by Mirit Markowitz Santos
Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Erev Rosh Hashana. For all the non-Jews reading this, that is the evening of the first night of the Jewish New Year, a kick-off holiday to a time of great reflection that ends with another important holiday, Yom Kippur. When I heard that Ruth had passed away, I felt many things, as did the rest of the nation. I felt sad, I felt grief that it happened before the election (although I am not sure that would have mattered, I am sad to admit). But mostly, I felt a sincere hope that she passed peacefully coupled with an anxiety that perhaps she did not. This latter emotion was the most pronounced — to have an elder in my community potentially not die peacefully because we were hanging all our progressive hopes and dreams on her surviving, despite her multiple struggles with various cancers during the era of Trump, well … that’s not good.
RBG is a well-heralded member of the American Jewish community, as such she holds a special place in my heart. She made us look good and she did a lot of good, which matters a lot to me as a relatively young queer Jewish person. I grew up in Berkeley, CA learning about her and hearing about her from my parents and friends’ parents regularly. She was the first real feminist on the court, even if she was not exactly the first woman. She mattered during an era where the court kept swinging rightward more and more every year. Plus she had that thing, the intelligentsia chutzpah — to put it plainly, she really had some serious swag.
However, I woke up this morning and a different feeling overtook me, a familiar resignation. I scoured and scoured my mind and heart for what this feeling was — where had I felt this resigned before? And then I remembered. It was 2003, I was 16 years old, and the case was Lawrence v. Texas.
At that point in my life, I had already been out as queer to my family for a long time. I was one of those people who knew from a young age that I was trans and queer, and while it took significantly longer for me to come to terms with my gender, my sexual identity was no secret to my family or my friends. In fact, I would label myself as a lucky member of my generation, at a time where being out was not safe in most of the country, I ended up being raised probably in the one town (Berkeley) in the one area (the Bay Area and specifically, west of the tunnel if anyone knows what that means) where it did not matter very much. I did not have a lot of peers who were out with me, and the term “gay” was still an insult, but I did not have a hard time being out either.
But in a larger sense, I did not have the civil rights that my peers had. In fact, in the news all the time was the constant reminder that most of the country hated me. Case in point: 2003 was also the year George W. Bush mounted a re-election campaign with a very strong message that he was going to “ban” queer marriage. Despite his failed war, his enormous spending and general assholery, it was still a very effective campaign, and as we all know, it worked really well where it mattered.
But the Supreme Court ruling Lawrence v. Texas was the real kick in the pants for me, in terms of understanding where I really stood in America. It was the case that finally made it legal to have queer sex. At the time, many states still banned queer sex, and men could be arrested or fined for engaging in what was biblically termed as sodomy — and colloquially termed as anal. Lawrence v. Texas involved enforcing one of those laws. Two men had engaged in consensual sex in their home, someone heard and called the police, and the two men were fined for a misdemeanor. The case against the charge and fine went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and anti-sodomy laws in 13 other states were struck down as unconstitutional.
I have this distinct memory of my mother and I talking about the case one day. It must have been the evening and I was brushing my teeth. My mom kept telling me what a victory it was that Lawrence v. Texas turned out the way it did, that the court came to their senses about the constitutional right to privacy. She told me I should be happy. But it did not feel like a victory to me. It felt humiliating. I just could not believe, even at 16, that two men had to keep telling their story over and over again to straight cis lawmakers in order to not be arrested for consensual sex. It seemed like my community was begging for even the most basic decency, and suddenly straight cis people were selectively deciding what our rights were. One of those straight cis people was RBG. And despite the fact that I really think she was the only person on the court who might have felt that the whole case was insane, it still felt infantilizing to have our sex discussed, mulled over, and written about in a legal context by the court.
The truth is, since Lawrence v. Texas, there have been a series of hand-outs from the Supreme Court for queer people, culminating this year with the ruling that transgender people are included in protections from discrimination. All these rulings are peanuts compared to the privileges and opportunities that white cis straight people have, but you would think talking to a lot of queer people — mostly gay and lesbian identifying — that it’s as if we entered a new era of equality. A new era of success. A new day.
As a result, we have given up on community and engaged in the individualistic pursuits of the straight cis world. Gone are the mutual-aid communities born from the AIDS epidemic or the eras that came before, where queer folk of all stripes came together to care for one another. In its place we have selective queer people who are lifted up for being just like straight people: folks like Pete Buttigieg, Peter Thiel, and Mary Cheney. All are cis and white, all are fairly dislocated from the history and community of queer people. None have done anything to secure our civil rights as a community or to pressure their political colleagues to not continue to try to take those rights away.
All these last few years have brought us are selective civil rights, hinged on oppressing other marginalized groups and debated and dangled in front of us in exchange for obedience.
Maybe the death of RBG can remind us to turn towards each other again rather than begging the government to treat us well. To fight and not compromise on our dignity. This is a reminder that we as a community have not made it yet, that we are not all lifted up, that we are not equal until we are all equal. One champion ally on the Supreme Court, or even two or three, is not enough representation to really secure any kind of equality.
So it is time to treat each other with kindness, to help each other again, to celebrate each other again, find ways to forgive each other for our flaws and pains, to share our resources and to come together, and of course to VOTE. To drop trying to be like straight cis white people — it has not made us safer as a community.
We still have to lift each other up despite the government rather than waiting for the government. They are not going to save us — only we can.
Mirit Markowitz Santos is a therapist, Jewish Community member, and mediocre yet persistent organizer in their community for racial and climate justice.
Featured image attributed to Geoff Livingston under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.