By Rabbi Elliot Kukla
The year was 1997. I was sitting on a purple futon next to my girlfriend surrounded by a circle of our friends, eating tabouli salad and messy crying. I was 23 years old and we had just seen Ellen DeGeneres come out on national television as a lesbian. Even for a cynic like me, who knew that Hollywood was just smoke and mirrors, this moment was transformational. Until that day, being queer felt like it would always be at least partially hidden in the shadows and then, suddenly, we were on network television.
For the next two decades, the horizon of the LGBTQ world kept expanding. Every year there was a new ground-breaking piece of media, like Laverne Cox declaring the transgender tipping point on the cover of Time Magazine in 2014; or a new legal advance, like federal marriage rights in 2015. Of course, all this visibility was not the same thing as true safety. At the same time, violence was escalating towards trans people, especially trans women of color. However, it still seemed like history was inevitably on our side. But over the past years, the idea of unfettered growth towards queer and trans liberation has been challenged.
This year, as we come to the High Holidays, a time when Jews around the world take stock of our lives and the world around us, we are facing enormous LGBTQ losses. As I write this, 566 bills have been proposed in 49 states that attempt to limit the rights of transgender people, 89 of those bills have already passed and this number keeps growing. A rising percentage of LGBTQ people report feeling unsafe at work and at school, including a sobering 82% of students. The Human Rights Campaign declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ people in 2023 in response to these changes. 64 countries around the world now criminalize being gay and, for the first time ever, the U.S. did not make the U.N. list of safest places in the world for LGBTQ people.
There are numerous losses that go along with these stark facts. Millions of individuals and families have lost homes, jobs, health care, immigration or adoption rights, legal battles, safety, and hope. And yet we rarely talk about the grief associated with the loss of rights or safety. I have spent the past 18 years offering spiritual care to those who are mourning, ill, or coming to the end of life. I am also queer, trans, and disabled. My personal and professional lives are inextricably bound up with loss and grief. And yet, many of the most profound losses I tend to are never honored by rituals or announced from the center of the sanctuary.
“Disenfranchised Grief” is a term that was coined by hospice educator, Dr Kenneth Doka, in his 1989 book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. It refers to stigmatized losses that are not generally validated as bereavement, such as the loss of mobility, freedom, friendships, or identities. Disenfranchised losses lead to similar feelings of despair, isolation, and exhaustion, as the pain we experience when someone we love dies. However, since they are less likely to receive care and support, disenfranchised mourners are more likely to feel alienated and alone. This year, many queer and trans people told me about feeling hopeless, angry, and unmoored, without realizing they were describing the symptoms of grief. Your queer mourning is real, even if there are no traditional rituals to mark your losses.
The reality is that, nowadays even the deaths of human beings are often not honored. Notice how few public memorials there are to the millions of people who have died from COVID-19 world-wide. Few workplaces offer bereavement leave for even the most intimate losses. We are often encouraged to “move on” and get back to “normal” as quickly as possible after all forms of loss by our bosses, family members, and, sometimes even our therapists. “Moving on” is often presented as the right thing to do, for our loved ones and the world. However, Judaism speaks in a different voice. Our tradition honors the holiness of mourning. Every single daily service includes prayers of memory and even at joyful weddings, we break glass to remember loss. In my experience, as a bereavement spiritual care-giver, this healing is for both individuals and the world, because expressing grief is what helps us empathetically connect to other people and move towards justice.
In 1987, Eric Sawyer was one of the activists who founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP. Sawyer said the group channeled their grief over AIDS deaths into the energy needed to fight against the mistreatment of people with HIV and AIDS. “Every ACT UP general meeting began with an announcement of who died that week,” he said. “It was the rage and the anger from seeing all of our friends die and from being ill and not having the government care [that fueled us.]” Expressing the grief of the AIDS pandemic changed the world and my life. I came out as queer when I was 15 years old in 1990. At the time, AIDS was surrounded by shame and isolation: family members stayed away from death beds, doctors abandoned their patients, nurses refused to touch dying, sick people. But my new gay aunties taught me then that silence equals death. They showed me how to embroider the names of our dead into quilts and shout our grief out loud at protests. I learned that transforming our bereavement into action equals life.
Grief has always been a way for the disenfranchised to assert that our lives matter, in the face of a world that treats us as disposable and ignores our grief. My Jewish ancestors were snatched off the street by SS officers and buried in mass graves. My disabled ancestors were warehoused in institutions, and buried in nameless coffins. My trans ancestors were left murdered in alleys, their cases growing cold as I write this. Despite this lack of official lamentation, throughout history my ancestors found ways to remember each other by weaving grief into everyday life, including our celebrations.
Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the new year, but it is also a time to say good-bye to the year that has passed. Tears are a central High Holy Day theme. All the traditional Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashana speak of weeping. The Shofar itself is a symbol of tears. Our sages teach that the horn we blow on Rosh Hashanah must be kakuf (bent) to reflect our own bodies bent over in grief; while shevarim (the broken blasts of the shofar) are meant to echo the sound of our own tears, they are always surrounded by tekiah (whole sounds). This teaches us that even though our heart has been broken it has the capacity to be whole again and, in fact, more complete for having cried out in brokenness.
After surviving the Holocaust in Belgium, my great-grandmother Rivka moved to England. Before she died, she took my father out to the coal heap behind their home: “Swear on this mountain,” she said to him, “that you will mourn for me.” To this day, I feel bound by this oath made by my nine-year-old father long before I was born, to grieve for this woman I never met, whose face looks so much like mine. I learned from my great-grandmother that grief can be a form of hope. Rivka had so much persistent, gritty hope in that moment. She hoped my father would remember her. She trusted in him to pass down her story and hoped for a legacy.
In this era of LGBTQ losses may we be as hopeful and brave as my great-grandmother. May we grieve our losses out loud, because we believe that our stories belong in the future. When we mourn LGBTQ losses, we are reminded of the richness of our queer history, our brilliance, our sparkle and our potential for restoration. May 5784 be the boldest, brightest, queerest year ever.
A Ritual To Mark LGBTQ Losses
During the High Holiday season, we mourn the old year and celebrate the new. This is a ritual I wrote to mark the LGBTQ losses of the past year.