By Andrew Adler
There are times when Karen Berg is akin to a voice in the wilderness wondering if anyone is listening.
As the Democratic Kentucky State Senator representing its 26th District (as of 2023, areas of Louisville from Minor Lane Heights in the south to Glenview in the north), Berg is an unabashed liberal in a legislative body that is resolutely
conservative. She is also the only Jewish member of the state senate (and, with recently-elected District 20 Democratic Representative Daniel Grossberg), one of two in the entire legislature.
That makes Berg something of an endangered political species: a Blue figure in an overwhelmingly Red state. And nowhere has this been more apparent – and for her, more emotionally wrenching – than the debate over LGBTQ+ rights.
Last December 22, Berg’s transgender son Henry Berg-Brousseau took his own life while at home in Arlington, Va. An activist on behalf of trans and LGBTQ+ communities, Berg-Brousseau had lived among haters and doubters, the ignorant and the ignoble, until the vehemence overwhelmed him. March 9 would have been his 25th birthday.
“We had a memorial resolution that one of my colleagues was going to do on the floor” of the Senate,” Berg recalled during a recent Zoom interview. “And I asked him not to do it, because I didn’t think I’d be able to maintain my equilibrium.”
It’s not like Berg lacks fortitude. A physician, she’s a diagnostic radiologist whose workplace is the emergency room of University of Louisville Hospital. She sees victims of the worst kinds of violence: stabbings, shootings, beatings, augmented by myriad examples of routine mayhem.
A close friend, Rabbi Nadia Siritsky, happened to contact Berg on that March day. “For some reason she reached out to me – she didn’t even realize it was his birthday. She’d reached out to tweet saying that in her daily prayers that morning, God had told her to send me a poem. And that’s what let me get through the day, If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have made it.”
During the recent legislative session, which ended at the close of March, the Republican-dominated House and Senate overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 150 — one of the nation’s most radically anti-trans measures. Pretty much any intervention, therapy, etc. is prohibited for anyone under the age of 18. Teachers are forbidden to abide by a student’s choice of personal pronouns, and all students must use bathrooms corresponding to their sex at birth. Governor Andy Beshear vetoed SB 150, but lawmakers easily overrode his veto and the bill became law.
“It’s classic, classic xenophobia,” Berg says, “to be unrealistically scared of what you’re not familiar with, but also refusing to try to get familiar with it.”
There is a clear divide, she points out, between the acceptance that predominates in Louisville versus the suspicion and hostility present in Kentucky’s redder enclaves.
“You don’t feel it in the here in the city,” Berg says. “And the reason I think you don’t is that there are more people who have to interact with each other. And eventually you find out, ‘Oh, they weren’t that different.’”
Henry Berg-Brousseau was the second child of Karen Berg and her husband, Bob Brousseau. Born Hannah Marie Brousseau, he’d just begun ninth grade when his life took a drastic turn.
“This kid was not great in fitting in, but was happy and healthy up until about 12 or 13. Then puberty hit, and something was going horribly wrong. We had no idea what, but the was cutting. Kids don’t cut if there’s not something really, really wrong.
“So we were reaching out to counselors. We had therapists on board. We were trying to explore, what is going wrong here? And eventually one evening Henry sat down, and said to me and my husband, ‘I am trans.’”
It was, to put it mildly, a stunning revelation.
“I can remember where I was sitting,” Berg recalls. “I remember where she was sitting. I remember where my husband was sitting. I even remember the lighting in the room. I remember everything about it.”
It was a bewildering moment. “I didn’t know what ‘trans’ meant. My first, second, third and fourth thought was: ‘Oh my God, this kid’s life is already being hard – I don’t want to make it any harder.’”
Coincidentally, Berg had made plans for that evening to see three physician friends, two of whom were pediatricians. “We used to get together and pretend we were playing mahjong or some game, but we never played any games. We would just get together and eat a meal.
“So, after this discussion with my kid I went to that dinner,” Berg says. “And I break down and they’re like, ‘Oh no, Karen, this is not that abnormal. We have trans kids in our practice. This is not a death sentence.’”
Relief, at least to a degree, was at hand. “They were able to stabilize me that night and teach me what they already knew,” Berg recalls, “which was like a godsend.”
Dad had his own emotions to grapple with. “My husband had a much harder time. Basically, for the first couple of weeks he said, ‘The kid’s dead to me – I can’t do this; I will not.’ I told him, ‘If I have to choose between you and my child, I’m choosing my child. I mean, I had to tell him that, because I wasn’t going to reject my child.”
She had unexpected allies, too. Just a few weeks ago Berg and her husband “got a letter from the counselor that Bob and I went to talk to when Henry told us that he had come out as trans, to try to figure out how do we even go forward? How do we react? What do we do?”
The therapist wrote: “I rarely remember clients from 11 years ago. But you I remember. And I just want to tell you how proud I am of who you were, and who you are now, for our community.”
Berg was deeply moved. “I mean, I have not had a therapist that took care of my child or my family that has reached out and said, ‘Thank you for the work you’re doing.’”
Once she’d gained the necessary perspective, Berg recognized that her relationship with her child was, fundamentally, unaffected by his transitioning.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m still the same person.’ He was trying to explain to me that he hadn’t changed. All he was asking for was for people to recognize him the way he saw himself. Because every day when you go out and you see yourself one way, and everybody else see you another way, at your core it eats at your identity.
“All my kid wanted was to be perceived, at first glance, as a male. That was it. Just when somebody to take an order at the table – ‘Sir, what can I get you?’ Or not to be viewed as somebody strange and different and possibly unacceptable on the street.”
Berg recalls how Henry, once he grew enough facial hair, “stopped his testosterone. He was already a male inside. He didn’t need anything. All he needed was to be seen – to look like a boy to go to a boy’s bathroom, to be called boy pronouns. Just to be treated like everybody else; not to be outed, not to be made to feel different. That’s all my kid was asking for.”
The family had come to terms with Henry’s sister, Rachel, being gay. She was seven years older, “already at Brandeis by the time he came out,” Berg says. Rachel, her mother recalls, “was busy exploring, where does she belong in the world?”
In the Berg family, Rachel was the comparitive leftist. She was “much more pro-Palestinian,” Mom says, prompting Henry to poke back by naming his dog “Bibi,” the nickname of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At George Washington University, Henry pursued a double major in political science and history, while minoring in Jewish Studies. He spent one summer in Israel, reflecting what his mother says was an interest in “learning about and participating in his religion.”
Still, the path forward could be fraught. Conservative as Henry was in Jewish practice, his mother believed that inevitably, he’d face sobering backlash from Orthodox quarters.
“We were warning Henry: ‘You’ve got to realize that (they) will take you in; they will love you, but they will never accept you as a trans male. And that was not an easy lesson for him to be learning.”
Life can be like that: unyielding and, from time to time, maddening – even from the vantage point of a south Florida beach house, where Berg had been in post-session decompression mode.
“I missed two mass shootings at home,” she said in a subsequent phone interview. “It’s all part and parcel of the same problem: what happened in Tennessee, then this judge’s ruling in Texas, and then two mass shootings at home. If people don’t see that this craziness is part of the same political agenda – I don’t know how to scream it loud enough.”
For three consecutive years Berg has filed bills calling for guns used in crimes to be destroyed, not resold at auction. Then came the April 10 mass shooting at downtown Louisville’s Old National Bank, which killed five people and injured eight others. Not long afterward, it was announced that the AR-15 rifle used would be destroyed instead of resold.
Berg believes that now her bill may actually pass. “It looks like that might fly at this point,” she said. “It’s not a solution. It’s not even close to what the actual solution is. But it’s movement in the right direction.”
Small victories are better than none at all. “You know, they say that if you make peace in your own home, it’s as if you made peace in all the world,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be the biggest thing – the littlest thing can count, also.”
In other words, Senator Karen Ber is determined to press on.
“I have a four-year term and unless, God forbid, I get sick or something, I am going to complete it,” she vowed. “I will have served as a state senator for six years at that point. I’ll have said, ‘Karen, you have done enough public service, but you can bang your head so hard for only so long.’ And then I’ll find something else to keep me busy.”