Words are important

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NJ trans activist Barbra “Babs” Casbar Siperstein. 2010 file photo
NJ trans activist Barbra “Babs” Casbar Siperstein. 2010 file photo

Out In Jersey Guest Op-ed

New Jersey said goodbye to a legend when Babs Casbar Siperstein, long-time transgender activist, passed away in January. I’m grateful for the lessons she shared and all the wisdom she left behind. Whether you knew Babs or not, your life is better because of her tireless pursuit of liberty for queer people.

Babs imparted an exceedingly valuable lesson on me in 2005, while I was statehouse reporter for Blue Jersey. It was an LGBT lobby day in Trenton. And dozens of activists were urging legislators to pass civil union legislation. A large transgender contingent was on hand, educating lawmakers about workplace protections.

Naturally, I was eager to cover a decidedly colorful departure from Trenton’s usual fare. I must have filed three or four stories that day.

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Babs rang me later that night. She appreciated the coverage, but something I wrote gave her some heartburn, specifically the title “Trannies Takeover Trenton.”

That’s a word choice I would never make today. But in 2005, that word was still in circulation in queer-friendly circles. Babs wanted to know if I’d consider changing the title as a courtesy.

“But they say it all the time,” I told Babs. “There’s even a bar in San Francisco called the Trannyshack!”

When Babs pointed out what many women at Trannyshack did for money, something clicked: using that term perpetuates the stereotype of trans women as sex workers. It’s a dangerous trope that diminishes the professional prospects of trans women in New Jersey and beyond.

“Words are important, Jay,” Babs told me. “Will your words create the climate that leads to progress?”

She didn’t scold me or accuse me of bigotry. She didn’t drag me on social media. She called me up and challenged me to come to a better conclusion on my word choice. And in doing so, Babs made me forever mindful when choosing a title for anything I write.

That’s an infinitely valuable tool for any writer. When I said something regrettable, Babs returned my ignorance with grace. She challenged me to be a better ally so masterfully that I didn’t even realize it was happening.

That’s the most important lesson she taught me. The reaction to Martina Navratilova’s remarks about trans women in sports was decidedly un-Babs like. The tennis legend suggested that it’s cheating and “insane” for some trans athletes to compete in women’s sports.

I thought Martina’s comments were harsh. And she’s on shaky scientific ground about some trans athlete having unfair biological advantages over cis-women. Martina ranks among history’s greatest professional athletes. She’s also queer, so her perspective is especially valuable on topics like sports and equality.

Even when she gets it wrong.

The blowback to Navratilova’s remarks was unsparing. One hysterical, breathless essay from Outsports.com compared Navratilova to Josef Goebbels, the notorious propagandist of Hitler’s Nazi regime.

I was dumbstruck when I read that. It may go down as the stupidest metaphor I’ve encountered in my lifetime. Martina Navratilova was already out when I picked up that first racket in the mid-1980s. The nine time Wimbledon champ was a beacon for queers in an era with few affirming role models.

It’s easy to forget the AIDS crisis and how ruthless President Ronald Reagan was to our community. I don’t much reflect on Catholic hostility to queers under Pope John Paul II, or on Jesse Helms or Strom Thurmond. They were the homophobic zealots driving our nation’s AIDS policy in the 1980s and early 90s.

That’s when Martina Navratilova won most of her titles.

Sadly, her trophies came without the same lucrative racket and clothing endorsements lavished on her competitors. Martina actually won Wimbledon in 1990 wearing unbranded tennis whites because corporate America wasn’t ready to reward her fearlessness.

Martina Navratilova has been pushing for inclusivity in sports and in life since she defected to the USA from Czechoslovakia in 1975. With that decades-long track record in mind, I’m gonna be like Babs and give Martina a little grace. Maybe she needs a minute to catch up and come to the logical conclusion that transgender athletes belong on the field with the rest of us.

If someone from our own family or community is a half-step behind, take ‘em by the hand and lead them somewhere better. That’s how to treat an iconic elder statesman like Martina Navratilova. It’s more persuasive than a Tweet-storm. And you can save your Nazi metaphors for actual Nazis.

Jay Lassiter
Jay Lassiter

Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer and podcaster who lives in Cherry Hill. He’s currently working to keep the government out of your bong! When he’s not busy reforming NJ’s drug laws, he’s promoting harm reduction strategies like PrEP and needle exchange. He also writes at Leafly and InsiderNJ, covering issues like marijuana, NJ politics, and the opiate crisis.