Transgender, Aspergers and Millennials: My Entrance into a New World

By Billy Planer

So as I look back at the first day of the 2015 Etgar 36 trip, I dealt with two items and it struck me the power pop culture has to help us form opinions and ways to deal with issues.

For the first time on an Etgar 36 summer program I have a teen that identifies as a transgender teen. This participant is physically female but identifies as male. When we visit the AIDS Quilt, I have two speakers that meet with the group. The first is a man who is living with HIV speaks to the group. The second is the Executive Director of the Names Project and she talks about this history and politics of the AIDS Quilt. We end up splitting the group in half and each speaker presents twice so that everyone hears both talks in a smaller group setting. We have always split the groups up by boys and girls mainly with the thought that by gender the teens may be more likely to ask questions and be more open to the information without the social pressure of the opposite sex sitting next to them. (Yes I know that this is already a loaded concept…. please have patience with me). Yesterday, for the first time, instead of saying all boys come to the back room, I consciously said “All who identify as male come on back. Everyone else please stay here.” Upon thinking about this experience, I realized the strong impact that watching the series “Transparent” had on me. The grace, beauty, pain and thought that the main character in the series explores the identification as a transgender adult sensitized me to this experience and what may be going on in the mind of the teen on my trip. I realized that it doesn’t matter whether I can understand the concept of not feeling comfortable with the gender you were born. This is the journey of the participant and who am I to get in the way?

The second item that happened is that I have a couple of teens that are “on the spectrum” with Asperger’s and autism. Anyone who has worked with a teen with either of these knows how exhausting it can be for you. I have found this summer an extra dose of patience when I am dealing with these teens. I realize it is coming from having seen the play “Curious Incident Of The Dog At Nighttime” which takes you inside the mind of a teen who has either Asperger’s or high functioning autism. Seeing this play helped me realize as exhausting as it may be to work with these teens, they are equally exhausted by the constant unfiltered stimulus going on in their heads.

What has struck me is we, as a society, often debate, and mostly lament, the impact popular culture has on us. By identifying with a character of a story, movie, play or song, I see the humanity behind the struggle; I can have more patience and desire to help. I can’t help but look at these examples and see that pop culture has the ability to be a powerful source of social change.

This is not a new thought. I believe “Will & Grace” and “Philadelphia” were game changers in the fight for equality for gays and lesbians. Television shows of the 1970s, “Mary Tyler Moore,” “All in The Family,” “Roots” all helped our society feel more comfortable discussing and understanding women’s rights, bigotry and race relationships.

As I am getting older, I see the importance of having access to pop cultural references to help enter this ever changing, modern world. I don’t keep up with all the modern trends, fads, and issues. I am finding myself way too busy just keeping my head above water and trying to remember the thought I had just 2 minutes ago. By the way, for the younger generation this is a reality. I am your future just as you are our future. As I am trying to better understand the millennial generation and ways to work with them, I would like to give them this lesson of my generation. I am a year shy of being half a century old and much of my day is spent trying to just maintain status quo and less about being able to adapt to constant change. I find every day the ground beneath my feet is shifting. I know this is a good thing but I would ask that millennials have patience in our ability to uproot what we knew as true yesterday to what is true today. Being able to see a deeper picture of social issues through pop culture makes it easier for me to understand the constant change. After all, the only constant is change and to quote from another pop culture reference, the play “Hairspray,”

Yesterday is history
And it’s never comin back!
Tomorrow is a brand new day

Billy Planer has been working in Jewish experiential education for 30 years. He is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36, a program that during the summer takes Jewish teens across America teaching them about history, politics and activism. During the academic year Etgar 36 takes day schools and synagogue groups on Civil Rights journeys.