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Amid the pandemic and protests, celebrating 50 years of marching for LQBTQ rights

Fifty years ago, in June of 1970, the gay communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York City gathered to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that had happened a year earlier, the moment when many say the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights movement began.

In Los Angeles, led by Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Churches, Rev. Bob Humphries, Founder of the United State Mission and activist Morris Kight, more than 1000 people gathered to march down Hollywood Boulevard for gay rights. What started as an organized protest march against police brutality and for civil rights has today turned into a celebration of LGBTQ Pride and unity. Usually, in Los Angeles, this means a glorious, colorful parade as varied as our community.

But this year, Pride looks different. Acting on the advice of scientists and medical professionals, many local organizations, including the synagogue I lead in West Hollywood, have postponed or canceled these in-person activities or moved them online.

Amid these difficulties, we still have reason to celebrate: The recent Supreme Court ruling protecting LGBTQ Americans from employment discrimination is a groundbreaking step forward for equal rights and justice. At the same time, the ongoing protests against our society’s systemic racism, which causes unique harms to LGBTQ people of color, remind us of how much further we have to go to achieve true equity for all Americans.

There is much we can learn from LGBTQ history as we face the monumental challenges of a pandemic and the continuing struggle for justice. Though the struggle for LGBTQ civil rights precedes the AIDS/HIV epidemic, many of our community’s needs were crystallized during the early years of the crisis. Our lack of civil protections for our spouses and partners, inheritance rights, housing rights, and access to healthcare were all issues that came into clearer focus at this moment. The LGBTQ community came together to build institutions for caring for our own when there was a federal government and president who remained indifferent and punitive.

We learned a lot about being advocates for our health with our doctors and caretakers. We learned to demand drug companies commit research dollars for working towards a vaccine and for treatments. We learned to act politically, lobbying Congress and working only for candidates who had our communities’ interests at heart. We also learned how to grieve for our overwhelming losses as so many of our friends, family and lovers were dying.

The lessons we learned from those years are just as applicable now. For those of us who lived and survived those years of friends and family members dying in extraordinary numbers, or were shunned because of the stigma of being HIV positive, or outed as gay, the resonances between then and now are real.

Many of us are reliving those nightmare years. Our PTSD has been activated from the early days of the AIDS virus when we didn’t fully know how it was evolving and transmitted, and when there was, like now, a federal government that is incompetent and ill prepared and refusing to help.

In my congregation, we always gather in June for a grand LGBTQ Pride Shabbat service, celebrating our belief that all are created in the image of God. We sing and pray these words:

“On this Sabbath of LGBTQ Pride Weekend, we welcome Shabbat into our midst. On this night we express the love in our hearts for LGBTQ people everywhere. We celebrate that we were created in the divine image. We pray on this Sabbath that all people will be able to escape oppression and taste the freedom of the Promised Land.”

This year, June is still Pride month, even if we can’t celebrate it in the way we’re used to. In my congregation, we observed Pride Shabbat online together, lifting our voices to celebrate our LGBTQ Jewish identities and thank God for making us in the Divine Image. And throughout the LGBTQ community, we are raising our Pride flags to celebrate our unique and God-created identities.

Our LGBTQ community still has much knowledge and many resources to offer from our learned experiences. We will continue to organize online for civil rights, for protections in housing and employment, for health care access, for protection from religious bigots and hateful homophobes and to keep marriage equality legal in every state in our nation.

We will fight to make sure the victories we achieve are felt and shared by everyone, including LGBTQ people of color, and to push for real change in policing and other areas so that we can all feel safe and protected in our communities. We will continue to help our young LGBTQ people love themselves more fully and be proud of who they will become. And we will help our neighbors in this time of world crisis to live and thrive and learn the resilience that we learned from our LGBTQ ancestors.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Calif. and the editor of the groundbreaking book: “MIshkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells A Celebration of LGBTQ Jewish Life and Ritual.”


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