Jess Harper Meyers: on finding your tribe

A quick google search of the term “community” brought up two definitions that seemed apropos for this week’s column. 1) A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals, ”the sense of community that organized religion can provide.”

2) A group of people who have similar interests or who want to achieve something together.

J.Proud Jewish Philly LGBTQ Consortium is an organization committed to working together as a collective agent of change to raise awareness, educate, and advocate for the diverse needs of the Jewish LGBTQ community. It is a group comprised of a number of smaller organizations committed to creating, nurturing, and supporting a comprehensive net of LGBTQ-inclusive programs and resources for the Jewish LGBTQ community in the Greater Philadelphia area. One of the principal organizations involved in the collective is Tribe 12, which connects people in their 20s and 30s to Jewish life and community in Philadelphia. Spearheading the LGBTQIA+ initiative of the program is this week’s portrait, Jess Harper Meyers. Meyers is a self-described “future attorney, former bartender, forever activist, passionate member of Philadelphia’s Jewish LGBTQIA+ community, and a shameless nerd.” We took a moment to speak to Jess and learn about some of the exciting upcoming events that Tribe 12 has in store. 

So tell me a little about yourself.

I’m originally from the Philly area, I grew up here and then went to DC for college, American University. I went there for a few years and then dropped out to bartend full time, also in DC. I was then in a pretty bad accident; it was a near death experience which motivated me to decide to focus on my education. I moved back to the area and was at Bryn Mawr rehab hospital where I relearned how to walk and worked to try to come back. I went to Montgomery County Community College for a bit and later became a Teacher’s Assistant for the Human Sexuality Studies class there and then I reapplied back to American U where I finished my bachelor’s degree in Justice and Law. After that, I moved back here and started volunteering with Tribe 12 and have been officially working for them since October. 

Wow, that was a whole history! Let’s go back a little. Describe the dynamics of your family?

It’s a medium sized family. I have one sister, she’s younger than me. Both of my parents were lawyers. My mom now does marketing for a law firm and my dad is still practicing.

What traits do you think you got from them?

From both of them I think I have a natural instinct to question everything. I think a good lesson is that the excuse, “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” is not a good enough reason to keep doing it the same way. Questioning everything also fits into our Jewish values including questioning existing power structures.

What were you like as a kid?

I was precocious, probably challenging at times, but very sensitive and very empathetic from a very early age. 

What was a favorite toy?

I was really into playing Pokemon on my Gameboy, I’m still into all things Pokemon to this day. And a lot of my playtime was just about using my imagination. I don’t really remember it but my mom said that I would just walk around in my own little world, imagining that I was going on adventures in my head. Sometimes the other kids would wonder what I was doing as I walked around. 

That was me, in a hall closet in my house we had one of those three-sided mirrors, the kind you find in department stores that allows you to see yourself from all sides. If you looked to the side, you’d see an infinite number of reflections of yourself and I used to play in that closet for hours having fanciful adventures with a million reflections of myself! 

I love that! My grandma had a bathroom in her old house that had two opposing mirrors and I remember doing something similar, just getting lost in that world. 

Nice. What’s a family tradition that evokes good memories?

My mom’s family is from Florida and we’d go there for most major Jewish holidays, especially Passover. My grandmother would have these really big seders and she’d make matzo balls, brisket, all sorts of delicious foods. It made me feel really connected to the family because the whole family would go – cousins, aunts, and uncles, not just the immediate family and we were all really close. It felt like my first cousins were more like siblings and my sister was like a twin. It connected me with the family and with Judaism from a cultural standpoint. It showed me how that sense of connection and community can lead to a greater understanding of the self. 

How involved were you with your faith growing up?

We went to Hebrew school on Sundays and I later taught at Sunday school. We’d go to synagogue for major holidays, but it wasn’t like we went every week. I think our Judaism was more cultural than religious for both sides of the family. 

What did you study in college?

I originally studied international relations but pretty soon I switched to justice, law and criminology. 

What about it intrigued you?

I’d kicked around the idea of being a lawyer for my entire life, not just because of my parents but because I’ve always believed in advocacy and that it was important for me to use my voice to elevate other voices. I wanted to be a diplomat when I first went to school; it was one of the reasons I chose American University, but I took a couple courses in justice and criminology and it really spoke to my passion. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready academically, mentally or emotionally at that time. I wish I’d taken a gap year to give myself a break but I went out of a sense of obligation. It wasn’t until my accident that I felt ready and inspired to take my studies seriously. But in the interim I learned to live in the real world as an adult, working full time, signing a lease, paying bills and being responsible. Learning to take pride in my work, I started out as a bartender and then excelled above and beyond and became the bar manager of the restaurant where I worked. 

And now you’re working in advocacy with Tribe 12, tell me a little about the organization. 

Sure. I started volunteering with Tribe 12 a few years ago. Originally I was helping with program planning and helping Davinica, the wonderful person who was LGBTQIA+ Program Director for years before I got the job. I was sort of a mentee and then when Davinica moved to New England, I was able to step into the role.

What is the importance of the organization and what does it mean to you?

It’s a lot of different things but generally it’s a Jewish service organization that connects people in their 20s and 30s to Jewish life in Philadelphia. Sometimes that involves religious content, but we’re not a synagogue, we’re not running services and we’re not linked to any specific sect or any level of observance. Mostly it’s a social organization. We think it’s important to meet people where they are. Even if someone isn’t Jewish, if they have a partner who is Jewish or if they’re just exploring Judaism, identify as Jewish or not, all are welcome. There’s a place for everyone. Our mission is about showing that Judaism has something to offer for everyone. The program that I run especially focuses on inter-sectionalism. In the Philadelphia metro area, in your 20s or 30s, identifying as LGBTQIA+ as well as Jewish and exploring, there are a lot of factors that could be alienating. But when they all come together they can form a powerful sense of community and connection and belonging that our members really appreciate and rely on. 

I love the fact that you have so many things on the agenda that people can choose from and they’re all different. Starting with the Pride Picnic this Sunday, July 24. 

Yes, we’re hopeful that the Pride Picnic and Family Field Day will be well attended. We’d love to see allies and families there; we have games for the kids and the event will take place along the banks of the Schuylkill River. On the 26th we’re having an LGBTQIA+ Happy Hour in West Philadelphia. It’s a chance to meet fellow queer folk and have some snacks, on us! On August 3rd our book club will be having a Zoom meeting to discuss the book, “Becoming Eve”’ by Abby Stein and there’s another Zoom event on the 5th to play Sapphic Space Pirates. It’s a game that was designed by LGBTQIA+ people, for LGBTQIA+ people so that should be a lot of fun. Everyone is invited to participate whether or not they personally identify as “sapphic”. And finally on August 12th we’re hosting “Perseids: A Night Under the Shooting Stars.” Folks can join me in Fairmount Park for a lesson on stargazing, basic astrology, basic astronomy and how they all intersect. 

In the Black community, I often find that there are assumptions that people, especially those involved in the Black church, are going to be intolerant of the LGBTQIA+ community even though it often is not the case. Are there the same assumptions that there are different levels of acceptance in different levels of observance in the Jewish community? 

I think it’s important to treat individuals as individuals. People are not a monolith and I try not to assume what people may or may not believe. I’ll give you an example from my own life. As of just a few months ago, the last person that I had come out to was my paternal grandmother. She’s a little more socially conservative. I didn’t think that she’d be hateful, I’m lucky that my family overall has been very accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community, but I didn’t know what to expect in terms of how she would handle it. She definitely was a little confused and struggled to understand but her first words were that she loved me no matter who I was, and just wanted me to be happy. Based on some of her social views, I wasn’t expecting such a positive reaction and what it made me realize was that it wasn’t fair of me to assume what her reaction might be and that I had underestimated her. As a result, I let my fears cheat us both out of a lot of time that we could have spent getting to know each other better. One thing I want to be clear about is my belief that religion is not inherently intolerant. The problem is when people apply their own personal views of morality on others and try to dictate how others should live their lives using religion as the excuse.  

And how was your coming out experience? 

Pretty uneventful, except for my grandmother that I spoke about there was never any big announcement. As I mentioned, I was always a very patient and empathetic person, so I have always let people move at their own pace. I do some guidance and mentorship work, often helping people navigate the coming out process and I always emphasize the importance of recognizing the journey of the family members as well – the intersection of having a person that they care about and love while they are learning something that is at odds with the way they have always perceived this person. There’s a poignant quote that basically says, “when you have a kid, two children are born, the child that you wanted and the child that you got.” And a follow-up to that quote that I always tell people when I’m doing peer work is, “you need to accept losing the former before you risk losing the latter.” In other words you have to accept the loss of the idea of the child you wanted before you lose the child that you have. 

I like that. And sometimes we forget that we often thought about and struggled with our sexuality or gender for most of our lives before coming out and yet we expect people to immediately grasp and accept it overnight. 

Exactly, even in my family, when I told my sister and mother, they had a few years of adjustment before they were completely comfortable with who I was. And I waited a few years before telling my dad, and again I underestimated him, which robbed him of those years that he could have spent processing and learning, just like I did with my grandmother. I guess it goes back to trusting people to have their own beliefs and not projecting your fears onto them. 

Right on. Okay, some random questions. Who would you contact at a seance? 

Benjamin Franklin. So many people now have an idea of what they think the founding fathers of this country believed, but in actuality if you look at people like Benjamin Franklin, who was instrumental in the founding of this country and the principles we were built on, he was one of the most open minded figures of his time. A lot of people believe that he was bisexual or pansexual and there were a lot of people like him at the time who would absolutely not support recent attempts at limiting people’s civil liberties. [Laughing] And that’s as close as I want to get to discussing politics! 

He’s a good one. First thing you’d buy if you hit the lottery?

A van that I could live in and travel the country. I’d like to visit all the national parks. 

Worst clothing disaster?

I had zebra print leggings that I wore with a zebra print top and a zebra print button-up that I once wore all at the same time because I thought they went together. They did not. 

Best celebrity encounter?

I went on a date with David Navarro’s daughter. It was in Boston and we broke into some random person’s basement and she gave a friend a tattoo. 

Okay, I’m seeing a different side to you. You’re a little more of a wild child than I expected! 

[Smiling] That’s the point of these questions, right? 

Do you play any instruments?

I do. I play piano, guitar and I perform with live loops. 

Your most dangerous stunt?

Well, it wasn’t a stunt, but when I had the accident, I was driving home from work at 3 a.m. and I hit some gravel. The car spun out and I wrapped my car around a utility pole. There were so many ways I could have died in that moment. I was driving a convertible with the top down and the car could have flipped but it didn’t; my head stopped like eight inches from the pole and could have been crushed but it wasn’t, and I was pinned in the car. It was in the middle of the night and I couldn’t reach my phone to call for help. It just happened that someone drove by and stopped to help me. They called 911 but before fire and rescue got there the hood started smoking, so I could have easily died in a car fire. None of that happened, but I believe in multiple universes and multiple realities and I think in some of them I may have died, died in what I call an ego death. The fact that in this universe I was able to survive, I take that as a responsibility to make my life worth something here and now and I try to live by that.

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