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In Response to North Carolina’s Law, a Jewish Case for Intersectionality

North Carolina has once again made reactionary history, this time rolling back anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people by means of a complete fabrication: that transgender women are, in fact, male sexual predators.

There is not a shred of data to support this conclusion — none. On the contrary, by forcing transgender men to shower, urinate and undress with women, the new law will make countless women and girls feel less safe in the restroom, while, of course, endangering trans people most of all.

But let’s not lose sight of the scope of this heinous Republican lie. The bill that prompted state action — a nondiscrimination ordinance passed by the city of Charlotte — had nothing to do with bathrooms. It protected people like me from being fired, turned away from businesses or denied housing because of who I am. Conceivably, maybe, roughly 0.001% of the ordinance’s reach could include a transgender person wishing to use gender-appropriate restrooms. But that’s not what it’s about.

North Carolina’s Republican legislature and governor are thus liars twice over. First they lie about the threats posed by trans people in the restroom. Then they lie in raising this issue in the first place.

The lie works. In Houston, where a similar rollback happened last fall, a majority of people in favor of the rollback actually thought that they were voting on whether men should be allowed in women’s rooms. I’m sure the numbers are similar in North Carolina.

But legislators are not citizens. They are not dupes. They are either irresponsible, if they haven’t bothered to do the research, or liars, if they propound these myths despite it. And those who spread lies about a marginalized group — Jews, undocumented immigrants, transgender people, African Americans — are cynical, duplicitous and dangerous.

And why are they lying? To score points with their base and their funders. Undoing all anti-discrimination provisions in the state is an impressive achievement. Couching it in the rhetoric of “the privacy and safety of children” is likewise impressive.

But there is another reason, too.

To many, North Carolina’s action came out of nowhere. It was dramatic: a special legislative session, a bill produced and signed into law within 24 hours. I’ve never seen so many rights taken away so swiftly.

It didn’t come from nowhere, though. Because this is the same North Carolina Republican Party that has engaged in some of the worst race-based voter suppression in the country; slashed unemployment support for the vulnerable; repealed the state’s Racial Justice Act; decimated access to reproductive health care, and much, much more.

There has been a response: a movement called “Moral Mondays” that includes advocates of racial justice, justice for immigrants, economic justice and sexual/gender justice. That movement has morphed into various other campaigns; its leader, the Rev. William Barber, is now co-leading a group called Repairers of the Breach that seeks (not unlike Tikkun magazine’s Network of Spiritual Progressives) to build a progressive agenda rooted in a moral framework.

But Moral Mondays, and the conservative campaign in response to which the movement arose, illustrates perfectly the reality of intersectional organizing.

The right is already intersectional. The same people working to erode LGBT equality are also working to increase corporate power in politics, shred the social safety net, restrict women’s rights to control their bodies, further grow the wealth gap by slashing taxes on the ultra-rich, justify violence against people of color, deny climate change, oppose sensible gun control, desperately maintain Christian hegemony through a bogus “religious exemptions” movement, and deny health care to millions in the name of a fictive battle against socialism.

And that’s just on the domestic front.

The left, however, has often been fragmented. Women’s groups do this, gun control groups do that. Why should LGBT people have anything specific to say about climate change? Why should union members march in a #blacklivesmatter parade?

Intersectionality — recognizing the interlocking, often overlapping, nature of various oppressions — has emerged as a way to build solidarity among these different constituencies. It’s not always easy; for example, Moral Mondays worked hard to include LGBT issues in its agenda, despite the qualms of many religious leaders of color. There will always be those who say that this or that issue is “irrelevant.” But intersectionality is crucial for at least three reasons.

First, if I cherry-pick my particular issues and separate them from everything else (like the LGBT organization Human Rights Campaign just did in endorsing a Republican senator from Illinois), I limit my constituency to those within a single affected group. When anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, I demand that all progressives, not just Jewish ones, protest. That’s why I have their backs as much as I hope they’ll have mine.

Second, there is the morality of political moments such as the present one. As a member of a group targeted by oppression, I should be against oppression in general, not just the part that affects me personally. As I quote in these pages often, “Do not oppress the stranger… for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23). The Torah doesn’t say to watch out for your own because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It says not to oppress any stranger. It’s all “relevant.”

This kind of solidarity, surely, is what the Rev. Martin Niemoller had in mind when, on January 6, 1946, he warned against saying “First they came for the Jews / and I did not speak out / because I was not a Jew.” He meant this pragmatically, but also morally. This is the prophetic call that our most precious traditions put forth.

Finally, beyond the pragmatism and morality of intersectionality, there are also the cold, hard facts. The North Carolina rollback is not about “anti-gay hate.” It is part of a wider campaign to preserve white supremacy, Christian hegemony, inequality and the power of anti-democratic elites. Transphobia and homophobia are parts of it, but not the sum of it.

That’s why I’m a Jewish queer against voter suppression, a white-collar professional for a living minimum wage, a privileged white man for racial justice. And that’s why I find it repellant that some people in my various identity groups are donating millions of dollars to promote injustice for everyone but themselves. It’s as if they’re reading a different Torah, one of sheer self-interest.

North Carolina’s Republican regime is on the wrong side of history. Lies like theirs do not prevail. And those who promote them will one day have their names blotted out.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @JayMichaelson

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