At the funeral of Babs Casbar Siperstein yesterday in Fords yesterday, her flag-draped coffin lay between a state proclamation in her honor and the Trans Pride flag done up in flowers (photo above). Mourners included both the current governor, past governor Jim McGreevey, and Speaker Craig Coughlin. Gov. Phil Murphy not only came to speak but stayed throughout the service, and spent time with Babs’ family. Here was his eulogy. I’m grateful to the Governor’s staff ,which meticulously updated the text to include all of his off-the-cuff additions and asides for our Blue Jersey readers.
Gov. Phil Murphy, Eulogy for Babs Siperstein
Remarks as delivered, below.
February 6, 2019
To Dorothy, Jana and David, Jeffrey and Lisa, and Jared. To Matthew, Kayla, Jude, Alexander, and Sebastian…
To Sherry and your family…
To Carol, of blessed memory…
To everyone who has come today to celebrate and mourn…
This room is filled with family and friends who knew Babs either their whole life, or for decades, or even more.
Tammy and I were much newer, dear, but much newer friends and, in that context, I am deeply humbled to have been asked to offer a few words in her memory.
There is a saying in the Jewish Talmud – “Whoever saves one life saves the entire world.”
Better words could not be ascribed to the accomplishments of Barbra Casbar Siperstein.
Babs shined the light of hope into the darkened corners where too many in our LGBTQ community – especially our transgender brothers and sisters – had been pushed, overlooked by a society that had for so long refused to provide them their basic human rights – the rights to live who they were openly and unashamedly, to love who they chose, and even to work without fear of an unjust firing for doing those simple things.
And, with that light, she showed those who feared the world had no place for them how they could use their singular gifts to make our world better.
I have no doubt that somewhere in this great state, maybe even in this room, is a person who is alive today because Babs showed them the courage to do so. My guess is that there were many.
Babs was an activist and an idealist, to be sure. But, she also knew that in fights that can seem like a lonely struggle, one would need to persuade an army to their side. Growing up as a Jewish kid in a predominantly Irish and Italian neighborhood in Jersey City imparted that life lesson. It undoubtedly was one of the reasons why she joined on as an original board member of Garden State Equality at its founding.
“If gays and lesbians are second-class citizens, what was I as a single transgender person?” she rhetorically asked the Star-Ledger.
She recognized that her fight for transgender equality was itself wrapped up in the broader fight for equality and understanding for all peoples, regardless of orientation or identity, race or religion, age or ability. Babs understood the strength that New Jersey gains through its diversity and taught others to find their voices, and to summon their strengths so they could proudly be part of this diverse family.
Babs, herself, was a clear example of our great diversity. In her own words, she said, “I’m extremely diverse: Jewish, veteran, transgender, lesbian, grandparent, small-business owner.”
And, in that statement, we can find the source of Babs’ tremendous strength, as well as her great wit. Tammy’s favorite Bab-ism is “My name is Barbra, my friends call me Babs, my enemies call me another that begins with a ‘B.’ As a political activist, I wear that with a badge of honor.”
In her defiant words live the example of a life spent showing the next generation how to counter intolerance with ironclad reason, and to return every pushback with greater force.
She was a courageous and mighty activist indeed, her courage always right until the end. But especially in the utterly intolerant past, that courage cannot ever be overstated, nor frankly even fathomed.
But to this gathering, particularly to her family and friends, she was a mom, grandmother, sister, spouse, partner, aunt, friend, mentor, and more.
I first met Babs about five years ago at a political function here in Middlesex County. Soon, I would see her again to take her up on an offer to tour the family business, Siperstein Paint. Even the best and most-storied advocates need a day job! She was the quintessential small businessperson.
For both of us, it was an instant connection. I had at one time served as national finance chair of
the Democratic National Committee, and Babs was, famously, the first transgender person to serve as a member of the Committee. Our paths didn’t cross then, but we both believed in the same core value of inclusive policy-making. We both believed in a Democratic Party that didn’t just give lip service to people, but backed up those words with action.
At the end of my visit to the family business – by the way, I may have bought a quart of eggshell lacquer to touch up my windows, I don’t recall – I gave Babs my cellphone number and made it clear that no matter the day or the issue, she was free to reach out. She never allowed me to forget that promise.
And, to Tammy, who she embraced unconditionally, she became a dear friend and confidant. Throughout my campaign for governor and beyond, Babs would constantly reach out to Tammy to introduce her to people she believed Tammy needed to know, and always made sure Tammy knew the different issues each one of them had on their plates.
Whether it was to me or to Tammy, on policy or about people, Babs was one of the few people unafraid to give her unvarnished truth. She spoke truth to power, unlike anybody I have ever known, and confidently so.
During my first year in office, I signed 169 bills into law. But, one stands out. It was a private signing in my office in Trenton. Babs was there with Dorothy and Jana – and Jana had brought young Sebastian – to keep us honest. They were there to witness me signing a bill for which she had spent many years advocating – to allow transgender New Jerseyans the simple ability to have a birth certificate that represented who they are.
It had been vetoed before. But that day it was finally going to be signed. And, this time, the bill carried her name. It had to, as it was the last great fight Babs led.
I signed the Babs Siperstein Law on July 3, 2018. There is a wonderful bit of historic irony that the bill was enacted on the eve of Independence Day – as it finally gave Babs, and so many of our fellow New Jerseyans, the ability to finally enjoy a measure of true liberty in their lives.
That law – you can’t make this up – it must be noted, went into effect last Friday, February 1, 2019. If nothing else, Babs always had great timing.
In fact, the day after Babs passed – you can’t make this up either – on Monday, I signed my 201st bill into law, a $15 minimum wage per hour for New Jersey. In another of history’s great ironies, that law was also the last time that Tammy and I were on the receiving end of one of Babs’ famous lobbying efforts.
Over the past several weeks, as the bill was moving through the Legislature and toward my desk, and even as her own health waned, Babs continued to text Tammy and me, urging me to not to forget small businesses on one hand, but at the same time ensure that we looked out for the hundreds of thousands of overlooked New Jerseyans in our midst.
The overlooked was a passion and a constant theme for Babs.
For example, for years, she reminded Tammy and me of the shocking and disproportionate share of our homeless population represented by the LGBTQ, and especially trans, communities. Utterly and so callously overlooked.
The fights she waged were always centered on ensuring that the next generation would not have to fight, as she did, for respect. She was once one of those overlooked New Jerseyans. And, so long as she had breath, she would ensure they would be seen, heard, and welcomed into our state’s wonderful and diverse family.
That was pure Babs. Selfless to the end.
In the days since her passing, the word “icon” has been used more than once to describe Babs and her impact on our state and, yes, even our nation. Babs would have probably told us, with a wry smile of self-acknowledgement, to stop making it about her.
But, icon she is. The flags fly today at half-mast throughout the state in her honor.
Her legacy will live in many ways, in many hearts, in many places, including I might add, happily through the Barbra Siperstein Endowed Scholarship at Middlesex County College. A fitting honor for an icon.
So, Rabbi, perhaps I need to amend the principle with which I opened. For, truly, as Babs sought to ensure the dignity of one life, she brought dignity to the entire world.
May her memory be a blessing, to her family most importantly, to each of us, and, most importantly, to this state which she committed to change for the better, and succeeded.