Jewish Community Organizer Says Religious Support is Key to All Nondiscrimination Movements
Bennet Wilcox, who identifies as queer, says that he’s been a civil rights activist since the 4th grade, after his older brother came out to him as gay. After having the heart-to-heart conversation, he says he started to notice how others talked about gay people, and that inspired him to speak up.
“I heard people throwing around slurs, and it really hit me,” he said. “It opened a door for me and made me want to change things. I remember being bullied on the bus trying to tell people they shouldn’t be cruel.”
In addition to trying to educate his peers, Bennet says he made a conscious decision to go even further as he grew up, taking his activism to the next level.
“In 6th grade, I was circulating petitions among teachers for marriage equality and other issues, and I eventually ended up organizing our high school’s GSA (gay-straight alliance). That was incredible — it showed the power of getting a group of people who feel powerless alone into a room together, and how much of a cultural change you can make by creating a space to be together.”
In college, Bennet continued his grassroots activism, and it was while in a relationship with a Jewish woman that he began to explore Judaism and found himself inspired by the religion’s teachings and rich history.
“I’d been a bit of a ‘spiritual seeker’ for a couple of years,” Bennet explains. “So when I went to my first Shabbat service, I found myself exposed to a meaning of the word ‘religion’ that was different from anything I’d been exposed to before. There is also an incredibly moving history of Jewish resistance that I find very inspiring.”
Eventually, Bennet converted to Judaism over a three year process, and, following his graduation from college, found a job at Jews United for Justice, an organization that fights for causes including LGBTQ rights, workers’ rights, and racial justice through a Jewish lens. As a community organizer in Baltimore, Bennet says his job is the perfect opportunity to live out both his politics and his Jewish identity.
“I think no matter what community you’re in, what clout you have, or where you find yourself, it’s important to bring that entire identity into the fight for liberation,” he says. “Religious communities are unique because of the role they’ve played either directly or indirectly in building up some systems of oppression; so it’s critical for people immersed in those communities to play an active role in trying to disassemble those structures.”
Bennet says it’s also important for queer people to claim the space they want and deserve in religious communities, because, traditionally, they have been excluded from many religious institutions.
“Some of the most powerful organizing I’ve done has been in creating new, radical, inclusive spaces for LGBTQ people in my Jewish community, who for one reason or another have been pushed out or felt left behind.”
It is this desire for a radically inclusive Jewish community, along with a passion for full lived equality, that keeps Bennet involved in the fight for justice, for all people, at all levels. His unique understanding of the tensions that often exist between fully liberated sexual orientations and gender identities on the one hand, and religious communities and institutions on the othergives him insight into how to unite diverse communities toward a common goal.
“I’ve dealt with both ends of the spectrum,” he says. “There have been religious spaces I’ve felt incredibly uncomfortable and unseen in, and others where I have felt more affirmed and appreciated than ever. What’s important is to break down the barriers to marginalized people’s full participation in our communities, to bring all people together, in order to create a more perfect image of the world we want for ourselves and for future generations.”