On Transgender Day, Jews must stand up for the other

November 16, 2012

By J. Correspondant

The Jewish News of Northern California

I’m a white gay Jewish man. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t even know what “cisgender” meant.

In October, I went to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany with a group of LGBT Jews. At Sachsenhausen, gay men or those accused of being gay were forced into isolated, heavily guarded barracks to prevent “infection” of other prisoners. These men were tortured, castrated and used in scientific experiments. Their families denounced them. They had no support network for food or care. When a gay man entered the camp, his life expectancy was 10 weeks. For Jewish homosexual men, it was a week.

When the guide told us this kernel of information, as a group of mostly gay men, we were stunned. How could people do this to each other?

Later on in the week, one gay man reluctantly asked me, “Why do we have to include the ‘T’ in LGBT?” It sounded like a chore to him. I almost choked on my curry.

And then the next question: “Why should a gay man care about trans issues?” Gulp. “What is a gay man’s responsibility to trans people?”

This wasn’t light dinner conversation. No one intended to be rude. It just wasn’t obvious. He knew to include the “T” but didn’t know why.

I put down my fork and, after reviewing all the arguments in my mind, I reduced the complexity to this:

While I am a trans ally, it’s really that I’m a human ally. Trans people are people. I firmly believe that every person should live with full dignity and have full access to opportunity, regardless of whether they fit within society’s restrictive and rigid binary code for gender or sexuality. I firmly believe people should feel safe expressing themselves fully in their community. Every person deserves the right to be visible and heard.

As a human ally, I want a world where my future children see every person treated with respect and are taught to do the same. I want my children to live and succeed, not just exist and recede into seclusion. They shouldn’t feel alienated, be called freaks or attacked for being true to themselves.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to be a human ally. Trans issues resonate with me more strongly as a gay man. Not only can I understand a feeling of terror at the thought of telling my friends and family about my “dark, deep secret,” but I can identify with feeling oppressed and repressed.

In middle school, I was taunted for having a “high-pitched” voice. In high school, I was made to feel like an outsider because I didn’t play a sport, which didn’t conform to preferred gender norms. This type of homophobic gender policing is directly connected to transphobia. It is tied to a fear of gender variance.

Fortunately, as a gay man, I can identify with the sweet relief of having a safe and welcoming environment where I can relate with others who have also felt this way. I understand how much stronger I feel when I’m surrounded by allies who are willing to walk with me.

I care about Trans Day of Remembrance, because I have lived with the fear of being “other” and because I have glimpsed what it feels like to have a supportive community. I’ll hold a lit candle for trans people who have faced violence, been murdered or committed suicide just because they refused to be invisible. In my mind, as a Jew, I will remember the denial of humanity that resulted in 6 million Jews and countless others murdered for being “other.” I will praise those courageous enough to be visible and my fellow allies who refuse to compromise on protection from abuse and discrimination.

I ask you do to the same. It is scary to speak up; to be an effective ally is hard work. But it’s worth it — for the sake of seeing a society in which everyone is guaranteed the right to live a dignified life with the ability to make choices about their own body and health, and to pursue happiness as they see fit.

Thank you for walking with me. I feel stronger already.


Dan Schulman is the Massachusetts community organizer for Keshet (www.keshetonline.org), a national nonprofit committed to the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in all facets of Jewish life.

Transgender Day of Remembrance is Tuesday, Nov. 20. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav will hold its annual Transgender Remembrance Shabbat at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23 at 290 Dolores St., S.F. Special liturgy, music, drash and the reading of names will remember those who have suffered from anti-transgender violence. www.keshetonline.org/event/transgender-remembrance-shabbat