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Anti-discrimination Politics From 500 BCE Persia to 2013 Maryland

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We recently celebrated the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrating a political victory for the Jewish community of Persia living under King Xerxes 2,500 years ago. The Purim story articulated a masterful gambit of backdoor politicking against potentially violent discrimination, and today we celebrate with masquerades and community inebriation.

Regarding masquerades, I have never been one to indulge, for one simple reason -- a mask is placed on a face which must be anchored in reality. If there is no reality there, the mask will float away. Before I transitioned, and was living what I felt was an existentially fraudulent life, putting on a woman's mask would have called attention to the unreality beneath. Today I am uncomfortable reconnecting to that sphere -- the memory of that anxiety is still too raw.

I bring up the Purim story because in Maryland we are finally moving a bill in the state legislature to ban discrimination against trans and gender non-conforming persons. We have built support over the seven years during which this bill has been introduced, a period that began in 2007 just before trans issues hit the national LGBT stage in force with the introduction of an Employment Nondiscrimination Act inclusive of trans persons. That experience kick-started the open debate about trans inclusion in the larger gay community, a debate which led last year to victories in the 11th circuit and the EEOC.

One particular facet of that support over the years has been the state's civil rights commission. This is not a new phenomenon; civil rights laws are often sparked into existence with the support of local commissions which have been tending to such matters for many years before legislation is even a possibility. That was true for our Montgomery County law in 2007, for instance, where our County Executive, Ike Leggett, who signed the legislation, had sat on the County Human Rights Commission twenty years earlier, his first appointed office in the county.

The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights has supported us each year, but this year, because of the appointment of two new members, orthodox religious believers, support for the bill was questioned. The appointment of these believers is indicative of the growing clout of the fundamentalist community over the years, even in Maryland, though it feels to me that their degree of influence has peaked. What became evident, particularly from testimony in opposition to the gender identity bill, was just how out-of-touch these people are, speaking of the trans community in terms redolent of the '50s and '60s.

I can discuss questions of human sexuality as they relate to Jewish tradition and Jewish law. One basic point that is raised is that since Jewish society was strictly sex-segregated for the past 2000 years, it should continue to be so. This isn't a particularly anti-trans position; rather, it is a generally anti-modernist, sexist one. Such a questioner has the sense that most trans persons are simply male cross-dressers, not understanding that not to be the case, nor knowing that a majority of those who identify as cross-dressers would transition if they were able. And, of course, it completely ignores the other half of the trans community, composed of transgender men. They are ignored out of willful ignorance, because they cannot be described as male predators; they are viewed by our opponents as female. This undermines the "trans woman as male sexual predator" theme, and is therefore almost invariably ignored.

This attitude is actually demeaning to the Jewish community. A large majority of Jewish residents of Maryland are not fundamentalist in any sense of the word, and would agree with none of these arguments. Judaism, being a highly decentralized system, deliberately allows a wide variation of beliefs, and few Jewish leaders would try to make a case in a secular legislature for the entire Jewish community, particularly one based on a very narrow reading of halacha, or Jewish law. More important, however, is the fact that Jewish law and tradition have a very progressive history, with an understanding of sex, and in particular, intersex conditions including transsexualism, that date to the Hellenistic period as written down in the Talmud. Those rabbis recognized a variety of human manifestations of intersex conditions, and even five hundred years earlier the prophet Isaiah wrote about the sarisim, or eunuchs, which included transsexual women, in deeply honorific terms, praising them above common men and women (Isaiah 56:4-5).

Such a culture, including responsa, or legal decisions, handed down in modern times in favor of trans women by orthodox rabbinic scholars, such as Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg is a far better representation of the Jewish social practice manifest in the phrase tikkun olam, or repairing of the world. Jewish tradition, similar to the American civil rights tradition, seeks to expand its embrace of all. The Maryland Commission, understanding the fundamental principles of the progress of civil rights in this country, reversed its position and stood with us, once again, in the Senate. We thank them and are proud to be a part of that tradition.