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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

Is Our Desire to Create "Safe Spaces" Supporting Segregation? A Reflection on How Communities Protect Trans Children but Avoid Trans Adults

It is not enough to protect trans kids if we are not empowering and honoring trans adults.


Much of the transgender rights movement has been focused on children. And for good reason: trans children are under attack in our country. Schools have weaponized trans identity against children to prevent them from participating in sports or having access to public restrooms. States have criminalized trans healthcare for children, some going so far to accuse supportive parents of child abuse. Families with trans children disproportionally face displacement, as many have had to leave their homes in search of a more supportive community.


As children, these young trans people represent the most innocent and most vulnerable members of our community. As minors, they already have limited rights in this country, and so it makes perfect sense for us as activists and lovers of freedom to come to their aid.


But our activism is not complete if we end our efforts with trans children. Trans people everywhere need our help.


What is the use of protecting trans children if we don’t also create a society for them to grow up into healthy, safe, thriving trans adults? Is our protection of them only because they are helpless children, or is it because they are human beings worthy of fulfillment? Why would our support of them stop at the age of 18?


Trans adults are significantly more likely to be unemployed, unhoused, uninsured, and unpartnered. Many trans adults are struggling to survive, and many of those surviving are struggling to thrive. Many feel left to the wolves since they have passed the age of innocence and are now forced to fend for themselves. Many are forced to engage in dangerous or demeaning work as a result of difficulty finding fulfilling employment. 1 out of 3 trans adults has been turned away from a job due to their transgender identity. 3 out of 4 trans adults have experienced discrimination or harassment in their workplace due to their trans identity.


I have been in Jewish spaces which have proclaimed the importance of “protecting trans kids.” As a trans adult hearing those words, my heart did not jump with joy. Instead, it fell into a pit in my stomach. I was never a “trans kid.” I came out as an adult at 23 years old. I’ve lived these past 12 years as my full self, and I am proud of my journey. But these same institutions that are now “protecting trans children” have never protected me. Many, if not most communities which see the humanity in young trans people continue to overlook the real needs of trans adults.


Trans adults are told we not only have to be excellent at what we do in order to succeed, we have to be the best. We have to be so far beyond anyone else that we give our others (including employers) no possible reason to reject us. If we have just one perceived flaw, it will be used as justification for our discrimination. I’ve spoken with several trans adults who have hit this barrier of required perfection in employment. One said to me mournfully, “I should have waited to transition. I know I would’ve gotten this job as a cis person. Maybe if I had only waited to come out until after I got hired.”


We should not have to put our lives on hold to be able to thrive in our society. We should not have to hide who we are in order to be accepted by others.


In one of my own searches for employment, a community I was interviewing with seemed enamored by me. “You’re a wonderful sermonizer,” they said, “you have a kind, pastoral presence, and your experience is impressive. But... our community is not ready for a trans rabbi. I tried to convince them that they were being prejudiced. They didn’t care. Don’t take it personally... it has nothing to do with you or your qualifications.”


I was so shocked I couldn’t find the words to respond. Transphobia is so normalized in our society that they felt comfortable sharing with me their bias. They did not realize they were admitting to illegal employment discrimination.


How could I not take that personally? “It has nothing to do with you, only who you are.”


I know the discrimination we as trans people face says more about those prejudiced against us than it does about us. And yet we are the ones who bear the burden of the prejudice and discrimination. Others’ shortcomings become our struggles.


I’ve thought a lot about this discrimination, and how well-meaning progressive people can so blatantly betray their progressive values. Why would a place which “protects trans children” discriminate against trans adults?


I think the answer is fear. Fear rules so many of our decisions. Fear is the guiding factor in protecting trans children – fear that harm may come to them. Fear is also the guiding factor in the anti-trans legislation – fear that one’s children may live their life in a way that is incongruent with one’s religious values.


I believe fear is also the prevailing emotion when progressive-minded people discriminate against trans individuals.


I have heard several times throughout my adult trans life, “We’re afraid we might do or say something to offend you.” This has always been a surprising statement to me. Shouldn’t I be the one who is afraid? Why are they afraid?


The truth is, there is always the possibility that someone may say or do something offensive. At any point in time, one of us may say something wrong and inadvertently hurt another person’s feelings. This happens regardless of identity, but the likelihood is increased when someone comes from a different background or experience than we do. So while the fear of offending is ever present, it becomes heightened when interacting with those who may be marginalized by society.


But we cannot let that fear of offending others be what keeps us siloed and separated. Yes, possibility of offense is a risk that comes with introducing diversity to our communities. And, at the same time, I guarantee you that the one in the position to be offended has been offended before, and is fully aware of the risk of being offended again. If we are willing to take the chance of possibly being offended, we should be allowed to take that risk for ourselves.


Let me share another example. I was at a small community in a farming town. I was teaching a lunch and learn on gender beyond the binary in Judaism as a way of coming out to the community. An older member approached me. “Why are you teaching this?” she wanted to know.


“It’s important to me personally,” I said, “because I’m transgender.”


She thought for a moment, clearly troubled by this information. “I’m not sure I agree with that,” she said.


Not the ideal response, but at least she’s honest.


“You don’t have to agree,” I said. “But will you still come to the lunch and learn? We’d love to have you.”


She came to the lunch and learn where we read texts from the ancient rabbis about different genders in Judaism beyond male and female. For a while she was silent, taking it all in. After a while, some of the other learners in the class began a debate. One learner said, “I don’t know that I agree with all these different genders. I’m a feminist, and this doesn’t seem very feminist to me.”


My initial dissenter finally spoke up. “Why would the rabbis write this if it weren’t true?” she questioned. “They knew what they were doing. Who are we to argue with them?”


The woman who told me she didn’t believe in transgender identity was now the one defending it to others. All this happened in the span of one hour.


I’m not saying I expect this type of 180 turn around every time someone makes an offensive comment. But rather to illustrate that human beings are complex individuals who are able to change their ways of thinking if only given the chance. If the community had tried to “protect” me from people like her by never hiring me to begin with, not only would I have never had the pleasure of meeting her (we ended up having a very special relationship), but she would have never had the opportunity to grow and evolve in her thinking.


It isn’t pleasant to be offended. And I’m not even saying it’s okay. What I am saying is that it is natural, and to a certain degree, unavoidable. Offensive comments will be made. Individuals will be offended by those offensive comments. But how can we use them as a starting point to move forward? How can we use them as an impetus to learn and grow?


It’s always hard to make that first step toward change. Any action which shakes up the status quo has the possibility of disrupting the community culture as a whole. Anyone in a position of being a “first” knows intimately what it’s like to be a trailblazer and a pioneer on a path that was not paved for them. We know the risks and we have accepted the responsibility. We know that includes the inevitability of offensive comments and remarks. And throughout years of experience with offensive comments and remarks, most of us have perfected our respectful responses which invite conversation and connection without condoning the offensive statement itself.


We should not be afraid of offending people. Not because we shouldn’t be mindful of avoiding offense – we should, as much as possible. But because in reality it is impossible to completely avoid offense. We shouldn’t be afraid of something we ultimately have no control over.


We should be afraid of discrimination. We should be afraid of our communities becoming siloed because we’d prefer to be with others exactly like us rather than run the risk of offending someone who is different. We should be afraid of this new wave of progressive segregation which masks itself as safety and protection for the ones we may inadvertently offend.


Those of us on the margins are not safer as a result of being excluded from your “unsafe” communities. We understand it will shake things up to include us. We understand those in our new community may not always say the right thing. But we need places to go, communities to belong to. If you let us in, you may be surprised at how much we have to teach you. You may be surprised at how much Torah we have in our hearts.


And who knows. It may not be perfect for us as the firsts, but perhaps sometime down the line, we’ll forget that the fear was ever there... we’ll forget that we ever even had the capacity to exclude others out of fear.c

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