Transgender Day of Remembrance: Reflection and Prayer

The first independent human act, we are told, was a crossing over of a boundary: from obedience to curiosity, from Eden to the world.  Human life has been marked by transition ever since: from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance to knowing, from solitude to community.

My community, the Jewish people, was a tribe that passed through a wilderness to become themselves. They transitioned through fire and water to become who they would be. The Hebrew word for Jew is ivri, which literally means “the one who crosses over.” Our holy book declares that we are created female and male, not one or the other but both. Sexuality is not binary, it is a spectrum, a rainbow of different expressions, all beautiful, holy, all blessed.

Transition from one state to another is a natural phenomenon for the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, for the carob tree that changes gender, and for the day that changes into night and back into day again.

It is the experience we all share: it is said that “we are all twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined. We are many identities and loves, many genders and none. We are in between roles, at the intersection of histories, or between place and place. We are crisscrossed paths of memory and destination, streaks of light swirled together. We are neither day nor night. We are both, neither, and all.”

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance my prayer is for a world in which Trans people are recognized for the prophetic vision they demonstrate by the way they live their lives; they inspire all of us to envision a world in which we can see that we all  experience transition. We give thanks today for the learning we are offered by every trans life. May we gain understanding. May we reach, someday, wisdom.

אל מלא רחמים in the name of Compassion, may their souls be blessed, all those who are in our hearts on this Transgender Day of Remembrance. Today we say the names of young and old, of every race, faith, and gender experience who have died by violence. We remember those who have died because they would not hide, or did not pass, or did pass, or stood too proud.

Today we say their names: the reluctant activist, the fiery disturber of the peace, the warrior for quiet truth, the anonymous one. As many as we can name, there are thousands more whom we cannot.

All of them are holy; all of them are blessed; all of them are precious.

We mourn the senseless deaths as we give thanks for the lives, the teachings, and for the brief glow of each holy flame. We seek the strength to carry on their legacy of vision, of bravery, and of love.

We remember those who lives were ended by murderous hate, by the hand of another, or by their own, desperate, hand.

We say their names, and in their names we will root out the injustice, ignorance, and cruelty that caused their deaths and our own despair.

We say their names and declare that Creation has many holy faces, many holy genders, and many holy expressions.

Blessed are they who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world.

Blessed are we who have been illuminated and warmed by that light.

Blessed is the Source of all light and life, in which nothing is forgotten, and every living light is gathered in.

Shabbat VaYetze: Trans Torah on Trans Day of Remembrance

On Shabbat VaYetze we read of Jacob’s leaving his family under threat of death from his brother. His escape is hurried and frightened, and his path traces an ironic reversal of Abraham’s, as Jacob has to leave his family home, the homeland promised to his grandfather’s and father’s descendants, and his people just to survive.

At this point in the story, Jacob is alone, hunted, and vulnerable. He will survive and thrive, and he does so because he successfully transitions from who he thought he was to be, in order to find who he was really meant to be. In the process he will become so fundamentally different that he will become known by an entirely new name. But this new sense of self, and the ability it will bring with it to reconnect to family and to create his own family, is a long, difficult struggle.

It could have been much different. In his lonely vulnerability, Jacob could easily have been killed. This parashat hashavua is well suited to today’s date. Today, November 20, is recognized as International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside to commemorate and honor people who are murdered for being who they are – because their gender identities do not fit within the constrictions of their cultures. Although there are records of people throughout history and around the world who lived outside of the gender binary (a polarized construction of ‘masculine males’ and ‘feminine females’), in our own, less tolerant place and times, these people are subject to scrutiny, oppression, discrimination, assault, and sometimes even murder. 

Why take a day to focus on something so heart-wrenching, when there is so much to celebrate about transgender visibility and wellbeing? We can see famous actors, musicians, and athletes share their gender-variant lives. The White House hired the first openly transgender staff person, and President Obama included trans people in his ‘State of the Union’ address. This year Oregon became one of the first states to ensure that trans people can benefit from medical coverage they were previously excluded from receiving. Multnomah County made a commitment to gender-accessible bathrooms. And out and proud trans people play vital roles within our shul. 

But in 2015 alone, 24 trans people, disproportionately women of color, were murdered due to transphobic violence. Worldwide, one trans person is murdered every three days. In the United States and in other countries, the people who bear the brunt of societal discomfort with ‘atypical’ gender expression are overwhelmingly trans women, those who live partly or completely outside of the male sex they were assigned at birth. These women are often poor, often people of color, forced outside the safety networks that many take for granted. Trans and gender-variant people are more likely to be ostracized from their families, discriminated against at work and school, living in poverty, profiled by police and dragged into criminal systems. 

As we know, and can see playing out on the national stage, religious communities have a powerful opportunity to influence either the welcome and affirmation of trans and gender-variant people, or their rejection and marginalization. Our Jewish tradition recognizes the reality of people who lives outside of the gender binary – but most of us are never told those stories. Nor should we really need to hear them in order to finally learn the basic lesson that G-d created all of us, and we all reflect G-d’s image, equally precious beings, all needed to bring about the better world we long to live in.

According to our tradition, Jacob had to journey to Haran, where his grandfather lived (with a name which also means “anger” in Hebrew) and through Mt Moriah, where his father was almost killed by his grandfather. Although he may have left home to try to escape his family, Jewish teaching makes clear that we transition from who we are to who we are meant to be only by walking a path which leads through, not around, those from whom we inherit so much of the puzzle of who we are.

All of us transition in our lives; all of us weather changes in our world. Like Jacob, we have a long, difficult road before we truly become the Israel we are meant to be: unafraid to be compassionate, aware of our own strength, with no further need to be angry – and able to fully love.