On Yom HaShoah especially we must challenge eliminationist speech
"Moral panic around LGBT people historically has been a way for fascists to galvanize support for authoritarian policies."
April 18 marks Yom HaShoah, the day Jews have set aside to mourn those killed in the Holocaust. It is also the day that Michael Knowles — who has called for the “eradication of transgenderism from public life entirely” — is scheduled to speak at the University of Pittsburgh.
To LGBTQ+ Jews, the timing of Knowles’ visit is a reminder that our right to exist in society is still not guaranteed. On all days — but on Yom HaShoah especially — it is our duty to challenge eliminationist speech.
Knowles claims he is merely targeting an ideology. However, if someone were to claim they want to eradicate “Judaism, but not Jews,” we would recognize they are being disingenuous. One can no more remove a Jew’s Jewishness than a transgender person’s “transgenderism.”
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The event Knowles is scheduled to participate in, titled “Should Transgenderism be Regulated by Law?”, is sponsored by Pitt Republicans and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization dedicated to spreading “traditional” values at colleges. Knowles spoke at Purdue University last month, where he said of trans people, “We should stop tolerating this nonsense,” and predicted that we will “degrade ourselves further into decadence and delusion” if trans people are accepted for who they are.
This rhetoric is not new, and Knowles’ views are far from an abstract academic exercise. Moral panic around LGBT people historically has been a way for fascists to galvanize support for authoritarian policies.
The Germany of the 1920s and ’30s saw the establishment of large gay and lesbian communities and dozens of gay, lesbian and transvestite clubs. One of the leaders of these communities was Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay Jewish man. In 1919, he opened the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a research center on sexuality and gender that, in part, provided gender-affirming health care to transgender clients. Hirschfeld was a frequent target of right-wing provocateurs — his gay and Jewish identities were seen as a symbol of degrading national morals and un-German decadence.
When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, LGBT clubs, organizations, and publications were banned. One of the earliest Nazi book burnings included looting and destroying the Institut.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recounts that “from 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939, Jews felt the effects of more than 400 decrees and regulations that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives.” In the last year, 43 bills that curtail the rights and dignity of trans people have passed in state legislatures across the country, and another 417 remain under active consideration, including three in Pennsylvania. A new law in Tennessee is written so broadly that a transgender person singing at an open mic night could be charged with a felony. Bills like these push everyone who does not neatly fit into binary gender roles or expressions to the margins of society.
On Yom HaShoah, we commemorate the 6 million Jews who lost their lives and the communities that were destroyed in the Holocaust, but it is not only a day of mourning. Yom HaShoah is observed on the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, so we also remember the bravery and heroism of those who resisted the Nazis. It is a reminder that we have not and should not observe oppression passively, whether it happens to our community or to others. As LGBTQ+ Jews, we know what happens when a group of people is pushed out of society and hate speech against them is allowed to go unchallenged — so here we are challenging it once again.
Congregation Bet Tikvah was founded in 1988, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, by people who were marginalized and denied participation in Jewish life. It continues to be a place where LGBTQ+ Jews and their allies can join together in community.
While acceptance for LGBTQ+ people has grown significantly, Michael Knowles is a stark reminder of how easily progress can be curtailed. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said, “To be a Jew is to know that the history of our people lives on in us.” We remember the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic. We remember the exclusion and removal from public life our communities experienced. We remember what Michael Knowles re-envisions for trans people.
We stand with transgender people and condemn any speech that calls for their eradication or elimination. PJC
Sara Chandler and Caedyn Krahling are members of Congregation Bet Tikvah and sit on its Communication Committee.