The Secret Handshake: An Essay on Gay, Jewish or Both By Shelley Spector

The Secret Handshake:  An Essay on Gay, Jewish or Both

By Shelley Spector

In a discussion with Leslie Friedman and Bernardo Margulis about being Jewish and gay, two groups that I am a part of, I get a pass to talk freely. The unspoken rule is that insiders of a group get to say things that outsiders can’t. Here there are no actual facts.  It is instead my conjecture based on years of personal experience that stereotypes are not necessarily bad. They are based in truths and real things. Some of us can hide and some can’t.  In the wrong hands stereotypes can be ammunition and the source of evil, but within communities, as addressed in Gay, Jewish or Both, they are signifiers of safety. They make us feel connected and when they are not there we search for them to find home within each other.

I totally get the Jewish thing—we are an ancient group of people who have had thousands of years to form our collective identity. Religiously, it is a choice, but we are born into it ethnically. I was shocked to learn as an adult that I had some mixed blood and that I was not “pure.” One of my grandmothers’ parents was Christian. I should have had a hunch since I have a cousin who was a nun—she wore a habit and everything. But I didn’t. Nevertheless, 87 ½% a Jew is plenty.

I learned “to be Jewish” because I was raised by Jewish people who were raised by Jewish people.  I lived my formative years in a forest of no diversity. It’s not like my parents sat me down and taught me how to act. I, like so many, learned through example—things like, how to talk in questions.

“You don’t say hello?”

But many of our social traits are actually rooted in religious teachings. The Torah, the two big scrolls central to Jewish religion, which thirteen year olds read from before having a huge party known as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, is packed with stories that are in essence cautionary tales and lessons that tell us how to act. They are stories of families, business people, enemies and communities, and are templates for our lives.

We can also look ethnic. It’s not just the nose (or nose job); its style, mannerism and even posture. I can spot one. As I type this one just walked into the coffee shop where I am sitting. I would bet money on it because of how he looks. (Glasses, receding hairline, nice guy, lawyer? He feels comfortable talking before his food is totally swallowed). But even without the looks, within the first three words of a conversation I believe I could guess yay or nay with great accuracy.

“Gaydar” is the homosexual version of this.  It’s curious, that there are physical traits that can be common for gays and lesbians. Since gay people don’t necessarily reproduce more gay people and more than likely weren’t born from gay people, legacy is not a clue into how attributes are passed on. I don’t understand how stereotypical physical tendency and mannerism are gotten or started. How does a little boy gain those qualities and appearance that makes it obvious that he will probably end up liking other boys? Later on, once someone is inside of the gay community, dress code, speech patterns and physical mannerisms can be learned but kids who “act gay” are for me, a puzzle. Whatever you can say about stereotypes, there has to be a time, place and a reason they originate.

I don’t think I acted in any way that was revealing of my sexual preference with the first girl I had a crush on. But how did I know that she wasn’t gay? What did I notice about her when I saw her first in the schoolyard, then as a teenager in a gold bikini on the boardwalk in Atlantic City and then for the last time when as an adult when she showed up in my aerobics class? We never ever had the discussion, so I’ll never know for sure because she died very young. But I knew.

Not everyone wants to flaunt their being gay or Jewish. Much of the recorded history of both groups shows that some people really don’t like us. It’s an unfortunate truth that there are times and places where it is not safe to be either. This is a commonality between the two—that it can be scary. There is also a common use of symbols which within each group are easily recognized. Anyone’s daily visuals can include images of a six pointed star, bears, the combination of dark sky-blue and white or roosters but for a Jewish or gay person, these can be meaningful signifiers.

We are communities. The guy that bumped my oldest daughter past the long pre-school waiting list was gay, so it was an inside job. It wasn’t necessary at that time for us to be typical stereotypes because my partner and I showed up with our toddler in tow.  But in another scenario, our “comfortable shoes” across the floor from his blue painted toenails would have been the equivalent of a secret handshake. Because we look and act out our stereotypes, strangers can be quick to act like family.

From where I sit, it has never been cool to be gay or Jewish. My theory is that it is somehow attached to the fear. We break bread at the table and discuss some of the great, very cool “gay acting” characters like Kurt Hummel from Glee that have sneaked their way onto TV, the great new Gap ads with gay couples and cool Jews like Lou Reed, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peaches. But having cool members has never been enough to make dramatic changes for the whole group. So at least for now, we use our stereotypes to attract, connect and bond to each other. That’s cool.


About the Author:

Shelley Spector is a visual artist whose multi-disciplinary works are part of many public and
private collections including the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC.
Spector is also known for her curatorial work through SPECTOR Gallery/Projects and
for her writing projects that include the online anthology,
For more info please visit:

 Click to download a .pdf version of this essay: Gay_Jewish_Or_Both_Spector_January_14

2 Responses to “The Secret Handshake: An Essay on Gay, Jewish or Both By Shelley Spector”
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  1. […] relationship between these two groups is a fascinating one. As Shelley Spector stated in “The Secret Handshake:  An Essay on Gay, Jewish or Both,” each group shares a […]

  2. […] relationship between these two groups is a fascinating one. As Shelley Spector stated in “The Secret Handshake:  An Essay on Gay, Jewish or Both,” each group shares a […]

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