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Grappling With Pride

Many of the places that once felt welcoming for LGBTQ+ Jews are less comfortable this year

by
Becca Baitel
June 20, 2024

Glen Sterling/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Glen Sterling/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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This article is part of LGBTQ+ Voices.
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I’ll never forget the exhilaration of my first Pride festival, six years ago in New York City. Covered in glitter, surrounded by close friends, and listening to Hayley Kiyoko’s Expectations album on the PATH train, I felt an immediate sense of belonging. At 17, though not yet out—I told my friends I was “just a fierce ally”—I was still welcomed unconditionally. The love and music that filled the air were a balm for the years of internal struggle I had endured. Each smile, rainbow flag, and song felt like a warm embrace of a part of myself I had long hidden and yearned to express freely.

Before that first Pride, I lived quietly, cloaked in fear and secrecy, always cautious to conceal my true identity. As a young gay person, accepting who you are is an ongoing journey of growth and evolution that never truly stops. Growing up, I always felt different but could not pinpoint why, sensing an unspoken truth that my friends could not quite grasp. I had always wanted to be myself proudly, and dancing in the streets of Manhattan with thousands who shared my journey was the first time I truly felt empowered and not alone. Those Pride events mixed excitement and fear, but mostly gave me a unique sense of belonging, making me comfortable enough to eventually share my identity with others a few years later.

However, my feelings on Pride have drastically changed in recent months, following the events of Oct. 7. Places that once felt open and welcoming no longer feel that way.

In addition to being gay, I am also a survivor of sexual assault. During college, I joined an on-campus support group for sexual-assault survivors, reclaiming my power through education and advocacy. Leading presentations on intimate-partner violence, promoting inclusive sex education, and exploring my sexuality in empowering ways made me feel at home, similar to how I felt at my first Pride. This collective once welcomed me without judgment, allowing me to openly share my story for the first time. It broke my heart to see members and advisers of this group, many of whom are queer, blatantly diminish the atrocities of Oct. 7. Suddenly, the group’s attitude shifted, prioritizing victims only when it suited their narrative. I was disgusted, disappointed, and deeply disturbed to see people excusing and justifying sexual violence. The lack of empathy for the victims of Hamas because they were Israeli felt like a deep betrayal, transforming a group I once cherished into something contrary to my core values.

How are Jews supposed to feel safe at Pride?

My experience as an Israeli American Jew following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks has been similarly challenging. Revealing my full identity has been tough in more ways than one. While I have never hesitated to say I was gay, in “diversity, equity, and inclusion” spaces, I concealed my Israeli identity. As a graduate student in education at Columbia University, where understanding diverse identities is key, I felt pressured to hide certain aspects of myself or fear facing harsh judgment and grade discrimination from my classmates and professors. I was reluctant to share my Judaism in classroom settings dominated by “Free Palestine” activists. Throughout that semester, I remained silent and cried a lot. I still do some days.

Meanwhile, the same queer community that once embraced me warmly became distant and cold. Friends from Pride festivities cut ties, some severing contact without warning after I expressed my support for Israel as a dual citizen. Many individuals I know, particularly those in our community, have lost friendships as a result of our stances on the Israel-Gaza war, even being accused of pinkwashing in the process. While many people do not share these views, the sentiment often feels otherwise. This jarring disconnect has forced me to reconcile my identities in increasingly hostile spaces, feeling as though I was losing a newfound family due to the similar experiences we had shared.

The hypocrisy of such movements is astounding. How can advocates for a safer, more equitable world overlook the severe plight of LGBTQ+ Palestinians under oppressive, homophobic regimes? This question urges us all, regardless of our views on the conflict, to broaden our empathy to include all marginalized groups. It calls for a true spirit of Pride and the very pillars the movement claims to uphold: solidarity, inclusivity, and justice for all, regardless of national origin.

On the first day of June, hundreds of anti-Israel protesters blocked the Philadelphia Pride Parade, comparing Israel to racist organizations like the KKK. D.C. Pride faced similar situations, with event participants attacking Jewish ones and a few days later, London Pride posted, accusing Israel of “genocide.” Such rhetoric assumes every Jewish person is white, completely disregarding the diversity within our community. Earlier this month, San Francisco Pride issued a statement saying there would be no Israeli floats at their Pride, but pro-Palestinian groups would be present and could “join the Resistance Contingent” of the parade. Actions like these perpetuate the false “oppressor vs. oppressed” narrative, with event organizers writing on Instagram that they encourage “resistance to oppressive systems and governments’’ that fail to support and recognize members of the LGBTQ+ community.

How are Jews supposed to feel safe at Pride?

Countless pride organizers are excusing terrorism—including rape—as “resistance” that encourages violence and hatred. Many Pride events and bars have shown a lack of empathy for the victims of Oct. 7 and their families, failing to condemn the atrocities or mention those still held hostage. This lack of attention—while hosting events solely in support of Palestine—implicitly support Hamas, especially as LGBTQ-affiliated organizations have falsely conflated support for Hamas’ violent “resistance” with “queer liberation.”

These events challenge the notion of “inclusion” by requiring Jews to leave integral parts of our identities at the door. There is a pressure to adhere to this “checklist” to be considered a “good” queer person by mainstream Pride movements. The lack of nuance is astounding, leaving little to no space for Jewish and queer people to be both progressive and in support of a Jewish state. To those expectations and notions of conformity, I refuse to be boxed in.

In the months leading up to June, I felt deeply conflicted about whether to participate in Pride events this year—a sentiment shared by many LGBTQ+ Jews. Throughout many therapy sessions, I debated my plans. Initially, I was ready to stay home, not wanting to partake in something that felt entirely antithetical to my values. However, I realized I could make Pride my own because I have fought too long to be myself to submit to such exclusive and judgmental narratives.

Rather than attending the massive pride events this year, I consciously decided to avoid them, opting instead for more local and family-centered celebrations to remind myself that Pride is for everyone. We are just as valid as any members of the LGBTQ+ community, and deserve to celebrate, while acknowledging our lengthy history. Although I felt nervous about going, I am ultimately grateful for the experiences at these smaller events. I attended with friends and chosen family, many of whom are Jewish. At one event, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of queer- and Israel-friendly synagogues and Jewish nonprofit organizations in attendance, with one even giving me a yellow hostage pin. As I traveled from table to table, I learned about Pride Shabbat events and volunteer opportunities with Holocaust survivors, and listened to other Jews share their stories navigating a post-10/7 world. Clutching my “I’m so glad to be a Jewish Lesbian” tote, I felt tears in my eyes and knew I had made the right decision for myself to go. Under the blazing June sun, I engaged in conversations with fellow LGBTQ+ Jewish adults, many of whom were also struggling to find communal spaces to reconcile both of their identities. I finally knew I was not alone. While I encountered one or two individuals spewing blatant anti-Israel rhetoric, the environment was overwhelmingly positive and welcoming, and I truly had a wonderful time.

Despite fearing for my safety when wearing my Magen David or waving an Israeli flag, I later ordered an Israeli Pride flag that honors the hostages still held captive in Gaza to keep in my bedroom, with a wider yellow stripe to symbolize their lives. It is crucial to focus on the reality that we deserve to have love in our lives and experience joy, especially when such emotions feel stagnant. There is too much isolation, and I cannot combat loneliness with more of it.

There are still pockets of joy and love in this world that deserve to be acknowledged. As humans, we feel a myriad of emotions, especially when grappling with tragedies we cannot even begin to fathom. We can mourn and break down crying, and we can also choose to love and celebrate and live loudly. This is the mindset I am adopting this June—and every month afterward. Multiple truths can coexist, and recognizing and celebrating that is not naive; it is necessary. As a whole, Pride movements must do better to support all members of the diverse and vibrant community, ensuring the safety of all participants. There are ways to have productive conversations and mourn the tragedies of both Israelis and Palestinians, but this is not the way.

In the midst of this conflict, I have never felt more aligned with myself. I am in the healthiest, happiest relationship I have ever been in, with an incredible woman who brings joy, love, gentleness, and comfort in a world that often feels unkind. While I cherish these milestones and the love I have always longed for and now know I deserve, I mourn for who I was before the upheaval of last October. I am no longer scared, even though I live in a world that constantly reassures me that I should be. While I feel such a deep sense of personal pride during these times, this newfound confidence is bittersweet, tainted with sadness and loss. However, to me, challenging the mainstream narrative upholds the true essence of what it means to be proud.

Becca Baitel is a freelance writer working toward her master’s in English Education at Columbia University.

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