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Making Reconstructing Judaism work for all

Movement’s new director of diversity on overcoming racism, homophobia

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Sandra Lawson, gay news, Washington Blade, Reconstructing Judaism
Rabbi Sandra Lawson (left) is Reconstructing Judaism’s inaugural director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion. She’s pictured here with her wife Susan Hurrey. (Photo courtesy Lawson)

When you’re a kid, you often have no idea what shape your life will take.

Growing up in Missouri in a military, Christian, but not religious, family, Rabbi Sandra Lawson wouldn’t have thought that she would become a rabbi.

Yet in March, Lawson, who is Black, queer, an activist, social media pioneer, vegan, a veteran, and a musician, will become Reconstructing Judaism’s inaugural director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion. (Reconstructing Judaism is the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism.)

“Reckoning with racism — both systemic and personal — is one of the moral demands of our time,” Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism, said in a statement, “Sandra has the substance, the experience, the passion and the compassion to help lead our movement in this challenging and necessary work.”

Lawson, 51, has done more in her life than a hundred have done in theirs. In a lengthy telephone interview, she talked to the Blade about her life.

“My Dad was in the military,” Lawson said, “he’d grown up dirt poor.”

Her family had some rough patches. Her parents’ marriage was in trouble. Though they weren’t religious, her mother took her to church a few times. “The services were too long! The minister said homophobic things,” she said.

Her parents divorced. “For a few years, my brother and I weren’t in a good space,” Lawson said.

Lawson went to college but she found that she wasn’t able to focus. “I dropped out,” she said, “I took my 20-year-old self and enlisted in the military.”

Lawson didn’t know it then but this was the best thing she could have done. “In the military, I learned to plan and accomplish things,” she said.

She enlisted in the U.S. Army before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” An instructor in officer school, who was gay, went through the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy,” Lawson said, “We asked questions. It was ridiculous, she had no answers.”

Lawson said that she couldn’t let people know an important part of herself. “I couldn’t trust people except for other gay people,” she said. “You developed a code to let other people know that you were queer.”

Lawson was out to her father who was supportive. Don’t worry about being the only gay person, he told her. “He believed women should do what they want to have relationships and a successful career,” Lawson said.

While in the military, Lawson was a Military Police officer. She investigated cases of domestic violence and child abuse. “I was most afraid for the children,” Lawson said, “because they are so helpless.”

Sometimes Lawson broke up bar fights. Often, she worked to deescalate situations. “I was on bases like Fort Bragg. I was like a small town sheriff,” she said.

One case involved a couple and a dildo. A husband was upset because there was a dildo in his wife’s drawer. The husband and wife were fighting aggressively. “There was no winning here,” Lawson said. “We called in a therapist who saw them by herself. Then I was called in when the couple was fighting again. They knew me by now.”

Lawson was called in on another case because a wife set her husband’s clothes on fire in the front yard. “I had to explain to them: ‘I understand you’re mad. But you can’t set fire to military property.’”

In the Army, Lawson learned that it’s good to be physically fit and how to keep focused. She became interested in becoming a personal trainer. “I was good at it, and I made money from it,” she said.

Lawson pursued her education along with her military service and personal training business. She earned a bachelor’s in Sociology from Saint Leo University and a master’s in Sociology from Clark Atlanta University.

In her personal training business, Lawson had Jewish clients and a Jewish girlfriend. Her girlfriend’s family welcomed her to their Shabbat dinners. One of her clients was Rabbi Joshua Lesser. Today, Lawson and Lesser are close friends. After she asked him about Judaism, Lesser invited her to visit his synagogue, Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH).

Lawson worried that CBH might treat her differently because she’s Black. But this was far from the case as the Congregation was welcoming.

“There was this prayer called a Prayer for the End of Hiding, which begins, ‘We as gay and lesbian Jews…,’” Lawson writes on her website, “and the entire community was saying this prayer, even the straight folks.”

Over time, CBH became Lawson’s spiritual home. She converted to Judaism in 2004. Yet, Lawson doesn’t like the term converted. She sees the term “as a way to separate out people who are different in the Jewish community,” she writes on her website.

Her mother told Lawson that the earliest person in her family to come to America was from Ethiopia and a Jew.

“I feel like I didn’t so much convert as get in touch with my roots,” she said.
Her graduate study gave Lawson a background in sociology and research. “I had a better understanding of race and class,” she noted.

Lawson became involved in interfaith community organizing. She wanted to be a bridge between her identities and communities – Black, queer and Jewish. Lawson felt she could do this more effectively if she had the title “rabbi,” and she wanted to raise awareness of racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community.

Lawson is a 2018 Reconstructionist Rabbinical College graduate and was ordained as a rabbi in the same year. Since 2018, she has served as Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at Elon University. She lives with her wife Susan Hurrey and their dogs Simon, Bridget, and Izzy in Burlington, N.C.

The Jewish community hasn’t come to grips with its white privilege, Lawson said. “My hope is that the Jewish community will acknowledge its racism,” she said. “You can’t work against racism in your community if you don’t acknowledge that it exists.”

Jews of color comprise at least 12 to 15 percent of American Jewry, according to a study released in 2019 by the Jews of Color Initiative. Yet, Lawson and other Jews of color experience racial bias in the Jewish community.

Lawson spoke of one example of the racism that she’s experienced. Once, after she’d graduated from rabbinical school, she interviewed with a congregation’s search committee. “People recommended me,” Lawson said, “yet the committee’s president called me. He said four people who held the purse strings wouldn’t come to my interview. They weren’t ready for a Black rabbi.”

Of course, there’s still homophobia now. But most progressive congregations don’t think much, if anything, about it now – if they have a lesbian, gay or bisexual rabbi, Lawson said.

“It’s different for transgender rabbis,” Lawson added, “they face much more severe discrimination.”

But in the 1990s, queer rabbis who applied for jobs encountered homophobia. Training was put in place and queer people were put in leadership positions to combat the homophobia, Lawson said.

Black and brown rabbis need to be put in leadership positions, Lawson said, so that Jews of color who are rabbis don’t seem to be a novelty.

Just because you’ve read an anti-racist book or taken a class doesn’t mean that your struggle against racism has ended. One day one of Lawson’s friends called her. “She’s a white woman – a rabbi in Ferguson, Missouri – an ally. She said people asked her, ‘how can we be anti-racist?,’” Lawson said. “She told them, ‘Undoing white supremacy is hard work. It’s daily – day in and day out.’”

Lawson is creating an inclusive, non-profit, online-only (for now) congregation. Its name is “Kol HaPanim,” she told the Blade, “Hebrew for ‘all the faces.’”

Judaism is a religion of doing, Lawson said, “believing comes later.”

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Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

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As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

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As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
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Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

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‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

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