Shalita Corndog and Mina J’Moi lead drag bingo on Purim at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Mychal Copeland)
Shalita Corndog and Mina J’Moi lead drag bingo on Purim at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Mychal Copeland)

Why my synagogue hosted a drag story hour for Purim

Let’s face it. At Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s LGBTQI synagogue, any day is a good day for drag. But this year, with drag under legal attack in some states, we felt it was especially important to hire drag performers for our Purim celebrations.

Our event began with a drag story hour with Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence members Shalita Corndog and Mina J’Moi. They read aloud from “The Purim Superhero,” a book banned last year by a Florida school district because the main character has two dads, and “If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It.”

Later, young adults celebrated with Jewish drag performers extraordinaire Miss Shuguna and Menorah Manischevitz.

What does our tradition say about drag? Or, more broadly, about wearing the clothes that might be perceived as those of another gender?

Like for most Jewish questions, the answer has evolved. Rabbis Elliot Kukla and Reuben Zellman explore relevant ancient and medieval Jewish commentaries in an essay in “Torah Queeries,” the 2009 book that reframed Torah from a queer lens.

They begin with Deuteronomy 22:5: “A man’s clothes should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear the apparel of a woman, for anyone who does these things, it is an abomination before God.”

While this verse is plucked from Torah to justify bans on “crossdressing,” it has also been used in a broader way: to reinforce a binary-gendered system in which each of us must stay within prescribed boundaries according to what the world perceives our gender to be.

So it is perhaps surprising that commentators throughout time did not read the verse this way. The Talmud clearly states in Nazir 59a, “There is no abomination here!”

So what is the issue? The problem that Torah addresses is not crossdressing per se but presenting yourself with the intent to violate someone’s trust.

For Rashi, the issue is someone dressing as another gender in order to commit adultery. For Maimonides, the concern is with crossdressing that leads to idol worship.

But dressing in one way or another is not an abomination itself. For transgender and gender-expansive people, dressing in clothing that best fits their gender expression is not about violating trust or sneaking around where one doesn’t belong. It’s quite the opposite. It’s about being your most authentic self.

None of this is to say that our tradition is wildly accepting of transgender and gender non-conforming identities. We’ve made progress — and have a long way to go. But it does show our tradition includes a teaching that “choosing to wear clothing that is traditionally designated for a different gender from the one in which we were raised is acceptable if we are doing it because it makes us happy,” Kukla and Zellman wrote. “And if we are permitted to dress in these ways because it makes us happy, then all the more so is it appropriate to wear the clothes that express our authentic selves.”

This brings us to Purim. Why was it so important to Sha’ar Zahav to feature drag ? Drag has become a part of popular American culture, from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to age-appropriate drag story hours at public libraries. Drag, of course, also has a rich history in the Bay Area.

But due to rising antagonism and fear-mongering, drag venues and performers have joined Jews in worrying about security. More than 140 drag events in 47 states faced protests  in 2022, according to GLAAD. In the fall, an Oklahoma donut shop was firebombed after hosting a drag event, leading some drag artists to hire armed guards. And over 400 bills have been introduced across the country this year to deny rights to LGBTQI people, including drag performers.

This is not a new phenomenon. Such laws have existed for over 150 years, and the first law of this kind was enacted right here. Back in 1863, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a law that criminalized appearing in public in “dress not belonging to his or her sex.” Such laws, whether in 1863 or 2023, do not simply target clothes. They are a way to police gender expression and to scare and silence us.

Some states have also banned minors from receiving gender-affirming care, children in school from talking about their LGBTQI families or identities, and transgender youths from participating in sports. All of which, we could argue, have far more serious implications than drag bans.

So why focus on drag? Because this isn’t just about drag shows. Such legislation represents an overarching anti-LGBTQI agenda that especially targets transgender people — and endangers free expression for everyone.

What is at once consoling and heart wrenching is that all of this is happening while a majority of Americans across the religious spectrum support LGBTQI protections. This means that a small, vocal and powerful minority are ruling the day. It also means that we have the power to turn this around.

Here in California, we are leading the way with pro-trans legislation. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill last year offering refuge for transgender youth if their home state restricts their access to care. We will soon have the chance to remove from the books Prop. 8, the California law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Considering the current U.S. Supreme Court, we need Prop. 8 stricken in case the national right to same-sex marriage is reversed and the issue returns to individual states.

There is also something we can do in the Jewish community. Whether or not you identify as LGBTQI, you can join the fight for our rights.

Sha’ar Zahav is part of Keshet’s Thrive: The Jewish Coalition to Defend LGBTQ+ Trans Youth. One institution’s voice isn’t powerful enough, but our nationwide coalition is close to 200 Jewish organizations strong. As part of the coalition, you can join monthly calls training us in LGBTQI advocacy and get updates as new bills emerge. We hear directly from people in states that are passing anti-LGBTQI bills. We share across state lines and give each other much needed hope.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."