On empathy, grief, sexism, and the death of RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not perfect, but she was in the same breath both extraordinary and exceptional

Like so many of us, I have spent much of the last weekend grieving. The death of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit me late Friday night like a train.

As a queer woman partnered to a non-binary trans person, we saw the safety of our family flash before our eyes in a moment. We cried together. We raged together. We talked seriously and honestly about our safety together. Our marriage was federally recognized by one vote, and now that safety net is gone.

We texted our queer group chats to talk about our pain, our fear, and our strategies. We checked on Black and Brown loved ones. You get the idea.

Almost immediately, the social media flurry started. People were grappling out loud with their grief and their fear (very much two sides of the same coin, of course).

When a white, straight, cisgender friend suggested that it wasn't time for action yet because she needed to grieve, I confess my irritation got the better of me in my fear. I responded with a snarky “Some of us don't have the luxury of that choice.”

The announcement was not yet an hour old, and already the panic felt almost too much to bear.

But the next morning, with some sleep and some coffee in my system, I stepped back. I was struck by the complete lack of empathy we were demonstrating for one another.

My comrade Alicia had asked the question, “Where is your care?” Even I, a trained clergy person, had jumped to a place of “action now.” I had forgotten my training, the advice I usually give to others: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Tend to your own grief, and feed your own soul first. You are no good to the revolution, or the work if you are dead, or breaking down. There is enough time.

* * *

As I stepped back and tended to my own heart, I heard deeply the pain of my friends of color who lifted up some of RBG's racism, and the harm some of her decisions had caused. This was important.

I heard the frustrations of people I love who have been organizing on the ground for years, that we allowed the entirety of our democracy to hinge on the shoulders of an 80-something-year-old woman instead of having a comprehensive judicial reform strategy.

I heard the ache of my Jewish partners in faith that her Jewishness was being erased by well-meaning Christians trying to grieve.

Tending to my own grief cultivated empathy. It also allowed me to name directly the sexism that RBG fought her whole life long rearing its ugly head in the wake of her death.

In the dissection of her record and the naming of why she was problematic, she has continued to face much stauncher criticism than that ever leveled at men (including her unlikely friend Antonin Scalia).

Sexism is a relentless companion, after all. RBG continues to be held to a nearly impossible standard that we reserve only for women (particularly BIPOC women). While she was indeed a lioness, she never asked to be our savior.

And then, perhaps the most searing, and problematic criticism of all: The chorus of straight white women yelling that retirement 10 years ago would have been the answer.

“She was so selfish,” they wrote. “I'm feeling annoyed she didn't retired when Obama was president,” they wrote.

Oh, the irony. The irony of cisgender, straight, white women - among the most protected class of all - leveling shame, guilt, and judgement on the grief of those most at risk by the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Where is your care?

* * *

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not perfect. Her judgment was not without flaw. She was human, fallible, and didn't always get it right.

But she was in the same breath both extraordinary and exceptional.

She leveled years of jurisprudence that allowed the same women critiquing her life and work to have access to credit in their own name, to rent or buy property, and to consent to their own medical treatment.

Her vote was the deciding vote allowing LGBTQ+ families like mine access to the benefits of federal marriage and tax law that we'd long been denied.

My beloved and I were married in 2012. It would be three full years before Obergefell v. Hodges was decided. When we were married, a queer friend sent our wedding invitation to the White House. We received a form letter signed by then-President Barack Obama. It congratulated us on our partnership. Not our marriage - our partnership.

The reality is that if RGB retired 10 years ago, President Obama would likely have nominated a moderate - a solid jurist who would have made sure the steady center was well maintained. There's no guarantee the victories we've seen in the years since would have happened under that rule. My marriage is included in that list.

I am profoundly grateful for RBG's longevity and commitment to seeing her tenure through.

* * *

In that vein, I close with a word to the cisgender, white, straight women in my life.

Y'all have the privilege you do, in part, because of the life and work of RBG. You will not be impacted in the same way by what is coming next as those of us who are queer, trans, and/or BIPOC. Just as I will not be impacted in the same way as my friends who are BIPOC. Empathy allows me to see that.

Perhaps, just perhaps, y'all can call on your empathy, and listen.

While we are all entitled to grieve, perhaps, just perhaps, this is not your moment in quite the same way. I want to hear about what this moment means to you. So, too, may you come alongside your queer, trans, and/or BIPOC friends. May you understand the myriad ways that white, cisgender, straight women uphold the patriarchy everyday. This moment is no exception.

A truly feminist approach would allow us all to hold this moment collectively but lift up the most marginalized and impacted voices first.

I can't think of a better testimony to RBG's legacy.

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