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Transgender 101

The work of transgender inclusion in the Jewish community requires proactive action. Some of the steps we can take to welcome the trans people inside—and on the margins—of our communities are straightforward. But sometimes, well-meaning allies stumble, get confused, feel unsure, and run into snags in the tachlis (detailsof being welcoming and inclusive, because we are human and fallible.

TDOR_20132The sacred work of undoing centuries of oppression is a tall order. We’ve pulled together some common questions, answered them, and tried to explain why some questions are more—or  less—okay to ask transgender people in your life and community. Some of these are questions I asked myself, and was gently (or not so gently) told weren’t okay.  We hope you find this piece inspiring and informative as we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance, and that you can join us in supporting a Jewish community that embraces people of all gender identities.

What does transgender mean?

Transgender (or just “trans” or “trans*”) is an umbrella term for anyone who knows themselves to be a gender that is different than the gender they were assigned at birth. Turns out, everyone has a gender identity! For some of us, our knowledge of our own gender matches what the doctor, nurse, or midwife declared when we were born (“It’s a girl!”). If that’s the case, then we’re cisgender. If not, then we could fall under the transgender umbrella. Some transgender people also identify with other, more specific gender identity labels.

What does gender variant or gender non conforming mean?

Gender variant or gender non conforming are also umbrella categories can include anyone whose gender identity, expression, or behavior is outside of social norms of women who are “feminine” and men who are “masculine.” Terms people might use include gender expansivegenderqueer, agender, gender fluid, gender flexible, and more.

Isn’t gender just the two options, boy and girl?

Nope! Societies across the world and throughout time have recognized that gender is more complicated than just the two options, sometimes described as “the gender binary.” If someone you know uses language for themselves or someone else that you’re not familiar with, it’s usually okay to ask them in private what those terms mean to them.

I’m really curious about the experience of a transgender person I know, but I don’t want to be rude, are there questions that are inappropriate?

You bet. Many transgender people are routinely asked deeply private questions about their bodies, identities, histories, and experiences by strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike. This kind of question-asking is emotionally exhausting, can out someone against their will (potentially jeopardizing their safety, job, and relationships), and can be humiliating. If you are very close to someone, you can ask them if they’d like to talk about their transition or their identity, and if they say yes, let them steer the conversation.

Questions to avoid:

  • “Have you had the surgery?”
    Every transgender person’s transition looks different, and not everyone has a medical transition. Even if they did, it’s probably not your business unless you are their doctor (and even then, it’s irrelevant for a lot of medical treatment). If they want to talk to you about their transition, they probably will!
  • “What’s your real name?”
    The name they just told you is probably the name they want you to use. If you know a transgender person’s assigned name and preferred name, you should ask them if there are any circumstances in which they’d like you to use their assigned name, and then respect their answer.
  • “How do you have sex?” 
    Active communication about sex with partners is great! Probing into the nitty gritty of someone else’s sex life usually feels invasive. People have sex in LOTS of different ways, transgender people included. If you are involved with someone who is transgender and are looking for resources for yourself or your partner, there are a bunch on the internet.
  • “Did your family reject you?”
    This question can feel sensationalizing or incredibly painful, depending on the person’s experience. It’s probably best left for more intimate conversation with a good friend, rather than an oneg.

How do I support transgender people in my life or community?

There are some super easy things you can do to support transgender people in your life!

  • Respect their names and pronouns.
    Pronouns are a really basic way that we signal our gender to the world around us, so respecting people’s pronouns is important! Some gender non conforming people use alternative pronouns like “they/them/theirs” or “ze/hir.” This might take some getting used to, but putting forth the effort will make a huge difference to the people you care about! For more help with pronouns, check out the Trans Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right by Davey Shlasko.
  • Correct others if they mis-pronoun someone.
    Check with the transgender people you know first, but for a lot of transgender people it’s helpful to have friends and allies who will correct others if they get their pronoun wrong. Your transgender friends might have some caveats though, like don’t do so in front of them, or don’t correct someone who is addressing a large crowd, but definitely correct someone in private or small-group conversation.
  • Advocate for gender-neutral bathrooms.
    Transgender people experience a lot of oppression around bathrooms, and access to safe bathrooms can make a big difference in people’s comfort and sense of welcome in a community. You can even use our signs to make your institution’s bathrooms all-gender!
  • Reflect on your assumptions about gender-norms.
    Being thoughtful and reflective on the ways that gender norms, and attendant social policing, can negatively impact all of us—but transgender people in particular, is part of the long-term work of making the world safer for people of all genders. This is the root of transphobia, and transphobic violence, and the more you think about and talk about it helps break down those pervasive, damaging norms and stereotypes.
  • Allow your friends to be open about their transgender experience, but don’t define them by it.
    Don’t just talk to your transgender community members about their transgender experience, talk to them about their golf swing, art project, marathon, recent travel, knitting, meditation practice, or cooking adventures too!
  • Be open to learning and feedback.
    You might get something wrong some time, and that’s okay. If transgender people in your life ask you to do something differently to be an ally to them, listen with an open heart! Be open to feedback, try not to get defensive, and remember that it’s super vulnerable for them to give you this feedback.
  • Incorporate transgender-affirming rituals into your Jewish communal life.
    There are a growing number of resources for celebrating transgender people’s lives Jewishly. Check out resources like TransTexts and TransTorah for examples.

It’s important to say two last things:

First, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive or universal list, because we’re talking about responding to humans who are all different from each other and may very well disagree with each other (and me!). Second, there are a lot of excellent resources on transgender experiences all over the internet, written by transgender people. To learn more, go hear what they have to say! Read some of the incredible pieces on our blog, by writers like Emily Aviva, Duncan, Rafi, Simcha, Y.C., Becky, Taan, and Micah. Listen to Keshet Board Member Joy Ladin’s incredible interview on Gender and the Syntax of Being. (And then hurry to your local independent bookstore to buy her books!) Check out TransTorah and their fabulous resources, including Trans Etiquette/Support/Respect 101 by Micah Bazant and Making Your Jewish Community Transgender Friendly by Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Rabbi Rueben Zellman.

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Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. We’re asking Jewish organizations to make a commitment to mark this day. Let us know how your Jewish community will observe the day.

Posted on November 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Coming Out Process

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

MBYHeadshot1For me, coming out has never been as simple as you would think. I’ve done it a few timesI first came out as queer as a teenager, and now as an adult I have come out all over again as transgender. This latest coming-out process has taken me the better part of two years, countless half-steps in the direction of being out, and finally the decision to just trust that it would work out.

The first step, and the hardest, was coming out to myself.

On some level, I had known that I was trans for a very long timeever since I first heard the term transgender. I read everything about gender and transition that I could get my hands on. Something about these stories grabbed my attention in a way that nothing else had. I never could understand why anyone thought it was difficult to understand or unfamiliarit made perfect sense to me. That probably should have been my first clue.

Then I found gender theory. Oddly, the distant academic language about gender as cultural performance became one of my best tools for convincing myself that I was not transgender: If gender is not real, if it is culturally arbitrary, then it does not matter what gender I am. If it does not matter what gender I am, then I can’t be trans, right? Or how about another one: If culture defines what genders are acceptable and legible, and our culture has a gender category for a person with my genetics and body to look the way I do, then I can “get by” as a butch. That means I’m not transgender, right? I can “slide by” in public as a just-barely-almost-not-quite-kinda-sorta woman, so I don’t need to think of myself as transgender, right?

There was one major area of my life where these justifications and excuses did not work.

In my relationship with Jewish ritual, which was becoming more and more important in my life, there never seemed to be room for these excuses. In fact, there never seemed to be room for my sense of ambiguity around gender at all: so much of our ritual, language, and practice is strictly gendered, even in our progressive and egalitarian movements. It seemed impossible to approach a Hebrew text, be called to the Torah, or pray in Hebrew without thinking about gender. I always had to insert some distance between myself and our traditionbetween myself and Godto avoid the dreaded gender meltdown.

It was during this time that I began rabbinical school in the Conservative movement. I had watched my tradition struggleand have some success, however imperfectat becoming a tradition that welcomed and treated with dignity all people. I wasn’t always happy with the way these conversations were going, and I came to the rabbinate in order to add my voice. I came out of a sense of obligation to Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and a desire to build moral and welcoming communities.

Over time, it got harder and harder to do the work of becoming a rabbi without engaging my own “gender stuff.”

Finally, one Friday night at Kabbalat Shabbat, it just clicked: I didn’t have to think so hard about gender all the time. I didn’t need a mental list of justifications for my gender identityand I was exhausting myself by constantly maintaining that list. The truth was much simpler than that: I was just transgender. It was a scary feeling, because seeing myself as transgender was something I had worked very hard not to do for so long, but it was also a tremendous relief. Over the course of the coming weeks, I felt myself letting go of the emotional distance I had kept between myself and my life.  I was not sure what my next steps were, what kind of new gender identity I would build for myself, what coming out would be like, whether I would transition—there were plenty of reasons to be anxious. But I began to notice that even with all of the anxiety, I was present in a way that I had not been before.

From that Shabbat, it took more than two years to come out more or less completely, to figure out how and whether to transition, and to begin negotiating the complex legal, medical, and bureaucratic mess that those of us who transition have to deal with.

A few close friends and family members knew right away, and were there with me as I thought about when and whether to come out, what transition would mean, and all of the other questions I had. Sometimes I wish I had come out sooner. I especially wish that I had been more completely out during my time in rabbinical schoolI wish that I had been able to add my voice specifically as a trans person to our conversations, and that I had been more present to my classmates, colleagues, and teachers. Most importantly, I wish I had been in a position to show them at the time the trust that I know they deserved. But there were too many other factors in life, and my time line did not allow that. In the end, it was reaching the end of my studies and preparing to work as a rabbi that gave me the final push to put the last pieces in place to be able to transition. It was in thinking about the ordination ceremony that I knew for certain that if I could not stand in front of my teachers and mentors in my full self, and have them call me by a name that fit me, the ceremony would feel empty and fake. And, shortly afterwards, I decided that if I continued to put off transition for “someday” in the future, I would continue to not be present to the work I was doing right now in my community.

How could I possibly be a rabbi building Jewish community if I was hiding from the community I wanted to serve?

So I jumped in to the coming out process—talking with close and extended family, friends, coworkers, and others. It was both more frightening and easier than I expected. So far, in sharing the news of my transition with my colleagues and my communities, I have received nothing but support and shared excitement. Not a single one of the worst-case scenarios or explosions that I feared has happened. Instead, people have surprised me with their generosity of spirit. Being out has given me the ability to raise my voice, to educate and advocate in my community. More than that, it has given me the ability to experience again what a beautiful community it is.

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Posted on October 30, 2014

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Coming Out & Staying With My Husband

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

October 11 was National Coming Out Day. Coincidentally, it is also my husband’s birthday.unnamed

I met him over 21 years ago; he was 19, I was 17. We had so much in common: both recent immigrants from the Soviet Union, both raised in traditional non-religious Jewish homes, both with strong family values and ethics.

I fell in love with my husband deeply. I wanted to marry him and have children with him. I watched him grow into the beautiful strong man that he is now, and he watched a little girl transform into a wife and a mother. We married 7 years after we met, and had 2 kids soon there after.

We were a perfect family… until 5 years ago, when I developed a crush on a girl.

The moment I saw her, I was smitten. She was occupying all of my thoughts. I could not sleep, I could not eat, I could not think about anything else. So, one morning when both my husband and I were still in bed, I stuffed my slightly-embarrassed face into a pillow and confessed my crush to him.

My husband is a very open-minded, confident man. He has always supported me in everything. When I expressed desire to become a rabbihe was the one researching rabbinical schools. When I wanted to take on photographyhe got me a camera and a book. And 5 years ago, he held my hand and pushed me to explore myself and my sexuality.

My crush turned out to be another straight Jewish girl, and with the permission of my husband, I joined an online support group for married women who have feelings for other women.

There I met my (now) ex-girlfriend. She was also married, had children, and lived locally. Unlike me, she has been struggling with her sexuality for over 10 years and, through therapy and together with her husband, decided to open up her marriage.

We got to know and grew to love each other deeply. We felt so natural with one another. The intimacy that we shared was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced; the glove finally fit! And within just a few months, it was clear to both of us that we were, indeed, gay.

And then the struggle began: do we continue living two lives? Or, do we separate from our husbands, break up our families, and live authentically as gay women? After two years of tears, confusion, and torment, we hesitantly chose to separate from our husbands.

That decision to separate was incredibly hard. I really loved my husband. I loved him deeply. I did not know myself outside of “Him and I.” We were ONE; he was my second half and I was his. The loss of my second half seemed so big that it was impossible to even think about it. My husband compared that sense of loss to a feeling of losing a parent. We both felt devastated, numb.

Coming out to our immigrant family was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. My own mother called me names that a mother should never call her child. My mother-in-law fell to my feet and begged me “to not do this to the kids.” I’ve lost many friends because they agreed that I “cheated” on my husband and left him for HER.

My relationship with my girlfriend suffered as well. It became clear that developing a relationship with one person while disassembling a marriage to another was an impossible task. The days I spent with my girlfriend were filled with tears, depression, and anxiety attacks. Ultimately the pressure became unbearable and our relationship ended. I lost the woman I was planning to marry, while at the same time, helped my husband buy a separate home and write a JDate profile.

I dated heavily. I was single for the first time since 17, in a lesbian sea of opportunities. Face after face, restaurant after restaurant, I went out on many, many dates. A drummer, a nurse, a writer, a marketing director, an accountant, a psychologist, a stay-at-home mom…the list went on and on.

Dating started to feel like work… and each time I would look at a woman across the table, I’d feel nothing but guilt for not being home instead, with my husband and my children. It was finally my chance to explore my sexuality, yet all I wanted to do was to stay home with my family, cook, and do crafts. My sexuality started feeling “this” little, and I started questioning all the choices that I had made up to this point.

Surprisingly, the kids seemed more or less okay. They would run from dad’s house to the one they called “our home” with a new-found sense of excitement. I, on the other hand, could not pass my husband’s townhouse without feeling sick to my stomach. What had we done?

We had been the happiest couple on earth, never fought, never argued. He was my best friend, my partner in crime, my protector, the love of my life. He made me laugh silly and took care of me when I was sick. I knew by heart his every wrinkle, every gray hair, every sun spot. I had not witnessed a more perfect union. Our only struggle was in my sexuality. So, I started questioning whether one’s sexuality is really that much more important than all those other beautiful things that we shared. Many of our friends struggled in their marriages in all of the ways that we didn’t… And yet, there we were, leaving each other…

And that was when I realized that one’s sexuality does not define them! It is a part of one’s identitynot the whole identity. Yes, I am gay. Yes, I feel most natural with a woman. But I also love the man I met 21 years ago, and that person is my male soul mate. There is no one better suited for me than him, even if he is not a woman. And I also love my family; I want to raise our children together with him under one roof.

So, one day,  after a very short conversation and a needed exhale, we decided to get creative. We chose to move back together and try a life that would not be constrained by our Russian-Jewish suburbia. We decided to consider a version of an “open marriage” where I can be me and live out a part of my newfound identity. Our new relationship is one with rules, boundaries, and respect. A relationship where I can be out and proud, with no more boxes or closets.

That was about 8 months ago. Having learned a lot from the painful experience of the past 5 years, we have been rebuilding our “home” and healing the wounds. It has not been easy all the time. Our relationship is a new reality, one that comes with new challenges.

And the future? It remains to be written…

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Posted on October 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Coming Out All Over Again: An Excerpt from The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

rachel“I want to tell you about my son,” the father said as he stopped by my office one Sunday morning. “He was just walking down the corridor at school the other day and he saw a girl that he knows from the temple. She had cut off her long hair and had a new, short look. She looked really different, and he noticed that she seemed anxious. So he stopped and said, ‘Kim—you look great! Love the new look!’ She gave him such a big smile. She told him that it was a big day for her. Today she was coming out at school. She held her breath. My son gave her a big hug and said, ‘That’s great. It’s just going to get better from here.’ Rabbi, I’m telling you this because he shared it with me when I was driving him the other day. And when he’d finished telling me about this exchange at school, he said, ‘Dad, I learned that from Rabbi Gurevitz. She helped me see what a difference a friend can make at a time like that.’”


She came up to me in the middle of break one evening at our Hebrew high school. “Rabbi, can I make a time to come and talk to you?” We got together the following week and as she sat down, Jennifer said to me, “So, I’m gay and I have a girlfriend. And that’s all fine. But … why do I feel like God hates me?”

Two moments from my past few years of congregational life as a rabbi. I’ll return to the second moment shortly. But, as I reflect on these experiences, and several others like them, I realize how easily I could have missed them all. And, in doing so, I would have robbed the youth in my community of the pastoral and spiritual support they needed at a crucial turning point in their lives.

I was always “out” in my congregation. I had felt confident enough, during student placement at the end of rabbinical school, that times had changed enough for me to be upfront about that without it impacting my employment prospects. But I wasn’t a spokesperson for gay rights. I would gently drop in a reference to my partner during interviews to make it clear that it was just a natural part of the fabric of my life—it wasn’t an “issue.”

In the first few years of my congregational work, I would choose very carefully when to comment on GLBT-related issues in the context of a sermon or teaching. Often I would let it come from someone else so it didn’t appear to be “my issue.” But then Tyler Clementi committed suicide at Rutgers University. And the media began to pay more attention to the high proportion of teen suicides who were GLBT youth. And Dan Savage launched the YouTube-based “It Gets Better” campaign to provide opportunities for GLBT adults and their allies to record messages for struggling GLBT youth to show them that there were truly good, wonderful things in life beyond the fears and anxieties they may have been struggling with at any given moment in time.

I realized that I had been doing my community, and especially my teenagers, a disservice. I realized that I had been going out of my way not to bring my sexuality to the attention of my students. So anxious was I not to be regarded by anyone as “promoting homosexuality,” I was self-censoring; whereas most heterosexuals wouldn’t pause for a moment before saying, “My husband and I just came back from vacation,” or “I went to the movies last night with my wife and some friends,” I would leave my partner out of my informal conversations.

And the result was that while I was technically “out,” most of the youth in my congregation had no idea. And that meant that none of them knew—really knew—that they had an ally and someone who might understand what they were going through. And I needed to change that.

The week after Clementi’s death I gave a sermon. I wrote a bulletin article. I wrote a blog piece. And I published an op-ed in the local newspapers. The latter, in particular, was picked up by many of our families and shared with their teenagers. I started to do sessions with our high school students and youth group, speaking about my own journey of coming out, and introducing them to other GLBT members of our congregation. I had students catching me in the corridors, thanking me for the piece that I had written in the papers. And, before long, I had students seeking me out for support or simply to share their story, or a brother or sister’s story, with me.

I’ve stayed connected with many of these young people. Jennifer is now at college, and she is thriving. A year ago she walked into my office wanting to know why it felt like God hated her. We met monthly, and we explored where in society and the media we receive the kinds of messages that make us feel this way. We went on a journey together so that Jennifer could find a personal theology that could enable her to celebrate her uniqueness and truly own her image made b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God—an image that must embrace and include our sexuality too. And how could God hate something that was so essential to our being? Something that, when fully expressed, makes us feel more spiritually whole?

Ten years after I first came out, I found myself coming out all over again. This time around it felt even more profound, even more powerful. This time around it was a tikkun—a fixing, a healing, of spirit and of community.

Excerpt from The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, edited by Rabbi Lisa Grushcow © 2014 by Central Conference of American Rabbis. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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unnamed-1The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexualitypublished by CCAR Press, takes a close look at the breadth of human sexuality from a Jewish perspective. For more information and to order copies, visit, ccarpress.org or call 212-972-3636 x243. For those of you in the New York City area, Editor Rabbi Lisa Grushcow will be speaking at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on December 9, 2014 at 7:00 pm. In a discussion entitled, “Let’s Talk About Sex… (in a Liberal Jewish Way),” she along with three contributors to The Sacred Encounter will be discussing borders, boundaries, and what happens in the bedroom.

 

Posted on October 27, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Coming Out and Being Proud

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

rp_10172680_10152410248549809_7254544815864323903_n-300x300.jpgIt is hard to imagine that this year marks only the fifth year in which I’ll be out of the closet for National Coming Out Day. My queer identity is such a strong part of my identity that it is hard to remember that for the majority of my life it was one of my deepest secrets.

This past year, I also publicly come out as a survivor of sexual violence. My identity as a survivor strongly informs my identity as a queer Jew, and this upcoming National Coming Out Day will mark my first Coming Out Day as a Jewish queer survivor.  

This past June, I wrote about taking pride in my identities as a Jewish Queer Survivor. Now, almost half a year since I wrote those posts, as I reflect on being out, I realize one thing: I am lucky.

I am lucky for the Jewish communities I have been a part of.

Since I came out as queer, I found a Jewish community that embraced my identities, including my queer identity at Tufts Hillel. When I was going through the sexual misconduct adjudication process at Tufts, a Hillel staff member was one of several people who provided me with the support I needed during a difficult time. Now that I am in DC, I am in the process of exploring new Jewish communities and realize how lucky I am that I can truly be myself in each community I explore.

I am lucky to be accepted.

As support and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals continues to grow, especially among my generation, it is easy to forget how much homophobia still exists, both in the Jewish and non-Jewish world. When I read the comments and tweets in response to my piece in June about taking pride in my Jewish queer identity, I was reminded that not everyone is as lucky as me to have found such great support among family and friends. I was even more shocked when the Advocate picked up my blog post, especially because my story did not seem newsworthy to me; it just seemed like the norm for so many people I know.

And lastly, I am lucky for the support I have received.

As a survivor, I have seen how rape culture re-victimizes survivors through a culture of victim-blaming, institutions which offer more opportunities to succeed for rapists than survivors, and a legal system which leaves little hope for justice. Yet, I was fortunate to receive the support of family, friends, and even teachers. Perhaps one of the most touching responses I received were from two former teachers—one a teacher from elementary and middle school who saw my article on Keshet and one from a former professor who reached out to me after reading a piece I wrote for the Tufts Daily about Tufts’ history of letting rapists remain on campus.

I had been publicly out as queer and as a survivor before I wrote my blog posts for Keshet. However, writing during pride month gave me the opportunity to not only come out in a more public space online but to also reflect on having pride in my identities—a feeling that doesn’t necessarily come with coming out. And I couldn’t be any prouder to be out for the month of National Coming Out Day.

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Posted on October 23, 2014

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Getting Comfortable Coming Out

Ailsa & Kate

Ailsa & Kate (R to L)

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

In the spirit of Yom Kippur and the holiday season, I have a confession to make. It’s taken me a while to get comfortable with coming out.

That’s partially because I’ve been shy as long as I can remember. (My high school yearbook picture has the caption “Quietest Girl.”) And it’s partially because, given my ethnicity, it’s already hard to blend in. Nor do I want people to see me only as Chinese-American, gay, and Jewish, especially since I still occasionally feel insecure about my level of Shabbat observance, Mandarin fluency, or GLBT activism.

So most of my initial coming-out experiences happened with close friends (99% of whom already knew!) or in GLBT-friendly environments. Once I started dating Kate (now my wife), my sexual orientation became more obvious. But despite living in a state where we had marriage equality and other rights, I still was tentative sometimes.

All this helps explain why I find one specific coming-out experience so memorable.

It happened in November 2008, when our synagogue, Temple Emunah, hosted a panel titled “Marriage, Intermarriage, Same-Sex Marriage.” The room was packed with people wanting to hear how the local Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis engaged with these issues. We were particularly interested in how Rabbi Bukiet of Chabad and Rabbi Jaffe of Temple Isaiah approached the question of same-sex marriage. (Our spiritual leader, Rabbi Lerner, had already offered to marry us once I’d converted, so we already knew where he stood.)

The rabbis spoke thoughtfully, impressing us with their honesty and willingness to grapple with some thorny topics. Then during the Q&A session, an audience member we didn’t know said they weren’t aware of any gays or lesbians at Emunah. In hindsight, I understand their point of view. We ourselves weren’t familiar with many other GLBT members. At the time, though, I was only aware of feeling invisible, and hating it.

My hand shot up of its own accord as I blurted out, “Um, right here!” “Yes, over here!” my wife chimed in. The questioner seemed taken aback but not angry; I don’t even remember their reply. I was too busy thinking, “I just outed us to this entire room …”

My usual coming-out anxiety was this time mixed: half-amused, half-horrified chagrin. Then I felt relief, as nobody batted an eye at what we’d said (a testimony to how just inclusive Emunah is.) Later, I realized I’d come out to a bunch of people I didn’t know that well … and I was actually happy with having done it.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this moment. I doubt anyone else even remembers the exchange. And I didn’t suddenly start divulging my deepest secrets to random strangers. (There is way too much ingrained modesty for that to happen.) But I do feel like it helped me be more comfortable with coming out in more public ways, like our aufruf in front of the congregation on Shabbat.

In honor of this month’s National Coming Out Day, I’m taking my cue from this memory. Even when I could passwhen I could get away with not talking about being Jewish or gay or anything else not immediately obviousI’ll choose to be true to myself and to encourage other people to do the same. Despite all the amazing progress made recently in marriage equality and other areas, we don’t yet live in a world where everyone is fully accepted in all our complexity and humanity. Coming out is one way to help make that world a reality.

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Posted on October 21, 2014

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Simchat Torah: Rejoice in Resources

With Simchat Torah around the corner, we’re thinking about the resources the Jewish community needs to be more inclusive, welcoming, and a safer environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning individuals and families.

A special thanks to Keshet educator Suzie Schwartz Jacobson for helping to compile these resources!

stack-of-books2

Make sure your library has current LGBT books and media:
Often times when students are questioning their sexuality or gender identification, they will turn to the internet for information and support. But, they may also look for books, movies, magazines, and other materials. Be sure to have updated and current LGBT resources, and have them readily available and prominently displayed.  Librarians, educators, and other administrators should be made aware of these resources and be available to help LGBT students find and access them. Click here, here, here, and here for lists of LGBT books and media.

Provide training for your staff, lay leadership, and community members:
Once your organization has committed to the full inclusion of LGBT individuals and families it is important to provide your community with the skills they need to put these goals into action.  In a training, all stakeholders will have the opportunity to gain tools and resources, reflect on the needs of your population, and learn more about how to create inclusive community. Click here to find out more about Keshet trainings.

Collect and share resources on Jewish LGBT issues and topics:
Luckily, you do not need to reinvent the wheel when introducing LGBT issues and ideas to your community. There are many resources out there to help you.

Keshet provides many resources on our website including:

  • Videos;
  • Torah Queeries, textual interpretation of Torah and Jewish holidays from a LGBT lens;
  • Wrestling with God,”  a collection of classical texts that deal with sexuality, gender and theology;
  • and Trans Texts, a resource created by Rabbis Reuben Zellman and Elliot Kukla, which explores what traditional Jewish texts have to say about transgender and gender nonconforming experiences and gender in general.

And, here are a few other resources that may be relevant to your institution:

Make sure your institution is in Keshet’s Equality Guide:
The Equality Guide is simple way for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews and their loved ones to find inclusive Jewish clergy and institutions and learn about their policies and practices.

What steps will you be taking to make your Jewish community more inclusive?

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Posted on October 15, 2014

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Coming Out for Two

IMG_4333In honor of National Coming Out Day, Keshet will be sharing and celebrating coming out stories throughout the month of October. If you have a story you’d like to share, let us know!

It was ingrained in me since birth by my Jewish mother that my purpose in life was to bear her grandchildren. I once read that 60% of gay siblings have similar DNA on chromosomes number 6, 7, and 8. These two were related issues for me.

When I was about to leave for college, my younger brother, Brett, told me he was gay. He did it via instant message from eleven feet away, in his bedroom, on the same floor, in the same house. He had asked me how I would feel if he told me he liked guys. I rolled my eyes because I thought he was just trying to get a rise out of me. Or maybe he had heard the rumors at our very small Christian high school about me having a girlfriend? I shut my computer and walked into his room. I looked at his trophy case, holding awards and medals from weightlifting state championships, baseball, football MVP plaques, confused. Then, I realized he wasn’t kidding.

“What is mom going to do when she finds out both of her kids are queer?” I asked with a twisted smile. He apparently hadn’t heard the rumors about me, after all, and he was just as floored.

I felt I should take this information with me to the grave. I already knew what my mother’s reaction would be, since I put the feelers out about the situation when I was Brett’s age. I had tried coming out, but returned to the closet and hid behind the winter coats because my mom practically guilted me back in with talk about how life would be terrible without grandchildren. 

When I went away to college, Brett visited me and began to date one of my best friends: his first gay relationship. He wanted to be “out,” he wanted to have a boyfriend, and he wanted my mother to knowin that order. Furthermore, he asked me break the news for him when I came home for winter break that December.

“No way, Brett.”

“I need to be honest!” he squeaked. He was wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and basketball shorts with our high school’s mascot emblazoned on the lower left leg. “Just tell her when I leave for the gym.” I couldn’t believe this was happening.

“No, I can’t come out for you,” I finally said. “She’ll cry. She’ll scream at me about her lack of future grandchildren. I don’t want to deal with this. It’s not fair.”

“Sara, come on,” He just kept badgering. This went on for ten minutes. I had yearned for the days when we all argued about was who would get the front seat in the car or who got to be the Ninja Turtle with the bow-staff when we were playing. He didn’t get it. I finally agreed to spill the beans.

I bounded down the stairs and into our home gym, where my mom was on her steady 10 incline on the treadmill, whatever that meant, and watching “All My Children” or “The View” or maybe both, on different channels, and looked like she didn’t want to be bothered. She looked like she was busy trying to save the world, 500 calories at a time. I told her to come upstairs when she was finished because we needed to talk.

I walked up to my room, debating my delivery. She was upstairs within three minutes. I told her to sit down. She looked nervous and disheveled. Her straight blonde hair was pulled up out of her face in a high ponytail and she was still breathing hard from her work out. I wanted to tell her to not sit on my bed because she was going to sweat on it, but figured I’d let it slide.

“Mom,” I started. “I don’t know why I am telling you this. And I don’t know why he wanted me, of all people, to tell you, but…” I hesitated. The look on her face was killing me.

“But what?”

“Um. Brett’s gay?” It came out sounding more like a question than a statement.

“That’s funny, Sara. What did you really have to tell me?”

I blinked, unsure what to say. Why didn’t she believe me? Because he always had a girlfriend? Maybe it was because he was the captain of the football team and a wrestling and baseball star.

“No, Mom. That was it. Really.” As if on cue, it started to pour outside, the rain streaked down the glass like tears. Then she started to cry. She cried about him being on the football team, and his girlfriend Jessica, and how he had such big muscles, and how it couldn’t have been true, and then there it was: “And I’m never going to have grandchildren! Brett’s gay now and you’ll never have kids!”

I wanted to tell her then that my disinterest in children had more to do with the actual act of reproduction, but figured that would be a conversation saved for a better time. I also didn’t want to be too political by talking about how gay adoption was going to be up-and-comingit was 2003 after all. Besides, we were still teenagers, what did it matter? I brought up PFLAG, and statistics on homosexuality, not mentioning the bit about siblings because I was still not out to her.

At that point, wasn’t sure if I ever would be. She bombarded me with questions. Was this because she and my father got divorced a few years prior? Did I know if Brett was ever molested? How could this happen to her? I didn’t have any of the answers, but I was sure most of them were, “No.” I didn’t understand what she meant by “happening to her.”

After fifteen minutes of me trying to be the good daughter, comforting her, and sitting there awkwardly, as she cried, she got up. Walked to the door. Opened it to leave. Stood in the door frame for a moment. There was a loaded pause.

Then she turned around and said, “I always thought it was going to be you.”

After I came out for my brother, it took me two more years for me to tell her I was gay too. She caught me in the middle of a crisis break-up and I spilled everything, confessing the (not so) secret relationships I’d had.

She calmed me down and said, “I love you no matter who you’re with, it’s okay.”

I asked her why she had freaked out about Brett so badly, but not me.

“He was a surprise,” she said. “You, not so much.” There is still talk about grandchildren every now and then, but I think she’s starting to get it.

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Posted on October 14, 2014

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Sukkot: A Time (and Place) for Welcoming

When  joined the Boston Jewish community in the Keshet Sukkah this past week, she shared her thoughts on what it means to be welcoming. Earlier this month Kat shared her coming out story, reflecting on what it means to be a queer Jew-by-choice finding a space where she felt welcomed in the Jewish community. 

Kathryn gets into the welcoming spirit with her sukkah decorations.

Kathryn gets ready for the holiday.

Welcoming is something I think a lot about as I work as the Boston Community Organizer for Keshet, where my goal is to make the Jewish world a more welcoming place for queer folks. I think Sukkot has two special things to teach us about what it means to be welcoming.

1. The first is that we need to be visibly welcoming. Sukkot is different from other holidays because nearly all the barriers to entry are eliminated. There are no tickets and really no need for invitationinstead we construct a sukkah outside of our home that any passerby can see and enter.

How often does this barrier-free welcome actually occur in our community? Even before my time at Keshet I would talk with leaders at organizations that would say their organization were completely welcoming, but when I asked how they let people know about their welcoming policies, they wouldn’t have much of an answer. In the same way folks avoid inviting themselves over for dinner, welcome isn’t assumed. Instead an invitation needs to be extended and standing welcomes need to be made continually visible.

2. The second piece Sukkot teaches us about welcoming is based in the tradition that we are supposed to live in our huts. Sukkahs are cute and festive but I’ve never really heard them described as cozy and comfortable. Being truly welcoming involves a little discomfort. I have yet to meet someone who is turning their sukkah into their new tiny house and that’s with good reason.

Last week, I caught Rich, Keshet’s Director of Finance and Administration, peering out one of the windows in our office to check how heavy the wind was, getting worried that his sukkah at home might blow over. Sukkahs have patchy roofs and flimsy walls that won’t do much to protect you from the elements. They make for uncomfortable living. Like living the discomfort of a sukkah, outsiders bring difference and the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable. But I’ve always found that places of agitation and discomfort are often the most fertile ground for growth.

Sukkot teaches us that to be truly welcoming we need to make ourselves visible and we need to push ourselves to be a little uncomfortable to make room for a wider welcome.

So the questions I’ll leave you with are these: In what way are you pushing yourself to be little uncomfortable in order to make room for others?  And…in what ways are you making your welcome visible?

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Posted on October 13, 2014

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Ask Asher: Coming Out

Have a question about LGBTQ life? Jewish life? LGBTQ Jewish Life? Ask Asher! Send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org and you might be featured in our next column. And, check out Keshet’s resources for National Coming Out Day!

Dear Asher,
National Coming Out Day is this month, what advice do you have for someone who wants to come out? I’m ready, but…. I’m also not ready. Eeek!
Sincerely,
Closeted for Now

comingoutFINALDear Closeted for Now,
How exciting for you to be thinking about coming out!  My advice about coming out of the closet has always been: if coming out poses no physical or financial threat to you, you should do it as soon as possible.

What that means is, if you are worried you may become a target of violence, or may lose your job or get kicked out of your home, you should either wait until those circumstances change or take the necessary steps to change them before coming out. That said, it doesn’t sound like you are in any real danger, and are actually just nervous, which is totally legitimate.

Coming out can be a bit daunting to many people, but the best way to think about it is to approach it as a process, not a singular action. You may choose to come out to everyone at the same time in some very loud and fabulous way, but I think the better method is to do it gradually. Tell a close friend or relative. Then, tell another, and so on and so forth. Each time you open up to someone, it will become easier. Eventually, it will be hard to keep track of who knows and who doesn’t, and then you’ll just be out.

One important thing to remember: people will talk to each other. If you are truly afraid of certain people finding out, you may not be ready to come out, as it is not right or fair to bring other people into your closet by telling them that they absolutely cannot tell anyone about your secret. Of course, you may request that your friends and family keep it to themselves for now, but don’t be surprised when they don’t. Another piece of advice—keep a journal. I came out 15 years ago (I’m 30 now) and don’t remember what it was like to be closeted and coming out. What I wouldn’t give to have had that entire process documented so I could read it now, half a lifetime later…Good luck!

All the Best,
Asher

Dear Asher,
How do I mark National Coming Out Day if I’m already out? I want to be supportive—and I want to celebrate!
Sincerely,
So Out & So Proud

Dear So Out & So Proud,
Good for you for being “So Out & So Proud”—sounds like a good slogan for a T-Shirt or bumper sticker… I’m thinking fuchsia. Seriously, make it happen. There is nothing more important than visibility for the LGBTQ community, so feel free to make yourself as visible as you want!

Also, why not donate a bit of your disposable income to one of those amazing organizations that helps those who are not as fortunate as you are to be So Out and So Proud? Or, depending upon where you live, you could volunteer at a local LGBTQ organization.  There are so many ways to help; just pick one.

That said, I really hope you make a T-Shirt, because that would just be fabulous.

Have Fun,
Asher
P.S.  Send pictures of the T-Shirt.

Dear Asher,
I am an adult gay man, and my little sister just came out to me as a FTM transgender. Of course, I told him I love him and am here for him, but inside a part of me is mourning the loss of the little girl with whom I used to play dress up, and who I took to her first day of kindergarten.

How do you suggest that I honor both him and his transition, without denying my own profound sense of loss?

Sincerely,
My Brother’s Keeper

Dear My Brother’s Keeper,
First of all, it is wonderful that you are making such an effort with your brother. I know that the shift in pronouns (as well as pretty much everything else in our gender-centric world) can be difficult, but it is so important that he feels supported, even if you mess up a lot at first. Eventually, this will all get easier, and you will look back with bewilderment on the days you used female pronouns to describe him. As hard as this transition is for you, imagine how hard it must be for him.

You cannot imagine what this transition is like for him; having a supportive older brother like you is EXACTLY what he needs. And just how you held his hand through the first day of kindergarten, you have the opportunity to hold his hand through this, to look out for him, to protect him, the way you always have.

Instead of seeing his transition as the “loss” of your sister, try to approach it as the “gaining” of a brother.

Your sister is not dead, and your brother shouldn’t ask you to pretend that he wasn’t outwardly identifying as a woman for most of his life. I know I’m going to get a lot of crap for this, but I find it disrespectful when people make others alter their memories because of an identity change.  You should hold onto those memories, especially the meaningful ones, because they helped make you who you are. Your brother should respect those memories the way you remember them, and not ask you to alter them, even if he felt like a boy at the time; he shouldn’t ask you to experience your life through his eyes, just as you shouldn’t ask him to experience his life through yours. So, that said, instead of focusing on the “loss” (and let’s face it, you were never going to take him to another first day of kindergarten, even if he hadn’t transitioned), try to be as present as possible during this important time in his life; it will lead to even more incredible memories, and will further solidify your bond with your brother.

Should all of us be so lucky as to have an older brother like you.

Best of Luck,
Asher

Posted on October 8, 2014

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