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Today You Are a Man 

In honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi,” and transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs 

When I arrived in Falls Village, Connecticut with my wife and our two daughters 3 1/2 years ago to become the Executive Director of the Isabella Freedman Center, I had a feeling it would be a transformative experience for us.

Micah

Micah

At the time, Mikayla was 13 and had just had her Bat Mitzvah months earlier, and Gracie had just turned nine. Our older two daughters, Hannah and Alison, were already out of the home and living in Philadelphia, but excited for future visits of the Berkshires.

I came to Isabella Freedman both committed to carrying on the history and ideals of the center’s wonderful programs…and wanting to bring some of my own ideas to the table. I felt that Isabella Freedman, among other things, should be filling gaps for under-served populations in the Jewish community.

And, I had a hunch that Jewish LGBTQ teens might be one of those communities.

While I had no personal experience with that community, I had certainly read about LGBTQ teens in general facing bullying, depression, and worse. I sensed this was an area where we could make a difference.

I was fortunate early in my tenure to meet Keshet’s founder and Executive Director Idit Klein at the Siach Conference, sponsored by Hazon, and held at Isabella Freedman. I floated the idea to Idit of partnering on Jewish LGBTQ Teen programming, and she was quick to jump on board. And from there, I brought the idea to the Caring Commission at UJA-Federation of New York, who, amazingly, agreed to fund our first Shabbaton in full.

Our first gathering, in the late summer of 2012, was much smaller than we hoped. We came close to cancelling it, but, even with just a dozen participants, it became clear almost immediately the impact of what we had started.

Having my own teen, I suggested to Mikayla that she might want to join in for the retreat. There were rarely other teens at Isabella Freedman, and this was a great chance to participate in something.  Mikayla did go. She had a good time; and at the end she commented how she had never met other teens in the LGBTQ community before, and how interesting that had been for her.

When we had our second such gathering, another small Shabbaton in early 2013, it didn’t take any pushing to get Mikayla to attend. Her friends were going to be there. She had a great time, and came out of her shell a bit more.

And a month later, Mikayla sent my wife Jamie and me a text from school. She had something important to talk to us about. And, through the important teen medium of a text message, the teen who had come out of her shell simply “came out.”

We couldn’t have been more proud.

And then came our third and largest Jewish LGBTQ Teen Shabbaton, in April 2014, with 50 teens from around the country, where Mikayla attended an important panel presentation by transgender teens; and afterwards decided to go from “she” to “he,” to transition from “Mikayla” to “Micah,” to go from our daughter to our son.

Micah has never been happier; and we’ve never been prouder.

Over the summer, while Micah was away visiting family, Jamie transformed a more stereotypical girl’s bedroom to suit Micah’s tastes. I’ve relished taking my son out shopping for men’s clothes. He’s even taken a girl to recent school dances, in a public school that’s been not only accepting but accommodating and supportive.

And Isabella Freedman–which is now part of Hazon through our recent merger–couldn’t be a more amazing environment for a transgender teen.

Four years after her Bat Mitzvah, Mikayla is now a proud Jewish male.

Micah, today you are a man.  And what a man you are.

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Posted on November 12, 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

What We Can Learn About Trans Allyship From Our Patriarchs & Matriarchs

In honor of the upcoming annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, and a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi.” 

When we first meet the Biblical figures Sarah and Abraham, they are not yet called Sarah and Abraham. When we first meet Abraham and Isaac, their bodies have not yet undergone a surgical alteration. We know our first Jewish family in the Torah both before and after these transitions. And the ways in which we know them can help us to be better allies to transgender folk within our current communities.

Abram's Counsel to Sarai (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Names

Abraham and Sarah were not always called “Abraham” and “Sarah.” Born as Avram and Sarai, their names are changed by an encounter with the divine, and they each receive an extra letter (the Hebrew letter “Hey”). From then on, they are known as Abraham and Sarah.

We call the first Jewish couple “Abraham and Sarah” because those are their names. We do not reject these names because they were not given at birth. We do not refer to their birth names their “real” names. We understand that to insist on only referring to our Jewish foremother and forefather as “Sarai” and “Avram” would seem confused as best, and insulting at worst.

In short, we get it.

We understand the fundamental concept that names are important, and can represent significant identities. We get that names may be altered or changed during the course of a lifetime, and that names assigned at birth do not trump names taken on later in life. And, we can know it with those in our world today. Just as we know this with Abraham and Sarah, we should know how to relate to transgender folk whose name is not that which was assigned to them at birth.

Bodies

We read that Abraham performs the act of circumcision on himself. He also performs it on Isaac. This surgical action declares them both members of the tribe. From this, we see that alteration to a body given at birth can be a method of enhancing holiness. It can represent connection to an identitya physical manifestation of a metaphysical plane. We understand that this act is not represented as an act of mutilation, but of holiness. We further understand that not all Jews must undergo this change in order to be Jews. For some it makes sense, and for some, it does not.

Some transgender individuals choose to surgically (and/or hormonally) alter the body they were born in. We know that a physical alteration can interact with and support identity in significant ways. And today, we are seeing the many ways in which gender-affirming healthcare (which includes hormones and/or surgery) can lead to positive health outcomes overall. If we are to believe (as I was taught in Hebrew school) that our bodies are a gift from G-d, then hormonal and/or surgical alterations may indeed be a tool for some to use in order to be a proper caretaker, and thereby sanctify the body they were given at birth.

Our first Jewish family can show us how to be a better support to transgender folk in our communities.
The ways in which we know with Sarah and Abraham and Isaac show us a path towards love, support, respect, and affirmation for transgender folk in our lives. We know and love Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac through their transitions. We can do the same for those in our communities today.

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Posted on November 10, 2014

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How To Hire a Trans Rabbi

Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal—but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. Take a look at this story of Tachlis of Inclusion, which we hope you find inspiring as we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” our look at the importance of voting, and the personal reflections of two parents looking at gender roles at daycare.

10321023_948003815650_1572420430904116827_oFor the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC), hiring Rabbi Becky Silverstein as their Education Director just made sense. A recent graduate of Hebrew College, Rabbi Silverstein brought the knowledge, the passion, and the training that the position required. He won over the board, the staff, and the community.

What made things just a little bit complicated was the fact that Rabbi Silverstein is transgender—and one of the very few openly transgender rabbis in America.

Keshet has talked with Rabbi Silverstein before to get his perspective on the learning curve associated with being, as a rabbi, a public transgender figure. For Rabbi Silverstein, “As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer and whose pronoun (intentionally) creates dissonance with my name, I try and remember that those whom I am encountering may be going through their own process. This requires approaching everyone with compassion and an ear to understanding where they are so that I can respond appropriately.  

We recently talked with Eitan Trabin, PJTC’s Executive Director, about the tachlis of hiring Rabbi Silverstein. Trabin shared how the hiring process developed, “during our first interview with Becky, his pronouns were established. There wasn’t a dramatic moment of head scratching, but after the interview our hiring board took a moment to discuss. I knew we could talk about Becky being trans in terms of learning about it, but this wasn’t going to be something to weigh in terms of hiring. I probably had a dozen conversations with people about transgender education during the hiring process. Most of the people on the hiring committee said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And others said, ‘Oh, okay… so what’s that?’ So, there was education that we had to do right away.”

“There was a little bit of a conversion of ‘How would this be taken by the congregation?’ and the overwhelming weight was given to the fact that the Rabbi Silverstein was an exceptional candidate, no matter what. Which is why we offered him the position.”

When Rabbi Silverstein offered his thoughts on the hiring process he shared that PJTC being so open to discussing pronouns, gender, and creating a dialogue was crucial to feeling like they could be a professional and personal Jewish home for him. Concrete steps that PJTC took made it clear that they were doing their part to be an inclusive and safe place.

After Rabbi Silverstein was hired, one staff member came to Trabin and said, “I’m really excited, I met Becky, I think he’s awesome, and I’d love to know more. This is new to me, I don’t want to do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing, and I want to learn more especially since people will come to me with questions.

Trabin and PJTC decided to hold a “Gender 101” training for their staff. They brought together the staff members who regularly interface with the community and congregation, with the idea that they should understand some basic ideas about gender identity, as well as how to make PJTC more trans friendly. With the help of Dr. Joel Kushner from The Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the staff discussed lexicon, gender identity, and sexual orientation. They examined the practicalities of being an inclusive environment, and looked at how ideas of gender may or may not play out in the synagogue. Together, as a staff and a community, they discussed what could be done to make PJTC more trans friendly.

Trabin felt “the training was successful—folks who were there have been respectful about pronouns. It’s like learning a new language—and you have to think about learning styles and what makes sense. Sometimes it’s not a comment on openness, it’s a matter of understanding what learned behavior there is to overcome, so it might take longer for some people. It’s okay that not everyone gets everything, or that we don’t have all the terminology down. What was important was what this would mean when Rabbi Silverstein arrives, and it was easier to discuss in the concrete than the abstract.”

Where the rubber hits the road and where it makes a difference is being willing to make mistakes, learn, and be open,” Trabin shared.

Tachlis is learning vocabulary, and thinking about how we gender kids, what we do with bathrooms, even if all it comes down to is hearing voices and elevating voices. Sometimes there’s some repetitiveness that is required—we have to keep asking the questions: are we being successful? Are we shifting the conversation? What it would be like if a gender non-conforming kid walks in? How will they feel?”

Next up on PJTC’s inclusion docket?  Broader congregational education on gender and sexuality, and a follow-up for staff and allies on how to correct people’s misuse of pronouns.

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Posted on November 6, 2014

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One Family’s Wish for a World without Gender Roles

As we prepare for Transgender Day of Remembrance be sure to check out these stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” and our look at the importance of voting

Amanda, William, and Charles: photo credit: Beth Soref

Amanda and her family. Photo Credit: Beth Soref

On many Saturdays, we take our son to a minyan where men and women sit separately. I am not thrilled with the arrangement, but what I do like is the fact that the men are as likely as the women to have a baby strapped to their chest, to be chasing a child through the hallway, or to accompany their child to tot Shabbat.

If there’s going to be sex-segregated seating at our Synagogue, I am glad that at least my son will have no clue from looking around which sex traditionally did more of the child care. 

X: A Fabulous Child’s Story is a 1978 tale of an experiment—scientists select a family to raise a child without revealing its sex to anyone. The parents receive an extensive instruction manual to help them figure out how they need to deal with both their child and the outside world. One of the hardest hurdles the family faces is sending their child, X, to school, where there are proscribed behaviors for girls and boys. The story has many lessons about how people are constrained to tasks that are traditionally thought to be well suited for their gender and how gender roles are actively taught and enforced by relatives, teachers, and peers.

My husband and I have a son, and we are not trying to keep his sex a secret. Because he’s a boy, we dress him in clothing that people expect from his gender. (Pink makes me slightly insane, so should he develop a sister, expect her to also wear blue all the time). He attends a daycare that he loves, and we recently went to his two-year conference there to meet with his teachers and see how he was doing.

The daycare center uses a standardized assessment to monitor the development of the children, and one of the questions is whether the children can identify boys and girls. The daycare instructor said they teach the children what clothing girls wear, what clothing boys wear, and then have the children try and identify who is a boy and who is a girl. Perhaps because when our son is not at daycare, he’s hanging out with our friends, who are not really a gender role-conforming bunch, and perhaps because he just hasn’t gotten old enough yet, he could not do it. “That’s not something that’s really important to us,” my husband said to the teacher, clearly wishing we could opt out of that part of the curriculum.

Our son’s daycare, to our knowledge, doesn’t try and constrain the kinds of toys he can play with the way that some of our friends report that their children’s daycares do. When I picked him up the other day he was rocking a baby doll in a stroller with one hand and cooking with a toy kitchen with the other hand. He is, however, young enough that we don’t know a lot of what’s going on during the day.

While I pay people to watch my son so I can write this article, is he being told boys should do certain jobs and girls should do other ones, or that girls and boys should play with different kinds of toys? I sincerely doubt it, but it is theoretically possible and he wouldn’t be able to tell me if that was what was happening. He told me very seriously that he had a great day the other day because he sat on his friend’s big head, which I find entirely suspect—I may not know what his teachers say about gender, but I am pretty sure I know what they say about head-sitting.

We trust the teachers and we know that he loves them—he mutters their names sometimes in his sleep. The only way we could guarantee that he received only gender messages that we approved with is if my husband and I cared for him full-time at home, and if I was the one who did not pursue a career, that would also be teaching a message about gender. (Right now, I do stay home with him several weekdays per week, and it’s awesome. But I am teaching something by not working more, and I know it.)

At daycare, they also tell my son that he’s going to be “like Daddy” when he grows up, which I might object to more if I didn’t think the world would be a better place if everyone (of every gender) was like my husband when they grew up. For my son’s birthday we told him he could pick out something he wanted from the toystore, and he selected a new doll, to accompany his existing doll. On weekends, he likes to wear his baseball hat “like Daddy” and stroll his baby doll through the park across the street “like Daddy.” As I watch him push his stroller back and forth, I think that for now we might be OK with the gender roles we’ve modeled…but he’s going to be exposed to a lot more of the world soon, whether we’re ready or not, and we’ll have to see how he comes out of it.

Ray Marcum, backWhen it is time for our son’s three-year assessment, we will start encouraging him to wear a yarmulke full-time “like Daddy.” I wonder what will happen to any daughters we might have, these small imaginary children dressed in blue. Will we also get them to wear a yarmulke when they turn three? Will I then have to start wearing one too? And what will the daycare think of that?

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Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. How will your Jewish community observe the day?

Posted on November 5, 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

Vote: You Owe It to Your Jewish & LGBT Communities

imagesThere’s a good chance that you’re reading this while waiting in line at your local polling place. Or, perhaps you’ve already voted—or are planning on voting this evening.

Just in case you have no voting plans, we’d like to offer three reasons why you owe it to your Jewish and LGBT community to vote.

  1. Across the country there are issues of marriage, family, adoption, gender discrimination, and equality on the ballot. This is your chance to have your voice heard.
  2. For many transgender individuals, voting isn’t simple. According to a recent blog post by the RAC, “Transgender voter disenfranchisement highlights one of the many examples of transgender discrimination and the long road ahead for transgender equality… Voter ID laws, which have been passed in thirty-four US states, pose a unique threat to transgender individuals. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, only one fifth of people who had already transitioned from male to female or female to male had been able to update all their IDs and records with their appropriate gender and one-third had not updated any of their IDs or records. Without an ID that matches their gender presentation, an estimated 24,000 of voting-eligible transgender Americans could be disenfranchised or face substantial barriers to voting in ten states with strict photo ID laws.”
  3. Our Jewish tradition tells us to vote. Rabbi Yitzchak taught that “a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55a). Elsewhere in our tradition we are taught “a man should not on his own place a crown upon his head. But others may do so.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan). Who are we to argue with tradition?

With so many issues on the table that impact our Jewish community, why wouldn’t you vote?

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Posted on November 4, 2014

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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

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

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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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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

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

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