Jewish Nashvillians celebrate pride amid anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in TN

‘We’re glad it’s pride, but it feels different this year’

LilyFish Gomberg backed into her parking space at Vanderbilt University for a few weeks in order to conceal her rainbow flag bumper sticker. Working as a fellow for the Vanderbilt Hillel team, Gomberg feared for her safety amid “intense” anti-LGBTQ+ protests on the campus.

“Right now, it is not necessarily safe to be queer in Nashville, especially to be [transgender] in Nashville or Tennessee,” Gomberg said in an interview.

In March, Tennessee governor Bill Lee signed a law that prohibits most types of gender-affirming care — such as puberty blockers and hormone therapies — for transgender minors. In the same week, Lee also signed a law that banned drag performances in public or in the presence of children, which was deemed unconstitutional and overturned by a federal judge June 2.

“It’s very, very clear from the legislation being passed that the Tennessee government is incredibly transphobic and, in fact, aggressive towards trans people,” Gomberg said.

Celebrating pride

Despite these laws, members of the LGBTQ+ community in Nashville celebrated pride month throughout June. Jace Wilder, a master’s student at Vanderbilt, attended pride events in Pulaski, Columbia and Dickson County, Tennessee. He said more than 1,000 people showed up to the Columbia Pride Festival, whereas the other events were smaller.

Pulaski Pride on June 3 was one of the smaller celebrations, possibly due to the town’s history as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.

“With Pulaski, it was actually very small, but it was amazing…” Wilder said. “There is an amazing group of individuals who have come together and over the years fought against a lot of the oppressive issues that have happened in Pulaski and fought against the presence of the KKK at events.”

He said for all of the three years Pulaski has held a pride festival, the celebration has nearly not happened, with this June being especially difficult for organizers. One specific challenge was finding security for the pride festival, a private event.

“But [pride] still happened and it was great because the bands that played were all local,” Wilder said. “They played as loud as possible to drown out any protesters that were walking through that were screaming any kind of hatred.”

‘Devastating’ drag ban Franklin, Tennessee held a pride event June 3 in Williamson County, home of Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who Wilder said pushed for anti-LGBTQ+, specifically anti-trans, bills. The drag ban, which would have gone into effect July 1, was enforced in some places.

“That pride wasn’t allowed to have drag queens,” Wilder said of Franklin Pride. “...They had a plan around not having drag in attendance, which I think for everyone kind of put a damper [on] the celebration because drag — whether for gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans individuals or anyone else — is a huge portion of LGBTQ history and celebration. Also, I feel like drag naturally kind of brings the light to the party when it comes to pride celebrations and not having that present because of fear of being arrested is really damaging to the community.”

He added that the absence of drag queens at Franklin Pride was “devastating.” In the 1960s and ‘70s, drag shows provided a source of revenue for the birth of LGBTQ+ organizations and raised millions of dollars to help combat the AIDS epidemic, according to an article by LGBTQ San Diego News. Two drag queens played a major role in the 1969 Stonewall riots, a violent six-day confrontation between the police and LGBTQ+ protesters.

Gomberg, who recently left Nashville for unrelated reasons, said Franklin Pride was not as large as in previous years in part due to the recent legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

“The emails I keep getting from every queer org this pride month say, like, ‘We’re glad it’s pride, but it feels different this year,’” Gomberg said. “We are under attack, and I mean, we’ve always been under attack and this year it feels bigger, especially in Tennessee with the drag bill.”

They said there was also a sense of celebration given that the drag ban was overturned by a Memphis federal judge earlier in June. Peter Depp, a standup comedian living in Nashville, said the original ban may have been counterintuitive in that more Americans have focused on drag ever since Lee signed Senate Bill 3.

“With the drag ban… it’s done the opposite effect for drag,” Depp said. “‘Parent advisory’ stickers back in the ‘80s and ‘90s drove people to want to buy those albums. No one wanted an album that didn’t have a ‘parent advisory’ sticker and it wasn’t cool. I mean, drag was already cool. Obviously, RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s already happening. It’s high-profile. [The ban] created this sense of, like, it’s even cooler, like a ‘parental advisory’ sticker on it.”

He added that LGBTQ+ allies spoke up against the drag ban, including singer-songwriter Lizzo, who invited drag queens onstage at her Knoxville concert in April in protest of Tennessee’s legislation.

Being LGBTQ+ in Tennessee

Wilder said he was able to connect with other attendees at Pulaski Pride through conversations about the oppression that the LGBTQ+ community has faced in Tennessee.

“For me, as a trans person who has lived in Tennessee his entire life, this is my community; this is my family,” said Wilder, who is originally from Cheatham County. “This is my home. And I think that it’s beyond ridiculous to ever imagine that you can drive someone out of their own home just because it gets you political brownie points.”

Wilder works as education manager for the Tennessee Equality Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for equality for the LGBTQ+ community in Tennessee through legislative advocacy. He has spoken in front of committees and to legislators about what it means to be trans and how certain legislation can harm trans people.

“It has definitely enraged me because I see both the injustice that's happening [to] youth as if their lives aren't hard enough being in the South and seeing state oppression forced onto them…, but also having to see my own community suffer has been really difficult, but I’m so proud to have continued the fight here,” Wilder said. “And that I think that we have shown that no amount of pawn politics can get rid of us.”

Judaism and pride

Gomberg, who regularly wears a rainbow kippah, said their Jewish and LGBTQ+ identities have been intertwined.

“For me, they’ve always been super connected,” Gomberg said. “I grew up in Massachusetts with my lesbian rabbi playing guitar on the bimah on Shabbat and her wife was my Hebrew school teacher. There was never any hush hush in my community growing up.”

Two years ago, Gomberg moved to Nashville to work with Vanderbilt Hillel. She said she feels fortunate to have found a welcoming community.

“Within my Jewish community, I’m absolutely celebrated and uplifted,” Gomberg said of Jewish Nashville. “And I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky. I got to Vanderbilt and there was not a queer group, and I said, ‘I think there should be a queer group.’ And now there’s a queer group.”

Wilder said it was initially difficult to be a trans person in the South, but he has since found a place of belonging.

“I still have difficulties finding where my space is in my Southern Jewish community,” Wilder said. “...When I started coming out, I wasn’t sure how I was going to go about being a Jewish trans man of the South, especially when no one at the time was coming out. There [were] no resources for it. There [were] no synagogues coming out in support around me. Now, there are, which I’m very grateful for and seeing more and more of that from the Orthodox [Jewish] community all the way over to the Reform community.”

Wilder, who initially felt the need to choose between his Jewish and trans identities, added that he believes Judaism has always been accepting of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I realized if Judaism is going to be accepting of me and my whole identity, I don’t get the right to reject where I came from and where my faith is because it’s already accepted me,” Wilder said. “It’s already here. It’s already inside of me, so I can’t run away from that.”

He spoke about the importance of remembering the history of pride and its start as a series of protests.

“I think that it’s more important than ever to be celebrating pride and not just celebrating it through parties and drinking … but also [to go] back to the origins of pride of truly fighting against the systems which have led us back to the seats of oppression and not sitting down in them so kindly,” Wilder said. “It’s okay to throw out the chairs and build a new dining set for us.”

Gomberg, who studied Jewish and queer studies at Brandeis University, shared a similar sentiment.

“Pride is absolutely a celebration; it should be a celebration,” Gomberg said. “It should be joyful. It should be very exciting, and it's also still a protest, especially in a state like Tennessee.”


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