OPINION: Why the Jewish community should stand with all trans people on Transgender Day of Remembrance

Friday, 20 November 2020 09:13 GMT

Activists dress in white and hold images of slain members of the LGBTQ community during a demonstration to commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance in New York City, U.S., November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To honour the dead on Trans Day of Remembrance, we must also honour the lives of trans people all over the world

Jonathan Owojori Fernandez is a charity worker from North London and a member of New North London synagogue

Every year, the transgender community comes together to mourn the lives we have lost, in a day founded in 1999 as a campaign by Gwendolyn Ann Smith to bring attention to the unsolved murder of Rita Hester in the United States.

This year, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring project, a total of 350 trans and gender diverse people were murdered around the world.

The majority of the murders occurred in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. Almost all of those those killed  - 98% - were trans women or trans feminine people and 62% were sex workers.

When we speak about who is most impacted by transphobia, specifically by violence that targets trans feminine people, we must name those who fear for their lives every day. 

Since I transitioned at the age of 15 (I’m now 28), I’ve attended services for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Heard the names read out. Felt deep sorrow and anger with my community.

This year, Trans Day of Remembrance coincides with the eve of Shabbat, the holiest day of the Jewish week. With the help of a diverse group of trans Jews from the UK, we are holding a service to bring in Trans Day of Remembrance and Shabbat at the same time (which you can find on Facebook). Great simcha, with great pain.

Many trans Jews struggle to find their place within the Jewish community. Some might struggle coming out to family or face an unaccepting or confused community or rabbi.

Coming together to welcome in Shabbat also takes on a new meaning for me and others who are co-leading the service. At a time when the UK media tends to vilify trans people, or to ignore us, we can stand proudly (and virtually) in our religious communities, our homes, and see our allies around us and with us.

During the service, as well as speaking out loud prayers written by Black trans people, we will read the kaddish, an ancient prayer in Aramaic used for remembering our dead. It symbolises viscerally that, although the trans people who have died this year may not have been Jewish, we as trans Jews stand with our siblings everywhere who continue to face oppression. 

Behind the statistics, there are people. In an article a few years ago, written by Aaryn Lang, an artist, writer and public speaker, she says, "When we remember trans people, we must understand that we've lived first ... Every day a trans person gets to wake up and pursue their dreams, that legacy breathes on."

To reflect on Trans Day of Remembrance must not be only to honour trans death, but trans life.

"People have learned to mobilize around trans death, yet remain conflicted on how to interact with living trans people," Lang writes.

By enabling trans people to live full, authentic, safe, uplifted lives, we are doing the work. By fighting for access to trans healthcare and the safety of sex workers, by supporting trans activists and artists, by challenging toxic transphobic media narratives that dehumanise us, we are doing the meaningful work of changing trans lives. 

Together we must embody the spirit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he 'prayed with his feet'.

We learn in the first chapter in the Talmud that anyone who sustains one soul, it is like they have sustained an entire world. Trans people are worlds all over the earth, living, loving, working, leading, struggling, thriving.

The Jewish community must make more steps to include and welcome trans people, across movements and outside of them, in the face of hatred and prejudice, at a time where hate crimes against our community are rising and dangerous rhetoric and misinformation push us out of everyday life. 

I hope that this is a time where the Jewish community can look to the future and open a dialogue with trans Jews in their midst. There’s a lot more work to do. As our rabbis say in a famous proverb: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”.

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