From a protest to a celebration

Dr Kerryn Phelps (second from left) with her wife Jackie and three other members of Dayenu at the 2019 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

ABOUT ten years ago a Jewish mother asked me if I could help her with some advice. Her son had recently told her that he was gay, and she was not coping.

She was crying a lot, grieving for the loss of the future she had imagined for him, and for herself. We spoke at length about the importance of finding happiness through an authentic life, and how crucial her support would be to her son and to her relationship with him. She thanked me, and said that she would try.

I saw her recently at the local shops. She asked if I remembered her, which I did, and then she told me excitedly about how she was helping to plan her son’s wedding and how much she was looking forward to seeing him standing under a chuppah with her new son-in-law. They were planning a family with the help of a friend who had volunteered to act as a surrogate. I reflected on how far we had all come.

Back when I was in medical school in 1981, nobody had heard of HIV. The first Sydney Mardi Gras had happened as a protest just three years before and it would be another three years before homosexuality would be decriminalised in New South Wales.

The HIV epidemic devastated the LGBTQI community and Australia was a world leader in our response. This was because of a practical and non-judgmental approach to the problem and the profoundly wise leadership of politicians at the time, and dedicated researchers and clinicians such as the late Professor David Cooper.

In 2015 Prof Cooper told the ABC that being Jewish perhaps helped him relate to his patients and the stigma they faced.
“As a medical student at the University of Sydney, the value of life was never taken for granted,” he said. “There were a lot of Jewish kids in the medical school … I think that my values were very much formed around these young people whose parents were Holocaust survivors – we were Jews, we were different, and we were persecuted because of that.”

Fighting against the stigma and prejudice associated with the virus in the early days of the epidemic, Professor Cooper and his daughters became Mardi Gras regulars, dressing up as pills fighting the virus.

I remember 20 years ago when the announcement that Dayenu would enter a float in their first Mardi Gras caused a massive controversy which played out in the community and in The AJN at the time. This year in the marshalling area for the parade, there was no sign of controversy. Just a happy group of people from the Jewish community gathering to celebrate, accompanied by Rabbi Jackie Ninio who has been an extraordinary ally, the first time a rabbi has joined the march.

Recently a friend commented to me that very few people of our generation had emerged undamaged from the process of coming out. We talked also about the impact of the marriage equality postal survey, when the lives and the relationships of LGBTQI people were scrutinised, criticised and judged for whether we deserved that most basic of human rights … equality. Family relationships and friendships were tested during that campaign and there was intense debate in the Jewish community in homes, workplaces and public forums.

That really made me think about the remarkable resilience of the LGBTQI community, and how this important, vibrant and beautiful community has been the lifeline for so many of us throughout our history. It has helped us to survive prejudice, rejection, family rifts, marginalisation, abuse, physical and verbal attacks, fear, grief and depression in our very individual journeys to self-acceptance.

In the last two decades, more than 80 federal laws discriminating against LGBTQI Australians have been changed, culminating in the historic marriage equality vote in December 2017. The marriage equality survey sparked unprecedented numbers of conversations with friends, family members, and work colleagues. Conversations to explain what equality meant to us.

For some there was a shock revelation that a family member had voted no, and things could never be the same again.
But for many, there was a discovery that there was far more support than they ever believed would be there for us.

When my wife Jackie and I stood under the chuppah with Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, surrounded by friends and family at Emanuel Synagogue to renew our vows on the 20th anniversary of our first wedding celebration in New York back in 1998, we knew that particular struggle for marriage equality was finally over.

However, there is still a spectre hovering in the distance in the form of the so-called “religious freedoms” legislation. Many people were shocked to discover that the law allowed for students at religious schools to be refused school entry or expelled, and for teachers to be sacked, on the basis of their sexuality. This law has not yet been changed, even though the current government promised that it would be done by the end of last year.

Progressive Jewish leaders have told me they believe that there should be no such discrimination, while Orthodox religious leaders have told me that they want to retain that provision. It disturbs me to think of the effect of this uncertainty on students and teachers in such a vulnerable situation.

And there remains a pervasive ignorance about transgender and intersex people in our community. So there is still work to be done.

The 25th Jewish LGBTQI World Congress, the premier global Jewish LGBTQI event, is being held for the first time in Sydney from March 21-24 at Emanuel Synagogue. This is an opportunity for sharing of experiences and ideas about our intersecting identities from countries around the world.

I am honoured to be invited to present the keynote address for the conference. I will be focusing on the Australian experience of the LGBTQI community, from the Jewish perspective, over recent decades.

In Australia we could never have achieved all that we have achieved without our allies, including the many leaders in the Jewish community who stayed the course with us. The support of your faith community is an essential element of resilience and of emotional wellbeing.

As we appreciate how far we have come in Australia, it is important to remember that Jewish LGBTQI people in other parts of the world face uncertain or dangerous, even life-threatening situations.

I hope this Congress helps LGBTQI Jewish communities around the world to succeed in their struggle for equality and social justice.

DR KERRYN PHELPS