I knew I wanted to be a rabbi before I knew I was gay. Though neither gave me much pause or worry, the integration of the two kept me closeted until my first year of rabbinical school. I spent the next few years wondering and worrying about how my identity would impact my desire to serve the Jewish people. In my first job as a student, I didn’t come out for fear of having to face my multiple identities.
So I lived what some might call a double life: rabbinical student by day, lesbian by night.
When I arrived at my student internship, a large suburban Reform synagogue, I was petrified. How would my congregants react to their new rabbinic intern being a lesbian? Would I be accepted? In the first few weeks, my strategy was one of avoidance and deflection. When people asked me about my personal life, I simply stated that I was seeing someone and hoped that there were no follow-up questions. No names, no pronouns. I never brought anyone to events, and I added some dresses to my wardrobe of pantsuits.
Three months in, a small group of sweet and curious teenagers dragged me out of the closet, refusing to let me retreat into my rehearsed non-gendered answers. On a December Monday evening in our girls-only class, after months of questions about my “boyfriend,” I realized that I couldn’t hide any longer. With a shaky voice and pounding heart, I told them that I had a girlfriend and that I identified as a lesbian. A few days later, I saw the board president whose daughter was in the class. She had told him what I said. She thought it was great. She didn’t have a problem with it, and neither did he.
Eight years later, I am privileged to serve that same synagogue. But I am no longer shy or closeted when it comes to who I am. I am honest and open and my community has accepted me. They have seen me through two relationships that ended and one that led me to the chuppah last June. The sisterhood threw us a gorgeous bridal shower complete with a video tribute, toasts, and a delicious purple cake.
One of my initial worries was about how families, especially those with young children, would react to their rabbi being an out gay person. How would they explain it to their children? How I would feel comfortable talking about families with children who, for the most part, have one mom and one dad? How would I come to feel comfortable talking about LGBT issues without being labeled as “the gay rabbi”?
Over the last few years I’ve come to understand that most kids—the kids I meet and know and teach—aren’t interested in the politics of what it means to be LGBT. They have no idea of the historical significance of June 26, 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized married equality in all 50 states. They know that grown-ups who love each other get married. They know that my wife and I wore white wedding dresses that made us look like princesses (their words, not mine). They don’t know that some people hate gays, lesbians, and trans folks. They just know me.
As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. A few weeks ago a friend of mine overheard two 5-year-old girls talking before a dance class. Each was saying who they would marry. When one said that perhaps they would marry each other, the other responded, “Girls can’t marry each other.” Without missing a beat, the other said, “That’s not true because Rabbi Karen is married to a girl.”
June is known as LGBT Pride month and I couldn’t be prouder of the opportunity to be myself in a community that loves and accepts me for who I am. Through my honesty about who I am, I hope that I am helping to create a community where every person can be honest about who they are, too. I am especially proud of the opportunity to make an impact on my community, especially for our kids. For that, I feel proud every day of the year.