How should the Jewish community respond to anti-LGBTQ legislation? -J.
Hayden Cohen, a trans high school student from Houston, Texas, has found moments of queer joy in recent months.
They baked rainbow cookies, handed out rainbow flags, and adorned their high school hallways with rainbow stickers featuring friends from their gay-straight alliance.
But those kinds of moments, Cohen said, have recently become “the only things that keep people proud and out of the closet.”
LGBTQ rights are under a new wave of assault as Republican lawmakers have introduced hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills nationwide aimed at banning trans youth from playing sports, limiting extent to which teachers can discuss sexuality and gender in the classroom, and more. Perhaps more severely, a recent Texas directive classified the provision of gender-affirming care to trans youth as child abuse.
And fear has only increased among gay communities with the news that the Supreme Court is likely to strike down abortion rights because the legal reasoning behind Roe v. Wade is similar to the one who serves as the backbone of many court decisions upholding LGBTQ rights.
The fact that these laws have “been passed so easily, that there may be laws that affect me in a significant way one day — it scares me,” said Cohen, who has become active in advocacy for the rights of trans with school boards and politicians. “That day may be drawing nearer than I thought.” Health experts warn that politicizing a person’s identity can increase stress and stigma, leaving LGBTQ youth at even greater risk for substance abuse and suicide. Nearly half of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021, according to a Trevor Project survey.
The Forward spoke to a number of Jewish leaders responding to this wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation about what makes protecting gay youth a Jewish issue. Some, like Cohen, have noted that the Talmud mentions six genders. Others highlighted tikkun olam, or the Jewish concept of making the world a better place. And others were still talking pikuach nefeshthe principle of Jewish law that the need to save a human being’s life comes before almost any other religious rule.
“It is part of my job to ensure that oppressed and marginalized people are protected and loved,” said Rabbi Eleanor Steinman of Temple Beth Shalom in Austin.
“It is an authentic expression of the Jewish values that are dearest to me.”
“Fighting anti-LGBTQ legislation is what we are as Jews”
More than 30 years ago, Dr. Morissa Ladinsky, who works at the only medical center offering youth gender-affirming care in the South, got chills upon graduation from medical school while reciting the Hippocratic oath.
Now she’s taking legal action against a law she sees as a threat to the first precept of that oath: do no harm.
On May 8, Alabama, where Ladinsky lives, became the first state to establish criminal penalties for medical professionals who provide gender-affirming care to young people. Ladinsky is one of seven plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the ban.
Her clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she said, has “helped hundreds of children become whole – quietly, without disturbing anyone, until we kind of became the problem. mid-terms policy of 2022”.
The case for the need for gender-affirming care, she said, is clear. It is associated with an almost 40% drop in depression and suicide attempts, an effect that lasts longer than adolescence: young trans people who have access to puberty suppressants, which prevent the irreversible effects of puberty, have a much lower risk of suicide attempts in adulthood.
Following the new Alabama law, Ladinsky said, “I have to choose between facing possible criminal charges and harming my patients.” For her, the choice to continue serving her patients is a religious choice: Reading the Haggadah this Passover, she says, she kept thinking that her patients and other LGBTQ Americans face the same fear as the Israelites who escaped slavery in Egypt.
“Fighting anti-LGBTQ legislation is who we are as Jews, and it’s who we are as people,” she said.
The place of religion in queer activism
More than two decades ago, when Joshua Lesser became rabbi of Congregation Bet Haverim, an Atlanta synagogue founded by and for LGBTQ Jews, he received death threats. Lesser and his parents feared that at any moment someone might come in and shoot him.
After Donald Trump was elected president, Lesser, who is gay, said his father – then on his deathbed – told him he was even more afraid that Lesser would be attacked.
These days, Lesser isn’t too scared for himself. But he fears for trans and non-binary children, who he said are made to feel unsafe and “used as a political tool.”
“I feel all about Papa Bear,” said Lesser, who serves on the Trans Affairs Committee of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’ LGBTQ Advisory Council.
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Lesser said if he could “wave a magic wand” he would take religion out of politics. But the Bible’s influence on American politics is undeniable, he said, and he’s found that his religious voice can give him credit with his opponents, allowing him to continue working to move the needle.
For others, religion is an obstacle, not a help, in defending LGBTQ rights. Cohen, the trans high school student, said they find they can’t talk about being Jewish in activist spaces because “religion has generally been viewed as harmful to the queer community.”
And while many sects of Judaism seek to include LGBTQ people, taboos remain, especially in Orthodox communities — including the one in which Cohen was raised and where they heard rabbis offer coded support for therapy. conversion, they said.
They said they would not go back to an Orthodox synagogue because of the mechiza, the physical separation between the male and female sections. But “there are things in the Torah that basically say, ‘We need to be a little more open here,'” they said.
A threat to religious freedom
While much of mainstream Judaism divides Jews into two genders, notions of gender fluidity date back to early Jewish thought. Jewish legal writings identify six genders. According to ancient tradition, Mordechai nursed Esther from his own breasts. And Midrash Tanchuma says that Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was conceived with the soul of a man, but God helped her to become a woman.
Given the wealth of Jewish textual support for the idea of a range of gender identities, anti-LGBTQ bills that claim to defend the religion promote an evangelical worldview that “does not include Jewish theology “said Rabbi Denise Eger, the first openly LGBTQ. no one to serve as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Eger said these bills should alarm the entire Jewish community as they are “the canary in the coal mine” for the destruction of the separation between church and state.
Lesser stressed that the work that needs to be done involves not only defending religious freedom at the local and federal levels, but also ensuring that the Jewish world becomes safer and more accepting for LGBTQ people.
When he joined Bet Haverim, he said, his childhood synagogue rabbi refused to speak to him — or even acknowledge his presence — because of his sexuality. He hopes his work has helped spare others similar experiences, he said, but warned that this kind of progress can be easily undone by ongoing anti-LGBTQ legislation.
It’s important for Jews to continue to develop active practices to protect LGBTQ youth and allow them to have “a full sense of who they are as spiritual beings,” he said.
“I don’t want anyone to find that in a congregation – I want our children to grow up in a country that tells them that their being is essential, beautiful and loved.”