Jewish & Queer: one closet, several hidden identities

by Lar Pearl she/they

A recent Jewish Heritage Fund survey found that 7% of respondents identified as LGBTQ+. Queer Kentucky has partnered with the Jewish Heritage Fund to uplift queer Jewish people. With anti-Semitism spreading in the United States and abroad, it is important to uplift our Jewish community members. Queer is an identity that crosses racial, geographic, ethnic, class, and cultural boundaries, so the communities we work with are as diverse as the communities in that queer Kentuckians live.

When I sat down to think deeply about the intersection of my Jewish, Queer, and Kentuckian identities, I realized they all had the same obstructed, hidden-in-plain-sight start: dark, with just a glimmer of light. 

This is also how many seeds germinate and start their growth. 

Hiding, just out of sight, with the ability to open the closet door just a little bit more, emerging briefly and intermittently, when ready. Growing up in a very Jewish (both culturally and spiritually) family that was both proud of our heritage and yet somehow, also still closeted in noticeable ways, I learned quickly how to adapt to my surroundings. How to keep safe, and when to let the frustrations that bubbled at the surface erupt in small, yet digestible, bursts of air. 

I attended synagogue, Hebrew school, Sunday school, and weekly Shabbat dinners with my thirty-plus immediate family. I also yearned to be visited by Santa. To understand why Jesus didn’t love me. Judaism felt confusing, for a while. Was I supposed to be ashamed, or was I supposed to be loud with it? It took years to cultivate my own relationship with identity. I’d like to think this is an average experience for many Southern Jews. Or maybe it was just mine. I’d either shy away from speaking up when untoward, anti-Semitic jokes were told, or I’d be arguing with teachers about the separation of church and state, complaining about Christmas crafts and activities, with no Hanukkah menorahs in sight. 

I often felt like the Hebrew letter Hey, meaning “halb” or “half.” And I wouldn’t feel truly Jewish without the guilt, right? Oh, the guilt. Of not speaking up enough. Of not looking Jewish enough (I have naturally light hair, and am the only one with it in my family). And of not being like everyone else, enough. It felt like living in the light, or “Ohr,” was just out of reach. Ohr, in Hebrew, also means “giving order to something chaotic.”  It wasn’t until I moved to Kentucky, in my late twenties, that I started finding order for my chaos. Not surprisingly, the same can be said of my journey with queerness.

When I moved to Kentucky, I was anxious and depressed, but somehow incredibly hopeful. The glimmer was lit again. I still felt scared. When you’re used to living in the dark, the light can feel petrifying and downright unsafe. I took steps back, almost immediately. Louisville felt like it would reveal itself to me at some point, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I married an Irish-Catholic man who in some ways mirrored my distant, abusive parents, and fell deeper into the crevasse. 

There was so much dark, for a while. I partied, I met all kinds of people, I tested my own loosely defined boundaries —  if you can call them that. I didn’t want to be too much, or take up space. Then, I was pregnant. I realized what being in a crevasse truly meant. Sometimes that kind of literal bottom is the only way out. I quite literally woke up. I became aware, or “muda’at.” I went after my light, so my child would never have to search like I did. My identities started to unfold again. I noticed I was missing my Jewishness that I’d set aside. That I was longing for a different kind of relationship. After my ex-husband’s DUI, and at the start of our separation, I finally saw many lights and came out. I finally realized what Louisville was to reveal to me. I’ve always disliked that term, or having to put pressure on anyone LGBTQ to self-identify, but it felt like I was not only fully out of the crevasse, but I was finally putting the last bit of order to the chaos. 

My “Ohr” felt tangible. I could see things around me, and more importantly, I could see me. Louisville hadn’t revealed a place, but it had revealed the queer me. Things were hard again, but I found my chosen family. I returned to my roots and grew new ones. I volunteered, worked hard, moved, dated, and came out again as non-binary. I challenged my authenticity further by allowing myself to present as femme again. All of this was hard, but so much easier than waiting in the dark for something to happen. I went after so much light, and sometimes the intense brightness was overwhelming. Sort of like arriving at your destination after a long nap in the car. And I’ll never hide in the dark again.

Just last year, I was looking back, and I noticed how deeply my roots are now planted. Once I started showing up unapologetically as my fully authentic self, I started noticing more and more just how Jewish and Queer our state really is. How Jewish and queer I really am. How many of us are here. It’s where my seeds took their time to germinate, in the dark, just trusting the light would come. 

I embrace being a Kentuckian. While here, I got my Hebrew name tattooed on my ribcage, (which Instagram tells me is a common bisexual cannon), and I am now engaged to my future wife. Leaving the safety of my previous home and trusting my own authenticity would likely not have felt so right, had it not been here. I am ever so grateful. I’ll stay loud, proud, unashamed, Jewish, non-binary, queer, and a devoted mother, right here in My Old Kentucky Home.