The age of 13, in the Jewish faith, symbolizes a “coming of age.”
Boys have bar mitzvahs and girls have bat mitzvahs, ceremonies celebrating the journey to adulthood.
Traditionally, it is the age a boy becomes a man or a girl becomes a woman. However, for Flynn Lesko, it was around the age he transitioned from a girl to a boy.
“I personally was just [on] a journey for a couple of years from eighth to ninth grade,” said the 17-year-old Columbia resident. “I kept dressing more and more masculine, and I wanted to be more and more masculine.”
During a Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays meeting, Flynn decided to adopt “he/him” pronouns and later, while looking through a list of gender-neutral baby names, decided to be called “Flynn.”
“I saw [Flynn] and it immediately felt right,” he said.
During his transition, he began attending Columbia Jewish Congregation. He said the synagogue is a “welcoming community” and is open to congregants choosing however they want to practice their faith.
During a time when Jewish Pride flags have been banned from some national queer marches because of opposition to Israel’s political stance toward Palestinians, Columbia Jewish Congregation is one of a number of religious institutions in Howard County where LGBTQ congregants have been embraced by PFLAG and the Howard County Pride Festival.
Founded in the late 1960s, the synagogue was established by residents in the community who desired to “create a more personal Jewish community than the synagogue life of their youth,” according to the congregation’s website. Residents wanted to raise their children in a “progressive environment” open to all varieties of Jewish practice and learning, the website reads.
Now a congregation of more than 300 households, the synagogue includes members from interfaith, same-sex, single-parent and traditional families.
Rabbi Sonya Starr, 56, who has served as senior rabbi at CJC for 19 years, said the congregation values inclusiveness and celebrates differences.
Starr, who has been with her wife for more than two decades, came to CJC before it was common to hire a member of the LGBTQ community to a leadership role.
“The congregation took a stand to honor my skills and not [judge] who I was married to,” she said. “[CJC] took a stand on supporting marriage equality [and] political work around marriage equality.”
One of the aims of CJC, she said, is to honor and represent the LGBTQ community in the county. On Saturday, congregants from the synagogue will be participating in the first Howard County Pride Festival, co-hosted by PFLAG Howard County and County Executive Calvin Ball.
“As soon as I heard HoCo is doing Pride, I was very excited,” she said.
Although the festival is new to Howard, PFLAG first appeared in the county in 1995.
Launched by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, the chapter began when congregant Linda Linton and community activist Colette Roberts put a notice in the local newspaper announcing a support group for the parents of lesbian and gay children in the community.
Today, the group has become a chapter, averaging more than 50 people in attendance at each meeting.
Jumel Howard, 23, vice president of PFLAG, joined the organization two years ago after the 2016 election. Living in China at the time, he decided to move back to the United States to get involved in his community.
“I was upset and wanted to be the change I wanted to see happening,” he said. “Volunteers in HoCo sent out volunteer opportunities and I reached out and I said I would be interested in tabling some events. One year later, I was asked to be VP.”
First initiated by religious institutions, PFLAG continues to partner with local churches and synagogues in the county. Each month, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia opens its facilities to PFLAG and the organization partners with Columbia United Christian Church.
“[PFLAG] is supported through donations and pride and we have six different congregations supporting in one way or another,” Howard said.
He said he believes the relationship between PFLAG and religious institutions is an expression of the diversity within religion.
“A lot of times people think religion is just one thing, but we have to understand the intersectionalities,” he said. “I’m black, gay and Christian. They are all a part of [me].”
CUCC, a partner of PFLAG, describes itself as an “open and affirming” congregation. Part of the United Church of Christ, the church offers ministries for the LGBTQ community, including Open and Affirming, a planning guide to build a more inclusive congregation, and resources for HIV/AIDS, marriage equality and sexuality education.
Pastor Phil Curran, 54, who has been serving at CUCC for a year, described the church as a “progressive community of faith.” He said the church does not implement separate programs for the LGBTQ community, but rather, focuses on inclusion.
“The reality is that there is no exclusion,” he said. “There is no distinction between those who are heterosexual or otherwise. We see one another as human.”
As the father of a gay man, he said he believes it is important for CUCC to be involved in organizations like PFLAG.
“It is important for congregations like CUCC to exist to counter the homophobic message that comes from religion,” he said. “We want to be a place where all of us are [welcomed] regardless of orientation to come together and live in community.”
On Saturday, CUCC will be setting up a table at the Howard County Pride Festival in support of PFLAG.
“[We are] glad to be able to support the effort and encourage folks to find communities of faith who see who they are,” Curran said.
Since transitioning, Flynn said he has been embraced by the community at CJC. After being called a homophobic slur on his way home from school one day, he spoke about it in the synagogue and received support from the congregation.
Earlier this month, he attended his first Pride festival in Washington, D.C., and plans to attend the festival in Howard County.
“Sometimes you forget there are so many other people that are like you,” he said. “The fact that [Howard County] is having a Pride festival shows that HoCo is open to having conversations about the LGBTQ community and everyone being united.”