Many of us celebrated earlier this week when the Supreme Court kicked off Pride Month with a landmark win for LGBTQ equality in this country. The majority ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination “because of” sex, extends to people who face job bias arising from their sexual orientation or gender identity. Justice Neil Gorsuch, in writing the majority opinion, said: “The message [of the law] is simple and momentous: An individual’s homosexual or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions. That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.” Though we still have a long way to go until we reach a time when all people feel proud, fully accepted and loved by their families and society, let us appreciate this significant milestone in the fight for equity and justice.
I do not take for granted this moment in history or the profound events in my life over the last two years. I was ordained a rabbi, a title which only became legal for queer Jews to hold in the Conservative movement in 2006. I married the love of my life in 2018, three years after marriage equality became the law of the land, and six months ago I joyously became a mother on my own terms. I am grateful to live in a time and place in Jewish and American history when I can fulfill my dreams. But of course we have not yet reached the Promised Land for all.
As a nation, we have yet to confront and conquer transphobia. While anti-gay bias has declined in the US, hostility to trans people remains pervasive — from ignorant tweets by celebrities to legal disputes over bathroom stalls, and the president’s attempts to discriminate against transgender people in the healthcare system and military. The Human Rights Campaign reported in 2019 at least 27 deaths of transgender or gender non-conforming individuals in the US due to fatal violence. The majority of those killed were African American transgender women. There have already been at least 15 such deaths reported in 2020. The HRC writes: “These victims, like all of us, are loving partners, parents, family members, friends and community members. They worked, went to school and attended church. They were real people — people who did not deserve to have their lives taken from them.” Pride Shabbat reminds us to stand up for the transgender community and to offer respect and support to transgender individuals in our lives; to speak out whenever we encounter ignorance, cruelty or bigotry.
In Parshat Shelach we read about 12 scouts, one man from each tribe, who were sent to survey the land of Canaan, the land God promised to the Israelite people. The scouts report back that the land is beautiful and fertile, “indeed flowing with milk and honey,” but 10 of the scouts are overwhelmed by fear of the land’s inhabitants. “The people who dwell in this country are powerful,” they say. “We cannot attack that people, for they are stronger than we…All the people that we saw… are men of great size” [Num.13:28 31, 32]. Panicked and demoralized, the scouts describe the inhabitants of Canaan as Anakites, a word that suggests primordial giants. In vivid metaphoric speech, they reveal how small and inadequate this encounter made them feel: “V’nihi v’ainainu kachagavim v’chayn hayinu b’ainayhem — We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33).
Our Sages ask: the scouts may have known how they felt, but how could they know how they appeared to others? The Gemara explains that when the Israelite scouts saw the Canaanites, they hurriedly climbed up nearby cedar trees. From there they heard the Canaanites say, “We see people who look like grasshoppers in the trees” (Sota 35a). In other words, it’s all a matter of perspective. Viewed high above in the cedar trees, which are known for their enormous height, the scouts looked small to the Canaanites and saw themselves as powerless. This implies, however, that had they stood before the Canaanites face to face, confident and self-assured, they could have appeared of normal stature. The scouts let themselves be defined by others’ perceptions. Fear distorted their thinking and made them believe they were not up to the task of conquering the land and living their dreams.
The Israelites’ struggle against odds that feel overwhelming is a story that resonates in our personal lives. We relive it whenever we feel small, inadequate, dwarfed by the challenge that confronts us. And our ancestors’ struggle resonates especially on this Pride Shabbat.
Rabbi Camille Shira Angel teaches that many of us, when we considered coming out and living our lives as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, faced “an ordeal of epic proportions, a territorial battle for autonomy and self-definition. Likewise, we, too, were faced with the imposing, if not threatening, dominant culture, the gigantic power and privilege of mainstream thinking. In this passage of Torah, the contrast between the giants and the spies represents a duality between the Normative versus the Other, the Dominator versus the Dominated. The heavy residue of slave mentality veils the spies’ ability to see their own strength and the Divine shield” (Torah Queeries, p. 199).
Conditioned to think of themselves as inferior, the Israelite scouts do not recognize their own power or God’s power to help them face any obstacles in their path. Their panic infects the rest of the people, who retreat in fear, never to enter the Promised Land.
The battle for self-respect goes on. Again and again, we come to learn as a people that when we confront external enemies we develop a sense of our own dignity, competence and strength.
While transphobia is a real threat in this country and makes many in the transgender community feel like grasshoppers, I hope that the Supreme Court’s decision this week makes them feel like giants: confident and proud, respected as equal citizens of this country. May we all feel like giants, knowing that we are capable of defeating ignorance and hate through our own activism, love and pride, strengthened now by the law of the land. We haven’t yet made it all the way, but look how far we have come. I echo the words of Jaya Kohol, a Beth El teenager who spoke at last year’s Coming Out Shabbat, for I, too, stand on the shoulders of all of those LGBTQ activists who came before me and fought for our civil rights. Thanks to them, I can see the promised land before us — a place of equality, dignity, and respect for all people.
Dexter Buchanan would have had his bar mitzvah today, but due to the virus, is postponing until the fall. We still want to honor Dexter today and wish him Mazal Tov. Dexter, I see the promised land in you. You give us hope for a better future. May you always stand tall, believe in your own power and speak out for what you know is right. For that is how the world changes. Let all of us hold fast to our dreams and our convictions; let all of us keep striving for a country whose promises extend to all. I want to invite Dex to read a prayer for hope and love:
Love Wins: A Pride Prayer by Alden Solovy
One day, the words ‘coming out’ will sound strange,
Oppression based on gender or orientation will be a memory,
History to honor and remember,
The pain of hiding, repressing, denying,
Honoring the triumphs of those who fought to be free,
Remembering the violence and ignorance that cost lives.
When love wins,
When love wins at long last,
‘Love your neighbor as yourself’
Will be as natural as breathing.
Love your neighbor as yourself!
One day, love will win every heart,
Love will win every soul,
Fear will vanish like smoke,
And tenderness for all will fill our hearts.
Love your neighbor as yourself
In the end,
Man for man,
Woman for woman,
Woman for man,
Man for women,
All true expressions of heart.
Love your neighbor as yourself
Let this come speedily,
In our day,
A tribute to the many
And the diverse
Gifts from heaven.
A tribute to love deep and true,
Each of us for one another.
Love your neighbor as yourself