First Name, Last Initial
by Stan Notkin
Beth Chayim Chadashim, Los Angeles, CA
The June 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York’s Greenwich Village jump-started the modern gay/lesbian rights movement. (Now, in part to commemorate Stonewall, Gay Pride Month is celebrated every June.) Shortly thereafter, Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) was founded in Los Angeles in 1972, and two years later the fledgling congregation joined the UAHC, now the URJ.
While the Stonewall riots put an end to the police raids of gay bars in New York, enactment and enforcement of anti-gay laws continued elsewhere, including Los Angeles. Plainclothes police still entrapped unsuspecting victims, who were charged with a violation of 647(a), Lewd or Dissolute Conduct in Public, just for suggesting a late night tryst. If convicted, they were required to register as sex offenders.
In that environment, Beth Chayim Chadashim (House of New Hope) was indeed a place of safety and refuge, as well as spiritual inspiration and camaraderie. Nevertheless, congregants were understandably wary of having their identity publicly revealed.Even if they weren’t going to be arrested for attending a synagogue with a gay and lesbian outreach, there was still the possibility of losing their jobs, their security clearances–even their families–should their sexual orientation be discovered.
Some courageous members and leaders of BCC used their last names, but there was an understanding that, to protect the identity of those who were concerned, last names were not required in congregational rosters, publications or in the temple newsletter. The use of a first name and last initial soon became the norm.
The practice went on into the mid-1980s, by which time police harassment calmed down and there was a growing acceptance of the LGBT community in general, particularly in the Los Angeles area, to a point where most BCC members finally felt comfortable using their last names.
A very notable exception involved one of the more prominent and devoted members of BCC’s Board of Directors who happened to teach at one of the religious schools down the street, and was therefore afraid that he would be fired if they found out he was gay. So an exception was made, allowing the continued use of just his initial–even as he became president of the congregation!
Fortunately, those bad old days are now a thing of the past, and young BCC members are probably not even aware of the terrible fear that led LGBT people to identify themselves as First Name, Last Initial.
Stan N. has been a BCC member since 1975.
Spotlight on Diversity: This June, the URJ highlights a variety of resources to help congregations welcome and support diverse members. Learn more on our website.