Today is designated as the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Jewish tradition teaches us that we were all created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of the Holy One. We are abjured against violence to the human body so strongly that even after death, we treat dead bodies with reverence.
Transgender people deserve the same respect as every other human being, but in fact they are at grave risk of bodily harm and murder. I learned this on a visceral level years ago, when a young person who had grown up in my kitchen embarked on transition to a greater wholeness. I found I was terrified for him – terrified in my bones, because I knew what might to happen to him even on his college campus here in California.
It’s a happy story: he’s a healthy young man, pursuing his career, contributing to society. Now that he’s a thirty-something with thinning hair and a professorial air, I don’t worry about him quite as much.
But far too many transgender persons, especially transwomen of color, don’t make it to their thirties, much less beyond. Too many are murdered every year. For a sense of that, read Transgender Day of Remembrance 2015: Those We’ve Lost from The Advocate. The graphics there are not visually upsetting – no photos of bodies – but they are nonetheless shocking: too many dead.
Then DO something: join me in supporting the Transgender Law Center, a public interest law firm that has been worked hard for many small changes in US law and policy. There is much work to be done, but I have been an active supporter of TLC for over ten years and I have seen them squeeze more from a dime than any other non-profit I know.
The slaughter of transgender people is an ugly reality. Today, let’s acknowledge it by making the world better.
This past week the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) passed A Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People. While a resolution is not binding on URJ congregations, it does set a standard for policy in URJ congregations. The URJ is the association of the 900 Reform congregations across North America, just as the CCAR is the association of Reform rabbis, and the ACC is the association of Reform cantors.
This is a landmark resolution. As the International Business Times reported, “It is the most comprehensive and extensive set of guidelines for transgender rights adopted by any major religious organization.”
The resolution addresses the very real concerns and needs of transgender and gender non-conforming members of our congregations and communities. I am sure that someone, somewhere, is saying that this is just the Reform movement being trendy, but the truth is that we have these members among our families and we need to serve them properly and with care for their dignity. We are also responsible as Jews to speak up for the disenfranchised and the oppressed in our larger society. All human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of the Holy One. As such, there is no excuse, ever, for causing a person embarrassment, much less physical distress. Every human being has a right to physical safety and human dignity.
A resolution is not a revolution. It is likely that every congregation falls short in some aspect of the ideals enumerated below. It’s up to us to make teshuvah for past wrongs and to make the necessary adjustments in our social action, in our buildings, in our paperwork, in our classrooms, and in our language. We can do this.
I invite your feedback and discussion in the comments after you read the resolution. What do you like in it? What troubles you? What do you wish were there?
Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People
Submitted by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Throughout the Reform Movement’s history, we have worked tirelessly to fight discrimination, support equality, and strengthen the rights of minorities and women. In 1977, both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed resolutions affirming “the rights of homosexuals.” We welcome and celebrate people of all sexual orientations in our congregations and oppose laws that fail to uphold principles of equality for all. North American culture and society have, in general, become increasingly accepting of people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual, yet too often transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are forced to live as second-class citizens.
“Transgender” is a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Gender non-conforming is a term for individuals whose gender expression is different from societal expectations related to gender.
Although much work remains to be done to fully overcome discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people, members of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities face particular ongoing legal and cultural bigotry and discrimination. Transgender individuals are often unable to easily update their government documents, such as passports and birth certificates, in order to reflect their correct gender and name. As a result, transgender individuals can be denied the right to vote because their documents do not match their gender. In Canada, six provinces (Ontario, 20 Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and Newfoundland) and one territory (Northwest 21 Territories) offer protections based on gender identity yet a federal bill has long been stalled in Parliament.1 In both the U.S. and Canada, transgender individuals experience frequent incidents of hate crimes and harassment, and often face discrimination in employment, healthcare and housing. Simply choosing their preferred pronoun or accessing facilities based on their gender identity without facing others’ objections or fearing violence can be a challenge for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. The combined impact of all of these factors has contributed to higher than average poverty, homelessness and suicide rates among transgender people.23
Efforts within the Reform Movement over the past decade reflect our commitment to greater inclusivity of transgender and gender non-conforming people. In 2003, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion admitted its first openly transgender rabbinical student. Recently, both NFTY and URJ camps have taken steps to become more inclusive of transgender participants in their material, application forms, facilities and programs. In 2015, the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Rabbinical Placement Commission updated its policies to require that congregations and other organizations seeking a rabbi commit to including in their search all candidates regardless of gender identity. The Reform Movement has also built partnerships with organizations like Keshet (www.keshetonline.org), to create and improve resources for our congregations, institutions, affiliates and programs. Despite this important progress, there is more work to be done to make our Movement and our society fully inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Two key Reform responsa highlight the imperative toward full inclusion of transgender people in accordance with Jewish tradition. A 1990 responsum (CCAR 5750.8) affirmed that being transgender alone is not a basis to deny someone conversion to Judaism. A 1978 responsum affirmed that a rabbi may officiate at the wedding of two Jews if one partner has transitioned to the gender with which they identify, as opposed to the one they were assigned at birth (“Marriage After a Sex-change Operation” in American Reform Responsa, Vol. LXXXVIII, 1978, pp. 52-54). These responsa reflect biblical tradition that teaches us that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim—in the Divine image. As it says in Genesis 1:27, “And God created humans in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them.” From this bedrock principle stems our commitment to defend any individual from the discrimination that arises from ignorance, fear, insensitivity, or hatred. Knowing that members of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities are often singled out for discrimination and even violence, we are reminded of the Torah’s injunction, “do not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16).
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Union for Reform Judaism:
Affirms its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions;
Affirms the right of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to be referred to by their name, gender, and pronoun of preference in our congregations, camps, schools, and other Reform affiliated organizations;
Encourages Reform congregations, congregants, clergy, camps, institutions and affiliates, including NFTY, to continue to advocate for the rights of people of all gender identities and gender expressions;
Urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and that require individuals to be treated equally under the law as the gender by which they identify. This includes establishing the right to change without undue burden their identification documents to reflect their gender and name and ensuring equal access to medical and social services;
Calls on the U.S. and Canadian governments at all levels to review and revise all laws and policies to ensure full equality and protections for people of all gender identities and expressions;
Urges Reform Movement institutions to begin or continue to work with local and national Jewish transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual organizations to create inclusive and welcoming communities for people of all gender identities and expressions and to spread awareness and increase knowledge of issues related to gender identity and expression. These activities may include cultural competency trainings for religious school staff, the new congregational resource guide on transgender inclusion being created by the Religious Action Center, education programs on gender identity and expression, and sermons on the topic of gender identity and gender expression;
Recommends URJ congregations and Reform Movement institutions, facilities and events ensure, to the extent feasible, the availability of gender-neutral restrooms and other physical site needs that ensure dignity and safety for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals;
Urges Reform Movement institutions to review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies in an effort to ensure people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed, included, accepted and respected. This includes developing statements of inclusion and/or non-discrimination policies pertaining to gender identity and gender expression, the use when feasible of gender-neutral language, and offering more than two gender options or eliminating the need to select a gender on forms; and
Will work in collaboration with other Reform Movement institutions to create ritual, programmatic and educational materials that will empower such institutions to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of all gender identities and expressions.
It’s National Coming Out Day (NCOD), 2015. Things have changed a lot since 1988, the first one. A couple of years ago, I wrote about my memories of that day:
I remember the first National Coming Out Day, in 1988. I had my last foot surgery that day, to repair the damages from a series of bungled surgeries. It was at the old Foot Hospital in San Francisco (where the Jewish High School is today). I have a vivid memory of taking two Valium tablets I was offered, and as they were wheeling me off to the operating room, full to the gills of Valium, I delightedly came out to everyone I passed. “Hi! I’m a lesbian! Happy coming out day!” …
The surgery was a salvage job on a poor little foot that was never going to work right or quit hurting, but that ride to the operating room ROCKED.
Back in the day, there were festivities for NCOD, because it was truly dangerous for many to come out. One way we fought the fear was to celebrate. That’s something that’s hard to communicate to the people who object to “Pride” in such movements: we were Proud because if we stopped to be anything else, we’d be terrified.
Today coming out is less terrifying for most white cis-gendered gay men and lesbians. We can get married in any state in the US. In a few states, our rights to housing and employment are supported by law. (To learn more about that, the ACLU has a great set of charts.) There is plenty of legal work still to do, obviously.
But we need to be sure that no one is left behind – and most importantly, that we are not trampling on the rights of others. When we make a catty comment about someone who comes out as bisexual, we have just made it harder for them to function in the world (lashon harah, anyone?) When we gloss over the concerns of LGBT people of color. when we tell our national organizations that we’re only worried (and will only fundraise) about issues that concern People Like Me, we are leaving folks behind. When we refuse to recognize someone’s gender, when we inform all our acquaintances that so-and-so isn’t a “real” man or woman we are just as bad as the folks throwing Leviticus in our teeth.
How about making this National Coming Out Day into National Leave No Sibling Behind Day?
A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 22:5
Historically, this commandment has mostly been used to reinforce the status quo around gender. It guards against the danger that women will cross-dress and usurp men’s power, or that men will cross-dress as a way to trespass in the harem. In other words, it safeguards patriarchal inheritance rights.
Fast-forward to the gender anxieties of the 20th century, when some of us have been very worried that women were trying to “wear the pants” or that men were “being castrated” by women. Back in the 1960’s I remember a lot of fuss about women and slacks; this verse was always a popular proof-text. Today it is handy for those who wish to buttress transphobic feelings with Biblical texts.
In fact, Jewish tradition has not always seen gender in a binary way. The sages of the Talmud recognized and discussed six genders:
zachar – male
nekevah – female
androgynos – one having both male and female characteristics
tumtum – one whose gender characteristics are unclear or unformed
ay’lonit – one who is identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics and is infertile
saris – one who is identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics and/or is lacking male genitalia
Notice that some of these categories are mutable and change over the course of a lifetime.
So now, in the present day, what might we do with the commandment that seems to say “no crossdressing?”
What if we were to make a new interpretation of this verse? Try this:
Do not disguise yourself as something that you are not, unless it is necessary for the preservation of life. Do not oppress someone on account of gender, because we are all made in the image and likeness of the Holy One.
What do you think? I have no idea if I have any trans readers, but if so, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from you.
This is an updated version of a post I originally published on Open Salon in September of 2010. In thinking about the things I’m grateful for this LGBTQ Pride Month, it occurred to me it was still very timely.
I posted it again in 2012, when things had changed a lot. And now I find I’m reposting it again, partly as a reminder that we’ve come a long way, and partly as a warning that if we are not vigilant in preserving our progress, we may be back there someday, heaven forbid. Here’s my 2015 version.
I came out in 1988, just after a rancorous divorce became final. A very nice woman asked if I’d ever tried kissing another woman, and a few minutes later it was clear to me that I’d been barking up the wrong tree all my life. It was a moment of great joy, followed by sheer panic.
I had two little boys, ages 4 and 6, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to me than the two of them.
Was I going to mess them up for life? Was I going to lose them? Should I just declare celibacy and give it up? I wrote to an acquaintence who had been “out” many years, with two daughters from a previous marriage, and poured out my fears. She wrote me back with the phone number for the National Center for Lesbian Rights saying, “Call them. Do whatever they tell you.” Then she said my kids were going to be fine.
I did, and they are. But there’s much, much more to it than that.
The attorney to whom NCLR referred me informed me that for the umpteenth time in my life, I was the Queen of Dumb Luck. My divorce had become final in one of the very few counties in the United States where my orientation alone was not grounds for taking my kids from me in 1988. My best bet was to come out of the closet completely, so I did. On March 17, 1988, I phoned my ex and told him. To his credit, it has never been an issue.
I told the boys that I had fallen in love with a girl. They liked her. Unlike their boring mom, she was good at catch and knew everything about baseball. Sure, fine, and what’s for dinner?
The kids were in kindergarten and first grade, and there I wavered. Surely this was my private business. Surely it wasn’t appropriate to phone up the principal and say, “Hi, I’m a lesbian.” So I waffled along for a while, hoping for the best. And that’s where I went wrong.
Aaron began getting into fights at school. The teacher called. I went in to chat, and it turned out that he was out there defending my honor. The words “gay” and “fag” were favorite schoolyard epithets (in first grade!) and whenever someone used them, he took it personally on my behalf. He told them to take it back, and then two little boys would roll on the ground, fighting.
I outed myself immediately to the teacher, explained that this was a young man defending his mother — and please, could we just ban those words on the playground?
“You are what?” she gasped, and when I repeated it, she said she’d have to take it up with the principal. Over the next few weeks it became clear that the words “fag” and “gay” were a lot more acceptable than a lesbian mom and her spawn, and we needed to find a new school if my kids were going to feel remotely safe in class.
Finding a new school where we could be out as a queer family turned out to be quite the project in 1988, even in the liberal East Bay of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. Initially I was hopeful: “diversity” was a big buzzword. So I went from school to school, asking directly if “diversity” included “lesbian parented children.” I was privileged to have the means to check out every school in town, and I was hustled out of most of their admissions offices like an unwanted peddler. [All those places now trumpet the fact that they love queer families, and all I can say is, hallelujah. I am not naming names, because the guilty parties have mended their ways.]
God bless St. Paul’s Episcopal School. When I asked the admissions director, Laroilyn Davis, if a lesbian family would be welcome at St. Paul’s, she said, “It’s time we included a family like yours.” In the years to come, the administration there always had our backs: individuals might find our presence distasteful, but there was never any question that we belonged.
But the damage was done. My children spent far too long in a situation where they knew we were a second-class family, where we were the objects of open disgust. I am well aware that my younger son is a social worker partly because he has a special affinity for children who don’t feel safe. His older brother will still offer to punch you out if you use the word “fag.”
And as for me, I am torn between gratitude for being the Queen of Dumb Luck, who came out in the most liberal area in the country, who had the means to seek out a safe place for her children, who had legal support and moral support and two courageous sons — and fury that any of that was necessary.
Things are much better for LGBTQ families in California now than they were in 1988. We are kidding ourselves, though, if we think that Marriage Equality fixes everything. There is still a long road ahead for employment rights, immigration rights, and for the simple safety of transgender persons. We are not done.
When we discriminate against any group of people, we are all the less for it. When are we going to figure that simple fact out?
June is almost gone, and I haven’t written about Pride yet.
We’re waiting for a big Supreme Court decision that will be a big deal for lesbian and gay rights, the question about whether same-gender couples should have the right to marry in the states that haven’t yet proclaimed that right. (I am sure a lawyer could have put that more elegantly.) What I want everyone to notice that if this does come through, it will be great for the L’s the G’s, and maybe the B’s. It isn’t going to do all that terribly much for the T’s. Life is still very, very hard for transgender folk, and that hasn’t really been changed all that much by a certain transwoman appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair.
How is it hard? Transgender persons face discrimination in school and in the workplace. It’s a little better than it was, but it’s not good. Come out as transgender if you aren’t already a celebrity, and you’re going to have a hard time finding work, even if you’re very good at your job. Once you’ve got the job, then you have to navigate bathrooms – bathrooms! – and a million other details. You will have to navigate a web of discrimination when you seek housing, a driver’s license, immigration, even prison. In all these areas, you will have to deal with people in random positions of petty power pulling rank on whatever simple thing you are trying and insisting that no, you cannot have what you want until you tell them about your genitals. Then maybe you can have whatever it is or maybe you can forget it.
In fact, you can’t have a conversation with quite a chunk of America without that topic coming up: what do you have, what do you no longer have, did it hurt, and oh WHAT do you do in bed? (We lesbians used to get that last one all the time, and boy, did it get boring. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have strangers inquiring about specifics of the plumbing on a regular, casual, social basis.) People, this stuff is Not Our Business.
I hope and pray that whatever happens with the Supreme Court, we don’t act like a bunch of [insert rude word here] and tell our transgender neighbors that they are on their own. Because they are us, and they are threatened daily by violence and oppression. Transgender women of color are the most vulnerable: those statistics should break the hardest heart.
How can you help? Glad you asked. There’s an organization doing fantastic work on transgender rights, the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, CA. They have excellent leadership and they make every dime stretch to its limit. They have an impressive list of accomplishments for an organization that has existed less than 15 years. (Click on the link and see!) If you want major bang for your tzedakah buck, TLC is a great investment. I have been a supporter for a decade and I think the world of them.
How can you help if you don’t have any money? Don’t make jokes about transgender people, and discourage such “humor.” Don’t ask about people’s privates, and explain to others who speculate that it really isn’t cool. DO treat a trans person with the same respect and courtesy that you want for yourself. And when and if you have an opportunity to support legislation that makes things more equal, show up and vote.
You shall not lie with man as with woman. It is a toh-eh-vah. – Leviticus 18:22
We read this verse in this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot. It is usually quoted and interpreted out of its context. When LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage are in the news, we tend to hear it quoted often and unwisely.
The context was set in verse 3-4:
You will not do according to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you will not do according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I will bring you, nor shall you walk in their laws. You will do my doings, and you will keep my laws to walk in them. I am the Eternal your God.
Verses 6-19 then go through a long list of people whose nakedness should not be uncovered, some discussions of defiling (including land and beasts.) Something to note: the verb l’da-at, “to know,” does not appear in this chapter. Instead we get a series of other verbs, “uncover nakedness,” “lie with,” “defile.”
And yet l’da-at is the verb the Bible generally uses for loving sex. Adam “knows” Eve in Genesis 4:1. Sometimes, as with Jacob and his wives, the verb is “he went in,” vayavo elecha. But the verbs from Chapter 18 of Leviticus, the verbs “uncover nakedness” or “lie with” are used. What do they denote, precisely? We see them elsewhere in Torah in the descriptions of Lot’s daughters having sex with Lot, and in the rape of Dinah, to name just two examples.
The practices forbidden in chapter 18 of Leviticus may be sexual on the surface, but they are not what goes on between two consenting people. The verbs used are the verbs used elsewhere to denote rape and incest. Even in translation, they are different: “uncovered his nakedness” and “lie with.”
Chapter 18 of Leviticus is saying that it is forbidden to copy the religious practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Then it gets specific, listing sexual practices that, judging from the way the verbs are used elsewhere in the text, suggest incest and/or rape.
Just because a thirteen year old might read all of these translated verbs as euphemisms for sex doesn’t mean that they are the same thing as sex between a happy couple. If the parallels to Dinah and Lot apply, those apparent euphemisms may have more to do with rape, or incest, or ignorance or foreign religious practices, or some combination of them.
And as for the word toh-eh-vah, which has often been translated as “abomination,” it’s the word Torah applies to the practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. (Apparently one or the other group was fond of shellfish: eating it is toh-eh-vah, too.) The word denotes a particular type of transgression – anything else is an addition in the translation.
The moral of this story is that there is more to understanding a text than simply matching the words up with literal meanings. Also, that a poorly interpreted text can cause profound hurt. I am glad that newer editions of Plaut and other commentaries have seen fit to drop the “abomination” translation.
(P.S. – And seriously, folks, if you are going to scarf down shrimp cocktail, I don’t want to hear this nonsense about abominations in the Bible. Enough, already.)