Giving Tochecha to Benay Lappe
The letter and emails contained in this article reflect a call out process that we — Xava Nitzan De Cordova and María Z. Alacrán — went through with Rabbi Benay Lappe of SVARA. The initial letter was written in response to her comments on a Judaism Unbound podcast which erased the history of trans women of color in the gay movement. Although it is more aggressive in tone than our later conversations, for the purpose of modelling our process fully, it is shown here in its original. The purpose of this article is twofold: to instigate dialogue in the Jewish community about the contributions and vulnerabilities of trans women of color as well as to provide an example for what it looks like to call out our leaders when we believe they need it.
Cis Jews Can’t Have Our History
This letter is written in response to Rabbi Benay Lappe’s comments on Judaism Unbound’s most recent podcast. We find these comments to be perfectly typical of cis erasure and rewriting of the history of trans women of color in the movement for queer liberation and we could not let them pass without comment. It may seem antagonistic to you, but impassioned argument is an established Jewish tradition. Trans women of color are further marginalized within the already marginal Jewish community and since folks don’t listen to us when we’re polite, sometimes a rant is the only option.
My co-author and I composed this letter to you based on your recent remarks on the Judaism Unbound podcast. We found your remarks about trans people to perfectly exemplify the whitewashing and ciswashing of LGBT history. As such, we assessed those remarks in the form of a text study. We would like you to read this rebuttal and educate yourself, as we believe it is mandatory that community leaders be held accountable for their actions in the public sphere. Looking forward to hearing from you.
Xava Nitzan De Cordova and María Z. Alacrán
“You know, the trans community, I think is a really good example of how there will always be another community of people who get it better, who get it bigger than the queer folk who came before them. In my generation, what we got was that not everybody’s straight. And we thought we like totally had it, we thought we understood it all. And now, you know, we’re kinda straight compared to the trans folks who are saying ,you guys totally missed this really big part of life which is that gender isn’t binary and now they’re the queer folk, or the queerest folk. And when the world gets that gender isn’t binary, they’re gonna be kinda straight.”
Since we share a mutual belief in the value of text study, we wrote this letter to you so that as Jewish trans women of color, we can analyze, deconstruct and thoroughly refute them in that format.
We’re going to begin with your absolute ignorance in regards to LGBT history. You said “You know the trans community, I think, is a really good example of how there will always be another community of people who get it better, who get it bigger than the queer folk who came before them.” And yet there are no queer folk that came before us. The movement for gay liberation was created by trans women of color, starting with the Stonewall Riots in the 60s, moving into the Gay Liberation Front in the 70s,1 then with activism around AIDS in the 80s, and well into the late 90s with the various nonprofits and initiatives we have been involved in.2 Most notable among these women are Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. These women fought for the fledgling LGBT community and for people of color for decades.1 Miss Major is still alive today, and is an activist even now, struggling to retire because of the lack of support she and her organization have received.3 Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson in particular were adamant early proponents of Gay Pride and Gay Power, and used both slogans throughout all of their work. Trans people have always existed, and we have always been at the forefront of the struggle against heteropatriarchy and white supremacy.
THE CALCULATED EFFORTS OF CIS QUEER PEOPLE TO KILL US
You go on to say “In my generation, what we got was that not everybody’s straight. And we thought we like totally had it, we thought we understood it all.” This comment is somehow made in total ignorance of the fact that generations of cis LGB people, including your generation, intentionally jettisoned trans women of color in order gain the protection of the state. There was a systematic, calculated exclusion of people who were seen as “too Queer” for the mainstream movement, which sought to appease out straight oppressors by assimilating as thoroughly as possible. These white middle class cis gays and lesbians started their project in the 50s with the homophile movement and the Mattachine Society, an organization which devolved from a Communist inspired project to a conform and reform based ideology. This group and others like it, such as the Daughters of Bilitis, included strict dress and behavioral codes into their bylaws so that straight people they might attempt to educate would not be put off by their “flamboyancy”. These rules would obviously not only have excluded gender-nonconforming gays and lesbians, but would most definitely have excluded Trans women of color. There is also the often overlooked fact of segregation. White LGB people were unwilling to admit Black LGBT into the spaces they created, leaving Black LGBT communities with only themselves to rely on. This racism has led to the whitewashing of Queer/LGBT history, through whites’ lies that there were no people of color whatsoever involved in the early movement, and through the simple fact that the Queer people of color at the time more often needed to focus on their daily survival than on preserving their history through academia, or whatever elitist establishment whites would take notice of. This exclusion reduces the resources available to us, ultimately often leading to homelessness and death historically as well as in the present.
“And now, you know, we’re kinda straight compared to the trans folks who are saying ,you guys totally missed this really big part of life which is that gender isn’t binary and now they’re the queer folk, or the queerest folk.” We aren’t just starting to say this now. Trans women, especially trans women of color, have been pointing out that cis gays are assimilationist since Stonewall and before. Non-binary genders have been existed and valued outside white colonialist cultures since recorded history. You’ve been missing it and missing it and missing it and in the meantime been stepping on our necks on your way to the Supreme court.
“And when the world gets that gender isn’t binary, they’re gonna be kinda straight.”
Many cultures, including Judaism, recognized the existence of more than two genders until colonization by Europeans, during which Christianity and its binary gender system were forced onto colonized people through torture, the destruction of their ancient texts and sources of knowledge, and the mass murder of anyone the Europeans could label a “sodomite”. There are centuries of history that these communities are struggling to reclaim in a world that has been so thoroughly brainwashed into the belief that the existence of only two genders is natural and necessary. The same Spaniards responsible for the Inquisition, for the forced assimilation of thousands of Sefardim, are also responsible for the death of thousands of people in the Americas whose gender was beyond their familiarity. Contributing to the erasure of this history is an act of colonial violence. Today the majority of these communities struggle for recognition not only within their own countries and cultures, but within the Queer community, which has taken the white US perspective and history as the definitive one, to the detriment of the rest of the world. These communities not only existed prior to the emergence of the LGBT movement, but for centuries. There is no excuse for being unaware of the existence of these people, especially because in recent years reporting on them (with, admittedly, varying degrees of quality and accuracy) has become such a trend that every news source from BuzzFeed to NBC has done at least one feature on a previously unacknowledged gender, with dozens of photos.
After this letter was sent, Benay responded with this email:
“Dear Xava and María,
I can’t begin to thank you for your email. I so appreciate you generously taking the time to help me see what I hadn’t yet been able to see myself. And while I have not yet had the time to fully process all aspects of the gemara that you created and gifted to me, I wanted to write back immediately to let you know how much I appreciate what you wrote, and that you trusted me enough to remain in conversation with me. I am so grateful to you both.
While I intend to write more later, when I’ve had time to better integrate what you’ve written, and what I’ve learned, there are several things I can already say about what you’ve taught me.
The first thing that jumped out at me was that I was factually aware of everything you wrote. I am actually not ignorant of LGBT history—which makes the way I told my story even more curious and diagnostic of the insidiousness and invisibility of systems of oppression—including but not limited to racism, transphobia, misogyny, etc. I knew all of the information you shared with me. Yet it was clearly not integrated into my admittedly oversimplified but nevertheless inaccurate “big picture” story. What you brought to my attention was that, in spite of knowing these facts…they remained absent from how I saw my own story, and—worse—how I told my own story—and worse yet—how I portrayed my own experience as the story.
I am still pondering the ways in which, while I knew the facts that you shared, I did not recognize or acknowledge the ways in which my own experience of “my story” was shaped by the larger forces of misogyny, racism, and transphobia that were—and remain—systemic in the queer (and larger) communities, and have seeped into my own understanding and retelling of my own story and how I experience the world.
You are quite right that I contributed to an inaccurate telling of history and I deeply, deeply regret that, and am trying to figure out the best way to correct the damage that I’ve done. Perhaps you have some ideas (?).
In the broadest terms, what I was trying to say in this section of the podcast was that we are all indebted to those whose queer insights are “queerer” than our own—whose experiences of otherness extend beyond our own othernesses and who therefore have insights and critiques to bring to bear what we cannot—either because they are not our personal experiences and we are unaware of them, or because we have failed, empathically, to internalize and integrate what we know of their experience into our own understanding of life. You have actually demonstrated the complexity of how this process of learning works, and I am indebted to you for it.
Let this be just a first volley of thoughts, and please forgive the inadequacy of my words; I am still thinking this all through.
I would welcome any other thoughts you might be willing to share.”
To which I replied:
Much like yourself, I have a lot of words, but I wanted to respond to keep the conversation flowing. I personally deeply appreciate your gracious and very appropriate response. When doing work like this, it can be so hard to trust your criticism will be received well. At least for myself I can say the openness, understanding and gratitude for our work I saw in your email really warmed my heart.
I have submitted our letter to Jewschool and expect it to be published relatively soon (I’ll definitely provide a link when that happens), so that is one piece of the process for me. I am hoping that our work can contribute to a much more vibrant and critical dialogue of these subjects in the queer and Jewish communities. I am hoping that once that happens, you could somehow support this piece in being circulated to promote that dialogue? I don’t know exactly what that looks like for you but that’s what is alive for me right at this moment. I’m sure other pieces will come and María will have her own aspects to add. Looking forward to much more dialogue.
Concluding this all, she and I had a very friendly phone call in which we explored the issues at play in her remarks on the podcast as well as the process we had been going through in calling her out. Through this conversation, we went back and forth discussing the forces at play in that moment and in queer Jewishness in general. Although this process was challenging, ultimately I’m happy that we expended the emotional and intellectual labor to initiate it. Benay was receptive to critique and I feel that we were able to fulfill our goal of creating a dialogue with her. I hope that the points in this letter will stimulate others to think about how they might be undermining trans women of color in their spaces as well as how they can compassionately call out and create dialogue with their leaders.
Xava Nitzan De Cordova is a community organizer, poet, ritual maker and student in Providence, Rhode Island. Their work has recently appeared in American Chordata and RitualWell as well as in their book, Epigrams from the Wasteland.
1. Leslie Feinberg’s 1998 Interview with Sylvia Rivera (http://www.workers.org/ww/1998/sylvia0702.php)
2. Pay It No Mind – The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, Directed by Michael Kasino and Richard Morrison
3. Miss Major’s GoFundMe https://www.gofundme.com/MsMajorRetirement