Out Of The Narrow Place: Reflections On Queer Advocacy During the COVID-19 Pandemic
I made it through my family Seder this week.
I knew that the distancing constraints under which we are all living would make the Passover ritual difficult this year. Passover celebrates the Jewish people’s passage from slavery to freedom. The ritual Seder held on the first two nights is a time when many people get together with family and friends and reflect on what slavery, freedom, and liberation mean to each of us, in this day.
In the age of COVID-19, what would ordinarily be large, festive evenings were replaced with small family dinners, virtual gatherings, and, in many cases, Seders for 1. While I was fortunate to be able to host a Seder joined by my spouse and our kids, along with family and friends on the screen, there was not a moment I was not conscious of what we are enduring and why we had to celebrate in such a different way this year. An older cousin died of COVID complications the day before the first night of Passover. My queer, local Jewish community lost a young member to suicide the week before. And like parents across the country, I am in a daily struggle with my teens who bridle at the restrictions placed on them by me and all of society at the very moment when they are predictably developing independence and pushing boundaries.
While there are many years in which I have felt that I made it through Seder, I experienced the familiar ritual this year in a way I never have before.
On the surface the Passover story is about the Jews leaving Egypt and slavery. The deeper, more resonant story for me is one about leaving “the narrow place.” The Hebrew word for Egypt (Mitzrayim) derives from the word “tzar” which roughly translates to, the narrows. So, the focus of Passover for me is thinking about what it means to come out of “Mitzrayim,” or, literally translated, the narrow place.
Thinking from inside that place, these days, is not hard. For so many of us, our worlds have gotten smaller. If I don’t count the many Zoom calls I am on, I see very few people. The walls I see don’t change much from day to day. Nearly all the news I read is narrowly focused; it feels like all COVID-19, all the time.
The world may seem shut down, but the law is not.
But I know we will get out of the narrow place. And as a GLAD lawyer, I know I have to hold two timeframes in mind – the constricted space of now, and the broader space we will inhabit when the restrictions of this public health crisis fade.
Even as our worlds have gotten smaller, and we are all struggling with the day-to-day challenges created by global shutdowns, we are also sorting through priorities and figuring out how to get done the work our new world demands. Healthcare workers are battling on the frontlines; grocery store clerks and delivery drivers are ensuring we can get food and other essentials; teachers are creating remote lesson plans and supporting students from a distance.
GLAD staff are continuing to do the daily work of social justice lawyering. While some case schedules have been extended, others have not. Though many courts have literally shut their doors, online alternatives have popped up and are expanding. We filed an urgent, new challenge to Trump’s transgender military ban the day after our office shifted to near fully remote status. Courtroom appearances are being replaced by phone calls. Depositions are being conducted by video. The world may seem shut down, but the law is not.
We will come out of this narrow place. But we need to, now more than ever, make sure that when we do, we have not lost ground.
We continue to work with allied organizations to address longstanding problems in access to justice while strategizing about how to address new ones created or exacerbated by the current crisis. Over the past few weeks we have collaborated as part of the Massachusetts Transgender Health Coalition on guidelines for health care providers caring for transgender and genderqueer patients; reached out to family law and estate planning attorneys across New England to provide a resource to help make sure LGBTQ parents have the legal decision making authority they need should another parent fall ill or die; and worked with our allies in criminal justice reform to support efforts to release incarcerated adults and youth, all of whose lives are at heightened risk of illness and death because of the institutionalized settings in which they live.
And GLAD Answers remains open and continues to receive calls from the LGBTQ community and beyond seeking resources and legal information when people face discrimination and mistreatment, which unfortunately persist even in the midst of a global pandemic.
But in this moment, we also need to look to the future through a new lens. We will come out of this narrow place. But we need to, now more than ever, make sure that when we do, we have not lost ground. The radical right has not hit pause on its strategies to roll back rights for LGBTQ people. Legislatures across the country continue to hear and advance draconian laws that seek to shutdown health care for transgender youth and reverse progress made to ensure equal educational opportunities for queer students. I was appalled that the Idaho legislature passed a law targeting transgender youth for exclusion from school sports in the middle of a pandemic. GLAD has and will continue to oppose efforts to reverse hard fought gains.
Our humanity deserves both that we remember the lessons learned in this time and that we fight like hell not to lose the gains we struggled so hard to achieve.
The Supreme Court has taken up a case, to be heard next fall, in which the religious right seeks to establish legal precedent that would have the effect of requiring cities and states to work with anti-LGBTQ social service agencies. GLAD’s work fighting against expansive religious exemptions from non-discrimination laws and constitutional equality guarantees is deep and longstanding. This is a moment in which we know we have to do even more to both maintain the protections we have worked so hard to secure and to ensure we don’t lose ground.
We all are living through an unprecedented global health crisis. Each of us lives with anxiety and concern about our personal health and safety and that of our family members, loved ones, and friends. This crisis has made the gaps and disparities in our social structures both more glaring and more consequential. It also invites backlash. We are in a narrow place. But we won’t be forever.
Our work today includes navigating the narrow place, continuing to care for ourselves and one another. But Passover reminds me that we also must think and plan for a future when we leave the narrow place. Our humanity deserves both that we remember the lessons learned in this time and that we fight like hell not to lose the gains we struggled so hard to achieve.