I need to thank my friend Bruce for inspiring me to celebrate Judge Harvey Brownstone as this week’s HWA. Brownstone, the first openly gay judge in Canada, had the great pleasure and honor of officiating the wedding of Thea Spyer and Edith Windsor. You might recall that it was Windsor who was the plaintiff in the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the core of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — which restricted federal marriage benefits to opposite-sex married couples — as a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Thank goodness we finally saw the death of DOMA.
Our Brownstone takes Tikkun olam (Repair the World) quite seriously. As a gay Reform Jew, Brownstone recounts:
I came from a Jewish community devoted to inclusiveness, helping one another, and fighting injustice—or, at least that’s what I thought growing up in Hamilton, Ontario.
Our Jewish community was filled with Eastern European immigrants and Holocaust survivors, and my father, a social worker who directed the Jewish Community Center, would bring affluent community members together to assist the newcomers with housing, furniture, clothing, and jobs.
While I do not subscribe to any religion, I have to admit that I wish more humans behaved in this inclusive manner and navigated the world through a lens of social justice.
It is important to note that Brownstone’s start was a difficult and painful one. Coming from this social justice Jewish background, one would think his parents would have embraced their only child when coming out of the closet. Sadly, this was not the case:
I decided to tell my parents that I was gay. We had always been close—I was an only child—and I anticipated that my father’s social work background, coupled with my parents’ strong Jewish values of “supporting your children no matter what,” would govern their reaction.
I could not have been more wrong. My parents exploded. They felt shame (“What did we do to cause this?”) and embarrassment (“What will people say when they find out?”). One of the most painful things my mother said to me was, “I survived the Holocaust for this?”
It was immensely painful to know that I had caused my parents such anguish and turmoil simply by revealing the truth about myself. To me, being gay was no different than being right-handed or having brown eyes. I believed—and still do—that we’re born this way. But to my parents, being gay was a choice, a “lifestyle.” I had been taught that what Jewish parents want most of all is for their children to be happy. But I quickly realized that my parents’ definition of “happy” was what counted, not mine.
Fortunately, Brownstone and his parents had a great reconciliation and he was celebrated for the mensch he is:
I invited my parents to my law school graduation, and they proudly attended. That was the beginning of a rapprochement that, over the next five years, would result in a full reconciliation…
In the early ’80s the Jewish community didn’t get that we were all Jews. If the Holocaust had taught us one thing, it was that to the Nazis it didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, Reform or Orthodox—you would share the same fate. But in my experience, this startling reality was overlooked when it came to accepting Jews who were different than the norm.
Eventually I became Chutzpah’s president. And in 1985, I persuaded the board to engage as gays and lesbians with the mainstream Toronto Jewish community.
Again, I am not a religious human, albeit I am spiritual, I do love how Brownstone concludes his interview with ReformJudaism.org:
Put simply—and no one should understand this better than we Jews—civil rights are not just about the law, and they’re not just about rights; they’re about human dignity. We were all made in God’s image. When we discriminate against and hurt each other, we hurt God. And that is why—whether we’re gay, straight, or plaid—this issue needs to matter to us all.