Rabbi Camille Shira Angel at University of San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy)
Rabbi Camille Shira Angel at University of San Francisco. (Photo/Courtesy)

Say Gay! Say Lesbian! If It’s Safe for You, Come Out and Feel Proud!

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For as long as I can recall, I wanted to be a rabbi. My family likes to tell the story that, as a young child, I used to stall for bedtime by appearing with scribbled notes, announcing I had a sermon to give.

Sally Priesand was ordained as the first woman rabbi in the U.S. 50 years ago. My dad was the eighth generation in his family to be ordained a rabbi. As I came of age, I never doubted that as a woman I could follow in those footsteps.

But when I began to come out as a lesbian, I worried whether I would be allowed to enter seminary, as the application process entailed taking an extensive psychological test “meant to weed out homosexuals,” among other concerns. Once enrolled, would I be able to find a congregation willing to hire me? At that time, I knew of only a couple of closet cases, but the situation was about to change for the better.

In 1990, the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, made public its decision to ordain lesbians and gays as rabbis. It would take another 23 years before the seminary would see the ordination of the first transgender rabbi. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and suffered great homophobic abuse. They include local heroes and mentors — Rabbis Allen Bennett, Yoel Kahn, Eric Weiss and Denise Eger, four of the most influential and well-known gay and lesbian rabbis.

I began my rabbinate at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. What a wonderful five years! I had the support of a visionary senior rabbi, Robert N. Levine, and a congregation proud to be on the frontlines of leading mainstream metropolitan synagogues’ efforts of inclusion.

In 2000, I moved to San Francisco, where for the next 15 years I was the spiritual leader of the world-renowned LGBTQ+ Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. Highlights included editing the congregation’s amazing and inspiring prayerbook and getting it into the hands of students, teachers, queer-identified people worldwide, hospital chaplains and even then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Seeing your own experience reflected on the pages of a gorgeous, traditional and radically inclusive book of prayer can resurrect a person’s faith or plant the seeds for a newfound relationship with community and connection to our ancestors’ rites and rituals.

At the University of San Francisco, where I am rabbi in residence, our motto is “Change the world from here.” Throughout the city, our green and yellow banners promote inspiring messages such as “Humanity. Justice. Integrity. You know, Wild-Eyed San Francisco Values.” These days, I don’t miss an opportunity to speak out. I often take the mic and remark that, while the world is filled with alarming news, much of it catastrophic, it has never been a better time to be a lesbian rabbi teaching queering religion at a Catholic university!

RELATED: Meet the rabbi ‘queering’ religion at Jesuit Catholic USF

While some estimate that approximately 30% of the campus community is queer-identified, others find that suggestion hard to reconcile with USF being a Catholic university. What I find among my students is that too few have encountered out, loud and proud lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual adults professing the good news about being part of our fabulous and diverse tribe. I love introducing students to religious communities and leaders who are integrating their sexual and gender identities across race and faith without apology. I can wholeheartedly attest that USF has been totally supportive of my rainbow ministry.

I will be coming out in public conversations until the day when we see full acceptance and inclusion, mental well-being, and thriving LGBTQIA+ young people. My sexual orientation and gender expression matter, not least in this era when LGBTQ civil rights are once again being contested (most notably in Texas and Florida), but also because religious organizations in many locations still happily receive the tireless offerings of time, talent and treasure from their LBGTQ members — as long as they don’t mention the “gay part.”

I married into a large family that includes several religious conservatives, including my mother-in-law and several of my wife’s brothers. Recently, on a family email chain, my liberal father-in-law posted the recent profile on my work at USF. J. writer Lea Loeb’s Feb. 11 story about me, “Meet the Rabbi ‘Queering Religion’ at a Catholic University,” appeared first in J., then got picked up by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and is now circulating in the national and international Jewish news.

One “religious” brother messaged to the family, “Can you imagine spending your hard-earned money to send your kid to college to learn this kind of crap?!” I guess we won’t be staying with him and his wife anytime soon. Hate-filled words still sting, no matter how many times I’ve heard them before.

It is a privilege to come out. My undergraduates teach me each semester that I ought not assume that everyone can come out and be public. This is particularly true among my students of color, for whom coming out risks the loss of familial ties and financial support. Coming out is seen as a luxury for the white and the wealthy.

Some of my students challenge me and take issue with the idea that everyone can and should be publicly out. They argue that this value rests on the notion that one’s personal story and desires are the most important factors in one’s life, ignoring the non-individualist modes of life that many non-Western queer people live by. An emphasis on coming out assumes that frank and direct conversations about bodies and sexuality are always culturally appropriate when, in fact, this is culturally myopic.

When prospective students and families see the rainbow flag in the window of my university ministry office, when queer people see USF marching in the Pride Parade, when we make religious support for LGBTQ people fully visible and explicit — it matters. For some it’s life-changing, and for others it’s life-saving. I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity to work for the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the Jesuit USF.

Here and now, in this critical moment in history, I am reminded that by the grace of God, in whose image we are all created, I am contributing to the repair of the world.

This piece first appeared in the San Francisco Bay Times, which can be found online at sfbaytimes.com, and is reprinted with permission.

Rabbi Camille Shira Angel

Rabbi Camille Shira Angel is a Reform rabbi with over 25 years of experience guiding couples and families in Jewish lifecycle events. She is an educator, public speaker and LGBTQIA+ religious activist. Currently, she is rabbi in residence at the University of San Francisco.