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For me – and, I imagine, a lot of other trans women out there – the recent flurry of media attention around the appearance of Caitlyn Jenner in Vanity Fair has given rise to a whole complicated array of feelings, not the least of which may be longing for a time when everybody will finally stop talking about Caitlyn Jenner.

Partially, this is due to the way in which the discussion of Jenner’s transition in the media serves as a constant reminder of the painful dilemma which every trans woman with the audacity to want to live and be recognized as the gender she feels herself to be faces every day of her life: If she doesn’t “pass” – which is to say, essentially, if she doesn’t manage to live up to this society’s incredibly narrow and unforgiving standards of female attractiveness and feminine behavior enough to fly under the radar of those who would evaluate and pass judgment upon her femininity – then she is in constant danger of rejection, public scorn and even physical violence every time she walks out her front door. On the other hand, if she dresses or behaves in a way that comes across as too “stereotypically feminine,” or if she appears to take pleasure in any aspect of looking, acting or dressing in a feminine manner, then she opens herself to rejection and ridicule of another kind, this often coming from self-described feminists who, frankly, ought to know better.

If this dilemma sounds awfully familiar to cisgender women who at some point in their lives have had to deal with similar issues around body image and the toxic double standards of a society in which it is often just as unacceptable for women to be “too feminine” as it is for them to be “not feminine enough,” then it ought to give one pause, given that one of the many accusations which trans women find ourselves saddled with on a regular basis is precisely that we will never “count” as “real women” because we lack the “experiences” and “socialization” which constitute authentic female identity. Leaving aside the sheer blindness to cultural, racial, medical, economic and class differences inherent in the claim that that there is one unifying set of experiences which unambiguously establish one’s status as a woman, it is a source of constant amazement to me how comfortable certain people feel in making claims about the lived experience of others – especially when these claims are leveled for the purpose of invalidating the identities of an already marginalized group of people.

Frankly, I am tired of the debate about how to define womanhood – the standards in this debate are simply too prone to shift at a moment’s notice in any way necessary to support the preconceived notions of those for whom the invalidity of my identity is a foregone conclusion. Is it any wonder that trans people, faced with the constant, overwhelming pressure to justify themselves to a world which isn’t willing to accept them on any account, sometimes have recourse to simplistic explanations involving the brain or the notion of having been “born in the wrong body?”

The simple truth of the matter is that gender identity is an incredibly complicated phenomenon whose origins and nature have never been satisfactorily explained. Is gender physical? Neuro-chemical? Psychological? Cultural? Legal? Does it have its origins in our anatomy or our life experiences or in some mysterious realm of the spirit? If we are being truly honest with ourselves, the answer to all of these questions is an unqualified “maybe.” We simply don’t have the language to deal with something as complicated as identity with any degree of comprehensiveness. About the only concept that truly does it justice to gender identity is one which has sadly fallen out of favor in our hyper-materialist, over-medicalized society: the soul. It used to be that “a soul” was synonymous with “a person,” and the nature of a person’s soul was a deep, inner mystery shared between that person and the divine source from which it flowed. To presume to know another person’s soul required an incredible amount of time, patience and intimate closeness. In our efforts to reduce everything in the world to that which it is possible to analyze and critique in the space of an online journal article, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something along the way, something that would be tremendously useful in understanding gender.

In the absence of a clear understanding of everything that goes into making us who we are, all that I and people like me can do in the face of an unsympathetic world is to assert our experience – not some abstract, essentialist version of a unifying “male” or “female” experience, but the messy, concrete, lived experience of real people who know who we are, even if we can’t always show you the math of that equation in a way that would make sense to anyone but ourselves. And really, isn’t this inability to fully articulate the mystery of ourselves just another example of an experience with which all of us, no matter what our identity, can identify?

10 Things I Learned This Year At Philly Trans Health Conference:

 

  1. There’s a lot of ableism in the way I habitually speak and I need to spend some real time working on that.
  2. There are a remarkable number of different ways to spell “Aiden.”
  3. There are so many trans Jewish converts out there I’m surprised we didn’t get our own section in the PEW report.
  4. It turns out I like the way I look in a bathing suit.
  5. Sometimes the familiar is more scary than the unknown. (Thanks Hannah)
  6. People on the autism spectrum always have the best toys.
  7. As Janet Mock said with so much more eloquence, self care is great and all, but we’ve really got to take care of each other.
  8. Apparently I missed out on some great fan fiction during the 90’s.
  9. Convention center staff can be summoned merely by uttering their True Name.
  10. My name in ASL from now on is apparently this:

subway

A sketch by the author

I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently: About the ways it shapes our lives, about the ways access to space is granted or denied. Space is one of those things — like any form of privilege really — that you don’t really tend to notice unless you’ve experienced for yourself what it’s like to have the right to the space you need to live challenged or taken away. The country where I live has a lot to say on the subject of space, of who belongs where, and why. I suspect that no matter where you live, you could say the same.

What really got me thinking about the subject of space was all the work we’ve been doing at JCUA this summer around immigration reform. During the course of my time working for Or Tzedek, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of brilliant, passionate activists working for immigrants’ rights and to hear their stories and the stories of many others who have been impacted by the utterly shameful mess that is the United States’ immigration system. Listening to all these stories, it has sometimes been surprising how familiar they seem. The experience of living your life in limbo, of occupying a space that doesn’t officially “belong” to you for reasons too complex and personal to be understood by those who are deeply uncomfortable with your presence — this is something that speaks to the core of my own experience and motivates me to be an ally for undocumented immigrants in their struggle for recognition.

There’s a blessing I say regularly, twice each day, when I am taking the hormones that are slowly working to make my body feel more like home. I believe it was originally composed by Elliot Kukla, and it goes like this:

ברוך אתה יי אלקינו מלך העולם המעביר לעוברים

Blessed are you our God, ruler of the universe, who brings across those who cross over.

There is a lot packed into this one, deceptively simple, little sentence. For starters, there is the terminology it uses to refer to transitioning and to those who transition. עבר in Hebrew is a verbal root meaning “to cross.” Its associations in Judaism are complex: On the one hand, it can carry the sense of “crossing over a moral boundary line,” as for example in עבירה — “transgression.” On the other hand, the idea of “crossing over” is fundamental to the Jewish concept of redemption. The two great redemptive moments in the Hebrew Bible — being taken out of slavery in Egypt and being brought into the land of Cana’an — both involve the symbolically powerful act of crossing over a boundary represented by a body of water.

In using עבר to refer to a transgender person’s move to transition toward living the gender they identify as, Kukla seems to be making a rather radical statement about the place of trans experience in Judaism — removing it from עבירה, the rejected periphery of transgressive behavior, and placing it right smack dab in the redemptive center of the Jewish tradition. Margaret Moers Wenig, in her article “Spiritual Lessons I Have Learned From Transsexuals” (in Balancing on the Mechitza), goes even further perhaps when she attempts to determine a proper Jewish term for “transsexual” and eventually settles on the word עברי — which also happens to be the Hebrew word for Hebrew!

Both Kukla and Wenig make the point that the experience of crossing over into a new and more authentic life is central to both Jewish and transgender experience, and hence that these two identities are not as unrelated or even contradictory as some might assume. In the seemingly radical act of creating a blessing for gender transition, Kukla is merely asserting what those of us who are trans already know in our hearts — that, legal or not, accepted or not, sanctioned or not, the need to cross over is inscribed in the book of our lives, written in letters too deep to be effaced, by a hand greater than our own.

It is that same need — the need to cross over, to be recognized and counted, to come out of the shadows and into the light — that I recognize in the stories of the millions of undocumented immigrants who live among us, who share the same space and contribute to our society in a thousand unacknowledged ways, and who nevertheless are frequently denied even the most basic elements of human dignity. It is in the courage of undocumented youth who, at incredible personal risk, come out of the shadows to protest the injustice of deportations and the denial of legal protection from discrimination and exploitation. It is a need that, like all human needs, is grounded in the lived experience of real people who deserve to be seen and to be heard, not hidden behind a smokescreen of anxiety and misinformation erected by those who would use our fear of a largely imaginary “other” to cement their own power and influence.

Access to space is important — space to live and to grow, to share and to prosper. To be denied that necessary space is to be denied an important part of one’s humanity. This is something I believe all of us know, deep down, although the stories we tell ourselves of danger and scarcity sometimes make us forget that truer, deeper knowledge. As the debate in Congress over comprehensive immigration reform continues, and as we perhaps consider whether and how to add our voices to that debate, may we not lose sight of that fundamental need — and of the ways in which each of us, in our own manner, has been impelled by the circumstances of our lives, or our own nature, or by the mysterious hand of the Divine, to be crossers-over.

When the soul intuits that something is beneficial and healthful to the body, its thoughts are drawn to it, and it longs for it so as to remain free of bodily ills and afflictions.

Quote from Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda’s “Duties of the Heart” (חובות הלבבות), a medieval work of musar we’ve been reading excerpts of in Contemplative Readings. When talking about the love of God, Rabbi Bachya makes an interesting point: The body, as he sees it, is given to the soul as a kind of test, and it is the soul’s responsibility to care for the body and see to its welfare. While the soul has its own natural desires and inclinations, it must also see to the needs of the body that has been delivered into its care.

What this got me thinking of was a certain narrative about trans people I’m sure we’re all familiar with by now–the one that goes, “So-and-so is a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or vice-versa. The inherent dualism of this way of thinking is pretty obvious, as it seems to assume that a person (a soul?) is ontologically separate from the body they inhabit.  Furthermore, it treats the body as basically inert, a shell or a tool which we are judging to be more or less compliant with the soul’s wishes and sense of self, with little inherent value of its own.

But what if we, like Rabbi Bachya, thought of the body as a living, suffering thing in its own right, with its own needs and troubles which the soul is obligated to redress? From this point of view, it becomes possible to look at transition (hormones, surgery, or what have you) not as the soul bullying the body into complying despite its resistance, but as the soul doing its best to care for the needs of a body that is crying out desperately to be other than what it is.

The way I experience it, being trans is not fundamentally a sickness of the soul. Insofar as I believe myself to have a soul, I understand that inner essence to be essentially sexless and probably genderless as well. If we didn’t have bodies, we wouldn’t ever have to worry about gender. The body, however, has a sex and serves as a locus for gender, and it is the body as well that suffers from the unpleasant feeling of being off-kilter, unbalanced and ill-fitting. Unlike a number of people in my life who appear to understand my transition as something unnatural I am doing to my body, I understand myself to be responding to my body’s need to feel more natural, more comfortable “in its skin.” This is what is at stake over the attempts in some quarters to redefine being transgender from a mental condition to a medical condition, and I support this move because it seems to make more sense from the standpoint of many of us who have to live with this on a daily basis.

So partially inspired by the kerfluffle over this latest Oz movie–where the producer apparently decided there just weren’t enough fairy tales with “good, strong male leads” and therefore decided to ignore all the awesome stories L Frank Baum actually wrote and make a movie about his fanfic where the wizard is totally the best and all those hot witches totally dig him or something–I decided to grab a collection of the Oz novels off Amazon and read some of the books I hadn’t before.

The first one I selected to read was The Marvelous Land of Oz, apparently the first one he wrote after Wizard. And I’m reading along and having a great time, but all the time I’m thinking–“This guy who made the movie is even dimmer than I thought, ’cause what is he talking about no male protagonists, lol?” Because the Dorothy-character in the second novel (i.e. token human protagonist who did not used to be an inanimate object) is a boy. His name is Tip, and he’s pretty cool.

It wasn’t until I was about two thirds of the way through the book that I started thinking, “Wait, he isn’t…this isn’t going where I think it’s going, is it? Not in a children’s book written before women had the right to vote?”  And then somehow, impossibly, it did. Major spoiler alert: Tip isn’t a boy. She’s a girl. A queen in fact, rightful ruler of the Emerald City, whose father was deposed by that jerkwad Oz. In order to cement his hold over his usurped throne, the wizard hands over the baby girl to a witch named Mombi who transforms her into a boy–because in Oz, apparently, people are going to be less likely to assume the child you’ve kidnapped is the rightful ruler of someplace if she’s a boy.

The scene in which Tip is returned to her original form alone is worth the price of admission. It’s beautiful, it’s sweet, and above all it’s respectful. Unlike just about every transformation scene in every fairytale in the history of ever, Tip is not transformed back into Ozma in public view with all the other characters watching like weird voyeurs made of wood, straw, pumpkins and various bits of metal. Rather, she’s allowed to transform in a private space, shielded from the eyes of all, even the narrator. As fantasies of transition go, it’s simply gorgeous.

But even beyond this, what struck me was the complete reversal of the tired, misogynistic gender values we’re so used to seeing. Finally, a book (a children’s book, no less!) in which changing from a male to a female is not looked upon as “trading down” in terms of dignity, respect and social status! Tip is initially slightly reluctant ti give up her status as a boy, but in the context of the story this reads more as nervousness about giving up the change to wander around and have adventures with her friends for the responsibility of being a queen–and she is immediately reassured by everyone that she cans till do all the things, and be all the things, as a girl that she could as a boy.

How is it possible that a book like this could have been written in 1904 and we’re still struggling with all this transmysogynistic crap in our own time? My advice? Give the most recent Oz fanfic a miss and read through some of the original books. You might just find something that surprises you.

Introduction:

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות.

–Joshua ben Prachya said: “Make a teacher for yourself, get yourself a companion, and judge every human being on the side of merit.” (Mishna Avot, 1:6)

כל המלמד בן חברו תורה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו ילדו.

–One who teaches another’s child Torah is regarded by the tradition as one who gave birth to the child. (bSanhedrin 198b)

It has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben ‘Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? — He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn. (bBer 62a)

The ritual of עשיית רב acknowledges that it is not solely in the study of Judaism’s sacred literature that a person might be in need of a Rav. Especially when we are undergoing radical changes in our lives we often find ourselves with questions about matters both simple and profound that we would ordinarily be too embarrassed or self-conscious to ask. Most people implicitly understand this fact about adolescents, and there are many people who naturally find themselves stepping forward to occupy the place of mentor in a young person’s life, but it is easy to forget that adults too go through such formative periods of change, and are sometimes in need of someone to whom they can say, “It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn.”

This is a ritual for individuals going through an intensely emotional transitional experience in their lives, one that will profoundly transform their sense of identity and the way they relate to others. Its inspiration comes from careful consideration of my own experiences going through gender transition. It seems that a lot of our life cycle rituals are too focused on marking a transition as a point in time and not focused enough on ensuring that the individual undergoing transition has access to the kind of support structure they need to grow into the new roles they are undertaking in life. This ritual therefore serves as a way for a person going through such a process to designate a mentor or mentors to help guide them through their transition, watch out for them, and help them learn some of what they need to know to comfortably grow into their new identity.

Preparation:

Before the ritual the person for whom the ritual is being performed (henceforward “the subject’ or “talmid”) should work with their rabbi  or spiritual advisor to find a suitable mentor or mentors willing to help them through their time of transition. Mentors should a.) have life experience appropriate to advising their talmid on matters relevant to their transition, b.) be generally mature and emotionally stable c.) have a personal connection with the talmid and a willingness to be available as a support and a mentor.

Setting:

The first part of the ritual should take place someplace relatively private. A rabbi’s study or a synagogue meeting room is ideal. The rabbi should welcome the talmid and the mentor and invite them to sit down. Everyone should take some time to talk about the nature of the changes in the talmid’s life, what she is excited about and what she is anxious about, and what she hopes to learn from the mentor. When everyone is comfortable, the rabbi opens as follows:

Rabbi:
In Pirkei Avot, it is written: עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות. “Make a teacher for yourself, get yourself a companion, and judge every human being on the side of merit.” (Talmid), as you enter into a new period in your life, with new challenges to be met and roles to be filled, you have chosen to heed the advice of Joshua ben Prachya by seeking out (Mentor) as a mentor, to learn from her Torah and benefit from her experience. In the traditions of our people, the relationship between teacher and student is very deep and significant. In the Talmud is recorded a saying that one who teaches another’s child Torah is regarded by the tradition as one who gave birth to the child. (Mentor), by entering into this relationship you are agreeing to help (Talmid) know what she needs to know in order to fulfil her new role in life, to bring her into the community of her peers, to support her as she steps forward to meet the challenges of her developing identity and to respect the boundaries between you. Do you understand? [Space for affirmation] (Talmid), by entering into this relationship you are agreeing to receive instruction from (Mentor), to show kavod for her Torah, to benefit from her experience and to respect the boundaries between you. Do you understand? [Space for affirmation]

If either of you feel the need to define any further aspects of this relationship in order to ensure the mutual trust and security required for learning, now is the time to discuss them.

[Space for discussion]

As for myself, I stand in witness of this relationship of teacher and student, and promise to support you both in your new roles to the best of my ability. I now invite you each to affirm your new relationship to one another in language drawn from our tradition:

Mentor:

כי לקח טוב נתתי לכם, תורתי אל-תעזבו

“For I give you good instruction–do not forsake my teaching.” (Prov. 4:2)

Talmid:

תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך / צריכה

“This is Torah, and I must learn.” (bBer 62a)

The second (optional) part of the ritual would involve the talmid receiving an aliyah in order to publicly affirm the new role she is stepping into, ideally with the mentor present to introduce the talmid to the congregation. This part of the ritual should of course be omitted in the event that the transition in question is of a personal nature or would cause undue embarrassment.

Finally, some thought ought to be given to marking an end to the mentor/talmid relationship. At some point in every transition the most intense period has passed and the individual has more or less adjusted to their new place in life and their community. The talmid and mentor should seriously consider marking this occasion with a siyyum of some kind, for example by jointly sponsoring a kiddush to honor the distance the talmid has come in their personal development.

Now that the increasingly misnamed Fall Semester is starting to wind down at last, I’ve finally got a little time to address some ideas I’ve had on the back burner. One of these is something that came up during a program on gender here at RRC this fall. We had been discussing the gender binary as a rigid structure that causes problems for people who don’t fit within its either/or classification. Someone spoke up at this point and voiced their confusion about what to do with the fact that many of the people who don’t fit into the binary still tend to describe different aspects of their gendered experience in terms of male/female. Wouldn’t getting rid of the binary entirely invalidate those people’s identities to some extent?

This discussion quickly turned to the question of what to do with non binary gender within a religious framework like Judaism, which relies heavily on oppositions to do a lot of its conceptual heavy lifting:

“Blessed are you, Ha Shem, ruler of the universe, who separates between the holy and the ordinary, between light and darkness, between the seventh day and the six days of work. Blessed are you Ha Shem, who separates the holy from the ordinary.” (Havdalah blessing)

It was at this point that a faculty member (go, go Vivi Mayer!) brought up the passage in the Mishnah (in the oddly tacked on fourth chapter of Bikkurim) that deals with the halachic status of the androgynos (אנדרוגינוס), i.e. a person born with ambiguous genetailia. According to the Mishnah, when it comes to the the androgynos, “there are ways in which he (sic) is equivalent to men, and there are ways in which he is equivalent to women, and there are ways he is equivalent to both men and women, and there are ways in which he is not equivalent to men or to women.”

What is fascinating about this passage is the way in which it uses a binary distinction (man/woman) as a tool with which to define a more complex and ambiguous identity (the androgynos) by means of a carefully articulated set of similarities and differences. As it turns out, this framework (like X in some ways, like Y in some ways, like both X and Y in some ways, like neither X nor Y in some ways) is used more than once in the Mishnah to work out how an ambiguous edge case fits into the overwhelmingly binary structure of halachah. In adopting this framework, the ancient rabbis were able to acknowledge the existence of subjects that don’t fit into that binary structure without thereby expelling them to some undefined space “outside” the boundaries of the halachah (which for them would have been basically indistinguishable from erasing them altogether).

And what occurs to me in this context is that there’s another area in which an apparently simple binary is used in increasingly complex combinations to create something more subtle and interesting, and that’s the binary code that underlies the functioning of computers. When you drill down to the most elemental level, all computer code is ultimately made up of ones and zeroes. A single bit, a single position, can only ever be either/or: 1 or 0, this or that.* But at that level of simplicity, very little can be accomplished. One bit doesn’t give you very much information at all. But once you start stringing positions together, more complexity can be achieved. With two bits, you now have four possibilities rather than two: 00, 01, 10 and 11. String together four bits and you have enough for the numbers 0-9 and you can now do math with decimal numbers. Once you string seven bits together you’ve got enough for the full range of alphanumeric characters and you can write a book, all with nothing but ones and zeroes.

But here’s the thing: Just because a long string of ones and zeroes is a useful tool for encoding a text file of, say, Moby Dick, doesn’t mean that Moby Dick is itself a one or a zero. The ones and zeroes are the material it is made up of, but the book transcends these materials to do something new, something much more complex and interesting. If I were to decide that the ones and zeroes were the most important part of Moby Dick and go around dividing it, and other books, into two big piles based on whether there were more ones or more zeroes in each one, as if that actually said anything significant about the book, you’d call me crazy. The same might be said about gender.

When we say that we want to challenge the gender binary, we aren’t necessarily saying we want to (or even feel like we can) live in a world where we have to make do without reference to gendered language. What we’re saying is that our culture is heavily invested in the idea that all books are either ones or zeroes, and that this creates serious problems for books that feel like they’ve been miscategorized, or that the category into which they’ve been assigned doesn’t say everything (or even anything) important about them. We’re saying that using the gender binary as a set of rigid categories in the first place is possibly the least useful and least interesting thing we could do with it, like fixating on the ones and zeroes stored in a computer instead of combining them in interesting ways to do math, or write books, or create software that allows us to launch a simulated bird at a tower of evil pigs.

With this in mind, I think the helpful answer to the person who spoke up in the discussion would be that we need to get to the point where we think of the binary as a language for programming in and not a set of rigid and sterile containers. As an exercise, I invite you (if you aren’t the kind of person who’s in the habit of thinking this way), to look at the following list of things that we habitually lump into the single, all-encompassing container of “gender” and consider them as individual, discrete “bits” in a string of gendered information, with regard to each of which individually a person might be “equivalent to male, equivalent to female, equivalent to male and female, or equivalent to neither male nor female.”**

Gendered bits:

  • Biological sex
  • Genetic sex (chromosomes)
  • Anatomic sex (genetailia)
  • Physiological sex (reproductive function)
  • Assigned gender (what the doctors put on your birth certificate)
  • Legal gender
  • Gender expectations (how others expect me to behave, present and identify)
  • Pronouns people call me by
  • Pronouns I prefer to be called by
  • Behavior patterns of others toward me (personal space, language, communication style, assumptions about preferred social groups, etc.)
  • Gender identity (how I think of myself)
  • Gender presentation
    • Clothing
    • Appearance
    • Behavior

* At some level the analogy doesn’t hold, because beyond “1” and “0” the rabbinical formulation from the midrash has access to the additional (and very useful) positions of “both 1 and 0” and “neither 1 or 0.” This makes the system even more flexible, and I hope the general similarity is apparent.

** It’s important to note that this list is in no way comprehensive, and that each item on the list is itself a complex construction possibly made up of a network of other, more subtle “bits.”

I had an amazing experience this Shabbat speaking at Germantown Jewish Centre for Dorshei Derech’s Stefan Presser Memorial Shabbat.  The outflowing of warmth and support was simply amazing, and it was great to have my first experience talking publicly about this journey in such a safe environment. I really wish I could also post my partner Emily’s amazingly eloquent and heartfelt words, but I can’t because they were completely extemporaneous, which makes them all the more remarkable.

Stories don’t come easily to me. The fact of the matter is that only now, when I’m thirty years old, am I finally starting to learn how to tell stories about myself the way that most people seem to be able to do naturally. I’m used to hiding behind the words I use, holding them up up as a sort of mask, a surface I use to comment on the world while at the same time distancing myself from it. For me, words have been a survival mechanism and a safety blanket, a way to hide the fact of my profound disjointedness, to fill in the holes I feel within myself. These holes are many and various, but as far as I can see, they all seem to be bound up in the impossible conflict between what I need to in order to fulfill my responsibilities toward others and what this strange thing I call myself seems to need in order to survive.

The first gap I have trouble hurdling when I try to explain myself to others is that I did not grow up as a child with a strong sense of gendered identity. I didn’t play sports or go in for roughhousing, but I wasn’t into Barbie dolls, I didn’t play dress-up in my mother’s clothes, and the only princess I wanted to be like was Princess Leia from Star wars. I didn’t distinguish much between my male and female friends. My closest friends were always girls, but I always had more male friends than female, and if the boys sometimes seemed a little weird or I sometimes felt a bit more comfortable and emotionally secure playing with the girls, that didn’t seem so unusual. If it had occurred to anyone to ask me in second grade what I felt like on the inside, I probably would have told them “a robot,” and felt that answer made perfect sense.

In rather simple and obvious terms, what happened next was adolescence and puberty. My family moved from Athens, GA to Geneva, IL when I was in the middle of fourth grade, and suddenly finding myself in a new social environment forced me to wake up to the realities of living in a world where people were either male or female, whether they wanted to be or not. In Athens, I’d been permitted to go about life in my own quirky way, more or less insulated from the world around me by my tendency to get lost in worlds of my own imagination. Suddenly it had become very important to know the right way to act in order to “fit in,” and what I quickly discovered was that I didn’t.

At the same time, my body was starting to change, and that in itself came as something of a horrible shock. I imagine that many adolescents, once they’ve gotten over the initial awkwardness of puberty, learn to accept the changes they are going through with a certain amount of hopefulness as they find themselves maturing into the adults they are in the process of becoming. For me, the growing awareness of my developing body was like waking up to find oneself dressed in an ill-fitting set of clothes it is impossible to take off.

At some point or other in middle school I picked up the knowledge that some people are born intersexed and surgically modified at birth to conform with one gender or the other. For the longest time, I secretly believed that this is what had happened to me, because it was the only way I had of making sense of the overwhelming sense of wrongness my body gave me. I used to spend a great deal of time imagining being suddenly transformed into a girl. I’d walk through strategies in my head for dealing with having to exit the boy’s bathroom without being seen. Somehow in my mind this would always happen while I was in the bathroom at school, probably because of the sheer misery of anxiety public restrooms caused me and continue to cause me to this day.

Eventually the discomfort I felt settled into a kind of routine I thought I could live with. I told myself that the feelings I had around my body were probably completely normal for boys. I was convinced that all people born with male bodies were aware on a subconscious level that nature had played a terrible trick on them, and that this feeling was the real reason for all the sexism and misogyny in the world. I comforted myself that at least I was more aware of this than other “boys” and was therefore better able to control and mitigate the sense of resentment I felt at not being lucky enough to be born female. Sometimes I would console myself that in being “male” I was living up to a heavy but necessary responsibility that had been placed on me, and that perhaps in some future life I would be rewarded by being born a woman.

This was the attitude that got me through high school and college, and to be honest it’s almost scary how easily it translated into my new life when I converted to Judaism. I was not raised to believe in any kind of God, and I’m too avid a historian to believe in “Torah mi Sinai” as a matter of fact, but the language of religious obligation carried and still carries a great deal of resonance for me. The idea of a God who commands certain behaviors, not because they are necessary or even comprehensible from a human standpoint but for His own inscrutable reasons, makes a certain kind of sense when even your experience of your own body is of something unnatural imposed on you from the outside.

That was my life for the longest time: Being what I wasn’t for the sake of those I couldn’t live without. It wasn’t all bad, by any means. I had a partner whom I loved. Eventually I found a new community and a new spiritual language in Judaism–a language and a community that inspired me enough to make me want to go to rabbinical school. But at the same time there was always that dissatisfaction at my center, that sense that unhappiness was an essential part of my life–which made me feel very confused sometimes, because one of the religious obligations which I understand myself to be commanded to observe requires that I take pleasure in my existence and in that of the world my creator has placed me in.

So what changed things? I’d like to say it was some profound spiritual insight, but in fact all it really took was meeting someone–one person–who had felt the same way I did and had been courageous enough to do something about it. I ask myself sometimes how it could be that something as simple as that could have been the catalyst for such a profound change. You can spend your entire life staring up at the sky and dreaming of flying, but so long as it remains completely outside the realm of possibility you can learn to live with the sadness, carry it with you wherever you go, always there but never acknowledged because you know if you mentioned it to your friends they’d simply laugh and assume you were joking. But then one day you see your first airplane and your whole life changes, because somewhere inside of you a tiny piece of that sadness is transmuted into a faint hope that, though you will never have wings, you may nevertheless someday get the chance to fly. And from that day on it will never be enough simply to live with that sadness anymore.

The situation I find myself in after coming out is that of having to constantly negotiate and renegotiate the terms between the tradition I’ve fallen in love with and the self that seems to be constantly threatening to spill over the boundaries within which that tradition operates. It is not so much the violation itself that I fear as the possibility of finding myself in a place where the tradition cannot support me nor I it. In seeking out the lesser-known corners of the Jewish tradition for language that seems to speak to my situation, I’m never entirely sure whether it’s the tradition’s boundaries I’m stretching or my own. And somewhere throughout the process, silently watching from the wings, is the God who made me in this particular way but then left me alone without comment to search for my own answer to what that means.

A recent incident may serve to illustrate what my dilemma looks like in practical terms. I was contacted by a local rabbi who operates a small, independent religious school for children. She wanted to put me in contact with a family that needed a tutor to teach their daughter Hebrew in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah. I sat down with the family and had a great interview. They seemed very happy with what I had to offer and we arranged for a date for the first lesson. This was the first job I’d ever managed to get as myself, and for a little while I felt super confident.

But then about a week after the interview I received a call from the rabbi who’d recommended me for the job. There was an issue–the daughter had asked the parents about the irregularities in my appearance, and whent hey’d talked to the rabbi about it she’d had to confirm that I was a trans-woman still in the process of transition. The mother called, we talked. She was more or less sympathetic to my situation, but felt like she had to balance my right to have my identity respected with her daughter’s desire to have a “female” teacher, someone who had had a “Bat Mitzvah rather than a Bar Mitzvah,” someone “she could look up to as a role model.” In the end, several days later, I received word that they wouldn’t be requiring my services after all.

I make no judgment about the validity of the mother’s concerns. Twelve years old is a delicate age, as I remember all to well. No one, especially not a child, should be forced into a situation that makes them genuinely emotionally uncomfortable. At the same time, this situation illustrates the kind of difficult balancing act I find myself in every day. I wanted to become a rabbi in order to make myself useful to my adopted people, to fill a necessary function and feel like I was one of the folks working to help keep Jewish communities tightly knit and alive to the wisdom of our traditions. In order to fulfill this function it is necessary for me to be truly present for those I live and work with. I don’t have the option of burying myself deep inside and going through life in an emotionally deadened state. But at the same time, being who I truly am is frequently distracting and often actively disruptive in the places where I am needed. It’s a dilemma I haven’t solved yet, and I don’t expect to any time soon.

My experiences being transgender in the Jewish community have been mixed. It has certainly been the case that throughout this process I have been the recipient of more acceptance and earnest goodwill than I ever would have dared to hope. I believe that many people, both here at the GJC and at the RRC, have been able to pick up on how happy I have been to be able to be more myself and have been ready to respect where I am on this journey. This is one place where the “live and let live” attitude of progressive Judaism has been an enormous benefit to me, which is ironic, as I always seem to find myself arguing for a more structured halachic approach.

The other side to this, however, is that while in itself permission to simply be who you are is an enormous gift that I have no intention of taking lightly, it is only part of the equation. Always in my life up to this point, being for others has meant giving up who I was in order to be who they needed me to be. Now, to draw on Rabbi Hillel, I have been slowly, painfully learning how to be for myself. What still eludes me is how to be for others *as* who I am.

In order to get to that place, and in order to be the rabbi I need to be, it is vital to find a place for transgender identities that can live within Judaism, not simply as an exception falling within the range of tolerated difference, but growing out of our texts and traditions in an organic and essential way. For me, and for many transgender Jews like me who are active in the Jewish community, this is a project that we undertake every day out of necessity, but its eventual success depends just as much on the participation of people in communities like this one throughout the Jewish world.

Just a bit of teshuvah from the Yamim Noraim:

Dear Colin,

You know better than anyone how angry and resentful I get whenever anyone tries to suggest that we’re two different people. Imagine my surprise when, in this season of reflection and repairing personal relationships I found that the one person I really needed to talk with was you. To be honest, the real reason I get so angry when people talk about you as a different person is that I’m afraid what they’re saying is that they love you and they hate me because I’m the reason you’re going away. I feel bad that the people who love you are going to miss you, but I can’t help but feel resentful too. After all, I’ve been here all this time, watching them lavish this love and affection on you without even being aware I exist. It hasn’t been easy.

I know none of this is your fault. You didn’t ask to be the one born on the outside, any more than I asked to be the one born on the inside. It was hard work, but you put on a brave face and did what you thought you had to do, even if you didn’t always know why. What those people who are angry with me don’t realize is that without me, you’d never have been with them for as long as you were. They didn’t know, and couldn’t understand, what a terrible, frightening place the world was for you. They didn’t realize that all the love and attention in the world wasn’t enough to fill the big, empty space inside you that seemed to be getting bigger every day, no matter what you did. They weren’t there all those times when the only thing holding you back from throwing yourself over the edge was me and my stubborn determination to be born.

I know it hurt sometimes to have to go on living just because you happened to have been born with me inside you, but I hope it wasn’t all bad. I hope that because of me you may have experienced a little of the joy and excitement about life that was so difficult for you to feel. I hope you’ll be happier being a part of me than I was being a part of you.

Most of all I hope we can let bygones be bygones. I know things haven’t always been so great between us. There have been times when you’ve tried to get rid of me. Please believe me when I tell you than I don’t resent you for it. That said, now that things are changing we need to settle our differences and move on. As difficult as it may be for both of us to accept it, neither of us can live without the other, and I’m not sure about you, but *I want to live*.

Please try not to worry too much about the people who loved you. I realize that for much of your life the only thing that kept you going was your concern about how they would feel if you were gone. Those are admirable feelings, and they really do reflect the best of what you had to give. But I promise–I love them too, just as much as you did. After all, wasn’t I there all along, helping you take care of them when you didn’t know what to do? I know they’ll miss you, but in time they’ll come to understand why you had to step aside to let me out into the light. Some of them may even learn to be proud of you for the courage it took to do something like that. In the end, I hope there will be a time when they will recognize the best of what you were in me. I know I’ll try my best to make that so.

In conclusion, my strange conjoined brother, I want you to know that whatever your failings, I forgive you for them. How could I do otherwise? They are mine too. But more than that, I want you to know I love you. There have been times I wouldn’t have been able to say that, but now, this year, on Yom Kippur, I find that I can, and I give my thanks to God for that gift. I wish you all the peace that was never yours.

Sincerely,

Leiah

Nouns are interesting. Grammar tells us there are essentially two different kinds of noun. A common noun refers to a class of things, such that multiple distinct things can share the same noun without contradiction. A proper noun, on the other hand, has a single, unique referent–the same name can’t refer to more than one person. One strange effect of this is that even if two people seem to share the same, in a certain sense their names are not the same, even though they sound and appear identical. When I’m talking about Emily, my partner, it is clear that I cannot simultaneously be talking about Emily, my good friend. By saying “Emily,” I have to be talking about one or the other–or about some different Emily altogether. I cannot use “Emily” to refer indeterminately to any of the people I know who share that name.

I have an idea that if God can be said to use language at all, then for God all nouns must be proper nouns, because a being with complete knowledge of every individual part of creation would have no need to group individual things into categories. Each thing would be known intimately and distinctly, as just what it is.

Deciding on a name for yourself is one of the most significant experiences a person can have. What adds to the solemnity of the process is the realization that you are making a decision about yourself that most people never get to make. Nearly all of us go through their lives with the names given to them by parents. If their name changes at all, it is usually through an external process that doesn’t really have much to do with them. Many women still take their husbands’ last names when they marry, but it wasn’t so long ago that in formal situations at least the effects of marriage on a woman’s name were even more extreme. Recently I saw a document in a museum addressed something like “to Mrs. Robert Smith, Sr.” Reading that made me sad. Here was a person who had her own, personal name so completely buried beneath her relationships with the men in her life that all that was left was the “Mrs.”

In contrast, it has been my privilege to choose a new name for myself not once in my life, but twice–an embarrassment of riches to be sure. The first time was when I converted to Judaism and had to choose a Hebrew name. I never really went by that name except when I was being called to the Torah, but I do remember thinking long and hard before deciding. It was one of the hardest choices involved in my conversion. Nevertheless, I was always haunted by the sense that I had somehow missed an opportunity in choosing my Hebrew name, that I had been tested and in some way too subtle to articulate had failed.

The decision to begin transitioning felt like a chance to make up for a missed opportunity–for many missed opportunities, to be honest. The one thing I was determined on was that the name I chose would be mine, personal and proper, in Hebrew and English. In the end I settled on Leiah, and there is a kind of rightness in that decision that makes me feel confident, that crystallizes my sense of myself in a way that all good names should.

The decision process behind “Leiah” is as murky as my own idiosyncratic spelling of the name apparently is to many people. For the record, my name is pronounced “Lay-uh,” just like the two literary women it’s based on.

I’m going to get the embarrassing part of this out of the way first and admit that one of the sources of my name is in fact Princess Leia, the character from Star Wars. It has never been a well-hidden secret that I am a complete geek, and I’ll own up to that. In my defense, Leia was one of my feminine role models growing up. Strong, confident, much more intelligent and self-possessed than any of the men around her, she was everything I would have liked to be. When I was growing up there were precious few depictions of strong, capable female characters in media targeted at kids, and Leia stands out to me for that reason.

The other source of my name, of course, is the biblical matriarch, Leah (which in English I have trouble not reading as “Lee-uh,” but I digress). I’ve always felt that of all the women of Genesis, Leah really doesn’t get the kind of respect she deserves. Married to Jacob solely because of a deception carried out by her father, who didn’t want to see the younger sister married before the elder, Leah is the epitome of what the bible calls “the unloved wife.” The names she gives her children speak to the deep yearning she felt for the love and recognition of her husband, who despite the broad and rather public hints never seems to have been able or willing to see her as anything other than an afterthought. The historical irony is that despite our tendency to forget about her in favor of her more charismatic sister, she, not Rachel, is theoretically the mother of the Jewish people, as after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, the two remaining tribes–Judah and Levi–were both descendents of Leah.

Of course, neither of these names–Leia or Leah–is mine. For all that it sounds the same, my own name is different, singular as all proper nouns are, something uniquely mine. This, and the fact that it is something I have chosen for myself, make it precious to me. It’s a good name, and I have the feeling that as long as I treat it well, it will do the same for me.

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