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Debating Debbie Friedman’s personal life

Writing at the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, Debra Nussbaum Cohen has skewered Jewschool for a blog post calling her decision not to be public about her lesbianism a tragic loss for the Jewish GLBT community. 

The Jewschool blogger writes that it was an open secret that Friedman was a lesbian, but laments that the singer never acknowledged as much publicly and that, in the praying for Friedman in the days leading up to her death, and in the posthumous writing about her, there is no mention of her life partner. 

I don’t bear any ill-will towards Debbie for staying in the closet. But her life in the closet was double-barreled tragedy: how sad that Debbie could not live her life with wholeness, and how sad that so many queer kids were deprived such an important role model. How ironic that the tyranny of the closet overpowered the woman whose songs let us let go for a moment of what the world might think of us, just long enough to shout “Nutter butter peanut butter” or sway with our arms around our friends and not worry if we looked gay.

My friends who knew Debbie tell me that she had a life-partner. I don’t know her partner’s name, because all the press around Debbie’s illness and passing only asked for prayers and comfort on behalf of Debbie’s sister, family and friends. I hope this did not add to the unbearable pain and loss her partner must be experiencing now, but how could it not?

Cohen writes:

I’ve been asked to respond to this, or else never would have discussed it publicly, because Debbie would not have wanted her personal life bandied about. The privacy and dignity with which she lived her life – all aspects of her life – should be respected, not tossed aside to satisfy someone else’s prurient curiosity or politics.

Debbie was not in the closet. Neither did she ride floats at a gay pride parade. She was, quite simply, a private person. She did not shout from the rooftops. She responded to alienation and injustice through the music she wrote that changed the way we pray.

Writing today in Tablet, Marc Tracey says Cohen is way off the mark.

Well, first, she was in some sort of closet (albeit a slightly larger one than those populated by non-celebrities or public figures); if not, there would not have been anything wrong or unusual with Levy announcing she was a lesbian. Cohen’s confusion on this point betrays her more fundamental refusal to see the implications of Friedman’s closetedness—and the potential to celebrate her as “a lesbian Jew.”

For in the end, it is no disrespect to Friedman’s memory to admit that, for those who care for GLBT rights, particularly in the Jewish community—where such people’s full personhood is not everywhere taken for granted—it would have been better had Friedman been publicly out. I ultimately can’t sign on to the notion, which would find its roots in so-called “first-wave feminism,” that Friedman had an obligation to come out. But it isn’t a stretch to acknowledge her right to her decision but also judge that it would have been best for the community, for certain values, and for other Jewish lesbians if she had declared herself one of them.

For the record, Jewschool did not "announce" that Friedman was a lesbian. Friedman’s homosexuality was not exactly a secret. I’ve never met the singer, but I knew she was gay. So far as I know, the only news agency that noted her sexual orientation in its obituary was the New York Times, which stuck it down in the 18th paragraph — an acknowledgement, I think, that Friedman’s orientation is part of her story, if not its central feature. 

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