Protecting Trans Kids and Trans Families
March 5, 2022, Parshat Pekudei
If I were living my exact same life: working as a rabbi, partnering and raising my children, but I happened to live somewhere in the state of Texas, there is a good chance that one night, while eating dinner or while cleaning the dishes or while saying the bedtime Shema to my younger child, I would get a knock on the door. And with that proverbial knock would be people on the other side of that door claiming I was a child abuser. Then, that person or persons claiming “to protect my child” would threaten to take my children away from me and Jon — and they could quite possibly, one day not too far down the line, succeed in doing so.
There is 100 percent certainty that if we lived in the state of Texas — a state in which I have colleagues and friends — I would wake up in the morning and go to sleep every evening in fear of that unexpected, uninvited knock on my door.
Let’s take that in for just a moment.
This is not a drill.
This is happening right now, fifteen hundred miles from where we sit today.
Since Governor Greg Abbott , just one month ago, directed the Texas Department of Family and “Protective” Services to investigate and punish parents that have sought gender affirming health care for their children, dozens if not hundreds of cases have been opened, causing a wave of fear for trans kids, teens and parents across the state. Abbott, citing a Texas law that equates such care with child abuse, is actively seeking the separation of children from parents who support their children’s gender identity.
Despite condemnation from the Federal government and a state judge’s order to block the agency from these investigations, the Texas agency is continuing to follow the governor’s directive.
It is difficult to underscore just how dangerous what is happening in Texas is.
It is dangerous for the impacted children and teens, because it reinforces for them the greatest fears any human being can have: that they are not loved or accepted for who they are. And this kind of rejection can have disastrous consequences.
It is dangerous for parents who now have to choose between affirming their children and averting losing their parental rights.
It is dangerous because it is an example of governmental overreach and invasion of privacy, inspired by sinister motives.
It is dangerous because this action is a part of an active political strategy that believes it is ok to endanger transgender children’s lives in order to activate their political base and win elections. These precious lives are mere pawns in a political game. In 2021 alone, 147 anti-transgender bills were introduced in a record 34 states. And Texas is not an outlier — legislation to block gender-affirming care for minors was introduced in 21 states in the last year alone.
Trans kids and families of trans kids need our love, our support and our protection. In the worst of times like these and in the best of times.
While the details of my child’s journey are private and for him to share or not share as he likes, I want to share a bit about what we have learned as parents in the last two and a half years — and as parents in a community of parents going through their own but similar journey.
(An aside about privacy: No one should ever ask a trans person what they choose to do with their body, just as we would not ask a cis person these private questions.)
When our son Mint came out to us two and a half years ago, we were admittedly a bit surprised—it wasn’t something we saw signs of in his earlier life. But we were also immediately accepting and supportive.
This can be hard for others to be believe. I notice that when I speak to people about Mint, they often push and prod me to see what sadness or regret or loss there is, and I can honestly say that we haven’t experienced those feelings. I had been a rabbi in two communities with very supportive gender communities before living in New York City and for years, I had acquaintances and friends who are transgender. I thought that with our support and even more so with our enthusiasm, this would be a journey of rainbows, unicorns and pride cakes.
And there is joy and fun of exploring identity and questioning everything and building a diverse community.
But in time, through the eyes of my child and the other children in our extended community, I also came to see the day to day struggles of many trans youth. While everyone’s experience is different, there are some common themes:
There is the struggle of identifying one way but being afraid that this is not the way they will be seen or known in the world is very scary. Some thoughts that have been shared with me include: What will going to school be like? Will the adults and the teachers use my correct pronouns and chosen name? Will my peers? What happens when I walk outside of the spaces that feel safe? What will the waiter in a restaurant call me? When I go to get a haircut? What name will the doctor’s office have on file?
What happens if I have to use my passport at an airport and have the name that I was born with but that I wish to separate myself from is called outloud over and over again(many in the trans community call is a “deadname” because it is a name they wish buried).
For some trans kids, day to day life is like walking through a minefield, full of potential traps that may trigger painful memories or feelings that make them feel battered and exhausted.
I can share that calling people by the right pronoun and by their chosen names isn’t just something “good” to “something to strive for”: it is a sacred act that communicates respect and dignity; it enables a person to feel deeply seen and affirmed. Making mistakes is fine, but correcting mistakes and moving on swiftly can be an act of healing.
For many trans youth, there are struggles that come from a disconnect between your sense of yourself and your identity and your body. This disconnect and discomfort can lead to anxiety and depression — and this is important — regardless of how emotionally supportive of a family is.
According to studies by the Center for Disease Control, transgender youth report significantly increased rates of depression, suicidal ideation and victimization compared to their cisgender peers. In the year of the study, 2017, one in three transgender children had attempted suicide.
In contrast, new studies by the Trevor Project show that interventions like hormone therapy dramatically reduces the instances of depression and suicide in transgender youth.
Gender affirming care (which covers a huge range of services) — IS health care. Gender affirming care IS LIFE SAVING CARE.
While every family needs to make their own determinations of what kind of care and when, gender affirming care mitigates the challenges transgender children face. It is the opposite of abusive. It is a manifestation of love and commitment and an extension of the value of b’tselem elohim, the idea that every person is made in the Divine image and should be given dignity and kept from suffering.
So, what can we do sitting here 1500 miles away?
First and foremost, for those who are outside of the community, we keep educating ourselves and pushing ourselves to be good allies, including being attentive to pronouns, not assuming gender identity, and standing up against such laws however we can. We can donate to the Trevor Project or Keshet or other important organizations.
But we do as our ancestors did, in this week’s Torah portion, we work on building our mishkan, a sacred community as one that loves and embraces all who come inside.
At the end of this week’s torah portion, we hear these words:
“When Moses finished the work, the cloud covered the Ohel Mohed and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40: 33–34)
When the cloud was present, the Israelites stayed where they were. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, they journeyed.
In Jewish thought, the clouds represent many things, one of them being Divine protection. They were a physical layer of protection, allowing the people who were under threat to be covered in such a way that enemies could not pursue them. They were an emotional level of protection, for when the people saw those clouds, they knew they were cared for, they knew they were loved.
When we create communities that we joyfully affirm instead of tacitly accepting; when we create communities that stand up to fight for our rights, and against transphobia, racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and other forms of oppression; when we create communities where we pray and sing together and care for one another as equals, when we create communities where everyone is asked to contribute “n’div lev” — from the generosity of their hearts and from the fullness of who they are, we allow the Divine clouds to surround us. We provide comfort and protection, love and healing to all who are inside.
That’s the work.
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