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For me – and, I imagine, a lot of other trans women out there – the recent flurry of media attention around the appearance of Caitlyn Jenner in Vanity Fair has given rise to a whole complicated array of feelings, not the least of which may be longing for a time when everybody will finally stop talking about Caitlyn Jenner.
Partially, this is due to the way in which the discussion of Jenner’s transition in the media serves as a constant reminder of the painful dilemma which every trans woman with the audacity to want to live and be recognized as the gender she feels herself to be faces every day of her life: If she doesn’t “pass” – which is to say, essentially, if she doesn’t manage to live up to this society’s incredibly narrow and unforgiving standards of female attractiveness and feminine behavior enough to fly under the radar of those who would evaluate and pass judgment upon her femininity – then she is in constant danger of rejection, public scorn and even physical violence every time she walks out her front door. On the other hand, if she dresses or behaves in a way that comes across as too “stereotypically feminine,” or if she appears to take pleasure in any aspect of looking, acting or dressing in a feminine manner, then she opens herself to rejection and ridicule of another kind, this often coming from self-described feminists who, frankly, ought to know better.
If this dilemma sounds awfully familiar to cisgender women who at some point in their lives have had to deal with similar issues around body image and the toxic double standards of a society in which it is often just as unacceptable for women to be “too feminine” as it is for them to be “not feminine enough,” then it ought to give one pause, given that one of the many accusations which trans women find ourselves saddled with on a regular basis is precisely that we will never “count” as “real women” because we lack the “experiences” and “socialization” which constitute authentic female identity. Leaving aside the sheer blindness to cultural, racial, medical, economic and class differences inherent in the claim that that there is one unifying set of experiences which unambiguously establish one’s status as a woman, it is a source of constant amazement to me how comfortable certain people feel in making claims about the lived experience of others – especially when these claims are leveled for the purpose of invalidating the identities of an already marginalized group of people.
Frankly, I am tired of the debate about how to define womanhood – the standards in this debate are simply too prone to shift at a moment’s notice in any way necessary to support the preconceived notions of those for whom the invalidity of my identity is a foregone conclusion. Is it any wonder that trans people, faced with the constant, overwhelming pressure to justify themselves to a world which isn’t willing to accept them on any account, sometimes have recourse to simplistic explanations involving the brain or the notion of having been “born in the wrong body?”
The simple truth of the matter is that gender identity is an incredibly complicated phenomenon whose origins and nature have never been satisfactorily explained. Is gender physical? Neuro-chemical? Psychological? Cultural? Legal? Does it have its origins in our anatomy or our life experiences or in some mysterious realm of the spirit? If we are being truly honest with ourselves, the answer to all of these questions is an unqualified “maybe.” We simply don’t have the language to deal with something as complicated as identity with any degree of comprehensiveness. About the only concept that truly does it justice to gender identity is one which has sadly fallen out of favor in our hyper-materialist, over-medicalized society: the soul. It used to be that “a soul” was synonymous with “a person,” and the nature of a person’s soul was a deep, inner mystery shared between that person and the divine source from which it flowed. To presume to know another person’s soul required an incredible amount of time, patience and intimate closeness. In our efforts to reduce everything in the world to that which it is possible to analyze and critique in the space of an online journal article, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something along the way, something that would be tremendously useful in understanding gender.
In the absence of a clear understanding of everything that goes into making us who we are, all that I and people like me can do in the face of an unsympathetic world is to assert our experience – not some abstract, essentialist version of a unifying “male” or “female” experience, but the messy, concrete, lived experience of real people who know who we are, even if we can’t always show you the math of that equation in a way that would make sense to anyone but ourselves. And really, isn’t this inability to fully articulate the mystery of ourselves just another example of an experience with which all of us, no matter what our identity, can identify?
The first parsha of Shemot ends on a down note. Moses has done exactly what God asked of him, and yet everything seems to have turned out wrong. Rather than listening to Moses and letting Israel go free, the Pharaoh has only been irritated enough to inflict further hardships on them. Meanwhile, the people Moses was sent to save now look on him as the source of their problems rather than the solution. Moses’ feelings about his mission at this stage can best be summed up by the anguished cry he calls out to God – “Oh Lord, why did you bring harm on this people? Why did you send me?”
The despair felt by both Moses and the Israelites at this point is not difficult to understand, inexperienced as they all are with the task they have been called to undertake, which is nothing less than working to bring an end to their own oppression and subjugation. Caught up in the idealism of his mission and still not used to thinking of himself as a leader (or even an Israelite for that matter), there are still a few lessons Moses has to learn before he can lead his people out of slavery and into freedom. It is precisely in this parsha (Parashat Vaera) in which God begins to see to it that he learns them.
Lesson 1: Everything is a process. Everything.
Moses and the Israelites are discouraged at the beginning of the parsha because they all at some level expected the experience of liberation to be simple, easily attained and above all quick. When carrying out God’s first set of instructions did not immediately lead to an improvement of their situation but, to the contrary, seemed to worsen them, Moses and crew reacted with justified surprise. After all, with God on their side, how can they possibly fail? What they fail to understand is that even for God (maybe especially for God) everything is a process. It took seven days for God to create the world, and it’s going to take some time to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. We might ask, if God knew beforehand that in the end it would take the death of the firstborn to get Pharaoh to finally capitulate, why then not try that first and have done with it? It may be, however, that without all the other plagues, the threats and back-and-forth between Moses and Pharaoh, this final plague would not have had the same impact and might not have succeeded at all. All the previous efforts Moses, Aaron go through, apparently futile on the surface, actually prepare the ground for the final victory.
Lesson 2: To make change happen, you first have to believe change is possible.
At this low point, when Moses is feeling so lost and dejected, God prefaces the next set of instructions by recounting all the signs and promises made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – that the Israelites would be redeemed from exile and would come at last to inherit the land promised to their ancestors. Not only this, however: In this speech God emphasizes that even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who merited to receive such promises, knew God only as El Shaddai, not by the four-letter name that most closely and intimately connects God with the people Israel. In this way, God seems to be saying: As close as I was to your ancestors, I never revealed My own special name to them, and yet I sheltered and cared for them in times of trouble. How then can I fail to take care of you, who have been permitted to be so much closer to Me?
Lesson 3: When things are looking bad, it’s important to remember who you are and where you came from.
Even after being reminded of God’s promises, Moses still doesn’t feel confident in the eventual success of his mission. The source of this lack of confidence seems to come primarily from a breakdown of trust between the people and its leader. The Torah clearly tells us that the Israelites’ reason for not listening to Moses at this point is because of their circumstances – the harshness of their labor and the constriction of their spirit – nevertheless Moses himself can’t help but attribute his failure to the inadequacy of his leadership skills, regretting once more his deficiency of speech.
It is no coincidence that the Torah chooses this moment to recount in part the genealogy that led up to the birth of Aaron and Moses. This is to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt the close connection between the two brothers, and between Moses and the Israelites. In this way God seems to be saying: Though you were raised in different households and under very different circumstances, still you are brothers and nothing can break that bond. Just the same, though the Israelites may have lost their confidence in you for the moment, you are bound together by ties that cannot be broken. Now get up and get to work!
These are only a few of the lessons Moses needs to learn as we watch him develop! over the course of the next several parshiyot from an insecure outsider suffering from lack of confidence and a very really difficulty connecting with the people he’s supposed to save, into a strong and capable leader able to face down Pharaoh, discontented Israelites and even God in order to protect the people from harm and bring them through the wilderness. May we all learn from them as well as we work to find solutions to the difficulties facing our own communities and in our own days.
I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently: About the ways it shapes our lives, about the ways access to space is granted or denied. Space is one of those things — like any form of privilege really — that you don’t really tend to notice unless you’ve experienced for yourself what it’s like to have the right to the space you need to live challenged or taken away. The country where I live has a lot to say on the subject of space, of who belongs where, and why. I suspect that no matter where you live, you could say the same.
What really got me thinking about the subject of space was all the work we’ve been doing at JCUA this summer around immigration reform. During the course of my time working for Or Tzedek, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of brilliant, passionate activists working for immigrants’ rights and to hear their stories and the stories of many others who have been impacted by the utterly shameful mess that is the United States’ immigration system. Listening to all these stories, it has sometimes been surprising how familiar they seem. The experience of living your life in limbo, of occupying a space that doesn’t officially “belong” to you for reasons too complex and personal to be understood by those who are deeply uncomfortable with your presence — this is something that speaks to the core of my own experience and motivates me to be an ally for undocumented immigrants in their struggle for recognition.
There’s a blessing I say regularly, twice each day, when I am taking the hormones that are slowly working to make my body feel more like home. I believe it was originally composed by Elliot Kukla, and it goes like this:
ברוך אתה יי אלקינו מלך העולם המעביר לעוברים
Blessed are you our God, ruler of the universe, who brings across those who cross over.
There is a lot packed into this one, deceptively simple, little sentence. For starters, there is the terminology it uses to refer to transitioning and to those who transition. עבר in Hebrew is a verbal root meaning “to cross.” Its associations in Judaism are complex: On the one hand, it can carry the sense of “crossing over a moral boundary line,” as for example in עבירה — “transgression.” On the other hand, the idea of “crossing over” is fundamental to the Jewish concept of redemption. The two great redemptive moments in the Hebrew Bible — being taken out of slavery in Egypt and being brought into the land of Cana’an — both involve the symbolically powerful act of crossing over a boundary represented by a body of water.
In using עבר to refer to a transgender person’s move to transition toward living the gender they identify as, Kukla seems to be making a rather radical statement about the place of trans experience in Judaism — removing it from עבירה, the rejected periphery of transgressive behavior, and placing it right smack dab in the redemptive center of the Jewish tradition. Margaret Moers Wenig, in her article “Spiritual Lessons I Have Learned From Transsexuals” (in Balancing on the Mechitza), goes even further perhaps when she attempts to determine a proper Jewish term for “transsexual” and eventually settles on the word עברי — which also happens to be the Hebrew word for Hebrew!
Both Kukla and Wenig make the point that the experience of crossing over into a new and more authentic life is central to both Jewish and transgender experience, and hence that these two identities are not as unrelated or even contradictory as some might assume. In the seemingly radical act of creating a blessing for gender transition, Kukla is merely asserting what those of us who are trans already know in our hearts — that, legal or not, accepted or not, sanctioned or not, the need to cross over is inscribed in the book of our lives, written in letters too deep to be effaced, by a hand greater than our own.
It is that same need — the need to cross over, to be recognized and counted, to come out of the shadows and into the light — that I recognize in the stories of the millions of undocumented immigrants who live among us, who share the same space and contribute to our society in a thousand unacknowledged ways, and who nevertheless are frequently denied even the most basic elements of human dignity. It is in the courage of undocumented youth who, at incredible personal risk, come out of the shadows to protest the injustice of deportations and the denial of legal protection from discrimination and exploitation. It is a need that, like all human needs, is grounded in the lived experience of real people who deserve to be seen and to be heard, not hidden behind a smokescreen of anxiety and misinformation erected by those who would use our fear of a largely imaginary “other” to cement their own power and influence.
Access to space is important — space to live and to grow, to share and to prosper. To be denied that necessary space is to be denied an important part of one’s humanity. This is something I believe all of us know, deep down, although the stories we tell ourselves of danger and scarcity sometimes make us forget that truer, deeper knowledge. As the debate in Congress over comprehensive immigration reform continues, and as we perhaps consider whether and how to add our voices to that debate, may we not lose sight of that fundamental need — and of the ways in which each of us, in our own manner, has been impelled by the circumstances of our lives, or our own nature, or by the mysterious hand of the Divine, to be crossers-over.