Trans is the New Gay: Acknowledging the “T” in LGBT

By Surat-Shaan Knan

[This article is featured in the October edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunities – with a Jewish twist.]

Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, Caitlyn Jenner in Vanity Fair magazine, British boxing legend Kellie Maloney on tabloid covers – the “T” word has certainly found its way into mainstream media. Big time.

Recently, I added “trans is the new gay” to my ever-growing repertoire of LGBT-themed catchphrases. Everything “trans” is a major trending topic as of late, and the people who take pride in having a customary GBF (“gay best friend”) are suddenly on the hunt for a TBF. As a member of the transgender community, these recent developments should probably make me happy.

Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, I am truly glad that our society has finally started acknowledging that the concept of gender extends far beyond the neat categories of male and female assigned at birth. The wider use of the term trans* – the asterisk of which acts as an umbrella for all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum – indicates a certain degree of enhanced comprehension. But I have my doubts that the modern media has helped to create true awareness and understanding.

Growing up in the 80’s, there were no Lavernes or Caitlyns on the horizon. I didn’t know much beyond the infamous pink triangle that gay men were forced to wear in Nazi Germany – my grandpa was a concentration camp survivor and would often tell me about the horrors he witnessed. I came out as a gay woman eventually, but even then I couldn’t shake off the uncomfortable feeling that my identity was somewhat mismatched. I didn’t have a way to define it – the ‘T’ word was just not around – and it took me almost 20 years to discover the concept of female-to-male transitioning. Coming out as trans* late in life was hard, but a great relief.

Despite the transgender community’s increased visibility, I don’t feel as understood and included now as I did when I identified as queer – in both the LGBT and the Jewish communities. I work for a progressive Jewish organization in the UK, and we take pride in our egalitarian ethos. But when I came out as trans*, there was suddenly a pink and blue elephant in the room, replete with unspoken questions and awkward encounters. How were my co-workers supposed to address me? Would I want to have a bar mitzvah?  Did I have any other mysterious needs? Not everyone seemed to have the courage – and perhaps the interest – to raise these questions.

Through my international human rights work, I attend a lot of LGBT-related conferences. Even in such an “inclusive” environment, it routinely surprises me that the simple needs of trans* people – gender-free bathrooms, inclusive language and appropriately trained staff – are barely considered.

When I arrived in Salzburg, Austria for Eighteen:22, the first global gathering of LGBTQ Jewish leaders and part of the Schusterman Family Foundation Connection Points initiative, I was pleased to meet a handful of trans* folk, which is still a rarity at LGBT gatherings. Even now, we are the minority within a minority of a minority group. But that doesn’t mean we count for less.

The delegates got along right away, but even so, we began feeling some tension on the second day. A few trans* attendees expressed feelings of exclusion, and a number of lesbian, gay and bisexual delegates reflected on their struggles with making us feel more included. There was frustration and sadness, certainly—but also hope and willingness to listen and learn.

Discrimination against trans* people by the gay community is largely unintentional and stems from a lack of visibility. Too often, “LGBT” is replaced with “gay,” and LGB issues, like same-sex marriage, are at the forefront of public discussion. Trans-specific issues – gender pronouns, “passing,” equal bathroom access or the process of transitioning – usually stay under the radar. Having occupied both worlds at some point in my life, I am keenly aware of the difference. At Eighteen:22, I experienced the initial, all-too-familiar lack of awareness of this important distinction, but at the same time I was pleased with my peers’ strong desire to change their thinking.

The name Eighteen:22 refers to Leviticus 18:22, a verse that has been used to persecute the gay community for centuries and was utilized by the gathering to reclaim the passage as a source of power. A noble sentiment, to be sure, but one that doesn’t acknowledge the trans* community’s role – the oft-quoted passage only applies to homosexual acts between cisgender men.

There isn’t much about gender identity in scripture, but closer inspection yields surprising results: Deuteronomy 22:5 highlights “the wrongness of pretending to be someone else,” effectively acknowledging that trans* Jews should not have to pretend to be anything other than who they really are. The Mishnah feature a number of non-binary sexes – androgynos, tumtum, ay’lonit and saris – further emphasizing the core Jewish value that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image (Genesis 1:27), and deserve respect.

Transgender people can fall anywhere on the sexuality spectrum, but ultimately, a critical difference exists between sexual orientation and gender identity. As such, it might seem unrealistic that one movement could equally serve both groups; in fact, some activists go as far as to demand that the “T” be removed from LGBT. However, gay and transgender Jews are both subject to the ill effects of discrimination, and gay men and women don’t need to fully understand the transgender experience to be able to whole-heartedly support the cause.

The transgender community finds itself where the gay and lesbian movement was 20 years ago, and trans* people are experiencing the kind of ignorance and persecution that gays and lesbians no longer worry about. Trans really is the new gay – and beyond that, trans is really the new Jewish gay. More than ever, it’s time for “LGB” to start championing the “T” across our global community. We are one. b’tzelem Elohim.

I hope Eighteen:22 will be at the forefront.

Surat-Shaan Knan is an out-and-proud transgender Jew who works for Liberal Judaism UK, blogs for Jewish News UK, is the founder of Rainbow Jews and Twilight People: Stories of Faith and Gender Beyond the Binary and campaigns internationally for faith-based LGBTQ issues. He also acts as coordinator for Ritual Reconstructed and A Different Light, an exhibition opening at the Jewish Museum London in 2016.

Cross-posted on the Schusterman Foundation Blog