In October 2017 I travelled to New York to speak at the UN Ethics of Reciprocity Conference on cultural diversity, religion, and queer rights. This is the speech I gave.
Content warnings: queerphobia, transphobia, rape mention
A young student asks their rabbi to describe hell. Their rabbi describes a huge table full of the most delicious food you could ever imagine. But the people’s arms cannot bend so they can’t eat any of it. The student asks to describe paradise, and their teacher describes a huge table full of the most delicious food you could ever imagine. But their arms cannot bend, so they can’t eat any of it. The student is confused and asks what the difference is and their teacher says, “in heaven the people are feeding each other”. *
Our ability to create a space worth being in, is dependent upon our willingness to listen to others, to learn what they need, and adapt. The conference we’re at today, the ethics of reciprocity, takes it’s name from the golden rule, a sentiment found in so many of our cultures. Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself, love your neighbour as yourself.
In my culture, we say “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another”. But that is just the start of the quote. It ends with “go and learn”.
Your needs and my needs will not always look the same because you and I are not the same. It’s how we create a community worth being in. It’s how we can solve problems that would stump any one of us alone.
My experience as a disabled queer Jew will not be the same as yours, but I do not regret who I am. Being part of the transgender community has let me meet some of the most fantastic people I will ever know, has taught me so much about being an activist, about how to work with impossible problems when yo have no resources left. It has shaped who I am today. My identity is not a problem, but the way the world views my identity can be.
I have been abused, and had that abuse dismissed when I tried to seek help because of my gender.
I have been raped by god-fearing men who said they would cure my bisexuality.
I have watched the conservative Christian group in my country take photos of my friends, of teenagers, and spread them on social media with hateful lies and defamation.
I have had to listen to a debate happening back home right now about whether my love is worth as much as yours.
There are still shuls I cannot go to because they have a mechitza, a divider that splits the community into men and women, and I am genderqueer, which means I’m not a man or woman, which means that I am a Jew who has no place in some synagogues today.
It was an orthodox Jew who told me at 15 years old that I was betraying Judaism by being who I am.
It was a progressive Jewish group that told me that including trans people was just too hard.
But it was also a Jewish youth movement that all burst into applause when they announced new gender-inclusive policies.
It was also a Jewish friend who was the first person I came out to as trans, and he has been nothing but supportive.
It was also a Jewish transgender woman in the 12th century who wrote a poem we still have today because we have always existed.
Hatred does not get to define my culture. The most conservative, most bigoted, most monolithic parts of us do not define all of us.
I have been excluded by some Jewish spaces, but never from Judaism. My Judaism says we welcome the stranger, no matter how strange I may be. My Judaism says that chesed, loving-kindness, does not have an exemption because it might be controversial. My Judaism goes all the way back to the beginning, because my ancestors stood at Sinai and Stonewall and in their names so do I.
You are not being asked to abandon your traditions or your culture. Our Torah said that a rebellious child could be stoned to death, but the sages of the Talmud (our ancient book of law) could not believe in a text that hateful, that vindictive. So they studied more, they thought more, they looked at the phrasing and found exemptions and requirements so stringent that the burden of proof was so high that no child could actually be convicted under it.
And then they asked so why do we have a law anywhere that was never meant to be enforced? And the response was so we can study and derive benefit from it. So we can learn that no matter what they text might say, no matter how many times in the past someone with eyes a little more hateful, with an ideology a little more restrictive that it was really meant to be, looked at it and read into it their own biases, compassion and justice can prevail.
Queer rights do not have to be a threat to your community. They are only a threat to hatred, to cruelty, to oppression. And I do not believe that any of your communities require that.
When a queer teenager is kicked out of their home, and they are too afraid to go to the shelter because it’s run by a religious organisation that has a reputation for rejecting queer people, and they die on the streets, that death is on our hands if we did not speak up.
When queer students go to the counsellors at their school because they’re afraid about their gender or their sexuality and their counsellors are not allowed to tell them the truth about gender and sexuality, their suffering is on our hands.
In my culture after the new year we have Yom Kippur. It’s a day of repentance, we fast, we go to shul, we pray, and God forgives us for the wrongdoings we’ve committed against God. The day of atonement does not atone for the wrongdoings we have committed against each other until we have with each other.
In my culture atonement does not just saying “I’m sorry.” It means saying “what can I do to fix the harm I’ve caused?”
And there are so many things we can do to fix the harm we’ve caused. You can start small. Think of the language you use. Don’t welcome people as ladies and gentlemen or brothers and sisters because all of your siblings need to be included. Look at the buildings you hold your offices. If they only have toilets for men and women trans people are walking into that space and decided whether to risk being harassed or assaulted. So put a gender neutral option in. Look at the texts you teach, the words you’re preaching and ask is this the kind of line that is going to make a queer teenager go home and hate themselves. If it is find something else. Our traditions are so rich. We do not have to stick with only the most narrow interpretations. Go back to your countries and look at the legislation there is. Can transgender people update our IDs without forced sterilisation? In Australia the answer is no. Find out what it is where you live. Lobby your representatives to improve that. Can a queer person exist free from persecution? Lobby your representatives to improve that.
Judaism teaches me that we have to value hospitality. We welcome in guests, we feed them, we celebrate together, and when they leave we walk a little way with them. Because it’s in public. Because we cannot only support each other behind closed doors. We have to be seen doing it. In a society where queer rights are still controversial it can be hard to say that you are supportive in front of everyone. But we are never going to be safe until you do. Being a leader, being a religious leader, cannot only be relevant when it is easy.
Today you will be asked to sign a pledge, and you should sign it. It’s a commitment to start in the right place, to recognise that our lives mean as much as yours, that your happiness means as much as ours, but it is only the beginning.
We’ve told you how this story starts, but there is more diversity than any number of speakers can capture in a ten minute block. So go home and look at your own communities, your own organisations, and ask who is and isn’t in the room. Ask them what you can do to build a wider tent. We’ve given you the start, now go and learn.
*there are many version of this story from many different cultures. It’s often called the allegory of the long spoons, and a version in Jewish tradition is attributed to Rabbi Haim Romshishker.