By Jay Smith
Purim is a holiday full of LGBTQ+ themes and motifs. Generations of LGBTQ+ Jews have found solace and solidarity in the narrative of Esther’s moment of coming out as Jewish, and reveled in the redemptive power of her choice to reveal her identity. Traditions such as offering material support and gifts encourage us to embody solidarity and mutual aid. And there is a centuries-old joyous tradition of costuming and gender-bending in celebration of Jewish resistance and survival.
However, some Purim traditions have the potential to alienate rather than celebrate LGBTQ+ community members. In many communities, the tradition of gender-expansive or cross-gender costuming for Purim without deep LGBTQ+ affirmation can be hurtful. This can be particularly true for transgender women and femmes, who are too often targeted by transphobic portrayals of their genders as “false,” “absurd,” or “the punchline of the joke.”
Keshet wants to help make your Purim gatherings deliciously joyous, celebratory, and respectful of queer identities. While this guide is not completely comprehensive, it is a start to building a respectful environment.
Questions? Reach out to Keshet’s Education & Training team at [email protected]
“Purim is about joyful survival and defiance and celebration, and we get to make a mockery of those who tried to oppress us, and that [is the] energy that we try to bring to our drag performance.”
Riv-Killa, Jewish drag performer
“When I see cis men on Purim dressing up for comedic effect as women, I do not see myself. The comedy hinges on the fact that men ‘trading down’ by dressing up as women are funny, because being a woman is funny, and men being women is even funnier. This kind of humor is rooted in the intersection of transphobia and misogyny.”
Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor-Mater
Costume celebrations are a space for people to try on different outfits, styles, and even identities. The goal of costuming on Purim is to create an atmosphere of “pure joy,” and we can build this environment when we allow costumes to be fun.
Set guidelines for your community
When you do it right, Purim invites experimentation! People need healthy and joyful spaces to experiment with expression and appearance, and for many people, costume spaces are among very few spaces where they can do so. While you cannot assume what is behind a participant’s choice to dress in a gender-creative or gender-expansive way, you can set expectations that comments or jokes made at the expense of any identity will not be tolerated at your gathering.
Every community sets and enforces norms and expectations. This may happen explicitly (as in dress codes, codes of conduct, halakhah, etc), or implicitly (social pressures, “unspoken rules,” cultural expectations, etc.)
Rather than defaulting to biases and cis/heteronormativity, communities can intentionally set norms of respect. Ideally, norms can be institutionalized and known by community members, and then referred to at times when those norms are broken. Examples might be “Respect every community member’s identity,” “Practice active listening,” or “Everyone is welcome here.” If norms are broken, the person who broke them can be reminded of the community agreement, which helps to make corrections and hold people accountable in the moment.
Build a culture of feedback
We encourage communities to build cultures in which members can “trust intent and tend impact”. Our communities are at their best when people can respond to harm with trust that the feedback receiver will tend to the impact without defensiveness.
When people are aware that their intentions may not match the impact of their actions, they are better able to understand and respond to feedback. Set these intentions explicitly and come back to them often.
“Cisnormativity” describes the common assumption that it is the “norm” or “default” to be cisgender, while “heteronormativity” describes the common assumption that it is the “norm” or “default” to be straight.
Cisnormativity and heteronormativity can play out in large and small ways. From sign-up forms to greetings to by-the-way comments, many LGBTQ+ people are faced with constant assumptions and erasure, and these moments make a space or celebration far less embracing.
Prepare to intervene if you witness harm
If comments or jokes are made at the expense of any identity, witnesses have an obligation to speak up in some way. Not intervening is not neutral, it actively contributes to harm. If you are an event organizer or staff member, you have an increased responsibility to ensure that everyone feels welcome.
Here are some ways to intervene in the moment:
Set clear guidelines for appropriative costumes
Using any culture, race, or historically marginalized identity as a joke or costume is appropriative and hurtful. People who hold historically-marginalized identities do not take their identities off at the end of the performance. We live in them full-time and often experience bias, discrimination, and harassment because of them. Our identities are nuanced, complex, and not simple stereotypes.
If you, or a person you are in community with, wants to dress up as a specific historical figure, movie character, etc. of a different race, gender, or culture, build a costume around that figure or character’s trademark uniform/outfit/tools/props without using racially or culturally stereotyped portrayals. If you find that it is not possible to create such a costume, consider that the impact of a costume that relies on stereotypes will be real for members of the community, whether or not there is any ill intent.
And if you are an event organizer or leader, make it clear that appropriative and/or offensive costumes will not be tolerated, and that anyone wearing an offensive costume will be asked to change.
Intent is what a person means when they make a choice, act, speak, or dress in a particular way. Each person has their own thought process, values, cultural context, and reasons for acting as they do, and these reasons may not intend to cause hurt. For example, a person may choose a costume for Purim intending to celebrate or participate in drag or LGBTQ+ culture, make a joke or use a term that they do not know might cause hurt, or suggest an activity without realizing some community members might not be able to participate.
Impact is the way in which a particular action, way of speaking, costume, or plan affects others in practice. Regardless of intentions, the impact of our actions is real, and responding with kindness and humility when we learn about unintended impacts is key to learning and building trust.
Drag can be delightful, subversive, joyous, and deeply Jewish. Many communities include drag performances or contests as part of their Purim celebrations. This can be a wonderful way for communities to be introduced to the art form and open conversations about self-expression and joy.
Here are a few tips:
Drag is a fully-developed art form with history, meaning, and complexity. It developed as a form of resistance and celebration by a historically-marginalized community. Drag events should be planned and developed in authentic relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, and with respect for the talent and experience of the artists.