The story of the lesbian Rabbi who cared for dying AIDS patients

At the height of the crisis, Rabbi Denise Eger’s activism within the LGBTQ+ community displayed incredible courage in a time of hatred and suffering.

Lesbian Rabbi Denise Eger about to speak into a microphone with posters in the background.
Image: Screenshot via Instagram @rabbideniseeger

In the late ’80s, as the world chose either to combat AIDS and help those afflicted or act with hatred and ignorance, lesbian Rabbi Denise Eger was a powerful force for influential activism for the LGBTQ+ community.

For Eger, like many others, the decision to come out was made difficult by the prejudicial forces around her. Relatably, Eger came out many times within her life to various groups of people including her family, friends, and the individual congregations she was a part of. One of these clergies included the largely LGBTQ+ Congregation Kol Ami for which Eger was a founding rabbi.  

In 1990, the governing body of Reform Judaism convened to vote on whether to ordain lesbian, gay, and bisexual rabbis. In a courageous decision to come out for herself and her community, Eger voiced her sexuality in the most public way yet. In an interview for The Advocate Eger said, “I came out publicly in The LA Times in advance of the convention, in part, to put a face and a name to it.” 

Undeniably influenced by the underground network of gay and lesbian clergy, including Eger, the council voted to ordain qualified aspirants as rabbis regardless of their sexual orientation.

Whilst these positive advances were occurring within congregations, AIDS was devastating the LGBTQ+ community. Eger, 28 years-old at the time and newly ordained served at a largely gay synagogue in Los Angeles, and made daily trips around the city to various medical centres treating patients suffering from AIDS. 

“I was running from hospital to hospital in 1988 ministering to our community, our young men that were dying,” she said.

In these overwhelmed hospitals, Eger witnessed nurses leaving meals outside patients’ rooms for the false fear of contracting the virus by air. Instead, Eger could be found feeding weak patients, often removing her mask and gloves to do so. While so many dying people were met with gloved hands or no touch at all, Eger’s physical contact was rare and meaningful. 

In an interview with USC Dornsife, Eger recalled that “these were the years when families just wouldn’t visit their children. They rejected them.” She continues, “I was 28 years-old and working every day to bury young men who passed away…those years shaped me.”

After bearing direct witness to the horrors occurring within her community, Eger chaired the review board for an AIDS drug research organisation and co-chaired the Spiritual Advisory Committee of AIDS Project Los Angeles. She also co-chaired the Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network for two years and was the founding president of the Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Interfaith Clergy Association. Furthermore, she officiated at the first legal wedding of a lesbian couple in California in 2008.

In discussing the topic of faith within the LGBTQ+ community, Edger says “there are a lot of us who are very progressive and a lot of faith traditions that are incredibly inclusive and have changed and are not doing what you see portrayed in the press from the far extremist rightwing evangelicals, be they Jews, Muslims, or Christians.”

Lesbian Rabbi Eger is a key religious role model for the LGBTQ+ community for her work with AIDS patients and her continued activism to advance LGBTQ+ rights, prison reform, racial equality, and economic justice. For those growing up in religious households that can often repress understanding of their own sexual identity, it is necessary to continue to highlight Eger’s work and the active role she took to serve those in her community. 

© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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