Rori Picker Neiss’ 12-year-old son meets President Joe Biden.
According to a recent study by UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute, Tennessee is home to more than 30,000 transgender people over the age of 13, amounting to just over 1.25% of the state’s total population. And last year’s legislative actions included passage of a law banning gender affirming care for minors. After a temporary block, a federal appeals panel allowed the law to take effect in early July and Tennessee joined twenty states that have approved bans or restrictions on gender affirming treatments.
For transgender people, and parents of trans children, the legislation was a major blow. In nearby St. Louis, Missouri, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is experiencing the frustration and pain first hand. As mother to a 12-year-old trans son, she has spent the last four years with him pacing the halls of the state capital and testifying in legislative hearings. “When my son announced he was a boy the difficult part was not just about us as parents and him as a person. We also had to consider that our government told us they knew better than we do about what is right for him,” she says.
Rori Picker Neiss with her son.
In addition to being a mother, Picker Neiss an ordained orthodox rabbi, and she is also the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. On October 24, she will be the keynote speaker at a Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville event, Real People Real Stories. The program aims to educate about the lives and experiences of trans people living in Nashville. According to Michal Eskenazi Becker, director of impact and planning for the Federation, it is by being open to listening where real understanding begins. “Our sages, used to say that one can never learn if they are too shy to ask. And indeed, the willingness to discuss any topic and raise any kind of question is one of the most important values in Judaism. The Real People event is the best example of this—not only we will get to learn how real people are being affected by the recent legislation, hear their stories, and examine it through the Jewish lens, but we will also put a big emphasis on our questions. We are here to learn.”
Picker Neiss’ experiences have not always included being heard or understood. “I had a legislator say to my face that he loves my child more than I do,” she says, “I was frozen.” She says she and her son travel two hours each way to get to the state capitol for hearings that begin at 8am and often end at 4pm. “We’ve gone and waited and waited and they cut off our testimony,” she says, “And you’re not allowed to be loud or upset. You have to be grateful for your 30 seconds.”
In telling his story, Picker Neiss’ son is hoping to show that the trans community is not a community to be afraid of. And that is also the point of the Federation’s event. Deborah Oleshansky is director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee. She says, “We believe that many in our community do not truly understand trans issues, and do not know what is involved in gender affirming care. This program seeks to educate and humanize the issue from the personal perspective of an Orthodox family trying to support and protect their son. This issue affects Jewish families.”
As an orthodox Jewish woman, Picker Neiss says she tries to always keep the focus where she believes it belongs most. “I’m not sure what people see when they see me. I introduce myself as a member of the clergy, the head of a Jewish organization in St. Louis, and as a mother.” She says reaction within the orthodox movement has been mixed. “Some people are not thrilled, but they have a different view of the issue if they have a personal connection.” Some people question her about remaining in the orthodox movement. “I did a lot of soul searching and realized I am orthodox. It lines up with my theological views. For myself, this is who I am.”
Picker Neiss says her efforts are focused on educating rather than making any wholesale legislative changes. “We knew we wouldn’t defeat the legislation,” she says, “But we had the power to change hearts and minds.”
She says there are two main pieces of legislation that are problematic. One is the medical ban on gender affirming care, and the other is a sports ban. “The sports one scares me more because it’s saying trans girls are not really girls,” she says. And standing up to the ban is also daunting. “One of the hardest things is that defending against these laws is outing yourself,” she says, “It requires someone to put themselves in a vulnerable position with people elected to represent them.”
From a Federation perspective, events like Real People Real Stories are part of the organization’s mission to stand together with all types of marginalized communities. “The Federation has taken a very active stance in supporting the LGBTQ+ community - and as such we need to support that entire community, not only the gay/lesbian community,” says Oleshansky, “We cannot fight hate in a vacuum. If we are serious about addressing antisemitism, we need to be just as active in addressing the demonization of others, including the trans community.”
The Real People Real Stories event will be held on October 24 at the Gordon JCC at 6pm with dinner provided. Spots are very limited. For information contact Michal Eskenazi Becker at email@example.com or Deborah Oleshansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.