Itai Gal writes today’s Debrief to invite you to observe Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston this year. Itai is a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House, the keys player, producer and harmony singer of the schtick-rock band Schmekel, and is working toward a master’s in Jewish education at Hebrew College. This post is dedicated to Leo O’Hanlon z”l.
Every year, the LGBTQ community observes Transgender Day of Remembrance—this year it’s on Wednesday, Nov. 20—to recognize members of our community whom we have lost to violence from others and violence from themselves. For some, this will be the only proper and respectful memorial they will have. As Jews, we know the importance and power of mourning meaningfully. Not only do we have a deeply codified set of rituals around acknowledging the end of a person’s life, but the rabbis recognize it in commentary on the death of Rebecca in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach.
Rebecca’s death is omitted from the text of Genesis and is only implied by the death of her nurse, Deborah. Rashi tells us in his commentary on Tanhuma that had she received a proper burial, her son Esau would have come and people would have cursed the womb that birthed the wicked Esau. Many transgender people have had a similar fate—not honored after their death as their true selves and reduced to bodies unfit for public respect.
We have been particularly quiet about the leading cause of death among transgender people, which is by our own hands, not to mention the worldwide increase in murders of transgender people. Many of us have not seen a doctor in years; we have been denied medical attention, whether or not it’s affordable, or laughed out of the doctor’s office because our bodies are not believed to be what we say they are. A pregnant man? Living with cancer in parts of our bodies that others don’t think exist? If that’s not enough, according to a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, more than half of us have lost a job due to bias, were harassed and bullied at school, and were victims of assault. Ninety percent of us have experienced workplace harassment, almost 20 percent of us have been or are homeless, and our unemployment rates are four times the national average. I fall in a few of those categories and have close friends who fall in all of them. Sixteen percent of us turn to sex work to make a living, putting us at a greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases, arrest and violence. Furthermore, many trans women are profiled for sex work just for being visibly trans.
Last week, the Senate passed a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But your synagogue is exempt from it. So is your child’s Jewish day school. This exemption of religious institutions, however, gives us the opportunity to choose on our own volition to model the values of respecting and caring for all people.
While the future has yet to tell what this victory changes for us in practice, acknowledging gender history and gender expression as experiences that affect our interactions with the world is monumental. We are often dismissed as red herrings and exceptions—groups too small to deserve attention. Our stories are often not included in education about health, healthy relationships, family, Jewish practice and the Jewish life cycle. Our experiences are absent when talking about sex and dating, unless we’re being shamed or fetishized. When others tell our story for us, we are often either hyper-sexualized or entirely desexualized through obsessions with our childhoods or our medical decisions or lack thereof.
Except we actually are in the room, or at least some part of us is. Or maybe we’re not in the room because we don’t feel comfortable there at all. Maybe we want to get married and raise a nice Jewish family. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe we don’t even have a relationship with half of our family members, and we’re not sure what marriage and a family would mean or look like. Maybe it’s not exactly at the top of our priority list right now.
The best way to help us bring our full selves to our jobs, Jewish communities and personal relationships is to include our realities in those conversations. Find out what resources are needed in your communities and how to make them available. The Sex Ed and Gender Justice Team at the Moishe Kavod House seeks to make those connections, and we welcome you to join us. Don’t expect anyone to speak for all trans people, but listen to the diverse, individual stories that a few people make available (and here is one written by my band mate). I’m not going to tell you, “I am a regular person just like you, except for this one thing: I do not identify as the gender that I was proclaimed to be at birth.” Because that’s actually a pretty big thing.
But not everyone is free to tell their stories. At Transgender Day of Remembrance, in addition to praying with reverent silence, we will pray with our words. In the public speak-out organized by the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, we will give voice to those who are silenced out of fear for their safety and those who are no longer here to tell their stories. Please join the Moishe Kavod House’s Sex Ed and Gender Justice Team, along with Keshet, as we gather before this event for a small Jewish ritual. Afterward, we will walk together to the Trans Day of Remembrance observance at the Cathedral of St. Paul.
And lastly, if you cannot be there, you can remember and honor our transgender sisters, brothers and siblings the same way you remember anyone else: by talking about them. Do not hide our stories the way that Rebecca’s story was hidden, only implicitly included in another person’s tale. We are not exempt, and neither are you.
Here are the details for the event this Sunday:
Jewish Transgender Day of Remembrance Ritual
Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013