You Should Know: 10 LGBTQ+ American Jews Who’ve Made History
In honor of American Jewish Heritage Month (May) and LGBTQ+ Pride Month (June), Andy Anderson, of the Hillel International Global Student Experiences Team, has put together a list of ten queer Jewish Americans who have made (or are currently making) history.
Rabbi Allen Bennett
In 1978—a year of great change and liberation for the gay and lesbian communities—Rabbi Allen Bennett became the first openly gay Rabbi in the United States. During his first year of service as Rabbi at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, he officiated at the funeral of Harvey Milk in 1979. In his retirement, he has enjoyed volunteering with synagogues in Copenhagen and Jerusalem, and visiting America’s National Parks.
Robert Bernardo could be considered a collector of “firsts.” Not only was he the first Jewish President of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, he was also the first openly gay, Jewish, Filipino commissioner in the city of South San Francisco, and the first Asian American Grand Marshal of San Francisco Pride parade in 2006. While serving as Commissioner of the San Mateo County Harbor District, he was the highest ranking Pacific Islander in the United States Government. He’s also a three-time winner of awards for male beauty pageants, including Mr. Gay Asian Pacific Alliance in 1993.
Kate Bornstein is an author, playwright, actor, and gender theorist. Her book My Gender Workbook (a great read for all- yep! even cisgender people!) was a groundbreaking contribution to the empowerment of trans and gender-curious individuals and remains an important part of our queer cultural bookshelf. Her work has also addressed the mental health challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth, and in 2006 she released Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws.
Leslie Feinberg z”l
Leslie Feinberg was an antiracist, transgender butch lesbian, and revolutionary communist. Ze wrote extensively on transgender liberation and received the Lambda Literary Award for hir novel Stone Butch Blues. (If you find a copy, you’ve struck gold. Snag it.) In addition to claiming space for LGBTQ+ working class people, Leslie was a fearless advocate for breaking the sex and gender binary. She used a number of different pronoun sets during her lifetime—you can, too! (Read more here.)
Lesley Gore z”l
If you were asked to name influential lesbian Jewish musicians of the 20th century, Debbie Friedman probably comes to mind. While you would be hard pressed to find an American Jewish setting where Debbie hasn’t been on the playlist, let’s not forget about Lesley Gore! Credited with capturing the sound of teenage heartbreak, Lesley’s tunes were beloved by the youth of the 1960s and are currently on heavy repeat among Gen-Z listeners. The success of her single “It’s My Party” made her the first lesbian to reach the number one spot on the American Music Charts. Listen to the essentials here.
Frank Kameny z”l
You know the story of Harvey Milk, but what do you know about Frank Kameny? Frank, a Doctor of Astronomy, was recruited to work for the United States Army Map Service in 1957. Within months, he was fired from his position and banned from all future employment by the federal government because he was gay. After several failed appeals and rejection by the Supreme Court to hear his case, Frank dedicated his life to activism. He organized some of the first public protests for gay and lesbian rights, helped to remove homosexuality from classification as a mental disorder, and fought for open LGBTQ+ inclusion in the military. There’s also a planet named after him.
Rabbi Elliott Kukla
Rabbi Elliott Kukla is the first openly transgender person to be ordained as Rabbi. (Full disclosure, he’s Canadian-American.) Since coming out during his final year of Rabbinic school, he has authored numerous articles on the trans experience in Jewish life, and has expanded our use of ritual and blessing to be inclusive of transgender needs. (Check out TransTorah to read some of these blessings!) Rabbi Kukla currently serves at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, where he specializes in working with chronic illness.
Maurice Sendak z”l
Bring out the Wild Things! Beloved author of children’s books, Maurice Sendak, was born to Polish-Jewish parents who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. His books have thrilled generations of readers with imaginary worlds and distinctive illustration. Though Maurice made the decision not to disclose his orientation during his parents’ lifetimes, he was happily partnered with Eugene Glynn for more than fifty years. After Glynn’s passing in 2007, Sendak made a $1Mil donation to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in his name. May their love, their partnership, and their memory be for a blessing.
Abby Stein is the first woman to have been ordained by an Orthodox Union as well as the founder of the first support group for transgender people from Orthodox backgrounds. In 2019 she was named by The Forward as one of the “Forward 50” most influential American Jews. Her activism has made waves in a multitude of spaces- including at the 2019 and 2020 Women’s Marches. Her memoir, Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman, can be found at bookstores and libraries across America.
Michael Twitty is both making history and interpreting it. A professional historian, Michael’s work highlights the experiences of enslaved African Americans for modern audiences, with a heavy focus on food and lifeways. In 2017, Colonial Williamsburg named him as one of their first Revolutionaries in Residence. As an author, chef, and genealogist, Michael uses the medium of food to blend Jewish, Southern American, and African foodways, creating deliciously authentic expressions of his own identity. Check out his talk on [email protected].
We recognize that this list is pretty heavy on white and white passing bodies. The reasons for this are multiple and overlapping, but we can primarily look to white supremacy and the double-policing of identities faced by queer people of color in the United States. The author of this article wanted to highlight names and stories that you may not have heard before, and this list is not intended to be taken as comprehensive. Let us know if you want to hear even more queer, Jewish stories!