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The Trans Conversation We’re Not Having
Understanding gender diversity is not just about rights and wokeness. It's about profound values and human experiences. And if our conversation doesn't deepen, queer people are going to lose.
Hello! Jay here. For most of you, this is the first Both/And newsletter you’re receiving from me, so allow me to welcome you, and thank you for being here! I really appreciate the support I’ve received since launching last week, and hope you’ll help to spread the word. Especially in these early days, I really appreciate your feedback as well. Thank you!
Half our country is in a moral panic about transgender kids, with draconian laws in a dozen states and incendiary rhetoric that has nothing to do with actual trans lives and experiences. Moreover, anti-trans views have spread from the religious right to the mainstream, with even the New York Times promoting a font of (verifiably false) misinformation about trans people to their opinion page.
The impact is real. In the last few months, I’ve spoken with a number of liberal-minded, good-hearted parents who have unknowingly internalized anti-trans messages, from incorrect information about how hormones and surgery may be procured (short version: they’re not easy to get) to confusion about terms like sex and gender.
In fact, there’s a whole conversation about transgender lives that we’re not having, and we better start having it soon.
First, just a short reality check. The size of this population is miniscule: only 0.6% of the US population identifies as trans. And they are vulnerable: over half of trans kids aged 12-18 have seriously considered committing suicide, according to surveys by the Trevor Project. For obvious political reasons, the amount of airtime this small and vulnerable population receives from conservative politicians is wildly out of proportion to reality.
That said, real lives are at stake; over 140,000 trans kids lost access to medical care in 2023.
How can we do better? Here are two sketches of answers to that question, part of a much larger project I’m working on (based, in part, on my 2011 book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality).
1. Listen to Trans People
I worked as an LGBTQ activist during the same-sex marriage debates of the 2000s and 2010s. At the time, the movement understood, based on a lot of data, that the factor that most predicts whether someone supports LGBTQ people is simple: knowing someone L, G, B, T, or Q. Turns out Harvey Milk was right: coming out is the most important political action that a gay or queer person can take.
But the trans population is a lot smaller than the gay population, and to many people, the whole phenomenon seems new and threatening. So personal knowledge if often lacking, with the gaps filled in by problematic media portrayals.
This explains the bizarre mismatch between media conversations about trans people and actual trans lives. It’s surreal, really, like they’re two totally different worlds. There’s no one trans experience, of course, but trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people mostly want to just… exist, to live their lives authentically, to not endure the pain of gender dysphoria or societal demands. If you get to know someone trans, you know this. It’s obvious.
It's also obviously true that when you look at history, gender non-conforming people have always been with us, from Biblical heroes like the ‘effeminate’ Jacob and ‘masculine’ Deborah to Joan of Arc and Queen Christine of Sweden. Obviously, the medical response to gender diversity is new, but so is the medical response to cancer and heart disease.
So that’s the first step: listen to trans folks! Get to know them, if not personally, then through media that they and their allies have created. What is gender dysphoria really like? What is ‘gender,’ anyway? How does being trans (including transition, if that’s part of it) impact people’s actual lives? Start with reality, not ideas about reality.
2. And Listen to Non-Trans People Too
We also need to listen to non-trans people’s concerns.
To be clear, I’m not talking about hysterical bigots, or the Republican politicians happy to pander to them. Data suggests that not much can be done to persuade them. I’m talking about the relatively moderate middle of America, and, in this case, a lot of liberals who are concerned for their kids and troubled by the perceived rapidity of the change in norms.
And actually – I get it.
As a parent, I can understand how disorienting it can be when a teenager suddenly adopts they/them pronouns, or says they feel uncomfortable in their body. I get how this can all seem new – although to be honest, it also feels very familiar, since some of the same doubts and misgivings accompanied the greater visibility of gays and lesbians decades ago.
What we learned back then was that these concerns need to be validated, not dismissed. “Validate” doesn’t mean “agree with” – on the contrary, we set out to change minds and hearts. But we began not by scolding or calling out, but by empathizing.
Allies play an absolutely essential role in this, especially if allies make themselves vulnerable. I get that this feels new, I felt a similar hesitation. But when I got to know trans people, I found out that... and so on.
That narrative is certainly true for me, when it comes to trans people. When I was growing up, “transvestites” were the butts of jokes, including ones I made. Even when I started doing my advocacy work in the 2000s, I had some embarrassingly ignorant ideas and said stupid, hurtful things. No one is born with a PhD in gender studies. It’s okay to be hesitant and uncertain.
But of course, that’s where the journey starts, not where it ends. From there, we listen, we learn, and hopefully, we grow.
Is this banal? I don’t know. I do know that it played a huge role in the societal shift and gays and lesbians in the 2010s. And I know it’s largely missing from the discourse today.
But it’s essential as well. Gender is intimate, like sex. It’s often connected to deeply-held views and feelings about religion, nature, and society. For the “movable middle” of American society, it’s going to take some time, patience, and depth to do the work necessary to empathize with, and ultimately support, trans people and trans equality.
The good news, though, is that this is how we grow up as human beings. We evolve ethically and morally. We become more alive. And so, while our society needs to have this conversation for the sake of vulnerable trans lives, all of us will benefit from it.
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Some other stuff I’m working on…
Last week was a challenging one for American Jews. In the Forward, I wrote about why Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump are simultaneously attacking liberal Jews and cozying up to antisemites.
I’m preparing an eight-week introduction to Buddhism for mindfulness practitioners who are curious about the original terminology, context, and basis of contemporary meditation. Presented by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, it’ll be taking place online, starting October 17.
Hey, my new book of fiction, The Secret that is Not a Secret: Ten Heretical Tales, is coming out in two months. You can pre-order it here.