The Jewish Community’s Obligation to Trans Youth

The urgency of taking action today to support trans students.

On March 1st, Keshet launched Kavod Achshav | For the Sake of Dignity: A Campaign for Trans Youth to mobilize the Jewish community in support of trans youth, in response to the recent federal roll-back of protections for transgender students in public schools. Joy Ladin’s piece below underlines the importance of these protections, and why we should take action. 

When I was growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I knew that it was not safe to reveal that I was transgender – not in my home, not at public school, and certainly not in synagogue or Hebrew school.

No one told me that. No one had to. I could see that everyone always and only referred to boys and girls, men and women; in every poster, advertisement, TV show, movie, even baby pictures in family albums, every person was clearly marked as male or female. There was no acknowledgment, no sign, human beings might be anything other than male or female. Everyone in the world was either male or female, and there was no place for people like me.

By the time I was in first grade, I was consciously trying to hide the fact that I wasn’t the boy my body, name, clothes and roles proclaimed me to be. I knew that if anyone guessed the truth, I would be seen as ugly, unlovable, a monster from whom, I was sure, everyone, even my mother and father, would turn away.

There was literally nowhere in the world where it was safe to be openly transgender. Trans kids lived in fear and hiding, as isolated and vulnerable as Jewish children living in hiding in Nazi Germany, knowing our survival depended on denying who we were and passing as people we weren’t. Those who didn’t hide were experimented on, or subjected to electric shocks and other abusive forms of “treatment” intended to cure them of being transgender, or driven out of their homes, or abused until they ran away.

Now that the Trump administration has rescinded the policy guidance protecting transgender children in public schools, this country has taken a sudden lurch back toward the nightmare days of my childhood. Suddenly, our gender non-conforming children have been legitimized as targets at school for bullying, bashing, and being singled out as different and deviant by teachers and administrators.

The Jewish community – by which I mean every community, synagogue, school, camp, and youth group – has a decision to make. We can make the Jewish world safe for gender non-conforming children, or we can teach them that synagogues, day schools, JCCs, and summer camps have no place for kids like them. We can teach them, as I was taught, to live in fear and hiding, or teach them that the Jewish community sees, values, and loves them for who they are.

Some communities may not feel ready to talk about gender identity issues; others may be engaged in a gradual process of transgender inclusion. But the Trump administration’s actions have confronted us all with an urgent contemporary version of Hillel’s ancient questions:

If we are not for transgender children, who will be?

If we are for our own children alone, what are we?

And if not now, when?

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