50 Shades of Rainbow
“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.”
There are few quotes that more perfectly sum up the month of June.
George Sand, the woman behind these words, was a 19th-century writer, rebel, women’s rights advocate, and wearer of pants. Sand had no qualms with being nothing more or less than herself, and proudly.
Every June, we get to celebrate people like George Sand, and the unbridled beauty of real-life love – the love that makes one feel seen, feel heard, feel alive. At the JCC, we look forward to this chance to celebrate the Queer Community and nurture the intersection where queer and Jewish identities meet. The significance of creating space for identity expression and Jewish tradition to converge cannot be understated.
But don’t take it from us.
“I am the senior host of CPR’s Colorado Matters,” says Ryan Warner, a voice you probably know and a face you would recognize from JCC’s Drag Queen Bingo or Queer Seder. “I am a French speaker, a Jew, openly gay, a cat owner, and a whiskey drinker.” (When asked what brand of whiskey, the answer was “virtually anything you put in front of me.”)
A Coloradan for the past 16 years, Warner has traveled the state and interviewed people from all walks of life, uncovering the narrative of Colorado and those who call it Home. “It is true that everybody has a story. It’s a gift to draw people out and have them be listened to. Listening is an act of love. It’s so meaningful when people are able to be heard.”
Warner grew up attending Hebrew school in California, and as a “closeted gay kid,” struggled with finding acceptance. “It was not an affirming place for a gay kid. I have a lot of bad memories about what it meant to be gay – to be an effeminate boy in Hebrew school. So, I’m really moved by the experiences I have at the JCC because they’re in such stark contrast to the experiences I had as a kid.”
Attending events at the JCC, such as Queer Shabbat, Drag Queen Bingo, and the annual Jewish Deli Bike Tour, present an opportunity for Warner to be in a space that encourages the convergence of gay and Jewish identities. “The notion that there is a space that sees me both as a Jew and a gay person, and recognizes both of those things, is fundamentally affirming. I have occupied Jewish spaces, I have occupied LGBTQIA+ spaces, those have been plentiful for me. The idea that those spaces would be one is incredibly special. I feel seen. I feel that at the J.”
On a phone call with Joseph Toth, a JCC LGBTQIA+ Committee Member, this sentiment was echoed emphatically.
“My first encounter with the JCC was at PrideFest 2022. I attended Queer Shabbat at the J and realized that I had somehow stumbled onto the place, the people, the feeling that I had been itching for.” Prior to finding community at the J, Joseph was working to cultivate queer community by going to various leagues and synagogues across the city – but there was still something missing.
“The J, to me, is the embodiment of the community I’ve always searched for. I picture the J as an open door to a grouping of folks that I had always hoped existed, and turns out it actually does exist.” Something about the people, the approach, and the overall “vibe” made Joseph feel truly at home.
Although we dedicate a month to celebrating Pride, both Warner and Joseph feel like it’s more of a year-round kind of thing.
“I try to live as authentically as possible,” says Joseph, “but I also try to give myself grace for the moments when I feel more comfortable reigning myself in.” For this year’s PrideFest, Joseph plans on “dancing, so much dancing,” and bringing together friends both queer and non-queer. A natural cultivator, Joseph finds beauty and love in the act of discovering commonalities between those who may have otherwise not found each other.
So, the question that barely needs asking, yet is somehow the most important: Why celebrate Pride?
“When I was a kid in the closet, I saw representations of gay people, but they weren’t close enough to me to make me feel safe,” Warner states. “So, to have a month of visibility – to see someone who’s out and Proud – that is life changing. It can also be life saving.”
Creating buoyancy and visibility for LGBTQIA+ individuals is more important than ever. With a recent rise in anti-queer sentiments and acts, standing united as a community is an incredibly powerful statement. It can make the difference in the lives of closeted individuals fearful of coming out, as well as affirm the identities of those who are out and Proud.
Victor Hugo once said of George Sand, “[She] cannot determine whether she is male or female. I entertain a high regard for all my colleagues, but it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.” Although Hugo had a narrow binary approach, the core of his sentiment is true – the choice of identity is entirely up to the individual. Nurturing acceptance, visibility, affirmation, and boundless love is all we should be offering our fellow humans.
June is a time to remember that love, and identity, is indeed a kaleidoscope, not two-toned. We have a unique opportunity at the JCC to not just celebrate Pride, but Pride through a Jewish lens. We can cultivate a space of belonging for those who identify as queer, Jew, both, and anywhere in between.
As Warner states, matter-of-factly, “It’s nice not having to check being gay at the door to be Jewish.”