Anti-Trans Hate Speech and Antisemisim
It’s not enough not to have barriers, you need to be explicitly welcoming.
Those were the words of advice given to me by a trans friend about making a space for trans and queer folk. I appreciated his words, but they didn’t fully sink in at the time. This month they did, and so I want to say clearly, loudly, and without hesitation that “Trans and gender queer folks will be welcome on Babka!”
If that were all I had to say on the topic, then this would be a short post. In many ways, I wish that were all I had to say. That’s all that should need to be said, but we live in that ideal world. This post will be about understanding anti-trans hate speech. It’s going to go into the ways that anti-trans hate speech manifests on the Internet. It’s also going to be about antisemitism, or Jew-hate, and the ways that the hate against these groups is similar.
My limited perspective
Before we go any further into talking about trans hate or Jew hate, I need to bring a few disclaimers to the table. My life experience and therefore my perspective is of a cis-het man. I’m not trans, and I’m not going to speak about the trans experience. My perspective also means I might get things wrong in terms of terminology or even something more fundamental. If or maybe when that happens, I only ask that you please contact me so that I can fix it. In other words, I’m going to do my best, but I might mess up. Please forgive me ahead of time.
I’m also going to give my perspective as a Jew. My Judaism is very important to me, central to my sense of being. I’ll be using Jewish terms and Jewish cultural ideas throughout this writing, but I am not the authority on Judaism. I am not a Rabbi, or even what many would consider very religious.
My perspective is also of a person trying to make an online space. That means that my goal is to facilitate the creation of place for things to grow that I did not personally have a hand in planting. I’ve studied social networking, both on a technical and a social level. I work to understand the various effects that systems have on the people who use them, and the way that people’s use of these systems shapes the decision-making in their design.
At the same time, my perspective is limited. I can’t speak to the lived experience of others. I can only hope that understanding my point of view helps in understanding its insights and blind spots.
It finally happened
When I re-joined Twitter after a long hiatus, I began following many new people. I wanted to get more Jewish voices in my feed and eventually to help try to convince people to take the journey with me in Babka’s creation, so I followed many Jews.
A common refrain I heard from Jewish trans folks was how much hate they were subjected to, specifically anti-trans hate speech from other Jews. At first, I was lucky, and I didn’t see the hate speech, only the reactions.
Then one day, I saw it. A video from another platform had been moved onto Twitter. The video was of a young person who was explaining their labels to the camera. The person on the video explained that they’re non-binary, demisexual and (if I recall) polyamarous. The video had a quote around it and comments, some of which were from people I’d followed. The comments were ridiculing the person in the video, commenting on their body, sexualizing them, and decrying the state of society based on this person’s personal labels.
Not long after, I encountered a post from another follower talking about gender and bathrooms, a common anti-trans trope. When I asked her privately what she meant by her transphobic comment, she responded saying that these comments weren’t transphobic because there were “real trans” and “fake trans”, and that most people who identify as either being different from their gender assigned at birth, and all non-binary people are “fake trans”. She also provided an explanation to me that most people who claim to be trans only do so to access women’s restrooms and jails, and that both “real” and “fake trans” are trying to erase women.
From there, I saw more anti-trans hate speech, much of it following the same template.
The assertions that the commenter made were not new to me. I know enough trans folks to understand anti-trans hate speech, but I’m also familiar enough with Jew hate online to recognize not just the words, but the deeper patterns that lives under the surface of most transphobic speech. That’s because I’m Jewish, and I see that same pattern in antisemitic posts nearly every day.
The trope of the “real trans” struck me particularly hard. I often see “real Jews” as a trope used by antisemites in a variety of ways. The famous “khazar hypothesis” claims that Askhenazi Jews such as myself are not really Jews. I’ve also read statements that Jews who follow Jewish laws illuminated in the Talmud are not “real Jews”, and the term “Talmudic Jews” is used to somehow differentiate us from “Actual Jews”, an analogy that would be the rough equivalent of saying there are “Jesus Christians” and “Real Christians”.
I was also particularly sensitive to the idea of “infiltration”. Jews are often accused of trying to infiltrate gentile spaces with nefarious aim to destroy society. This also ties in with “Displacement theory”, a conspiracy theory in which Jews are at the center of a grand conspiracy to destroy the white race by encouraging black and brown people to have more children. In fact, I’ve even seen this conspiracy theory applied to Jews regarding trans and non-binary folks-suggesting that Jews are trying to destroy gender to stop white people from reproducing.
Bodies also play a big role in both anti-Jewish and anti-trans speech. In antisemitic speech, Jews are at once grotesque figures with exaggerated, mangled features and at the same time stealth demons that blend in with the goal of inflitration, as discussed above. Anti-trans speech follows much the same pattern, particularly and especially around trans women. Trans women, the arguments go, are the embodiment of masculinity with large frames, big hands, and a five o’clock shadow. At the same time, these same people believe that trans-women exist either to seduce men and dissuade them from having children, or to seduce women, robbing “real lesbians” from access to partners. Non-binary people, by this same lens, embody possibly an even greater threat- that of both the ultimate “stealth”, seamlessly slipping into any space.
Lastly, I’ve seen similarities in the way that anti-trans and anti-Jewish harassment occurs online. As a Jew, I know that even if I post about something innocuous, such as a holiday or family celebration, that I am at risk of receiving a reply saying that they wished I’d been burned in the ovens, or accusing me of the murder of Palestinians. I’ve seen much the same by trans and NB folks who post about something as innocuous, or sometimes as affirming as “I looked in the mirror today and I look good”, only to receive responses calling them fake, using slurs, or even being subjected to pornographic images.
While I am not trans, I know what living with this threat always hanging above your head can do to you. It can make you become reclusive, not wanting to risk the harm, or make you traumatized and reactive. Or you can seek to only engage with others, sometimes at the exclusion of everyone else. I know what these feelings are like because I’ve had them myself.
A Jewish Response
While I use the word “I” in talking about understanding this feeling of being attacked because of my identity, this is extremely common among Jews. I’ve read various statistics, but I believe that somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of Jews online have been the victim of antisemitic hate speech directed at them.
This kind of attack, both individually and societally, takes it toll. Of course for Jews this is nothing new; we have been under threat and attacks for thousands of years due to our identity. As Jews we intrinsically understand the dangers of being a targeted minority and understand what effects it can have on the psyche, both in the immediate and across generations.
Beyond our visceral recognition of hate, we Jews also have specific religious and cultural means of understanding and addressing hate speech.
Judaism has a concept called Lashon Hara, or “evil speech”, often explained simply as spreading harm through rumors. Speech itself has a special, mystical place in the Jewish psyche. Not to go off on too far a tangent, but the phrasing in the Torah about G-d saying “let there be light” is taken seriously in Judaism. In Judaism, G-d did not “create” the world, but rather that he spoke it into existence. That’s why, as Jews, we take speech seriously, both in its ability to create and its ability to destroy. Using speech to harm someone is a sin in Judaism, but that sin does not stand alone.
As Jews, we also have an obligation to help others who are in danger. We are individually required to stand in the way of injustice. This is mentioned several times in the Talmud under different sections, but always the same idea- that we must not be bystandards to injustice. To allow ridicule and hate against this group is wrong and we are obligated to take a stand.
This is collectively part of our commandment of tikkun olam, to take direct action to heal the world.
A commitment to action
This post does not stand alone. In response to the injustice I’ve seen, I’ve taken specific steps and will take more, as I’ll outline below.
Firstly, seeing this hate and the inaction of large social media sites has re-doubled my belief that Babka must not only be a safe place for Jews and allies, but must specifically work to be a safe place for LGBTQ+/Queer Jews and allies. To accomplish this task, I need to gain a better understanding of the LGBTQ+, and specifically the trans Jewish experience.
I have read Balancing on the Mechitza, and will be writing a review of it soon. I’m also trying to find other accessible resources on the topic of LGBTQ+, but specifically the trans Jewish experience. I plan on reading Transgender and Jewish and trying to connect with other material, such as that found on The Berman Jewish Policy Archive. I also recently listened to a roundtable discussion of Queer Jews on the podcast Minyan.
I will be working again on the Community Guidelines to ensure they reflect these values, and working to create guidelines for moderation that reflect what is and is not allowed on the platform.
Of course, even reading all the books in the world is no substitute for lived experience, and I’d love your help in making a welcoming environment for LGBT+/Queer folks. Reach out if you’d like to share your story with me, share your experience of good Community Guidelines, or your thoughts on how to create a welcoming environment, and or if you’d like to be an active participant in forming community guidelines that would make you feel safe and welcome.
The trans and Jewish experience of being an oppressed minority is similar. While I’m never going to celebrate oppression or suffering, perhaps we can find solace in solidarity and in the creation of a place where we can be ourselves without needing to hide.
That is what I am working to create in Babka, and I hope you will join me.
Written by Serge
Founder of Babka