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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Adam Eli

The gay rights activist on learning from the Soviet refusnik movement, remembering persecuted Egyptians at the seder, and using social media as meaningful tools for change

Periel Aschenbrand
March 28, 2018
Matthew Bernstein
Adam EliMatthew Bernstein
Matthew Bernstein
Adam EliMatthew Bernstein

One might think it’s insane to talk about Eli Weisel in terms of “career goals,” and even more so in terms of what the millennial vernacular would label #careergoals. One might even assume that most millenials don’t know who Eli Weisel was. But Adam Eli knows, and unlike many of his peers, who aspire to model their lives after entrepreneurs or entertainers, Eli’s mission is using the tools of digital communication to pursue social justice, particularly for the gay community.

He could fool you, if he really wanted to, with his RuPaul’s Drag Race-like linguistic turns of phrase, his heavy social media presence, and his pop culture savvy—he was just voted one of OUT Magazine’s Most Eligible Bachelor’s of 2018. But beyond his perfect black curls and big blue eyes (and occasional eye makeup) is a young man deeply committed to change. It may be a fashion statement, but it’s certainly no accident that his signature pink kippah is distinctly made up of four pink triangles, which is not only the symbol of the gay rights movement but, in Nazi Germany, was used to identify male prisoners as homosexuals.

Eli has quickly become a prominent figure in the queer Jewish community, using social media in order to mobilize bodies and press to effect international change.

Periel Aschenbrand: Larry Kramer would be very proud of you.

Adam Eli: This concept comes directly from the Talmud, all of Israel is responsible for one another, and I just took out the word Israel and put in the word gay. Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere. And that’s very Jewish. I wrote a paper about queer people in Iran my sophomore year of college. I knew what was happening, and it did not occur to me that that was my responsibility. So it’s literally a Jewish principle that I just adopted to the gay community.

PA: I’ve heard that you call yourself Fiddler on the Roof with Instagram?

AE: I always say that! My family loves Fiddler. They came here in 1906, and Fiddler on the Roof is set in 1905, so they would always have us watch it and tell us, “This is literally your family story.” My great grandparents escaped persecution in 1905, my mother was a Soviet Jewry activist in the seventies. She worked for the Rabbinic Council for Soviet Jewry in the city.

PA: So you come from a long line of activists.

AE: My mother is on the board for the JDC, the Joint Distribution Committee, they provided all the necessities for all the displaced people after the Holocaust and they focus on global Jewry. And she started Mosaic Westchester which is the LGBTQ Committee of the Westchester Jewish Council.

PA: So your family is supportive of what you do?

AE: I’m able to be so confident and outspoken like this because I have my family behind me 100 percent. I have three brothers and we all march in the Pride parade together. My dad once told me being a dad is the most exciting and fascinating and thrilling experience of my whole and because of me, he gets to experience being a dad to a gay son and a dad to straight sons and that’s the biggest gift.

PA: Oh my god. Your dad!!!!!

AE: Both my parents. They’re a total team.

PA: What does your dad do?

AE: He’s a penis doctor.

PA: Of course he is. Why would he be, literally, anything else? Are you serious?

AE: He’s a urologist who specializes in male infertility. And he got me this ring that that says AE, because I go by my middle name, Adam Eli. He said, “Of all my sons, you might change your last name, because, you know, you might take your husband’s name.”

PA: That’s so sweet, how close all of you are.

AE: All three of my brothers are all really, really straight, and we’re all really, really different. And we’re all really, really close and they all come to all of my protests.

PA: That is SO sweet. And SO Jewish.

AE: So Jewish. And my little brother, Evan, he was in a fraternity and he put a pride flag sticker on his laptop and because of that, someone in the fraternity had the courage to come out to him and then Evan helped him come out to the entire fraternity by sitting down with his gay friend and two other straight frat members—he did it in sections of two—and guided them through it. And because of the work they did, another guy came out and they began to call AEPi GayEPi. And then my mom saw that and said “If he can do that at Vanderbilt, I can take on the Jewish community in Westchester,” and that was her inspiration to start Mosaic.

PA: Okay, so now that I know about everyone else, can you tell me about what you do? And the platform you started, VOICES4?

AE: Voices4 was started by mistake. It’s very, very Jewish. When I heard what was happening in Chechnya, I heard my grandparents voices in my head, saying, ‘Never Again!’ and I didn’t know what to do.

PA: But you’ve figured out how to use social media to actually do something wonderful instead of totally mind numbing.

AE: I only post things if they are hopeful or a direct call to action. And with Chechnya, there was nothing hopeful and there was no direct call to action, so I didn’t know what to do. People were like, sign this petition. I was like, “Sign a petition!? This is genocide! I’m not signing a petition!” So I got this idea that we should march from Stonewall to the Russian Embassy and then I met—through Rabbi David Bower—the head of RUSA LGBT and I told him my idea. And he said, “Don’t march to the Russian Embassy, they don’t care about us. Let’s march to Trump Tower.” And I said, ‘Great.’ It’s nonviolent, direct action activism. But we’re trying to impact people really far away from us. We just did a huge kiss in outside the Uzbekistan consulate. I need government officials in Uzbekistan to see those. The only people who saw them in real life were like, a confused doorman and like three New Yorkers, who obviously just ignored us.

PA: And then what? What happens when government officials in Uzbekistan see those?

EA: First, we want to show people in Uzbekistan that they’re not alone. Just because we have gay rights in America doesn’t mean we have forgotten about them and we also want to show them that we’re fighting for them. And that’s all through Instagram. And second, is to show governments that we’re watching. We try to avoid the white savior complex so we always try to have someone who has experienced the violence firsthand guide us. And they keep telling us that they really care about what the west thinks and that when they see our protests, they heed the killings, even for just a couple of days, which gives people a chance to escape. So we take our direction from post Soviet activists.

PA: Who are here, in the U.S.?

EA: Yes. But we collaborate. But they give us the wording, the tone, the phrasing etc. and we bring bodies, social media and press.

PA: Someone you were posting about just got asylum in Germany, is that right?

EA: This is a cue I took directly from the post Soviet Jewry movement. We have a research commission and this is part of my mom’s job—and you can adopt a prisoner and it was your job to advocate on their behalf. You could adopt a kid who couldn’t have a bar mitzvah and then you would have a bar mitzvah for both of you. So our group adopted Ali Farooz and we made it our personal mission to talk about him in the press and I got an artist to make portraits of him and we put those portraits on signs.

PA: Can you tell us about who Ali is?

AE: Ali Farooz is queer journalist and if they sent him back to Uzbekistan, he surely would have been tortured and murdered in jail. This woman showed up to our meeting, she was very close with Ali and she had spent time in Russia with him so she was in direct contact with Ali’s boyfriend who was communicating with him, while he was in prison.

PA: Where was Ali’s boyfriend?

EA: Moscow. And he was talking directly to Ali.

PA: He got out. You guys helped get him out!

AE: Now they’re both in Berlin.

PA: So there was always direct communication with Ali?

EA: Yes, through Pavel, his boyfriend, who was talking to our group here.

PA: What was Ali in jail for?

EA: He was in detainment for being there without a permit, but really he was there because he was writing openly about what was happening in Uzbekistan and was being openly gay. We coordinated it, all on social media, so that there were protests in Germany at the same time as here. My goal is, because I am queer, to help other queers. And what’s more Jewish than that?

PA: You’re going to help save the world. You also sound really, really busy! What’s on your agenda right now?

AE: Well first of all, I’m going to meet with RUSA LGBT at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah which is the LGBT Synagogue and RUSA LGBT is a group people from post Soviet states who fled Russia and are queer and who are either immigrants, refugees of asylum seekers and their friends and allies. So right when you come from one of those countries, it’s really, really hard to make a life here and this helps them.

PA: Can you give me an example?

EA: Brighton Beach Pride is a really big deal for them because it’s super conservative and it’s filled with a lot of people who are still speaking Russian and still feel like they’re in Russia and they experience tons of homophobia and transphobia there. There are doctors who won’t give out Prep! It’s really, really bad. So they’re having a Pride parade and my job is to bring the American queer people to show solidarity and to show the people in Brighton Beach that you can’t treat people like this. I’m on their planning committee and then I’ll go back and report to Voices4, my group. So that’s two generations and now it’s government sanctioned persecution against a group of people by the Russian government. It’s the same struggle. It’s literally the same narrative.

PA: That’s a lot for first of all. What’s second of all?

AE: Passover!

PA: Yes, I suppose this is all so appropriate, fighting for Freedom, with Passover coming up.

AE:I love Passover! It’s my favorite holiday because Eli Wiesel—who is my ultimate hero and career goals – like the Oprah and Eli Wiesel interview, I just can’t—he’s like the godson of the Jewish people and a force of the reminder of humanity. His mission in life was a call to empathy and that’s everything that I want. He said that Passover is a cry for compassion, a cry for empathy and a cry against indifference and that Passover is about freedom and that’s what the Seder is. This year, I want to talk about what’s happening in Egypt, where they are facing what is being called the worst LGBT laws ever. You get three years in prison for being gay, yes, but also for saying something like, “I love my gay son.” Anyone who is openly supportive gets the same punishment. So how am I supposed to say, “Once we were slaves in Egypt?” My people are not free in Egypt today!

PA: Wow. I just got chills. Dayenu. Rings very true. Your mother must be so proud.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.