My Mizrahi Mom and Why Pride Matters
Liberation matters. LGBTQ Pride, a march forward for individuals, families and communities from shame, fear, and despair, matters. Even in Jerusalem.
The effort is about identity and inclusion, about living this one life as freely as possible. There is nothing holy about closets filled with shame.
Coming out Queer, especially in 1976, even in San Francisco, was a radical move. And very difficult for my traditional Mizrahi parents. Especially for my mother, who grew up during a treacherous time for Jews in Baghdad.
“WE don’t do this,” my mother cried. “Not us, not Jews!”
“Stop It Right Now!” she demanded.
“We worked so hard to come here, to America, for THIS?”
My mother was sure our relationship was ruined forever, that we would “never be the same” again with each other, that I was destroying my life by “choosing to be a pariah.”
“No Jewish community will ever accept you,” she cried. A lot.
“It’s a sin,” both my parents echoed.
After a lifetime of being told to be out and proud in anti-Jewish missionary schools and to “face” the racism and anti-gaijin slurs on the streets of Post-War Japan, they were telling me to hide my face. I told them they had to grow.
And they did.
Because we were family, because our intimacy mattered, because we believed in telling the truth, we struggled. The first few years were not easy. A lot of letters, anger, tears, hanging up the phone and calling each other back again.
But I had no idea, no idea what closets do to parents.
Fifteen years went by and then Mom got cancer. She fought it for two and a half years. We spent those many months talking in the car as we went from appointment to appointment – from radiation to chemo to alternative therapies. The days ended with us shopping for food on the way home, cooking dinner and hanging out. Often with the whole family. Precious moments.
Our car rides were filled with stories about her childhood in Baghdad. I wanted to understand, to know, as much of her background as possible.
When Mom described how she and her grandmother sliced ripe apricots up on the roof terrace arranging them on trays to dry in the hot sun, I could almost smell the pungent sweet-sour scent filling the air.
When Mom talked about the Farhud, how she ran up to that same terrace to look and see where the terrifying sounds were coming from, the adrenalin pushing her legs to jump rooftop to rooftop, away from the approaching mob, I could almost hear but only imagine, the sound of gunshots and the screams “getting louder and louder.”
When traditional cancer treatments were exhausted, we went the alternative route. She came out of a well-known hypnotherapist’s office with a stunned look on her face.
“I can’t believe I told him my life story…He wanted to know my traumas. I told him the worst thing that happened in my life was when you became a lesbian.”
“It was the first time I told a stranger.”
I wasn’t ready for this. “Worse than if I converted and became a nun?”
“Worse than the Farhud?”
“ ‘OF COURSE?’…Mom, I didn’t know, I’m bisexual, I never would have…” I desperately wanted to take it all back.
“Stop it, stop it,” she yelled. I pulled the car over. I felt sick.
“You have to understand, that’s how I felt, it’s not how I feel now. I am not the same Katie from Baghdad, or when you first brought Judy home. I love her, I changed. I didn’t understand about gays and lesbians, now look at my support group (it was pretty Queer). I was afraid, afraid you would be an outcast, that you would be a second-class citizen, alone, shunned. Do you understand?”
I hadn’t understood how alone she felt.
There was no organized Jewish community to mourn with, no tours of the decimated Jewish Quarter to rebuild. No escape from Baghdad.
I could never have imagined – and it took me a long time to understand – how given all she had experienced in her life, this was her “biggest trauma.”
“…And don’t you ever change on me again!”
We cried and laughed.
I realized what my coming out meant for my mom. She was certain I was going to be rejected. The Jewish community, our refuge from persecution,would never accept me or see us as a healthy family.
My first marches in San Francisco were at a time before they became LGBTQ parades, pre-AIDS devastation. It was also a time when it was safe to freely wave the blue and white flag of Israel as we marched as Jews for equal rights in taxes, marriage, hospital visitation, child custody. These are very real battles that we can never take for granted.
Today’s Pride has gone further, adding more identities. We began by challenging assumptions that everyone is heterosexual – and if not, hide it. Pride demands sexual minorities no longer stay hidden, compromising their relationships, health and happiness in this one life we are lent. Being out is the antidote to secreted guilt, shame and fear. The end of ostracism.
Coming out was not what it is today. My parents weren’t surrounded by a counter-culture community, as I was in the Seventies, including gay and lesbian Jews identifying as feminists and Zionists. My parents didn’t have this kind of support or consciousness. She and my father were alone with something they had never considered. Things began to change when they became close with my in-laws, Ashkenazi American Jews, also nervously isolated.
My parents didn’t live to see Marriage Equality become a reality in the United States or Pride Parades in Tel Aviv and marches in Jerusalem, but they gradually realized I was ok. Society was opening up, changing. Their daughter was going to be ok.
I remember the early days of “Gay Day” in San Francisco, in 1976, amazed to see contingents of gay and lesbian nurses and doctors; parents and friends of gays, gay and lesbian rabbis and priests and queer police and firefighters, marching at the risk of losing promotions, jobs and even their children. For equal rights.
It was exhilarating to see “respected members of the community” marching for equal rights. It was stunning. Equally important to experience everywhere, in cities all over Israel, today and tomorrow, as important as it was for us yesterday in 1976 in San Francisco.