Hero of the Week Award, August 9: Judge Harvey Brownstone

9 Aug

HarveyI 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.


17 Responses to “Hero of the Week Award, August 9: Judge Harvey Brownstone”

  1. Bruce Kestelman August 9, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Thanks Michael for sharing this moving story and for the value you add in its telling.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt August 9, 2013 at 10:25 am #

      Thank you, Bruce! You consistently provide compassion and inspiration to many of us.

  2. Central Oregon Coast NOW August 9, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Reblogged this on Central Oregon Coast NOW.

  3. Tama Seavey August 9, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    There are so many “life lessons” in the telling of Judge Brownstone’s story. Who we are, living to our values, and a celebration of healing among them. This man sounds like someone to model and to look to for inspiration when life’s challenges present themselves. And I so agree – if we look to our humanity for answers to some of our struggles we would be better prepared and more compassionate people. Thanks for sharing, Michael!

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt August 9, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

      Tama, from my experiences of you, you provide amazing inspiration and model a lens of social justice. I am exceedingly grateful that I know you.

      • Tama Seavey August 9, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

        Thank you so much, Michael. I feel the same way – grateful that we have connected. I find your work inspirational to me, and also comforting that you and your team are working with so many others on issues where awareness and action will decrease the diminishing of others and empower those who can to make a positive difference in their circles. It is my hope that our journeys will lead us to a time when we can collaborate on a project. Your work makes my voice stronger. Have a wonderful weekend!

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt August 10, 2013 at 7:22 am #

        I’m hoping you will be moving to Portland and we can work together! I hope you have a great weekend, Michael.

  4. Christine August 10, 2013 at 9:21 am #

    Michael, I am glad to see you posting another side to Justice Brownstone. I am glad hat he is committed to human rights, although, as someone who has witnessed him firsthand in the courtroom, I am sad to say, while he respects gay rights, he operates from a racist ideology. He judges non-western cultures and he has made OPENLY RACIST REMARKS. It’s sad when a judge gets one form of oppression, but engages in oppressing another human being.

    • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt August 10, 2013 at 9:32 am #

      Christine, thank you for commenting. I wish I had known about the racist comments he made, for I don’t know that I would have celebrated him had I more information. Are you comfortable sharing the source and information you have? It breaks my heart to see one targeted population oppress another targeted population. Many thanks, Michael.

      • Perry August 24, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

        I think that the comment by “Christine” above is very unfair (I have been in his courtroom and heard him on hundreds of cases since the early 1990’s). Christine’s comment is libel and I hope that the administrator of this page removes the comment. I am guessing that “Christine” is a disgruntled litigant. Whether “Christine” agrees or disagrees with Justice Brownstone’s decision on her case is her own issue (and she would have had a right of appeal), but there is absolutely no reason that she should make public comments like she has above and shown disrespect for a Judge.

      • Michael Hulshof-Schmidt August 25, 2013 at 7:08 am #

        Perry, thank you for commenting here. While I am not comfortable deleting Christine’s comment, I will say that she encouraged me to do more research and I have found nothing to corroborate her claims. I have extended the invitation to her to share what she has experienced, but she has not shared any racist behavior on Judge Brownstone’s part.

      • Joe Baldwin October 28, 2020 at 10:14 am #

        Michael I can assure you that there is absolutely no merit whatsoever to Christine’s criticism of Justice Harvey Brownstone. I have appeared in his court as legal counsel for over 20 years, and can say without hesitation that he is fair, impartial, wise and compassionate towards all those who appear before him. It is hurtful and terribly unfair for Christine to accuse such a beloved icon in the legal and LGBTQ community of racism, unless she can substantiate her criticism with documented proof. In the absence of a court transcript proving this accusation, Christine’s comment should be removed. It’s terribly unfair and cruel to attempt to tarnish someone’s reputation with an accusation of racism, without proof.

    • Janet Smith October 28, 2020 at 10:10 am #

      This is an extremely unfair and libelous comment. Justice Brownstone has been an extremely well-respected and admired judge in Canada for over 25 years. I have been part of the justice and legal system for even longer, and have never even once heard the slightest criticism of this beloved judge. Christine’s comment should be removed, unless she provides documented (by way of a court transcript) proof that the judge has made racist comments.

  5. Barry Feldman August 18, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    My Dear Friend Harvey,
    You have lead the fight for equal rights.
    Since I met you, you have moved mountains in our community.
    Kol Ha Kavod to you.
    Barry Feldman


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