Navigate to News section

Debbie Friedman in Full

Controversy sprouts over late singer’s sexuality

Marc Tracy
January 13, 2011
Debbie Friedman.(Jewish Journal)
Debbie Friedman.(Jewish Journal)

At the beginning of this week, the blog Jewschool published a post by David Levy about the late singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman. It referred to the “open secret” that Friedman was a lesbian and adjudged her “life in the closet” a “tragedy”: “How sad,” Levy wrote, “that Debbie could not live her life with wholeness, and how sad that so many queer kids were deprived such an important role model.” Levy reported that he—who is active at Keshet, a nonprofit that seeks to open Judaism up to its GLBT adherents—had heard not only that Friedman was a lesbian but had a life-partner, and also that Friedman had long expressed a desire to come out; he closed by hoping that “whoever becomes the guardian of her legacy will follow through on this wish of Debbie’s, so that her life can be a blessing to future generations of GLBT Jews, and to all Jews.”

The post was greeted with extreme anger by Debra Nussbaum Cohen at the Forward’s The Sisterhood blog. “I am disgusted by what someone who goes by “DLevy” has written,” she began (one click reveals that Levy was not, as Cohen implies, hiding behind anonymity). “The privacy and dignity with which [Friedman] lived her life—all aspects of her life—should be respected, not tossed aside to satisfy someone else’s prurient curiosity or politics.” The implication that Levy was driven by “prurient curiosity” is a bit much; the implication that revealing this aspect of Friedman’s life violated her life’s “dignity” is so astounding and at-odds with the rest of Cohen’s post that it seems fair to chalk it up to careless writing. So we’re left with Friedman’s “privacy” and Levy’s “politics.” Was Levy wrong about Friedman’s privacy? Is Cohen wrong on the politics? And, as long as I’m throwing myself into this: Was Friedman wrong about both?

“I’ve heard persistent stories about her life as a lesbian,” Levy testifies, while admitting, “I didn’t know Debbie personally.” He adds: “It seems that Debbie’s sexuality was an open secret; everybody knew about it, but no one spoke of it.” I wish Levy were basing his report that Friedman was “a lesbian Jew” on something with more foundation, although, of course, since she was not out, such a thing might not exist. If he were revealing this fact simply to satisfy, well, “prurient curiosity,” then I would definitely object. But he plainly isn’t—he plainly has a political point to make, about how much room there still is for progress in the Jewish community when it comes to including GLBT people, and about the good that might have been done had one such person made her status public. I think you could argue this one either way, although it is indisputable that, unlike typical “outings,” which are generally done to humiliate, Levy’s post was written out of great affection and good intentions; it also concerned someone who—not to put too fine a point on it—isn’t around to know about it.

By contrast, Cohen’s response was out of proportion to the offense, if offense there even was. “Debbie was not in the closet,” Cohen writes. “Neither did she ride floats at a gay pride parade.” Well, first, she was in some sort of closet (albeit a slightly larger one than those populated by non-celebrities or public figures); if not, there would not have been anything wrong or unusual with Levy announcing she was a lesbian. Cohen’s confusion on this point betrays her more fundamental refusal to see the implications of Friedman’s closetedness—and the potential to celebrate her as “a lesbian Jew.”

For in the end, it is no disrespect to Friedman’s memory to admit that, for those who care for GLBT rights, particularly in the Jewish community—where such people’s full personhood is not everywhere taken for granted—it would have been better had Friedman been publicly out. I ultimately can’t sign on to the notion, which would find its roots in so-called “first-wave feminism,” that Friedman had an obligation to come out. But it isn’t a stretch to acknowledge her right to her decision but also judge that it would have been best for the community, for certain values, and for other Jewish lesbians if she had declared herself one of them.

There is a final issue: Friedman’s life-partner, if she had one. Reading this exchange, I was reminded of the passing of another lesbian Jew, Susan Sontag: Many obituaries of the “quasi-closeted” Sontag (she didn’t much discuss her sexuality, but it was, as they say, an “open secret”), who died in 2004, failed to mention her bereaved life-partner (who happened to be the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz). When someone dies whose death is newsworthy, among the facts we also deem newsworthy are whether that person had a love of his or her life, and who that person is. My point isn’t that Friedman’s partner, if she had one, ought to be named. I just want to note that the reason we deem such facts newsworthy is because the love of someone’s life is one of the most important things about his or her life. I don’t see how it is offensive for Levy to express sadness that the love of Friedman’s life did not get her due, and that Friedman’s fans are not getting theirs; and to express hope that, one day soon, she and they will.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.