Every year, for the first five years or so that I marched in Pride parades, this one counter protester was always there, screaming at us from the sidelines. I can’t remember exactly what his signs said, but it was something in the vein of “God Hates Fags.” He wasn’t explicitly aligned with Fred Phelps’s gang, but he’d clearly lifted some of their ideas. It felt awful to see him there, like all my worst fears about myself and the world confirmed,but it never felt surprising. We were less than a decade out from the gay-panic teen movies of the 80s, most of us had been met with hostility or disbelief when we came out. This guy, with his angry God and American flag, just confirmed a lot of what I already knew about the world.
These days, Pride is much more mainstream. I live in Boston now, and our parade is giant and corporate, not little and scrappy like the Vermont event. The last two years, the “counter protesters” have been from the left–#blacklivesmatter activists who call out corporate sponsors like Wells Fargo and TD Bank for their participation in global capitalism. The Dyke march feels more like Vermont Pride, with its political signs and Dykes on Bikes marshals,but even that is almost entirely met with support and cheers from the surrounding crowd.
So the Trans support rally just before the midterms felt a little bit like I was moving back in time, even as it represented the newer face of the queer movement. As I made my way to City Hall Park, I was greeted by a small group of protesters, right on the corner, holding up signs to passing traffic that read “NO ON 2” and “STOP TRANS INSANITY.” It had been so long since I’d seen homophobic counter-protesters that at first, I assumed they were with the bigger rally, but no. Perhaps most heartbreakingly, one was in his twenties (so much for the strategy of just waiting for the bigots to die out). I went into a coffeeshop where I’d planned to meet my friend, but I could feel them throbbing in the back of my skull, like the beginnings of a day-long headache.
And, of course, even as these protesters felt like a throwback on one level, there was another, scarier element that was all too current. The rally was Sunday, the day after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I’d spent the morning shell-shocked, catching myself staring off into the middle distance, unable to finish a complete thought. The sanctuary at our temple is probably my favorite physical space on earth. It’swarm, and full of music, and I have consistently felt loved and fully seen there. The thought of a place like that as a site of such violence makes me stop short, bile in my throat, cheeks hot, unable to think straight, frozen in grief and terror. What is a sanctuary if you’re not safe in it?
But maybe I’ve been thinking about it all wrong, linking the notion of sanctuary to physical safety. After all, only a convert would feel safer from violence in a synagogue, I think. When I made this joke to a good friend he pointed out that it seemed like I’d forgotten what every single Jewish holiday celebrates. And this is what appeals to me about Judaism: that it’s based on the idea of welcoming the stranger, that this is a group of people who come together to make light because the darkness is just around the corner, that we need spiritual community in the face of oppression and danger.
Throughout the Yes on 3 rally, the anti-trans protesters kept yelling. One of them had brought a bullhorn, so there would be periodic outbursts followed by spirited chanting from the activists around them. City Hall Park has notoriously terrible acoustics, so the fracas was impossible to ignore, bouncing off the concrete and drowning out the speakers. But the trans protesters kept going, and there were so many beautiful moments. A young singer covering the Mountain Goats “This Year” on their ukulele; endless earnest performance poetry; call-and-response chants; political candidates. And two moments stood out that stood out the most, especially to the queer kid in me who seems never to be done licking her wounds. First, the mom of one of the organizers was on the docket to speak, and she called all the parents who were present to support their trans and non-binary kids to come up on stage with her. They led us in chants and praised their kids, noting their bravery and commitment to this fight. My friend put her arm around me, noticing my tears. And the other was when the Mayor of Boston spoke, opening with this line: “I’m Marty Walsh, and my pronouns are he and his.” As if I didn’t know. But that gesture of respect, the fact that he was there at all—it was so beautiful.
It wasn’t perfect, by any means, showing the seams and growing edges of the movement. While Marty Walsh was speaking, a passerby stopped and, noticing the racial makeup of the crowd, interrupted to yell into the crowd “where are the Black folks?” After a few minutes, a few of the Black and Brown protesters present, including my friend who I’d come with, gathered around him, listening to his complaints and explaining their support for the movement. As ever, I was struck by the emotional generosity of the queer community,but also left thinking about the greater emotional burden placed on our siblings of color to straddle these lines, to do all this explaining.
I have no idea which version of America will ultimately prevail in this struggle. Every day brings new horrors, and I certainly don’t feel safe most of the time. Ilana Glazer canceled a get-out-the vote event after the temple where she was performing was defaced with swastikas. My own beloved campus was covered in white supremacist flyers the week before the election. Two people were shot dead at a Krogers for being black. Ferguson activists keep getting killed, and there’s no police follow up. A wildfire wiped a California town off the map, and keeps raging. In this environment, sanctuary can’t mean physical safety. It’s impossible to guarantee, and our desire for it just leads us to build more walls, name more people as Dangerous Others.
So I’m left with the challenge of figuring out what sanctuary means from a perspective of radical vulnerability. On the most basic level, we’re not safe right now—maybe we never were. So I think sanctuary has to be based in a different kind of safety. The thing I keep coming back to is community. At our temple (like many), we begin Shabbat services with the hymn Hine Ma Tov, which translates to “Behold how good and how pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity.” I’m almost always late, so I roll in to services as it’s being sung. It’s also written on the front wall of the sanctuary, in both Hebrew and English. The space itself is beautiful, but I’ve been in many beautiful spaces of religious sanctuary and not felt safe at all, convinced that the most fundamental parts of myself are under siege. It’s perfect, then, that we orient the service around this idea of beloved community. The space, while beloved, isn’t the point—the point is the people. Maybe this is the greatest insight of a diasporic faith? That we come together whenever and wherever we can?
And this is the piece to remember: for me, sanctuary is about feeling seen and being inspired to meet others with love and acceptance.It’s the feeling I get at an AA meeting, at temple, at a protest—none of which are particularly physically safe spaces. Tomorrow, I’m heading to the Burlington ICE facility with our temple and some others for a Jericho Walk. We’ll walk around the building, praying silently, and then stop and pray out loud in front. This will by no means make the space physically safe, but my hope is that the people inside might feel a little safer, a little more seen.
In the end, sanctuary depends on radical vulnerability, which can have an inverse relationship to physical safety. It’s about establishing real human connection, even—especially—when physical safety is impossible. It’s about meeting danger with love and honesty. What it means to protect my beloved community is to ensure that they—that we—feel seen and accepted and whole, even as the world becomes more and more unsteady by the day. Sanctuary is carved out in the space of human interaction, not by hunkering down but by looking outward with love.