As a young man coming of age in a conservative Jewish family, Jay Michaelson struggled to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. For years he kept being gay a secret, fearing the truth might end his spiritual life. But Michaelson's coming out in his mid 20s marked his decision to become a religious scholar, writer and activist. Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, will tell his story Thursday at Congregation Kol Ami as part of Tampa's sixth Annual Jewish Book Festival. The festival, presented by the Tampa Jewish Community Center, begins Saturday and runs through Nov. 15, with eight featured authors appearing at events across the bay area. Several book genres are represented, from fiction and children's stories to biographies and current affairs. All events are open to the public.
Michaelson, author of one of the festival's more controversial offerings, will sign books and talk about why he believes people, regardless of sexual orientation, are loved by God and have a right to practice the faith of their choice.
"His book's title alone is getting attention," said Brandy Gold, a spokeswoman for the JCC. "We hope his message will be well-received in the community."
Michaelson grew up in Tampa, where he attended Congregation Kol Ami and graduated from Chamberlain High School. He earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University and has a master's degree in religious studies from Hebrew University. He has taught at Yale, Boston University Law College and City College of New York.
As the author of five books and founder of Nehirim, a national organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews, Michaelson has given religious gays a voice.
In God vs. Gay?, he asserts that religion at its roots backs a pro-equality stance.
"There are two or three out of 31,000 verses in the Bible that the antigay movement uses to condemn homosexuality, and those verses are subject to interpretation," he said. "There are hundreds of verses about love, justice and equality."
Michaelson's message reaches beyond Judaism to Christianity and eastern religions. Still, the author draws mainly upon his personal experiences as a Jewish man.
Being gay and Jewish isn't an anomaly, he said.
"Outside of the Orthodox Jewish population, which is about 20 percent of the faith, things have gotten much better," Michaelson said. "There are lesbian rabbis and gay cantors. But for some people, coming out is still really hard."
Michaelson counsels young gays and speaks at rallies nationwide. He said his mother is an example of how minds can change. Years ago, she struggled to understand her son, but she was all smiles when he married his partner earlier this year in New York.
"When I first came out, she was really concerned about me, but I have to give her a lot of credit," Michaelson said. "She's come a long way. Not only did she come to my wedding and dance, she urged her friends to come."
Michaelson said he wrote God vs. Gay? for open-minded people of faith.
"There's a percentage of people who are committed to their particular antigay theology, and they're probably not going to change," Michaelson said. "I am more interested in people who are sincerely wrestling with the issue."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.