Content warning: suicide, transphobia.
One of the first songs I ever heard was “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. My mom loves this song, so naturally it was on regular rotation in my childhood home. From that young age, I was learning to look at both sides as a valid and special way of understanding the world. I didn’t yet realize there’s so much more nuance to most situations.
As the Associate Director of Education and Training for Metro New York at Keshet, a national nonprofit that works for the full equality for all LGBTQ Jews and our families in Jewish life, I spend 40+ hours a week educating Jewish professionals on how to create spaces where all LGBTQ Jews can find a sense of belonging in Jewish spaces. We talk about inclusive language, the impacts of cis/heteronormativity, and ways to think about creating expansive and inclusive programming, policy and culture that encompasses all Jews.
Through this work, I frequently get pushback about “they/them” pronouns being plural pronouns — “How could I possibly use that for one person? I won’t!” — or people questioning trans/nonbinary existence, or declaring to me that there are no LGBTQ people in their communities so “why should we care?” I’m constantly negotiating the line of educator and defender of my identity all while maintaining my professionalism and trying not to take it personally.
I won’t lie, this isn’t easy. But I do it because it’s worth it to me. For every person that pushes back on me or my identity or the identities I’m teaching about, I know that I’ve reached dozens more in a positive way who are out there making changes and showing up in solidarity with their LGBTQ community members. I do it because I want to show folks what it means to build inclusive, expansive Jewish spaces. And I hope the people who’ve pushed back take a second to think about why they’re pushing back and why this has caused a stir.
A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of another Jewish organization about Jewish LGBTQ issues, not as a facilitator but as a participant representing Keshet. I was excited to be in the passenger seat for once to learn from someone else. When I entered the Zoom room, I was thrilled to see so many familiar faces, so I relaxed and let my guard down a little bit. The presentation started with an overview of terms, then moved on to a discussion of the anti-trans bills (which include, but are not limited to, trying to ban trans girls from playing sports, making trans affirming healthcare illegal for kids and/or adults, criminalizing supporting trans youth, and the list goes on).
But then, the conversation took a turn: The facilitator urged us to consider the “validity of all sides” of these debates, and that further, “maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to jump to hormones or surgery” (this is not what happens) or to even believe kids when they tell us they’re trans. I couldn’t tell you what happened after that, because I began to completely disassociate. While I am not new to having my existence questioned or challenged, my guard was down, and this moment felt … egregious.
Unfortunately, it did not stop there. One of the resources provided was a book essentially spouting that there’s a transgender “craze,” or epidemic, of young girls being influenced and pushed to transition and/or lie to or disown family members who aren’t supportive. One of the worst parts of this book (the whole book is the worst part) is that it’s written by a Jew, giving it more credit within the Jewish community than another author might have been able to pull off. Even though this book has been denounced and rejected by multiple major health organizations (American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Endocrine Society, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health) for all the reasons, they insisted on presenting this book as credible in order to honor the premise that “we need to talk about both sides to not erase experiences.”
Part of the experience of finding oneself is to explore, ask questions, try different pronouns and/or names, and to try different words to describe our experiences to see what is the most affirming; there’s a lot of undoing happening and evolving over time. We need to believe and affirm kids when they tell us who they are and then believe and affirm them again if they find a different word to describe who they are later on. And we need to do this responsibly; offering a book that inaccurately depicts this experience is not that.
I share this story because 1) it feels good to write about and process it, because even weeks later, I’m still reeling from this event. Their follow-up email didn’t help, but doubled down on their detransitioning stance and provided almost five times the amount of resources supporting that “side,” while the only resources they provided discussing how these anti-trans bills and that book are dangerous are the ones they asked me for the next day. And 2) us Jews have a lot more work to do to dismantle systems of oppression — these systems pop up everywhere and drive our way of thinking whether we want to admit it or not, including within these critically important conversations about inclusion.
I’ve previously written about learning how to “struggle” and “debate” because that’s the Jewish thing to do. I get it. But some things, like human rights and dignity, are simply not up for debate. They can’t be. Many issues have multiple valid perspectives, and are worthy of an “all sides” conversation. But there’s a critical difference between deep commitment to ensuring spaces are equitable and safe for all people and taking that commitment too far in allowing dangerous, transphobic ideologies to seep into our conversations, decision making and actions. Sometimes when we embrace the other side for the sake of debate, we inflict significant harm — especially when one “side” has proven to be violent, often deadly.
There are real-life consequences to these bills, as well as when we don’t believe, support, affirm and allow for kids to safely explore and state who they are. These bills and anti-trans rhetoric enable and empower violent and transphobic bullying and harassment. According to a National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health 2021 by the Trevor Project, 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year and more than half of those kids are transgender and nonbinary. Further, 94% of LGBTQ youth reported that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health.
It is our responsibility as community leaders, educators, allies, accomplices and beyond to do our due diligence and learn about how even just presenting the other side for the sake of equity and fairness gives this dangerous rhetoric too much weight that has deadly outcomes.
Now it’s my turn to use some Torah. When I learned about pikuach nefesh, my mind was blown. This is a principle in Jewish law that declares that the preservation of human life takes precedence over virtually all the other commandments in Judaism. I’m going to say that again. Jewish law declares that the preservation of human life takes precedence over virtually all the other commandments in Judaism. Interpret that however you’d like but the way I see it is this: The next time you find yourself wondering if there are two sides to the “trans issue,” think about these questions first: Is someone’s safety or dignity in question? Is what I’m saying/doing liberating for all, or just some? Who will be hurt in this process? Am I perpetuating these systems of oppression? Am I questioning someone’s basic existence?
All humans, including trans people, deserve humanity, dignity, respect and safety, and how we get there is on all of us to recognize misinformation and propaganda, our biases, and the power structures at play. We need to learn to recognize that white supremacy, internalized antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, classism, and beyond, are often silent sponsors of most conversations we’re having. Let us recognize when we are benefitting from these sponsors and when we are oppressed by them, then break it all down and start again.
It is our Jewish duty to uphold pikuach nefesh and put human lives above all else. There are just not two sides to that.