In honor of International Transgender Day of Visibility on Wednesday, March 31, President Joe Biden marked issued the first-ever presidential proclamation of its kind in recognition of the day which celebrates the achievements of trans rights activists and increases awareness about the ongoing challenges that transgender and gender-nonconforming people face.
“Today, we honor and celebrate the achievements and resiliency of transgender individuals and communities,” the President said in the proclamation. “Transgender Day of Visibility recognizes the generations of struggle, activism, and courage that have brought our country closer to full equality for transgender and gender nonbinary people in the United States and around the world.”
The President rightly drew attention to the sad fact that transgender communities, which represent about 11.3 percent of LGBT adults in America, face frighteningly high rates of violence, harassment, and discrimination. And with heaviness in my heart, I share that more transgender and gender non-conforming people have been killed in the US in 2020 than any year since the Human Rights Campaign first began tracking these numbers in 2013. President Biden also called on the Senate to pass the Equality Act, a bill recently passed by the House that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect people from being discriminated against based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In so many ways during the past five to ten years, our society and our world have become so much less insular, so much more open-minded and open-hearted, and in so many ways at the same time, there has been such a strong reflexive reaction in the opposite direction. So while it may seem natural to see your clergy and your synagogue stand with LGBTQ+ communities and to recognize the importance of Trans Gender Visibility Day, it is still so very important for us to publicly speak about the issue, to normalize the way we talk about LGBTQ+ issues within these walls and to make sure that everybody knows that your PTS clergy are safe and welcoming people to talk to if you or your loved ones are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
To help us pursue a modern understanding of gender and sexuality, here are some points of information from the website of Keshet, the preeminent local and national LGBTQ Jewish organization. There are three important categories to know: sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
A person’s sex or sex assigned at birth describes a person’s assignment at birth, based upon a medical provider’s perception of one’s bodily characteristics—genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, etc. as male, female, or intersex.
Gender identity is a person’s inner understanding of the gender or genders with which they identify. This is each person’s unique knowing or feeling and is separate from a person’s physical body or appearance, although it is often related.
Within the category of gender identity comes the term transgender or trans, and it’s an umbrella term for anyone who knows themself to be a gender that is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. Some trans people may have a gender identity that is neither man nor woman, and for some people their gender identity may vary at different points in their lives. Transgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix trans, meaning “across” or “beyond.” Transgender is generally preferred over the antiquated “transsexual” to shift focus from body parts to internal sense of self. Some (often older) people self-identify as transsexual.
Third is the category sexual orientation, which is a pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions. It is a sense of one’s personal and social identity based on attractions and describes whether and to whom one is attracted sexually, physically, romantically, etc.
Many of us would be surprised how the Book of Genesis describes gender and creation in the opening chapters of the Torah. Toward the end of chapter one we are presented with clear language about the value that all people are created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim, regardless of our human differences. In verse twenty-seven the text teaches that God created ha’adam—either the word for the first human or for all humanity—in God’s own image. Zachar u’nekeva bara otam, male and female God created them.
In a beautiful sermon, Rabbi Jen Gubitz describes the biblical passage this way: “Here we are offered what is known as the gender binary most commonly seen in the fabric of modern humankind. Words have provenance and Zachar u’nekeva, male and female, are linked to words for pointy sword and crevice, with obvious meaning behind each. Zachar U’nekeva in modern days become the grammatical labels for the Hebrew language, which, like many others, is gendered; thus, the fabric of society as it is built upon language and our capacity to send messages to one another through language is, at its core, along the lines of the gender binary.”
Rabbi Gubitz continues: “A midrash on Genesis, however, turns our understanding of this binary on its head. It is not just that males and females were created in God’s image equally and at the same time, rather Genesis Rabbah 8:1 offers the teaching that ‘the first human being was half male and half female and was then split into two separate beings.’” And the midrash offers still another perspective, that “the first human being was an infinite, genderless mass.”
These ancient interpretations from our sages, from around the year 400 CE, provide a less binary understanding of the nature of gender and how we categorize. And while we are celebrating Transgender Day of Visibility, it is crucial to remember that visibility is not an option or desire for all transgender people. Being visible can be dangerous. Transgender women of color in particular have been overwhelmingly targeted for hate violence, and the increased visibility of famous transgender people has not made them any safer. The same year that Laverne Cox made history as the first out transgender person on the cover of TIME magazine, the FBI hate crime statistics indicated a tripling of violence and threats against transgender individuals, from 31 to 98.
There is much work to be done to make sure that all of us are embraced and celebrated as individuals. There is much work to be done to make sure that we are not only visible, but also feel seen.
Rabbi Becky Silverstein wrote for Keshet the following, and I echo her words and accept the responsibility. Rabbi Silverstein looks to Jewish communities:
“To investigate where compulsory gender is still present in our rituals, programming and curriculum, and to actively question its value and purpose where it remains.
“To ensure that gendered spaces are inclusive of transgender people. Transgender women are women, trans men are men. Let’s make sure our women’s and men’s spaces are open to transgender women and men.
“To work with nonbinary members of our community to ensure that there is space for their experience, perhaps by creating a third gender caucus for nonbinary and agender people.
“To pay transgender Jews for the work of sharing our experiences in such a way that facilitates growth and greater inclusion in our larger communities, including writing ritual, halakhah, divrei Torah and sharing their experience in a public format.
“To continue to address the racism, ableism and other systems of oppression that are present in our community.
I want to end with words recommended by Rabbi Gubitz, “When trying to understand the best language to use, we have options. Keshet offers us terminology, as do most LGBTQ affirming websites. And even better, when you meet someone, anyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, and they put out their hand to introduce themselves, ‘Hi, my name is . . .’ that’s the name or term you should use to refer to them.”
Calling someone by the name and pronoun they ask you to call them is one giant leap towards the Shleimut, the wholeness all of God’s creations deserve.”
May we be active participants in the making of this wholeness, this shleimut, and may we be God’s partners in creating equity and inclusion. Cain yehi ratzon, so may this be God’s will.