B’nai Tikvah was thrilled to welcome our beloved community member and musician Lisa Zeiler to speak to us at our annual Pride Shabbat Service. We hope you are as moved and inspired as we are by her words:
I used to have an invisible friend. I remember him being in my earliest memories. His name was Billy. I loved Billy. Billy was a boy and he could do all the things that boys do- the things that I couldn’t do myself. I used to dream when I was little that I was a boy. Literally, in my dreams I was always a boy. I think I was Billy. It was confusing, but then my brother was born and that settled it. I was a girl. All my clothes were pink frilly things and dresses. I was 5 and didn’t understand why I couldn’t wear my jeans to the first day of school like my brother. As my brother and I got older it was the toys that really got me. I would get barbies, but I didn’t want them. I wanted the dump trucks and the hot wheels. I wanted the guns and the big wheel. I didn’t get any of it, and my brother and I grew up fighting a bunch. Mostly cause I kept taking his toys to play with. (we’re better now and share more easily).
By 7th or 8th grade I began to notice my friends getting really excited about boys. They spent hours talking about who was cute, who was nice and who they wanted to kiss. I had no interest, and didn’t understand why they did. I got a boyfriend to be like everyone else. I liked my boyfriend Chuck, but he was a friend. We tried kissing but I thought it was gross so we just held hands. I had other boyfriends, but it was to fit in. I wasn’t attracted to any boys at all. I began to wonder what was wrong with me and I started to get depressed.
Then, the summer before my freshman year of high school I kissed Jackie. She was a girl from my junior high who started singing to me on the bus home from school every day, singing about my eyes. It was weird but it made my heart flutter in a way that I’d never felt before. Jackie and I became secret girlfriends. Secret because far as I could tell there had never been a gay person before in the history of the world, and I wasn’t prepared to be the first. There were a few books about gay people that I borrowed from the local library. One was called, The Well of Loneliness. The title really says it all, right? There were no out gay famous people to look up to, no one on tv or in the movies, though there was Liberace and there were rumors about Freddy Mercury, Elton John and David Bowie, but no women. Well, maybe Billie Jean King, but it was all pretty hush hush still. I was in suburban Chicago and I had no role models who were women like me, so I began to transform myself into being more like a boy than a girl. I’m not sure it was conscious. I just know from looking at pictures of myself over the years I can see the changes.
We were taught in school, back in 4th grade when we had sex ed, that only boys and girls dated and later had families. Any deviation from that would result in a life of misery and isolation and you definitely wouldn’t have kids. Later that school year my parents found out about Jackie and me and they told me that if I ever saw her again they’d tell my grandparents. I was young and believed with all my heart that my grandparents loved me unconditionally. However, with my parents telling me that no, they wouldn’t love me if they knew I was gay- doubt crept in. My parents thought I was sick and now I feared that my grandparents would be disgusted with me also. I went deep into the closet.
My family moved to New Mexico that next school year- my 10th grade year. My parents said it was because they were too ashamed to live somewhere where everyone knew I was gay. That was an incredibly heavy weight that I carried for many years. They were embarrassed about who I was. It was a heterosexual world and something was wrong with me because I liked girls. I didn’t know what to do with this and I rebelled. And I got in all kinds of trouble. Trouble in school, trouble outside of school. I was grounded most of my 10th grade year. I lost interest in my studies and quit most sports except softball. My comfort was my guitar and my guitar lessons with my teacher. I’d write songs, sing love songs with all the longing of my 15-year-old self. I would blush in my room when I would sing songs from a male perspective. It was like I was looking at myself from the outside, and I couldn’t reconcile what was on the inside.
One day in February of my sophomore year I cut school. I don’t remember why, but I did. I think I’d maybe done it once or twice before. I was home when the school secretary called to say that I was to be suspended from school. My parents would ‘kill me’, so I decided to run away instead. Not my finest moment, and as a mother now I can only imagine how my parents felt. But I did and I stayed away for two days. My parents called the police and eventually they found me, hiding in a friend’s house. I didn’t want to come home. My parents wanted to cure me of my bad behavior and my homosexuality (which they still hadn’t tied together) and they had me committed to a mental hospital. There were a lot of other teens who identified as queer and were in there for the same reason. We had group therapy everyday as well as individual therapy. I can’t say that I loved this particular time in my life. We attended classes, had to keep daily journals and could have visitors if we did as we were told. I was allowed to have my guitar. We were allowed to smoke, so I started smoking. I was also allowed to leave to go and play on my softball team if I had a good week. It was so odd to be locked up most of the time, but then allowed to go and play. Turns out a lot of girls who play sports were queer. Or wanted to try out kissing girls. I loved getting a day pass so I could go and play with my team.
What I know now about children and teens is that if you shame and ostracize them, their behavior and self-esteem will be affected. My parents weren’t savvy enough back then to know that and looking back I think things might have gone differently throughout my teen years had they known then what they know now.
When I moved out of my parents’ house I cut my hair short. I moved in with my girlfriend, and my parents refused to pay for my college because of it, so I enrolled myself into community college. When I was 19 and living in Arizona, the governor of Arizona rescinded the MLK holiday and it was even more clear that Arizona was no place for anyone who was black, gay, or anything other than straight white people, so I decided to move. I put a map of the US on our wall and threw a dart to pick where to live. The first one landed in Billings Montana and I thought that I’d still find homophobia there, so I threw another dart. It landed smack dab on Berkeley and I flew out a few weeks later to check it out. I loved it. There was an earthquake that first night in my motel, and I took it as a good omen- I arrive and the earth moves! I moved into a studio apartment in West Berkeley and found my people.
When I was 22 I was teaching and building guitars in Berkeley at Subway Guitars. It was a cool scene and I got to hang out all day and practice when no one was at the store. I met a woman there who was putting together a band and wanted me to join the band. I said yes, and it changed the trajectory of my life. One significant way was that she and my other band mate had met the prior summer at an LGBT family camp. I had no idea that any of those letters or words went together! The idea that I, as a lesbian, could ever have a family was an incredible consideration and one that I thought I’d never ever have. They encouraged me to apply to work the following summer, in 1992, and I was blown away! I was hired as the teen counselor, and I loved working with those kids. Teens are a special group of people, and because of the hardships that I’d been through with my family, I wanted to be not just a good counselor to them but a great one. I loved it, and kept doing the job for more than a decade. I would often sit and talk with my group- cause teens love to sit and talk- about what it was like for them growing up with same sex parents. I told them that one day I’d like to have a child and would my child be embarrassed by having two moms? Would they not want to bring their friends over? Would their friends’ parents not let them play at my house? My campers were wonderful and reassuring. One of my kids shyly asked the group if they felt ok having him as a friend because he had both a mom and a dad and felt self-conscious at camp. We all reassured him that it was ok to have a mom and a dad, it wouldn’t change the way we felt about him. What an interesting moment that was! It was my first look at being in the majority as a queer person, and it was surprising how good it felt.
Over the next 10 years I came more into being myself- and the butch woman who I am today. I kept my hair cut short, bleached it blond, started identifying as a butch woman, and toured the country with my little trio. We played on communes, and at folk festivals, on women’s land, and in cafes where the only person who listened ran the coffee machine. Once, when touring through rural Mississippi, we got pretty lost. We found a fire station and as I was getting out of the car my friends stopped me- and we decided that it’d be best to have the most feminine woman among us to go ask for directions. We were in town to play on some women’s land who’d been violently harassed by their neighbors for being gay and we’d come from the bay area to play for them in solidarity. We were in Fort Collins Colorado the day after Matthew Shepard was killed and played at a rally where there were more white folks protesting our being there than the folks who were there to rally around the hate crime that was committed. It was an incredible time and as we grew more into being known as a lesbian folk trio, I learned that there were many, many kinds of queer folk. Some lesbians look like me, and some look like my partner- who passes. We say that someone passes when they can blend into the majority. Libby, my partner, looks queer when we’re both together. Otherwise she blends into the majority, and looks straight. My looks are another story.
One of the biggest issues being a butch woman is the confusion of others. These days the kids at school ask me, Lisa Z are you a boy or a girl? I usually respond by asking them what they think. They will often respond I think you’re a girl but you look like a boy. Or they straight up figure I’m a boy. I’m not embarrassed at all. They’re just trying to figure it out, and in the end they usually say that it doesn’t matter. It’s great and I welcome their honesty. Adults are another matter. They’re not polite enough to just ask and they make assumptions. They usually assume I’m a man, and it’s evident when at a restaurant and I’m always given the check. Or I get to taste the wine that’d just been opened, for approval. It’s something that I’ve gotten used to in the last 10 years or so. The best was when I was pregnant, and I was still assumed to be a man. A miracle of a man, for sure, since I was as big as a house with my over 10-pound son in my belly.
My gender is fluid. The queer community is trying to introduce themselves with their preferred pronoun these days and I don’t really have a preferred one. Some of my favorite comments from students at school is, ‘he’s a girl’, when referring to me. I just love it because that’s how I feel.
However, when I go to the bathroom I’m fully rooted in the feminine. I have spent my life using the women’s room, when given an option. It’s now become something that I have to be aware of every single time. See, I make women uncomfortable when I’m in the ladies’ room. Women who are already in the bathroom always point me towards the men’s room. And the men want me to go to the women’s room. I was recently on a vacation with some friends in Northern Ireland. Men would yell at me from across the pub that I was going into the wrong bathroom. My friends were blown away- they don’t see me like that and had never had that experience as straight people. There are women who, when they walk in, turn around to double check the sign on the door, and then proceed to wait outside till I leave- that just happened on Solano in Berkeley. In Europe, it got so bad that I eventually used the mens’ room for the rest of the vacation- making my friends feel awkward because they’re not used to me going into the bathroom with them!
When I’m here at CBT I’m very comfortable. I have to admit though, that for the first few years when I worked here I only used the bathrooms behind the bima. But that was me, and I was making my own assumptions, just like I don’t enjoy when others make them about me! I was assuming that this community wouldn’t want or welcome a dyke on the bima- that I’d be too ‘other’, in this heteronormative space. But I couldn’t have been more wrong! Years ago, I was a member of a big synagogue in Berkeley and though there are plenty of lesbians over there I felt invisible. No one greeted me when I came in, introduced themselves or made an effort to invite my involvement. As the weeks and months and years went by, I started to lean towards CBT and away from Berkeley because here at CBT I’ve felt just as welcome as I do at Camp It Up. CBT is my home, and I’m proud to have you all as my community.
Like Rabbi Chabon said in Tikvah Talk, we’re in a heteronormative world. And around here, a heteronormative white Christian world. As Jews we already know what being othered is like, and as a lesbian Jew I encourage you all to keep being as welcoming to anyone else who walks through our doors as you all were to me, no matter their gender, color, ability, or nationality.
This month I celebrate Pride and feel grateful for my family and my community. My parents are some of my strongest allies now, and my mom said that when she read the Tikvah Talk column that Rabbi Chabon wrote about me being the speaker for our Pride Shabbat, that she got goosebumps and wished that she could be here with us tonight. I have found over the last dozen years that this is a community that I should never have assumed wouldn’t be welcoming. I thank you all for being my allies, and Shabbat shalom.