By Sharon Gittleman
If Linda Lee hadn’t gone to her cousin’s wedding, the future of Michigan’s LGBT community would have been a lot less bright.
At the 1987 wedding, Lee asked the groom the question that had been playing on her mind. Was his brother’s companion more than just a friend?
“I said to his brother, ‘I think I know what the relationship is with his roommate, but I don’t want to say anything wrong,'” said Lee, 60. “I asked, am I right? His brother said, ‘yes.'”
Then Lee told her cousin’s partner the words he’d been waiting to hear.
“If he is my family, you are, too,” said Lee, who is straight.
After a second trip, Lee was convinced she’d discovered one of her life’s passions – helping Jewish gays and lesbians live safer and happier lives.
In 1990, Lee traveled to San Francisco for a meeting of the Council of the Jewish Federations – the umbrella organization for Jewish charitable and other groups.
The first seminar she attended told the story of how AIDS was affecting the Jewish community.
“I sat there crying because I heard about people losing their homes, families and jobs, because they were HIV positive,” said Lee, a West Bloomfield resident.
The next session, a discussion about gay organizations in the Jewish community, made her angry.
“I heard about presentations and activities that were going on in other communities and none of them were in Detroit,” she said.
Lee spoke to a fellow convention attendee who called Detroit activist Howard Israel, and told him about her interest in helping members of the Jewish LGBT community.
Lee’s phone began ringing.
When she agreed to chair a program offered by the Michigan Jewish Aids Coalition in 1993, she was shocked to see 500 people in the audience.
Lee’s success with the program led to her selection as a board member and president of MJAC. She helped the group work toward its goal – educating the Jewish community about HIV and AIDS. Lee also chaired a spin-off organization formed in 1998 – Educating Our Community about Homosexuality through Outreach. ECHO helped urge the Jewish community to become more accepting of LGBT people, she said.
Lee points to a number of victories the groups shepherded in over the years.
“Some of the congregations and temples developed committees to make their congregations more welcoming,” she said. “The Jewish Center changed their membership policy. A family isn’t defined as husband and wife – its two people living in a household.”
Her work isn’t complete yet, said Lee.
Both groups fizzled in 2003, not long after the 9-11 tragedy inspired people to direct their charitable donations in a new direction, she said. “The fear of AIDS wasn’t as strong as it was in the 90s.”
While the two groups folded, members of the Jewish community often turned to Lee for information about issues affecting gays and lesbians.
Last June, she helped create a new group, the Jewish Gay Network, an organization designed to connect the Jewish and gay communities. JGN uses email to help people learn about social and educational events, like a gay and lesbian trip to Israel this August, sponsored by the United Jewish Charities.
Other past projects included sponsoring a speaker at the annual Jewish Book Fair and a study session led by an orthodox rabbi at a gay book store, followed by a Hanukah party.
“We want to provide a safe environment where people at any level can network,” she said.
Lee promises a web site will soon be on the net, at http://www.jewishgaynetworkofmi.org. Once the web page is up, Lee plans to add links to social service agencies and synagogues. She said she hopes the site will serve as a social connector for Jewish gays.
“If ten lesbians want to have a book club or families want to get together to have a picnic, they can do so,” she said.
People often ask her why a straight woman has devoted so much time to the gay community, she said.
“I’m not the type of person who sits on my hands,” she said. “In my world, there are people who are nice and people who are not so nice. The rest of the adjectives are immaterial.”
Lee said she hopes the straight world will come to realize gay people are as boring as them.
“They get up in the morning, go to work, come home and eat dinner,” she said.
Lee has one dream for gay and Jewish people, alike.
“That we can all be one community and forget the adjectives,” she said.
One truth has been a big motivator in her life, said Lee.
“Anybody who said one person can’t make a difference is shortsighted,” she said.