A Homosexual Ghetto?
by Leo Ebreo (Skir), The Ladder 10(3), 1965
When I was younger—about sixteen—I was an active Zionist. I believed that the best thing for American Jews, in fact all Jews, to do would be to go to Israel and live in a kibbutz (collective). I belonged to a Zionist “movement” and tried to get the Jews I knew to join. I expected of course that few would want to emigrate, but I thought that most would be interested in helping Israel and the Zionist movement.
This was not the case. I was met, very often, by an extraordinary hostility. It was not until years later, reading works on Jewish self-hatred, Negro self-hatred, that I could realize that I had frightened some already-frightened people.
For this fright I have still no cure. The rational arguments which I gave my Jewish friends then, I would give them now.
These arguments (both the ones they gave me and my replies) came back to me recently when I began working in the homophile movement and speaking to homosexual friends about it. When I attempted to draw some parallel between the Jew’s struggle for his rights and the homosexual’s struggle for his, I was often stopped short with the explanation that there could be no parallel because one was a “religious problem” and the other a “sexual problem.” I tried, without success, to show how much the Negro’s struggle paralleled that of the Jew, even though the Negro “problem” was a “race problem” and not a “religious problem.”
As I have said, I have no rational arguments against the surrender to fear, and the rejection of self that lies behind it. This essay is not written for those who have surrendered to fear, but for the others, the fighters.
I think we need to constantly reaffirm our perspective in the fight for homophile rights, to realize that we are part of a broad, general movement towards a better, freer, happier world.
This struggle of ours for complete acceptance will probably continue throughout our lifetime, as will the struggle of the Negro and the Jew. Oceans of hatred, unreason, rejection, craven fear will continue to come from the “other” world (of the white, the gentile, the heterosexual), will continue to infect many individuals within these oppressed minorities.
And in this light, I think my parallel Zionist experience will show us both the currents of the Opposition from within our own ranks, and the answers which we must make. The objections my Jewish friends raised were as follows:
(1) “I’m not that Jewish!” “Being Jewish isn’t that important to me.”
(2) “I don’t want to go to Israel.”
(3) “You are making the situation bad for us. There isn’t any great problem. Discretion is the password. You are being offensive. You are putting us in a GHETTO, or would If we allowed you.”
The answers I gave then come back to me now:
1. “I’m not that Jewish.” What does “that” mean? Orthodoxy? Many Zionists are not that orthodox. To be Jewish does not mean a series of outward observances. It means being part of a people, recognizing their history, trying to find within that historical experience your lesson, your place.
2. “I don’t want to go to Israel.” Perhaps not. Perhaps not now when conditions for Jewish life are good in the United States (as they were once in Germany). But don’t you want Israel to exist? Some place which will represent the Jews, to which they can go if oppressed? What other nation would try Eichmann? And if an Israel had existed in the time of Nazi Germany, could not the Jews have gone there? And, with an Israel to represent them, might there not have been some action taken to prevent the extermination of the Jews in Europe?
3. “You are making the situation bad for us… You are putting us in a ghetto.” Nonsense. Israel is not a ghetto. It is a place where the Jew is, if anything, more normal than in other countries, a place where he is a farmer, seaman, shepherd, rather than furrier and candy store owner.
Of course, the Jews who offered me these arguments were not convinced by my replies. They had a certain picture in their minds of what being “Jewish” was—a curious, narrow, ill-informed vision defined by an old man (always old) with a long white beard and a yamulka and a long black coat, a Yiddish accent, the boredom of prayer mumbled and half-heard on certain holy days in a synagogue. The reality of Jewish existence, history, aspirations was unknown to them. Small wonder then that they could not imagine the reality of Israel. Its youth, vitality, the variety of its peoples.
So they hung back—often, too often, proud of not being “too Jewish,” changing their names to less Jewish-sounding ones, the girls having their noses shortened surgically.
And yet, as the years passed, I saw them grow more confident, less apologetic of their Judaism, because, in spite of themselves, they were proud of Israel, that nation whose growth they had at first resented.
And so. I think, it will be with those homosexual friends of mine who are now fearful, even resentful, of the homophile organizations. Their reactions now parallel, almost word for word, those of the Jews:
1. “I’m not that homosexual.” Here too, the image the outside world pictures is used by those raising this objection. One doesn’t have to fit the stereotype to be that homosexual. (Yet to a certain extent we must work with the outside world’s definition of the homosexual.) The German Jews were the most assimilated, often not knowing Yiddish, often not religious, often converted to Christianity. Still they were exterminated. Similarly, too often the one who suffers from persecution of homosexuals is the respectable married man, like Jenkins, who makes a single slip. No one trying to defend Jenkins (and there were few who did, to our eternal shame) noted that he wasn’t that homosexual.
2. “I don’t want to be a member of a homophile organization.” My full sympathies. Neither do I. But I do belong. Just as I belong to the UJA, to the NAACP. Being in the Zionist movement, like being in the homophile movement, was to some extent a burden to me. It is a trial to pay dues, to attend meetings, to hear lectures, and—most of all—to have to deal with so many people and with their many, many faults. (St. Theresa, the Jewess of Avila, said that people were a great trial to her. That was the 16th century, and people are still a great trial.) But don’t you want the homophile movement to exist? Don’t you want to see some organization represent homosexuals, stand up for their rights?
Fighting though I was for the state of Israel, I was still—and am still—a confirmed internationalist. But to arrive at that place in history, these intermediate steps are necessary. It is not a certain good—an absolute good—that there be a state of Israel, with borders, army, taxes, ministries. But until there are no French, German, Russian, American nationalities, I think it unwise to eliminate the Jewish nationality, which all these nations have at times acknowledged (before its official creation) by discriminating against it.
The question you must ask yourself is not whether you “like” to join or at least support a homophile organization (or a civil rights organization), but whether it is needed. And the homophile movement is needed, as Israel is needed, at this point in history.
3. “Your homophile organizations make our situation worse… Discretion is the password. You are being offensive. You are putting homosexuals in a ghetto.” Here again we are dealing often with homosexual fear and self-hatred and self-rejection.
This very word—GHETTO—has been used to me by homosexuals outside the movement. The homosexual who says this has accepted the negative picture of the homosexual drawn by the outside world. And, just as the American Jew may imagine a nation of candy store keepers with Yiddish accents and skullcaps, so the “assimilated” homosexual, from his troglodyte perspective, may imagine an assembly of campy ballet dancers and hair dressers.
There is already something of a ghetto pattern for homosexuals, because of the pressures put on them to confine themselves to certain vocations where they are “expected” and to isolate themselves. But the aim of the homophile organizations, like that of the NAACP, the UJA, Is not for further ghettoization but for integration, for equality.
However, there is a radical difference between the situation of the homosexual and that of the Negro and Jew in relation to their organizations. The Negro can rarely “pass.” The Jew might be able to, but he is under many pressures, especially family upbringing and sometimes family presence, not to. The homosexual, on the other hand, can usually “pass” easily and does not have the family pressure as an inducement to declare himself. If anything, there is another pressure, to pass for the sake of family appearances.
Thus the individual homosexual may claim that membership in a homophile organization, rather than enabling him to normalize his situation, might endanger the assimilation, the equality he can achieve with just a bit of “discretion” and silence. This argument has a certain cogency. Its limitation is that it is a solution for the individual homosexual.
It is the “solution” (or, to be charitable, the “path”) taken by the average homosexual, especially the one outside a city, or who is not in touch with the gay community. And this is not a solution, a path, which is to be avoided. For certain people, in positions in the government, in schools, there may be no choice but secrecy at this time.
But the price can be a terrible one. It is, as I have said, an individual solution. Often, too often, it results in an isolation for the individual, sometimes a world of pathetic furtive sexuality or public lavatory sex—shameful, inadequate ridiculous, dangerous. Even when the hidden homosexual has a mate, the union still has a peculiar isolate character, being secret, disguised. Thus the homosexual who passes is often in a ghetto composed of one person, sometimes of two. An individual solution perhaps, but hardly a permanent one, or a good one.
Those of us who are active in the homophile movement feel ourselves working for those outside and fearful of joining. We are working for a day when our organizations will be strong enough, active enough, to protect the rights of those in public employment (such as teachers), in the armed services, in government. The homosexual who is accepted as a homosexual will be a fuller, better person than the furtive imitation-heterosexual who has found his individual “solution.”
The aim of the homophile organizations is not to draw a small circle and place the homosexual within it. The very term “homosexual” (only 68 years old if we are to believe the Oxford English Dictionary) may not be used with such frequency in the Larger Society which we are working to create. We are drawing a circle—but a LARGE circle, to draw the large society of which we are a part, in. We are asking to be accepted. This acceptance which the homosexual minority needs, wants, can only be gotten when it is asked for—if need be, DEMONSTRATED for through groups like ECHO and their picket lines.
The drive to eliminate discrimination against homosexuals (sex fascism) is a direct parallel to the drive to eliminate discrimination against Negroes (race fascism). These minority movements are not attempts to overthrow the white race, or to destroy the institution of the family, but to allow a fuller growth of human potential, breaking down the barriers against a strange race or sexuality. When the Negro, the Jew, the homosexual, is known and a neighbor, he will cease to be a bogey.
We are working towards that world in which there will be respect for, enjoyment of, the differences in nationality, race, sexuality, when the homosexual impulse is seen as part of the continuum of love which leads some persons to be husbands and wives, others to be parents, others to be lovers of their fellow men and women, and still others to be celibate and devote themselves to humanity or deity.
In that world there will also be greater variety. Our stratified ideas of masculinity and femininity will long have been altered. (Have you noticed that men’s greeting cards have either a gun and mallard ducks, or a fishing rod and trout?)
It is this world, where the barriers of nation, sex, race have been broken, this larger, non-ghettoized world, that minority groups are organizing to work toward. And it is this picture of the larger world of the future that we must hold up when we are accused, by the very existence of homophile organizations at this point in history, of wanting to ghettoize homosexuals.
“Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
Skir picketing as part of the 1965 Reminder Day Protests in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Pre-Stonewall Reminder Day Protests, organized by activists Frank Kameny & Barbara Gittings, sought to raise public awareness of the existence of LGBT-Americans and their fight for equal rights under the law.
Leo Joshua Skir (May 10, 1932 - October 9, 2014)
An early member of the New York Mattachine Society and founding member of the Gay Activists Alliance, Leo dedicated much of his young-adult life to the cause for Gay Liberation. In this essay and others, he decries the difficulty in finding his "people" ; the space wherein he can be openly gay and Jewish. His essay "To be a jew and a homosexual" (1972) appeared in Sh'ma as the first personal reflection on living as an openly gay Jew in an American Jewish publication.