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Keshet's Idit Klein Discusses the Post-Orlando Fight for Transgender Equality

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This article is featured in the June 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, we chat with Keshet Executive Director Idit Klein about the aftermath of recent events in Orlando, the ongoing fight for transgender acceptance and the unique role the Jewish community can play in achieving equality. Keshet is a national grassroots organization that works for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews in Jewish life.

You recently penned a very powerful op-ed in JTA in response to the shooting in Orlando. One line stood out to us: “Solidarity also means reflective accountability.” Can you expand on that a bit and its implications for the Jewish community?

After any kind of tragedy, one often sees and hears expressions of solidarity and expressions of thoughts and prayers being with the victims, with the targeted community. I draw a distinction between these expressions and what I term “reflective accountability,” which means giving thoughtful attention to the ways in which members of a society contribute to maintaining the various oppressive structures in that society—which play a role in perpetuating a world in which such crimes can occur. So I’m calling on everyone to, yes, express solidarity and express support, but also to think critically about the changes that need to be made in the immediate Jewish community and the broader community around you, in your state and in your country, so that we can achieve full inclusion and full equality. To ask, “what role can I play in bringing about that vision of justice?”

Transgender rights have been very much in the spotlight recently—in the political arena, in the news, in the media, in popular culture. How (if at all) have you seen this shift play out on the ground in local communities? How do you think it is impacting the next generation of trans and genderqueer youth?

There’s absolutely been a shift in awareness of transgender issues and openness to engaging with issues of gender identity and expression. In Jewish communities, even in the past couple of years, we’ve seen a pretty marked shift. Since 2003, Keshet has been doing institutional change work in various youth-serving institutions—providing resources, providing training, providing consultation. And really, until the last couple of years, we have consistently been told by day schools, youth movements, summer camps, Hebrew schools, JCCs and all sorts of Jewish institutions that “we’re not ready for the ‘T.’ We’re not ready to take that step. Let’s start with ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian.’” There really was tremendous discomfort around engaging with these issues. I think the increased visibility of transgender people in popular culture and in broader society—and the presence of trans issues in the news media—have pushed the issue in the Jewish community as it has in so many communities.  And so the result is that, nowadays, about half of all engagement we have with Jewish institutions involves requests that we get to focus specifically on gender identity and expression issues.

And the other shift, I will say, is that when we first started doing work directly with queer Jewish teens, there were very few openly trans or gender nonconforming teens among those who participated in Keshet programs. Four years ago, our first Shabbaton had one openly transgender participant. Our most recent one had almost a third trans and gender nonconforming participants.

When it comes to transgender inclusivity and acceptance, what do you think the Jewish community has done well? What do Jewish institutions need to do more of to keep moving in the right direction?

With transgender issues, as with other LGBTQ issues, progress has really been uneven and inconsistent throughout the Jewish community—tremendous movement in some communities and very little in others. That said, what I can say about the capital-J, capital-C “Jewish Community” is that generally speaking, we’ve seen the majority of Jewish community leaders speak out in support of basic human dignity, the basic concept that each of us is created in the image of God and people’s basic rights to live in safety. You do see that as a broadly held position in the Jewish community. There are exceptions, of course, but you see far fewer Jewish political bodies fighting against various LGBTQ civil rights.

What the Jewish community has not done as well is that although there are many community leaders today who would describe their communities as inclusive, in many of these cases, the inclusion is passive and not active. By that, I mean that there is a consciousness that is held on the part of community leaders that they hold certain values, but there is not a proactive expression of those values. So a gay, 35-year-old man walking into a synagogue whose rabbi would describe that synagogue as inclusive won't actually see anything to let him know that “this community is thinking of me.” The trans teen girl in a day school that calls itself inclusive won’t see or hear anything to tell her that “this community is thinking of me.” At Keshet, we often talk about the change gap that exists between communities whose level of inclusion doesn't go beyond basic tolerance—people feeling a basic level of safety and uncomfortable acceptance—and those that have full, celebratory inclusion in which people see and hear themselves being specifically named and acknowledged as integral parts of the community.

So—walking the walk instead of just talking the talk.

Exactly. Although in this case, part of the walking is, in fact, talking.

Keshet’s mission is grounded in the idea that LGBTQ Jews can find strength and meaning in Jewish life and community. What role do your own Jewish values play in your work?

I feel a really deep sense of Jewish peoplehood and responsibility, and that has always animated my commitment to doing this work. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to the Jewish people and a deep sense of responsibility to make this community one that I can be proud of, and one that reflects what I see as our best values. Along with that and equally strong is my sense that to be an active, thriving Jew in the world and to express Jewish identity in a robust way, you need to be working for justice and striving for a more just world.

After Orlando, we’ve seen tremendous outpourings of grief and support from all corners of the world. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get involved in a more substantial way? What’s the best way for them to channel their grief into action?

Marjorie Ingall actually just wrote a terrific piece recently that I would direct people to, which details nine ways that allies can take action in the wake of Orlando. The ones that I would pull from that piece are the most intimate and personal, as well as the most global and political. First, this is a time to check in with your queer friends, to recognize that this tragedy is unlike anything that most LGBTQ people have experienced in their lives—certainly for those who are under 35. It’s a time to check in and to recognize that it hits LGBTQ people and opens a sense of vulnerability. So that’s a personal and very critical way to take action, which I really wouldn’t underestimate. I’m saying that as someone who had straight friends who are really dear to me reach out, and straight friends who are dear to me not reach out because it didn’t occur to them that I needed it. I felt that difference.

Second, we are in the midst of a political backlash that is partly in response to marriage equality and partly in response to greater awareness and acceptance of people of different gender identities in our society. In this year alone, there have been 200 pieces of legislation that have been filed that are anti-LGBTQ. For many of them, the headlines have been about limiting bathroom use, which degrades and endangers transgender people, but a lot of these bills aim to infringe upon LGBTQ rights from many different angles. So there’s plenty of political activism to get engaged in to combat this assault on civil rights. And plenty to do for proactive work, because we still don’t have federal legislation protecting people of all sexual orientations and gender identities from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. That is one of the key next chapters in the civil rights movement.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.