Respect Without Prejudice

Image:  On Friday, December 2, a fire engulfed a warehouse in Oakland, California leaving more than 30 people dead. Among the deceased were Cash Askew, 22, Em Bohlka, 33, and Feral Pines, 29 – all of whom were transgender.  Photo credit: NBC News, via GLAAD.

Imagine that someone you loved died in a terrible disaster. (If you really do this, it will hurt. but try.) Imagine then that the media accounts of that person’s death mangled their name and gave the wrong gender.

Just stay with that for a moment. Adds insult to injury, doesn’t it?


Yesterday, GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) issued a call to the media to get its act together and treat the dead with respect.  Every person has a right to their name. (Do we really have to debate that?) Every person has a right to have their gender reported accurately. (Again, imagine that a news story reported that you were a gender you are not.)

Transgender people are not that different than you and me. I had to get glasses before I could focus six inches beyond my nose. No one comes up to me and rips my glasses off my face shrieking, “Fake! You are really blind, you should act blind!” No, polite people let me wear my glasses, and they do not comment upon my glasses or act as if my glasses are some sort of freak show. My glasses are a minor part of my identity. But no, I was not born with glasses and I cannot “pass” as someone with 20/20 vision.

The GLAAD press release outlines some rules for the media which are also good general rules for talking to and about trans individuals:

  1. Follow the lead of the person (every person, trans or not) in using pronouns and gender identifiers. If you don’t know or are confused, ask, “What pronouns do you prefer?” No further investigations are necessary or appropriate.
  2. Call people by the name they prefer. President Jimmy Carter wanted to be called Jimmy, and way back in the seventies, we didn’t have trouble adjusting. I know people with horrible names their parents gave them, and they prefer to go by a different name. Some make a legal change, some don’t, but the custom is to call them what they want to be called. Trans folks deserve the same respect.
  3. When there is conflicting information, go with the individual’s wishes. I knew a woman who was divorced, and for her children, she chose to keep her married name. Her father didn’t like it; he kept calling her bank and other places and telling them she was using her maiden name again. When she went to the bank and said, no, THIS is my name, everyone agreed that her father was misbehaving and they used the name she preferred.
  4. Questions about “legal name” and anatomy are not appropriate unless there are actual legal reasons to ask them. (OK, this wasn’t in the GLAAD release, but I’m teaching about social behavior.) If a random person came up to you and asked you questions about your genitalia, you would likely be too shocked to speak. This happens to trans folks all the time, and they feel the same way any of us would. When someone comes up to me and introduces themselves as “Debbie” it would be rude for me to say, “But is that the name on your birth certificate?”  Add to this the sad fact that for some transgender individuals, they’d like to have a legal name change or some sort of medical intervention but they cannot afford it. Then those “curious” questions are really shaming questions about money as well as gender.

Jewish tradition is very firm on the idea of respect for persons and respect for the dead:

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood. – Bava Metzia 58b

Respect for the dead informs every aspect of Jewish funeral arrangements. We guard the modesty of a dead body, not even looking on it unnecessarily. (That’s why you will never see an open casket at a Jewish funeral.) We don’t embalm the dead unless it is required by law, because it is disrespectful, and so on.

Respect the living and the dead. This is not complicated unless our prejudices make it so.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

6 thoughts on “Respect Without Prejudice”

  1. Thank you Rabbi Ruth for explaining what many of us are unaware of or clueless how to address; I always learn something valuable from you!

  2. Dear Rabbi Adar!

    Thanks for addressing this in a good and clear way, and linking this to Jewish tradition.

    One small addition about the asking pronouns thing: If people only ask if unsure, this might end up othering “visibly” trans people and possibly cause mistakes for people who are not “visibly” trans. Like if people stay assuming gender on people, and if they assume male, they use “he” without asking, and if they assume female, they use “she” without asking, but when they aren’t sure of their (cis centered) assumption, they ask, this singling out for asking might feel embarassing for that person. And this might lead to wrong assumptions on people who are often assumed to be “clearly female” but actually use he pronouns or yet other pronouns, and similarly for people who are assumed to be “clearly male” etc. This hits non-binary people who do not medically transition. This may hit some trans people in general who for some reason appear more typical for their assigned-at-birth gender than their actual gender.

    Hope this addition is welcome and hope I worded it clear enough when structuring text isn’t exactly my strength.


    1. I hope this doesn’t come across as hostile, because I don’t mean it to be. You’ve described, very effectively, some excellent reasons why one shouldn’t assume, and why one shouldn’t ask. But what other options are there, with respect to someone I don’t already know?

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