This month our Rising Voices Fellows respond to statements by and about Jewish feminist icons. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
I consider myself a feminist, and I also strive to combat other axes of oppression in my daily life, but sometimes I fall through. Far too often, I’ll stay quiet when I hear someone make a transphobic comment or a misogynistic remark. Some days I’m really not up to challenging that person, but other times I just let myself believe that it’s not my battle, that it doesn’t matter, that someone else will take care of it.
It’s through this lens that I look at Esther’s choice to confront King Ahashverosh and Haman. She knew that she would be risking her life to do so. Why her? Why was it she who had to be brave for her people? She told Mordechai she couldn’t do it, and Mordechai responded, “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” [Esther 4:14, JPS translation] As we all know, Esther did confront the men, and she saved the day.
I invite us all to be like Esther and make the choice to speak up for ourselves and our communities, even through discomfort and doubt. While few of us have a platform of power like her royal position, we all have ways, however small, to change our world. And there are a lot of women already doing this. One woman who embodies this is Laverne Cox.
Laverne is a black transgender woman and an actress, playing Sophia Burset on the Netflix original series Orange Is The New Black. Sophia is also a black trans woman, and the fact that Laverne plays her is, sadly, a breakthrough. Very often, trans woman characters will be played by cisgender men, like in the movie Dallas Buyers Club for which Jared Leto won the Oscar. While having a cisgender man play a trans woman may seem like just an actor playing a role, it is actually harmful to trans acceptance. Not only does it keep trans actresses like Laverne from getting jobs, but it also plays into the idea that trans women are not really women, but are men dressing the part. This is not true, and having an out transgender actress like Laverne helps combat that perception.
But Laverne’s activism goes far beyond the show. She uses her platform to speak out about issues that go far too often unheard: the violence against trans women of color, and the incarceration of many who survive for daring to defend themselves. In part because of Orange is the New Black, Laverne is one of the most visible transgender women in the United States. She has more than 60,000 followers on Twitter, and she uses that platform to bring attention to the oppression that her people face. (Just like Esther, but a little more high-tech.)
A few weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to see Laverne speak. At the event, which was called, “Ain’t I a Woman? My Journey To Womanhood,” she talked about her own life, and about Islan Nettles and CeCe McDonald. Both are black trans women, both were brutally attacked because of their identity. Islan was murdered, and CeCe survived, but was imprisoned for defending herself. She’s free now, and working with Laverne to make a documentary about her attack and incarceration.
These women’s experiences are far too common. Transgender women of color are the group most likely to be murdered out of the LGBT+ community, simply for being who they are, and their murderers often walk free, and the fact that these women are not part of our public consciousness brings me back to the Purim story.
Because if Laverne is like Esther, then we, all of us, are King Ahashverosh. We are the ones who have the power to change our environments, and yet we’re not doing enough. King Ahashverosh gave up his power to the evil Haman when he listened to him without questioning his reasoning. When we let our prejudices and preconceptions go unchecked, we are allowing our own inner Hamans to take over. We need to be more conscious about the way we act and think.