By Marques Hollie
The month of Elul, our collective pre-game for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, often surfaces ideas and reflections that I hadn’t consciously considered, but are nonetheless vital to my Torah. This year, I find myself struck by the idea that queer history and the origins of what we now call Pride can be understood through the lens of Jewish time.
My relationship to Pride has changed drastically over the years. When I first came out, I was terrified. My surroundings had conditioned me to believe that I didn’t deserve to be proud. That I was unworthy of what Aretha Franklin called a deeper love inside. Thank G!?d, I overcame these feelings. But even when I started feeling proud, I didn’t see myself, a queer Black person, represented in the dominant narrative of Pride. I became deeply suspicious of rainbow capitalism – corporations paying lip service to queer communities in marketing and advertising for the sake of lining their coffers. The line between increased visibility and exploitation is a thin one.
Then, two years ago, I had a deeply transformative experience that made Pride holy, sacred, and ancestral for me.
Pride, in its essence, is a commemoration of resistance. In 2019, the Reclaim Pride Coalition held its first Queer Liberation March, a demonstration that “harkens back to the spirit of the Stonewall Rebellion and the initial community gatherings in the years that followed.” The Stonewall Rebellion began in the wee hours of June 28, 1969 and ended several days later.
I marched with a group called Beloved and Proud. We carried posters from Jason Tseng’s Queer Saints project, which presents queer historical figures as religious icons. For me, carrying a larger-than-life portrait of bandleader and jazz musician Billy Tipton and walking a similar route as Christopher Street Liberation Day (the predecessor to Pride) was transformative. Not only was I literally walking in the steps of these ancestors, I was walking with them.
I was so inspired by my experience in 2019, I marched again in 2020. I began exploring this ancestral connection through niggunim, wordless Jewish melodies, and by writing prayers honoring the divinity of queer places and queer history (e.g. Stonewall Avot v’Imahot). I marched this year too, wearing red shorts, colorful shoes, one of my more vibrant kippot, and a tank top which read, ‘What is it you can’t face?’ Somewhere along Seventh Avenue, I heard a voice say, “Gut Yontif” (“Happy Holidays,” in Yiddish). I turned and saw a spry, older gentleman and I wished him a “Pride Sameach” (“Happy Pride,” in Hebrew) in return. As it turns out, he marched in the very first Christopher Street Liberation Day, on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, June 28th, 1970.
I was simultaneously gobsmacked, flummoxed, AND verklempt. I didn’t even think to ask his name or take a selfie for the ‘gram like a good millennial. Can you imagine meeting someone who went out of Egypt with Moses and company? That’s how I felt. Here he was, an elder with a personal, unassuming, gentle connection to a legendary historical moment that continues to impact my life and the lives of others. For various reasons, the queer community doesn’t have the abundance of elders it should. As a young queer child, I didn’t have anyone to look up to, so meeting this veteran of our community in this way, was a gift.
Each time I observe Pride, generally the last weekend of June, I can’t help but feel a High Holy Days vibe. I spend the entire month of June thinking, learning, and ultimately preparing for the marches, festivals, celebrations, and memorials. For me, these are extraordinary days whose history and meaning cannot be denied or forgotten. How do you prepare for Pride? Maybe preparing looks like reading up on queer history, watching particular films, or kiki’ing with chosen family. Maybe it looks like all of those things or none of them.
When we honor the Stonewall Rebellion, we honor the moment, those days, when our queer ancestors and elders were tired of being seen as grasshoppers, and became the giants on whose shoulders we now stand.
I’d like to suggest that the month of June and the Hebrew month of Elul have a lot in common. Just as June prepares us to commemorate the days of awe of 1969, so too, does Elul prepare us for our tradition’s yamim noraim (“Days of Awe” in Hebrew), Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
How do you prepare yourself? Reading, music, prayer, meditation, journaling, conversations with dear ones? One of the blessings of Elul is that it gives us the opportunity and permission to reflect and take stock of ourselves; to look both back and forward. As I look back, I see not only myself, but the saints/tzaddikim without whom I could not be the proud person I am today.
And as I look forward, I pray for each of us to be blessed with a deeper love inside. May our existence, our work, and our celebration continue to be a revolution.