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    Say Gay! Say Lesbian! If It’s Safe for You, Come Out and Feel Proud!

    By Rabbi Camille Shira Angel–

    For as long as I can recall, I wanted to be a rabbi.

    My family likes to tell the story that, as a young child, I used to stall for bedtime by appearing with scribbled notes of paper announcing that I had a sermon to give. My dad was the 8th generation in his family to be ordained a rabbi. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sally Priesand being ordained as the first woman rabbi. I remember 1972 because, with the passage of Title IX, I got to play hardball with the boys on my local Little League team.

    Rabbi Camille Shira Angel

    As I came of age, I never doubted that as a woman I could follow in my father’s footsteps. But when I began to come out as a lesbian, I worried whether or not I would be allowed to enter the seminary as the application process entailed taking an extensive psychological test “meant to weed out homosexuals,” among other concerns. Once enrolled, would I be able to find a congregation willing to hire me? At that time, I only knew of a couple closet cases but the situation was about to change for the better.

    In 1990, the Reform seminary, The Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, made public its decision to ordain lesbians and gays as rabbis. It would take another twenty-three years before the seminary would see the ordination of the first transgender rabbi. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and suffered great homophobic abuse. Those shoulders include local heroes and mentors—Rabbis Allen Bennett, Yoel Kahn, Eric Weiss, and Denise Eger—four of the most influential and well-known gay and lesbian rabbis.

    I began my rabbinate at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on New York’s Upper West Side of Manhattan. What a wonderful five years! I had the support of a visionary senior rabbi, Robert N. Levine, and a congregation proud to be on the frontlines of leading mainstream metropolitan synagogues’ efforts of inclusion.

    In 2000, I moved to San Francisco, where I became the spiritual leader of the world-renowned LGBTQ+ Congregation Sha’ar Zahav for the next fifteen years. Highlights included editing the congregation’s own amazing and inspiring prayerbook and getting it into the hands of students, teachers, queer-identified people worldwide, hospital chaplains, and even then President Barack Obama and First Lady Michele Obama. The experience of seeing your own experience reflected back on the pages of a gorgeous traditional and radically inclusive book of prayer can resurrect a person’s faith or plant the seeds for a newfound relationship with community and connection to our ancestors’ rites and rituals.

    At the University of San Francisco (USF), our motto is “Change the World from Here.” Throughout the city, our green and yellow banners promote inspiring messages such as: “Humanity. Justice. Integrity. You know, Wild-Eyed San Francisco Values.” These days, I don’t miss an opportunity to speak out. I often take the mic and remark that, while the world is filled with alarming news, much of which is catastrophic in nature, it has never been a better time to be a lesbian rabbi teaching queering religion at a Catholic University!

    While some estimate that approximately 30% of the campus community is queer-identified, others find that suggestion hard to reconcile with USF being a Catholic university. What I find among my students is that too few have encountered out, loud, and proud lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual adults professing the good news about being part of our fabulous and diverse tribe. I love introducing students to religious communities and leaders, who are integrating their sexual and gender identities across race and faith without apology. I can wholeheartedly attest that USF has been totally supportive of my Rainbow Ministry. 

    I will be coming out in public conversations until the day when we see full acceptance and inclusion, mental well-being, and LGBTQIA+ young people thrive. My sexual orientation and gender expression matter, not least in this era when LGBT civil rights are once again being contested (most notably in Texas and Florida), but also because religious organizations still in many locations happily receive the tireless offerings of time, talent, and treasure from their LBGT members as long as they don’t mention the “gay part.”

    I married into a large family that includes several religious conservatives, including my mother-in-law and several of my wife’s brothers. Recently, on a family email chain, my liberal father-in-law posted the recent profile on my work at USF. Lisa Loeb’s piece, “Meet the Rabbi ‘Queering Religion’ at a Catholic University,” appeared first locally in the Bay Area Jweekly and then got picked up by the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) and is circulating in the national and international Jewish news.

    One “religious” brother messaged to the family, “Can you imagine spending your hard-earned money to send your kid to college to learn this kind of crap?!” I guess we won’t be staying with him and his wife any time soon. Hate-filled words still sting, no matter how many times I’ve heard them before.

    It is a privilege to come out. My undergraduates teach me each semester that I ought not assume that everyone can come out and be public. This is particularly true among my students of color, for whom coming out risks the loss of familial ties and financial support. Coming out is seen as a luxury for the white and the wealthy.

    Some of my students challenge me and take issue with the idea that everyone can and should be publicly out. They argued that this value rests on the notion that one’s personal story and desires are the most important factors in one’s life, ignoring the non-individualist modes of life many non-Western, queer people live by. An emphasis on coming out assumes that frank and direct conversations about bodies and sexuality are always culturally appropriate when, in fact, this is culturally myopic.

    When prospective students and families see the rainbow flag in the window of my University Ministry office, when queer people see USF marching in the Pride parade, when we make religious support for LGBTQ people fully visible and explicit—it matters; for some it’s life-changing and for others it’s life-saving. I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity to work for the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the Jesuit USF.

    Here and now, in this critical moment in history, I am reminded that by the grace of God, in whose image we are all created, I am contributing to the repair of the world.  

    Rabbi Camille Shira Angel is an ordained Reform rabbi with over 25 years of experience guiding couples and families in Jewish lifecycle events.

    She is an award-winning educator, public speaker, and LGBTQIA religious activist. Currently, she is Rabbi-in-Residence at the University of San Francisco.

    Published on March 24, 2022