In celebration, Repair the World interviewed Noam Parness – a 22-year old rising senior at Queens College (and all around inspiring guy), who organizes for the LGBT community – both on campus and off. Noam took some time out of his schedule to talk about speaking on National Coming Out Day, the importance of building coalitions within a movement, and how Jewish tradition fuels his work.
What inspired you to get involved as a volunteer and organizer?
Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community where it was really difficult to grow up queer definitely inspired me. After I eventually came out, I realized that this type of empowering work is necessary.
What types of organizing have you done?
I am currently the vice president of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Alliance (GLASA) at Queens College. The events I personally help bring to campus tend to be educationally focused. For example, we recently brought Jay Michaelson to talk about his book God vs. Gay? The Religions Case for Equality. That was a well attended lecture. Queens is a very religious and faith-affiliated campus, and people who came really enjoyed the discussion.
Then this past semester, Queens College Civil Rights Archive received it’s first LGBT archival material – papers from the late, New York-based AIDS activist Robert Rygor. We had an unveiling of the collection and screened a documentary film about his life and had a Q&A with the director. It was really great to co-sponsor a queer history event. Other than that, I also help with social events – things like Queens College’s gay prom. Campus has to be fun too!
What’s it been like to organize on a college campus?
The nice thing about most university settings is they tend to be safe spaces, and generally people are pretty accepting. We have dealt with hate crimes towards the LGBTQ community here, and obviously not everything is perfect. But GLASA is one of the most visible clubs on campus. We do a lot of co-sponosred events with Hillel, the Progressive Black Student Association and other groups. So we’re creating a wider web and reaching out to others.
Which experiences have been particularly meaningful? Challenging?
I helped plan our campuses’ National Coming Out Day last October. Two years ago, I was not out to the student body, and this past year I spoke in front of the community. My speech was directed towards the Orthodox community in specific and the student body in general. It was the first time I was able to speak out publicly about being queer and being Jewish in the same context. About 10 other people spoke that day about their own experiences, and then we let other people come up and speak – a lot of allies come up to talk about watching family members go through difficulties and how we have to treat each other respectfully. It was really meaningful to get to see them go through that process.
How does Jewish tradition impact your work as an activist?
It’s a love hate relationship. A lot of bad has come from faith-based communities, but a lot of good and positive change can come from that place too. The background I come from was difficult – both in that Orthodox Judaism has been outspoken against queer people, and also that there’s so much silence in the community. In a way, the lack of acknowledging queer existence is even more painful. That said, being Jewish informs a lot of my values and social justice work. I feel responsible to people in the community, which both inspires and frustrates me. But I do see change occurring slowly, at least on a grassroots level.
What’s one type of change you’ve seen?
I’m involved with an organization called Jewish Queer Youth – it’s a group for younger queer Jews from traditional Orthodox backgrounds. It’s an online support group, a social group and a volunteer run grassroots community. Its existence has created a certain amount of change because it’s required responses from rabbis and educators within the community. Even if those responses are negative, at least it’s being talked about.
What are some other organizations you admire?
Well, if people are at Queens College, then GLASA. But outside of that, I’d recommend checking out JQY or Nehirim, which is a more spiritually-focused organization.
What do you have planned for your last year at college?
I’m not going to be an official officer at GLASA anymore, but I’d like to bring a panel from JQY to Queens College in the fall. I’d like to continue focusing my energies on the intersection between Jewish and queer life on campus.
For a visual history of Pride Events over nearly five decades, as well as some contextual information about key events throughout Gay Rights history, visit NYCPride.org. There are also opportunities to volunteer!