Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Fighting Anti-Trans Legislation in Missouri
Duration
0:00 / 38:38
Published
April 27, 2023

Trans youth are under severe attack around the country. Sixteen states have enacted laws restricting access to gender-affirming care for young people. At least 15 others are considering similar laws. Missouri is one of those states: State Republicans are pushing legislation that would ban transition-related surgeries, puberty blockers, and hormone therapy for young people, though unlike other states, the bill passed by the state senate allows those already undergoing treatment to continue receiving such care. Last week, the attack on trans people in Missouri escalated when the attorney general proposed new rules that would restrict gender-affirming healthcare for not only young people but adults as well. Rori Picker Neiss—the head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St Louis and the mother of a trans son—is one of the people fighting back against Missouri’s anti-trans legislation. Over the last several years, her family’s life has been upended by repeated trips to the state capitol in Jefferson City to testify against such laws. Picker Neiss joined Jewish Currents editor-in-chief Arielle Angel to discuss the nationwide assault on trans rights, how her Jewish community has responded to such attacks, and what it’s like talking to legislators who are trying to harm her child.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

ARTICLES MENTIONED

Everything That Happened in Anti-Trans Legislation This Week: April 15-21,” Trans Formations Project, THEM

The Anti-Trans Lobby’s Real Agenda,” Jules Gill-Peterson, Jewish Currents

When Parents Hear That Their Child ‘Is Not Normal and Should Not Exist,’” Megan K. Stack, The New York Times


Transcript

Arielle Angel: Hello and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Arielle Angel, I’m your host for today’s episode. Today we have a very special guest with us: Maharat Rory Picker Neiss serves as the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. She’s one of the first graduates of Yeshiva Maharat, a pioneering institution training Orthodox Jewish women to be spiritual leaders and halachic authorities. I’m really, really happy to have Rory with us today. She’s joining us actually, not in her capacity as JCRC leader and as a Jewish communal leader, although also that, but as a mother and as a mother of a trans son in Missouri, which has been facing a number of very distressing assaults on trans children and trans adults as well. So we wanted to talk to Rory a little bit about what the experience has been like dealing with these legislative assaults. And also, since Rory and her husband, Russell and the whole family, are advocates, what it’s been like doing that work in Missouri. So thank you for being here, first of all.

Rory Picker Neiss: Thanks for having me.

AA: I wanted to start just by hearing about where this journey started for you and for your family.

RPN: So our story started a number of years ago, when my son, at the end of first grade, said to his teacher that he had a new name that he wanted to be called and wanted to be treated like a boy. And at the time, his teacher emailed us and said, “What do you want me to do with this?”, and we responded and said, “Let’s support him and follow his lead and see where this goes.” It’s really been a journey, learning who our child is and the best way to support him in his own journey. But that has happened alongside this incredibly painful conversation that had been happening, but really, I think, felt like it erupted at basically the same time. When my son was eight was the very first time that he ever testified in Jefferson City. We brought him to the state capitol; I had been prepared to testify against some anti-trans legislation and asked if he wanted to say something as well, and he did. And ever since then, he has been going back. So our journey really has been one of supporting our child growing while it’s also been him learning that advocacy and using his voice has been a necessary part of him coming into himself.

AA: And St. Louis and Jefferson City, how far away are those?

RPN: It’s a two-hour drive.

AA: So this has really been your lives over the last couple of years—this back-and-forth?

RPN: It’s been excruciating. I don’t know if I totally have the words to really describe it, because like you said, it’s a two-hour drive. But beyond that, we get sometimes 24 hours or maybe 48 hours notice. You’re talking about not just the drive itself but really rearranging our entire lives, especially because a lot of these hearings have been 8:00 am meetings. And so that’s really meant waking up at four o’clock in the morning to leave the house by five in the morning to then—especially as it’s become more and more heated, and more and more people have been showing up—sometimes we will drive all of that way to find that there’s not enough room in the testimony room. And so we don’t even get a seat, we may or may not even get a turn to testify. And the testimony itself: you get two to three minutes. So you have to put your whole life out there, as you’re watching them sometimes just playing on their phone or talking to somebody else. I mean, it’s so demoralizing. It’s just this feeling of not even knowing if the people that you’re talking to care while your life and the life of your family feels like hanging in the very balance. And then I feel like I have to take every last ounce of energy just to make that drive back, right? For two hours to just like focus on the road and not close my eyes, and not take a nap, and to just get home. And I have two other children. And the other two kids would be running up to say “I want to tell you what happened at school today,” “I want to tell you this story,” “I want to ask your opinion,” “I need to show you this.” And I would be empty. I would be completely empty. And I think some of the resentment that I have—I mean, I hate what it has meant for my child to sit in rooms and listen to people say the most heinous, atrocious, offensive things to him and about him. But some of my resentment just comes from like, not being able to fully be present as a mom, because this has just taken everything from me.

AA: As you’re speaking, I’m really reminded of how on this show, we talk to a lot of Palestinian advocates for human rights. And I’m thinking about—I mean, obviously, it’s very different circumstances—but some of the ways that they described it, the way oppression works, is just that your time is really taken from you; that you spend so much time fighting this thing, that there’s so little time left for life. And I feel like that’s what I’m hearing you say. I mean, I wanted to focus in specifically on what these bills are and what they’ve been doing. I actually just took a look at—Them Magazine has a roundup every week of all of the bills that have been introduced all over the place that I’m not getting into, like bathroom bills, or drag bills or anything like that—this is just about health care: trans-affirming, and gender-affirming health care for trans people. So just last week, Florida legislature passed an under-18 health care ban, which also establishes that the state of Florida would be able to take temporary emergency jurisdiction for a child if the parents or legal guardians are letting them receive health care for transition purposes. So literally, the state of Florida can kidnap your child if you are providing them gender-affirming care. In Kansas, a bill passed in the legislature that says that any doctor who has provided gender-affirming care for a minor can have their license revoked. In North Dakota, they’ve passed a total health care ban, making it the 16th state to ban access to gender-affirming health care for minors. Last week, North Carolina and Minnesota both introduced health care bans. I’m curious if you could tell me a little bit about, specifically in Missouri, what’s been happening and how it’s escalated.

RPN: Sure. So they take on slightly different forms in different states. In Missouri right now, the bill that we’re seeing looks like it’s about to pass would prohibit gender-affirming care for all children under the age of 18. Although it has some interesting provisions in it that includes a grandfather clause, so it would not force children who are under care to detransition. And it has a sunset clause, and I believe it would sunset in four years and then has the potential to come back up. But the Attorney General, a couple of weeks ago, made an emergency order announcing that it would be illegal in Missouri for any person to access gender-affirming health care except under very rigid circumstances. And that includes that it would require 18 months of continuous documented mental health support, but also says that no one could get gender-affirming care until they have been tested for and resolved any other diagnoses. And this starts to become almost impossible, because first of all, you have sometimes other diagnoses that could happen that would be completely unrelated. So, for example, the idea that somebody could be autistic and transgender, or that they could have ADHD and be gender nonconforming. We’re also talking about diagnoses that wouldn’t ever be, quote, unquote, “resolved.” But what does that even mean? Also things like depression and anxiety—

AA: Right? How can you cure them?

RPN: Well, you can’t cure them, but also the idea that somebody who has gender dysphoria could also have depression or anxiety, and then to say that you cannot treat the gender dysphoria until you have completed treatment for the depression and anxiety, just becomes an impossibility. And so we’re seeing more and more people who are talking about leaving the state, who just feel like life is really not sustainable here. The other category that we’re fighting a lot are these sports bills. And I really want to take a minute to reference them, because while the health care bills are, in many ways, the most terrifying, I find that the anti-drag bills and the bills that say that kids can’t play sports, except on the team of the sex that they were assigned at birth, I find those to be incredibly insidious bills. Because you might say to yourself, “My child doesn’t really play sports,” or “You know, sports, that’s a voluntary thing, it’s not necessary,” but the bills themselves seek to create a narrative in which there are individuals who are claiming to be trans only to advance themselves in athletics, specifically for these nefarious purposes of undermining other people in sports. This was the same thing that the bathroom bills sought to do. They told us, they said: “We want to protect you. You’re not safe in the bathroom. If any man could dress up like a woman, and come into a bathroom and assault a woman.” And what that told us, then, was “Trans women aren’t really women—they’re really men who are trying to harm women.” That’s the narrative that these bills are seeking to perpetuate. And the drag bills are also getting conflated right? Drag is something that is actually seeking to corrupt our children, right? And what scares me is that I talk to a lot of people who jump on the health care bills and say, “Oh, that’s really terrifying. But yeah, it’s not really fair if my daughter plays sports on a team with a boy.” And we have to keep saying, there is no boy on your daughter’s sports team, there’s a trans girl. Or they’ll say, “I’m not comfortable having a boy in the locker room with my daughter.” There is no boy in the locker room with your daughter. And so as soon as those become the perpetuating stories, and we allow ourselves to then think these things about other people, that’s what then paves the way for the health care bans or saying that parents should lose access to their children. And so these are not really separate things. And in fact, I find that these other bills are sometimes more dangerous, because we don’t realize the harm that they’re actually causing in our society.

AA: I imagine that advocating at the Capitol in Missouri means talking to a lot of Republican lawmakers. And I feel like on a certain level, it’s hard to imagine what it would look like to shift their thinking on some of these things. And so what does advocacy look like in that context? What does it mean to try to influence people who, ideologically, so much would have to change in order for them to accept this baseline assumption that, for example, there’s no boy in your locker room.

RPN: So I first want to say that we’re also having the same conversations with Democratic lawmakers. It’s not an automatic that Democrats are supportive of trans rights. Anybody who’s never met a trans person, or who doesn’t understand what we’re talking about—it’s easy to just feel like, “Yeah, this is a complicated subject.” And people are then going to decide any which way that they want to fall out. Or they might vote along party lines because somebody else tells them how to vote. But for us, it’s not merely the difference of which way does somebody vote, but how hard does somebody fight for it? And I mean that in both directions. So we’re in the Capitol going into Democrat offices, and particularly Democrat Senator offices, because we want them to filibuster. And so that happened this year, which is what bought time to then make deals for the provisions I mentioned, like the grandfather provision, which—it’s not going to fix the whole bill, but is going to be transformational for a lot of children who are currently already getting treatment. Also, it’s not merely a matter of voting Yes or No on bills. Does the committee chair give the bill a hearing? When does it get a hearing? In Missouri, we have a legislative session that starts in January, it goes until May, and any bill that doesn’t pass by the time the legislative session ends in mid-May is done, and it has to start from the beginning next year. And so a lot of the strategy is not necessarily defeating bills, it’s running out the clock. And so, if you can get individuals to join in delay tactics, all of those become part of the strategy.

AA: And when you say delay tactics, do you mean like you would also get Republicans to sign on to these delay tactics, not just Democrats?

RPN: We do have Republican legislators who have really opened themselves up to learn about our lives. Some of it’s been the fact that we’ve now been going to the Capitol—this is the fourth year that we’ve been fighting these bills. So you’re talking about watching kids, let’s say these kids are coming to the Capitol at like five to nine and now you’re talking about nine to 13, right? And let alone that you have kids who were 16, who are now 20. I mean, so you’re talking about legislators who are watching our children grow up with us. And they’re not totally immune to that. Some of them aren’t interested in the conversation, I’m not going to be so naive as to say that everyone is willing—but there are some for whom they just see that consistency. This isn’t just a phase that our kids are going through. This isn’t something that we as parents are forcing our children to do. Now, that doesn’t mean that those people are going to vote no, when it comes up to a full vote. In private conversations, many people, in some ways, will tell us that they know. They know this isn’t really the issue that they want to be working on. They know allowing trans kids to get gender affirming care is not actually harming anybody else—but they don’t feel like they can publicly say that for fear of political ramifications.

AA: Where is it coming from then?

RPN: I don’t know that I can say with any concrete evidence. I don’t think it’s a grassroots effort. I mean, I think there are organizations. There are groups similar to groups like ALEC, who are giving the state’s cookie-cutter legislation. But throughout our history, politicians have recognized that there is nothing that brings people together like fear around a common cause. And I think that there are groups of people who have recognized that trans individuals and gender nonconforming, nonbinary people is a concept that they could make sound very scary; that there are still many people in this country who don’t know somebody who does not identify as cisgender, who don’t understand it because if they themselves are cisgender, it’s an experience that they just don’t feel in themselves. And it also plays into the ways in which change is happening really rapidly, and that is intimidating for some people. I think there are some ideologues—I think there are some people who are deeply bothered by people breaking the gender binary of what they felt had been the norm for so many years. But I think there’s also a lot of people who recognize that it’s an easy target, it’s really easy. And if they can be shown to be solving a problem, then they can use that to advance their political goals, whether or not that problem was ever a real problem.

AA: Your son is not insulated from any of the worst of this rhetoric, just from sitting in these hearings. And so how do you talk to him about what he’s hearing? How do you process that?

RPN: So we’ve often used the motto, “You put your own oxygen mask on first, before you help somebody else with their oxygen mask.” A lot of our conversations have been, first and foremost, focused on making sure that he knows that he is okay and safe and supported. That’s getting harder right now, because for four years, we fought these bills but none of them have gone into effect. Now we have the Attorney General’s emergency order that’s going to go into effect in three days, and we don’t know what’s going to happen with that. And then we have these other bills, the sports bill and a health care bill that are looking like they’re about to pass in Missouri and will likely be signed into law. So we really talk about like, what would these bills do? What are the ways in which my son has privileges: that we know that we are able to fight back; if we wanted to access lawyers, if we wanted to legally challenge the bills; we pay for private school, which has also given a certain amount of different rules in terms of how the teachers are able to support him if any of these other bills, like Don’t Say Gay, pass in Missouri. We’ve had those conversations. We’ve made sure that he understands the ways in which he’s safe and he is supported. And then we talk about fighting, because there’s lots of people who can’t fight. There’s people who don’t have the ability to travel to the Capitol, parents who couldn’t take a day off of work in order to be able to do that, kids whose parents wouldn’t support them, kids whose schools wouldn’t support them. I mean, my son—this year has been the first year that I’ve really spoken publicly about our story, mostly because my son has asked us not to. He’s been incredibly private about all of this. And the one place that he’s spoken out has been in the State Capitol. Not because he’s wanted to publicly be out as trans—he’s recognized that he needs to speak out because his life and his rights are on the line. But there’s a lot of other kids for whom being public about it could have major ramifications on their lives, or parents coming out could mean losing their jobs. Missouri does not have a non-discrimination act that specifically addresses gender and sexuality. So that’s what enables him—and us, I think—to say, “How do we do it another day?” is that we realize that it’s not only us that we’re fighting for.

AA: That’s a really beautiful answer. I want to talk a little bit about some of the Jewish and religious aspects of this. Jules Gill-Peterson wrote a piece for Jewish Currents in 2021 called “The Anti-Trans Lobby’s Real Agenda,” which is mostly about the Christian element of all of these anti-trans bills. I mean, obviously, we’re seeing something parallel as it relates to abortion rights and the way in which Christianity is being inscribed in those conceptions of when life begins and how adults should behave in that situation. Jules’ theory on all of this is that the state is really trying to—and I’m quoting from her now, “to push trans people out of public life and citizenship, to emancipate itself from them.” I’m just curious what you make of that.

RPN: So, Christianity is definitely playing a role in this. The number of times when we’ll have people who will testify, including bill sponsors, who will use language like “God created you just as you are, and you can’t change God’s plan for you.” There was somebody who, earlier this year, did an analysis of the bills that were proposed in the Missouri House, and found that all the bill sponsors who had supported bills against the trans community in the Missouri House, all had their church affiliation listed in their bios—in their official political bios on the House website. And two of them are pastors. Now, at the same time, I think, in large part because of that—maybe also because of the work that I do in interfaith relations—we’ve started really organizing clergy. And so now we have a group of Christian clergy—I mean, Jewish also—and I specifically want to lift up the Christian clergy, who are also part of this fight for what it means to be Christian today, and who have come and stood in their collars, in their stoles, who are joining us on lobby days, who have testified. I remember the day this all started, in January of this year, when we were in the House, there were nine bills that came up all at one day, early on in the session, and somebody who was in support of the anti-trans legislation, whichever one it was at the time, was talking about what Christianity really says and what God wants. And I was sitting next to an Episcopal pastor, a very good friend of mine, and he was like, “Oh, she’s in my lane, now. I’m next.” And then I started getting texts from the lead organizers, and they’re like: “We need a pastor.” And I’m like: “He’s coming, he’s coming.” And then for him to get up and say, “Okay, if you want to talk about God, and you want to talk about what God really wants, then great. Now I’m here. And I’m happy to also address all of this.” Also, for me, as a person of profound faith, who also knows my text, to be able to respond to those things—less so in the testimony, but more going into people’s offices and saying, “You’ve talked about being a person of faith. I’m a person of faith, let’s talk about this,”—I’ve been able to have those conversations. One of the bill sponsors—so, one of the people who sponsored one of the trans healthcare bans, who is a pastor I met with earlier this year—and we ended up talking for a significant amount of time. And he had a lot of curiosity, he asked some really good questions, listened to my answers, I asked him some questions. I mean, neither one of us was going to move each other, but was willing to really engage with me on it. And there was a point in the conversation, I remember where he said to me, “Are you ever afraid that you’re going to make a decision for your child that’s going to last for the rest of their life that you can’t take back?” And I pause, and I looked at him and I said, “Only every decision every single day for every one of my children—

AA: Isn’t that what parenting is?

RPN: Exactly. That’s what I said to him. And he sort of thought about it, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s what it is to be a parent.” Then at one point in the conversation, I asked him, like, “What do you actually hope is accomplished from all of this, if the bill passes? What do you really hope that means, what does Missouri look like?” And he said to me that he wanted every person in Missouri to feel happy and fulfilled in the body that God gave them. And I said, “I don’t totally disagree with you. But I also think that God is more expansive. I think God doesn’t just give us bodies, but God also gives us medicine and science, and we have the tools to change, improve upon, heal, cure the bodies that God gave us, and that that’s also what God wants of us.” And at that point, he got kind of worked up and just looked at me, and he said “There’s nothing God-like in anything that you’re talking about.” Like that was sort of what shut down the conversation.

AA: I mean, it’s sort of interesting. I’ve been noting that these bills, they’re making exceptions, for example, for children that are born intersex. They’re saying, “Okay, the doctor is going to make a surgical intervention to decide for the child, which sex they’re going to be, and they’re going to make that intervention.” Like, they’re not against surgical intervention writ large. It’s not applied in a blanket sense.

RPN: No, it’s absolutely not. It’s individuals’ discomfort with a bypassing of a gender binary, and we don’t pass laws in this country because of discomfort. There’s a lot of things that I don’t have to like that somebody else does, but the idea that I could then make it criminal for someone to do it, to me, goes against everything that we tell ourselves is our story as Americans. Whether a true story or not, it’s the story that we tell ourselves as Americans. I mean, there’s a lot of people that I’ve spoken to who might even say, “Okay, that’s fine for somebody else to make that choice. But I don’t want my children to make that choice.” It’s this idea that if someone’s going to meet somebody who’s trans, they’re going to automatically become trans.

AA: A social contagion.

RPN: Yeah, and we’ve had this argument before in our country, and it’s been completely disproven. My child didn’t use the term trans, but he knew that he was a boy, he had the language to tell us that. And he got the language of trans much later, but not because he was exposed to people who were talking about being trans in his life. And he has two younger siblings, both of whom do not identify as trans. My son came back in the second grade, as a boy with a new name, and no one else in his grade has since transitioned—and not that there’s anything wrong if somebody had either, right? I mean, there’s ways in which sometimes meeting somebody gives you the language to understand something that you’ve always been experiencing. And I would also just add to that whether or not they personally would support it, whether or not they personally would allow their children to get this kind of treatment, whether or not they would want their siblings—whatever is happening in individuals’ live, any time the government could regulate that you and your doctor, or, if you’re a child, that you and your parents and your doctor could meet together and determine the best health care that you could access, that has been approved by all of the major medical associations, that has been happening for decades—that the government could step in and say that you cannot choose that procedure, even though a medical team is telling you that it’s the best procedure for you—should terrify every single one of us.

AA: So there was a really interesting New York Times piece. I know there’s been a lot of controversy around the Times’ coverage of trans issues. But I thought that this one was a really nice piece by Megan K. Stack, and you and your family are centerpieces of that article, which we will put in the show notes. It says in that article that you are trying to figure out how your son can have a bar mitzvah in accordance with Orthodox Judaism—I was curious about what it means to navigate this halachically for you—I mean, you’re an ordained female rabbi, and in Orthodoxy, you’re obviously already at the forefront of halachic innovation in some level. So I wanted to hear what that means, or what kind of innovation is at work in navigating halacha, or Jewish law, in your life right now.

RPN: So we are trying to figure out our son’s Bar Mitzvah and some of that is—there’s a halachic question, but there’s a communal question, right? What will the community be comfortable with? Because I’m not the rabbi of the congregation. So what will the rabbis be comfortable with?

AA: You are a member of an orthodox synagogue in St. Louis?

RPN: Yes. So I’ve largely actually stepped out of some of the halachic discussion, in the sense that I can’t be challenging halachah and sitting in the structure of halachah, right? Like so in this, my role is to be a mom and to really push all of the people that I need to push to get the answers that we want to be able to get. There’s not really a lot of halachic discussion. I mean, there’s one particularly famous book, and I don’t remember now, it was published some time ago—it’s called, I think, Dor Tehafuchos, it often gets cited. It’s also pretty transphobic—shocking nobody, probably. And so part of the conversation that I’ve been pushing some of the people that I’ve been talking to about is: How do we even approach this as a topic? Because if we are going to approach this saying, for example, “Here you have a young boy, but he’s really a girl.” And in Orthodox congregations, women don’t get aliyah, but according to the Gemara women can get aliyah, but we don’t—

AA: And aliyah, just for people who are listening, means the ability to come up to the Torah.

RPN: Yes, it’s one of the honors and often part of b’nai mitzvah ceremony. So you know, that becomes the conversation that someone is going through to justify this, then I don’t want that answer. I’m not looking for an answer that says, “Well, my son’s really a girl,” because that’s not true.

AA: Right, you’re not looking for a loophole basically.

RPN: Exactly. And I sort of pushed to say, like, “My son is a boy and wants a bar mitzvah like every other boy.” And so, is there really a different category that he suddenly is in? And, if he is in a different category, then it has to be a standalone category—it can’t be that you’re putting him, for these purposes, into the category of like, girl—but secret girl—or something like that, right? Because that in and of itself, I don’t want to engage in that. And so that’s where I think halachah hasn’t totally caught up, because it hasn’t become expansive in this way to really address—let alone talking about gender nonconforming and nonbinary youth—the Orthodox community is incredibly binary. And so, it’s one thing for my son, who is transgender male, to still fit into a binary; it’s another thing for tons of other youth that don’t feel like they have a place in the Orthodox community. And so it’s going to take a long time, because the Orthodox community never moves quickly. But I am hopeful that there’s more and more individuals in the Orthodox community who are engaging in this conversation. And I think what we’re really going to start to see is some facts on the ground as there’s going to be more stories like ours, of ten-year-olds and 12-year-olds who are suddenly coming and saying, “I’m ready for a bar-, or bat-, or b’nai, or b mitzvah, or whatever the term might be that people have been using to not have just male or female denoted in the in the title itself. And there’s going to be some rabbis who are going to say, “I can’t do it,” or “We’re going to push people away,” but I think there’s more and more rabbis who recognize that we can’t afford to just reject people, and we can’t afford to tell them to leave the community. And I don’t know yet totally what it’s going to look like, but I hope our story just becomes part of the conversation of what I’m sure is many more conversations that are happening.

AA: I mean, what does it look like now in your community?

RPN: Our community has been incredibly supportive. The shul, the synagogue we go to, which is modern Orthodox, has been really—I don’t even want to say welcoming, because we were members before, we continue to be members, it wasn’t like there was a point where they had to welcome us. But if anything, we have a group of people who are really invested in whatever they could do to help us get to a bar mitzvah. And they are reaching out to us now with the horrible legislation. Some of them have joined us in testifying. And that’s been really uplifting. My kids are in the Jewish communal school. So they’re not in a orthodox day school, but they’re in the pluralistic Jewish community school. And that school has just been above and beyond, to the point this year where I got a call from the principal telling me that they had made a decision as a school that anytime any one of the anti-trans legislation came up, somebody from the school would be with us to testify against the bills.

AA: Wow. That’s unbelievable.

RPN: Yeah, that has been, just, transformational. And like, my kid sees his teachers and his principal and his administrators there alongside us. And so we feel really embraced. And I’ve often testified to say that the first and only time that anyone has ever told my son, that he’s not just absolutely loved and embraced in every part of who he is, has been going to the State Capitol and meeting his elected officials.

AA: Well, so maybe that’s a good segue into my last question. I mean, I’ll just point to, for example, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg online, you know, using the hashtag like #NeverAgainIsNow in relation to these trans laws. And I hate to just be alarmist about this, but like, there is definitely a 1930s vibe to all this. I mean, as we know, gender nonconforming people, and queer and trans people were the tip of the spear for the brownshirts before the Nazis. And I just wondered whether you have any feelings about how these anti-trans laws generally fit into a growing authoritarianism. And also, how you feel about these kinds of comparisons, whether you think that we shouldn’t be alarmist or that now’s the time to raise the alarm, and hence, we should do XYZ. I’m just curious how that rhetoric strikes you.

RPN: I’m sometimes conflicted about it. I don’t ever want to talk about it in a way that people are going to then become dismissive. You know, there’s a lot right now that does feel similar to 1933. But not every 1933 has to lead to 1938, and 1939, and 1941. I think when Danya says #NeverAgainIsNow, I think that it doesn’t have to mean we’re at the point of no return. I think what she’s trying to say is, “This is the point when we get to speak up to make sure we don’t get to the point of no return.” And we know from our history—and not only our own Jewish history, but when we look at oppression and genocide throughout the world—it has started with attacks against groups of people as sort of testers to see: Are people going to push back against it? And it’s only as authoritarian regimes recognize that they could get it way with these attacks, or use it to advance their own political power, that it continues to escalate, right? Nobody starts at genocide; nobody starts at authoritarianism, it has to build up in some way. And so, I can’t see the future. I don’t know where all of this is leading. But I do believe that if we don’t continue to speak out right now on what we’re seeing, then we are giving permission, whether it’s to the people who are authoring these bills or to all the people who are watching, who are taking notes, who are saying, “It is not only okay, but politically-advantageous to attack a marginalized group of trans individuals.” We’re the ones who are then telling them that that’s okay. And we’re then going to be responsible for whatever happens next.

AA: So I guess to close it, I would just ask what people can do. I mean, I’m sure you get this question all the time. And obviously, it’s a big country, and these bills are advancing differently in different states. What’s your advice for getting involved or like for a strategy to combat this political onslaught?

RPN: This conversation is happening at the national level, also. I mean, the House in Congress just passed one of the sports bans and people aren’t talking about it as much because we don’t think that the Senate is going to advance it, but that’s huge. So, none of us are exempt from this conversation. Donating to organizations that are doing advocacy work—especially local organizations, queer-led, trans-led organizations that are in these states, who know what it is to be leading on these fights. There are funds being established in various states to help with legal funds, because that’s going to become necessary.

AA: And probably also, if people have to move or get out of a state.

RPN: Exactly. There’s going to be funds for people who are going to need help relocating, there are going to be funds for people who are going to need to leave the state to access health care, even if they can’t relocate from the state. All of those things require monetary support. And again, I would say that the local organizations that are on the front lines will know the best place to direct those funds. But in addition to that, or if someone doesn’t have the funds to spare for that: join the conversation. Even if you’re not a queer person, or if you’re not a trans person—that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a voice in this. Because, like I said, there are people right now who want to see what happens when they test these balloons. And the only way to respond to that is with swift and loud pushback against it. We need to all be loud about it. We need people to know that we will not stand for an attack against any group of people. And then we need to be ready, because at some point, I am convinced—I don’t know when—but I think that we will be able to fight against this attack. And then there’s going to be another group that will be behind this group who will be attacked next, because that is what people do to advance power. And so we all need to be ready to fight that, as well.

AA: Thank you, Rory, for being with us today. This has been another episode of On the Nose. We really hope that you will share this episode. And as usual, subscribe to Jewish Currents, JewishCurrents.org. Thanks again, Rory, so much.

RPN: Thank you.

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