themselves than to Vince not fitting in, but that’s not present in the sentiment that Stuart expresses. (To be honest, thought, I actually feel a little uncomfortable that the series stereotypes the gay community as constantly going out on the pull. There are people with that pattern of activity in the gay community, for sure, just as there are in the straight community, but all three of the main characters in Queer as Folk are portrayed that way, and I find that unhelpful.)

The ‘just wants a wife’ comment is particularly interesting, because I think that it gives a strong insight into what marriage inequality can do to the community which is denied the institution of marriage. To Stuart, the serial one-night-stander, wanting to settle down with a single partner is something completely incomprehensible, but rather than framing his insult in that manner, he speaks of Vince as someone who wants to be able to have a marriage – which, in a setting of marriage inequality, requires the partner to be female. If this script were to be written today, it would probably lack the same strength, because heterosexuality is no longer the only way to be settled and married. Using the same phrasing would carry a very different meaning, and I can’t but wonder whether it would be phrased instead much more along the lines of ‘just wants to be the boring married man’ (or something more snappy!). Either way, I feel this shows that discontent about not having equal marriage rights has permeated into more than just the soapbox realm.

 Perpetuating marriage inequality has damaged society in a way which has affected almost everyone’s worldviews, whatever their sexuality, and in a way which is going to take a long time to repair.

 There have been a lot of arguments put forward against same-sex marriage, but I think that perpetuating marriage inequality has damaged society in a way which has affected almost everyone’s worldviews, whatever their sexuality, and in a way which is going to take a long time to repair. The fact that Stuart was able to use not being able to marry as a an excuse to call his friend’s sexuality into question, and the fact that even now I’m not sure if I would personally consider marrying a woman to be as valid a marriage as marrying a man, suggests to me that we have a long way to go yet before equality is more than just on paper. What is quite exciting, though, is that England and Wales (and soon Scotland) will now have a generation of children growing up who have never known a society in which same-sex marriage was ever prohibited. Maybe the future isn’t so bad.