Religion at Forefront of Gay Pride March - The Villager, 07/20/2007

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender synagogue, has attended New York City’s Gay Pride March for 20 years — and each time, the experience takes her breath away.

“It’s always so moving when we turn down Eighth St. in the West Village from the park at Fifth Ave.,” she said. “You see the crowds and feel such a tremendous outpouring of love and energy and excitement.”

This Sunday, Rabbi Kleinbaum will be among the first marchers to take in the view. She and Reverend Dr. Troy Perry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a worldwide ministry with a special outreach to the L.G.B.T. community, are the march’s grand marshals. Not only will they lead thousands of celebrants downtown, they will be the first religious figures in the march’s 38-year history to do so.

“We’re going to stand at the front in a united float with choruses from both our communities singing together,” Kleinbaum explained.

Though the choice of this year’s grand marshals may come as a surprise to some, Dennis Spafford of Heritage of Pride, the organization behind the march, considers it complementary to the event’s agenda:

“People often forget that this is not a party, it’s a march. It’s a political statement,” Spafford said. “Religious groups around the world have been so negative toward the idea of homosexuality and transgender identities. Rabbi Kleinbaum and Reverend Perry will send the message that we’re as much a part of the religious community as others are.”

Both Rabbi Kleinbaum and Reverend Perry have long struggled on behalf of the L.G.B.T. community.

Before joining Beth Simchat Torah in 1992, Kleinbaum served as the director of congregational relations for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.

She has stood before the U.S. Congress and in federal court to argue for the legalization of same-sex marriage and attended the conference of U.S. religious leaders at the White House in 1999.

In March, Kleinbaum was arrested in front of the Times Square military recruiting station for protesting comments by General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the immorality of homosexual behavior. Less than a month later, she was named one of Newsweek’s “Top 50 Rabbis” in America for her work at Beth Simchat Torah.

Perry’s story begins with the founding of Metropolitan Community Churches in his living room in 1968. Within a year and a half, membership jumped from 12 to 1,000, prompting the ministry to seek an alternate space.

But finding a place to settle proved difficult.

“Those first years we had to move eight times. People kept throwing us out of their property when they found out who we were,” Perry recalled. The ministry finally bought property in Los Angeles, where its headquarters remain today.

As the M.C.C. network expanded into communities in other states, violence followed. Perry recalls a “long term of persecution,” during which three M.C.C. pastors were murdered and 21 churches burned down.

But the ministry would not be intimidated.

“We made up our mind that we wouldn’t be run out of a city,” he said. “Nobody was going to do that to us. We would stand, we would struggle, and we would fight.”

Now, with a ministry of more than 52,000 individuals, M.C.C. is the largest organization of L.G.B.T. individuals in the world.

“In the gay-lesbian community, it’s been very difficult for we who are persons of faith,” Perry said. “People come into our churches and ask, ‘Why would I want to join any religious organization, when they all tell me what I do is sinful and wrong?’

“Seeing Rabbi Kleinbaum and myself at the front of the parade, I think it gives a lot of hope. It does the heart good to know that religion is a part of the L.G.B.T. community — and a part that doesn’t divide us,” he added.

That statement of unity is timely, according to Kleinbaum.

“Right now, the issue of L.G.B.T. identities is at the very center of the debates about religious freedom, pluralism and democracy worldwide,” she said.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Jerusalem, whose controversial Gay Pride parade is scheduled to take place on June 21, three days before the event in Downtown New York.

“I have never seen religion so hateful,” said Perry. “With war and everything else going on in Israel, the only thing that the Muslim, Jews and Christian religious leaders in Jerusalem can agree on is keeping the parade out of the city.”

During their six years of existence, Jerusalem’s Gay Pride marches have consistently met with hostility. Naama Levitzki of the Jerusalem Open House, the grassroots organization that runs the parade, recalled participants, covered with gobs of spit and excrement a protester had thrown, threading their way through the city’s streets.

In 2005, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed and wounded three parade participants in Tel Aviv. The following year, violent protests prompted the cancellation of Jerusalem’s World Gay Pride Procession, which was subsequently relegated to an enclosed stadium.

When Jerusalem Police Chief Ilan Franco announced his approval of the 2007 Gay Pride Parade last Wednesday, violence erupted in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. Protesters blocked traffic and set garbage cans on fire.

Ten thousand individuals convened to oppose the parade last Sunday and many will gather again on June 20, the day before the parade, Levitzki reported. Those at Jerusalem Open House have received death threats and vicious phone calls.

“There have been all sorts of attempts to frighten us and make us back down, but we are very determined to fight to make a Gay Pride happen this year in Jerusalem,” Levitski said. “This is a fight for democracy and freedom of speech, it’s a fight for the sanity of this city and this country.”

“We’re very much aware of the freedoms we have in the United States and know that until every gay person can be free to be who they are, none of us is ultimately free,” said Kleinbaum. “This year we are marching with what’s happening in Jerusalem in mind.”