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.
When 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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Curious about gender? Check out this program the Chicago branch of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection is running on gender fluidity! If you are a parent or a family member of an LGBT individual looking for support, visit www.keshetonline.org/supportfamilies for more info about our program for parents and family of LGBT Jews.
The “gender binary” tells us that there are two ways to live in this world: as a man (who likes masculine things, dresses in masculine ways, has a masculine profession, etc) or as a woman (who likes feminine things, dresses in feminine ways, has a feminine profession, etc).
More and more, people are becoming aware that for some individuals, the gender they were assigned to at birth is not the right one. If you ask people to define “transgender” you are likely to hear things like:
-“someone who was born in the wrong body,”
-“someone who switches to the opposite gender,”
-“someone who was assigned male at birth, but knows themselves to be female.”
While all of these identities are extremely valid and true for many people, they do not capture the experiences of everyone—for example, those for whom the entire idea of only two options of gender is too restrictive.
There are many gender identities and expressions that blur the gender binary or exist outside of it altogether: gender fluid, gender variant, gender creative, third gender, gender neutral, gender non-conforming, and genderqueer, to name a few. But often these narratives are missing from our conversations about gender and trans* identities.
This can leave individuals and parents feeling lost or confused if their or their child’s identity/expression does not fit the typical narrative of what it means to be transgender.
For example: a teen who says “sometimes I feel like a girl, sometimes a boy, sometimes both, sometimes neither! My identity isn’t static.” Without an understanding of gender fluidity as an identity, this might be dismissed as a “phase.”
Or what about a child who is raised as a daughter, who then comes out as trans and whose preferred gender pronouns are he/him/his, but who still feels comfortable wearing dresses and has no interest in surgery or hormones. This may cause his parent to wonder “is my kid really transgender?”
Or imagine a teen who was raised and identifies as a boy, but enjoys both masculine and feminine clothing and style depending on the day. He may feel as if he has to choose just one or the other and stick with it, or risk being called “confused” or “attention-seeking.”
Chicago’s Parent & Family Connection has been noticing and discussing these situations at our monthly meetings, and is very excited about our upcoming event specifically about these rarely-discussed but important narratives.
Our workshop on Gender Fluidity will be a chance for parents and professionals to learn and ask questions about gender identity, gender expression, and the wide range of forms and combinations these can take. We are hoping this is a step towards a broader and more varied understanding of gender that allows us all to live a bit more freely and true to ourselves.
If you are in the Chicagoland area, we would love for you to join us on Thursday, September 18th from 7-8:30pm at Beth Emet for this exciting event with speaker Biz Lindsay-Ryan, an experienced presenter on gender and LGBTQ issues!
If you can’t make this event but would still like to get involved with our group, check out the many other things we have planned for the upcoming months, including a film screening and educational/support meetings where you can connect with other family members of LGBTQ individuals.
Chicago’s branch of Parent & Family Connection is run by Response, a social service agency for youth and young adults. Through Counseling, a Center for Sexual Health, and Outreach programs, we help adolescents and their families in the Jewish and general community develop skills in communication, decision-making, and leadership necessary to deal with life’s challenges. Learn more from Response, a program of JCFS, supported by Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation.
Like this post?
- Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
- Get breaking LGBTQ Jewish news, resources and inspiration from Keshet in your inbox!
- Visit Keshet’s Family & Parent Connection for more info about Keshet’s program for parents and family of LGBTQ Jews.
Living in Israel, for me, meant mastering the art of feigning ignorance. “Ani lo mevin, ani lo mevin. Rak midaber englit v sfardit,” I would often say. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand. I only speak English and Spanish.”
But I always knew exactly what the stranger in the kibbutz cafeteria or the shop-owner in the shuk or the security guard by the bathroom was saying as he chuckled to himself and asked, “Atah ben o bat?” with eyebrows raised. His Hebrew translates to, “Are you a boy or a girl?” but really what he’s getting at is, “Come on, really?” He’s reminding me that I am a puzzle to be figured out for his amusement, and that because I am a puzzle (read: not a human), it is A-OK to ask me rude questions.
Throughout my stay in Israel, strangers and friends alike would ask me this question in an array of rude ways. And though I often felt hurt and disappointed by the ease with which those around me seemed to prioritize a few laughs and quick satiation of their curiosities over my well-being, as I look back at my stint in Israel, it’s difficult for me to blame these perpetrators. As far as I, someone raised in America who lived in Israel for only six months and is and was far from culturally integrated into Israeli society, can tell, gender separation is the law of the land of Israel; it’s as Israeli as hummus or yelling. Continue reading
A Small Revolution in a Synagogue Book Group
This past January, Hebrew College invited poet and scholar Joy Ladin to speak during our Winter Seminar on Feminist Theology, Theory, and Practice. Weaving her personal story of transition with a clearly articulated theology, Ladin held the community’s attention for over an hour. I sat in the front row, typing notes and being held by her gentle, soft-spoken way of being. As a trans* identified student, I was overwhelmed by the ways my story and my experience of the divine were being seen and lifted up for what felt like the first time.
At the same time as Ladin’s story was being lifted up in the Hebrew College community, I was beginning to struggle with the lack of LGBTQ voices at my internship. As the rabbinic intern at Congregation Kehillath Israel (KI) in Brookline, MA, I attend weekly minyanim, teach parsha (the weekly Torah portion) study, lead Junior Congregation on Shabbat morning, and teach the 4th/5th grade religious school class. The KI community has welcomed me enthusiastically and has revealed itself to be more diverse and open than I could ever have imagined, but as the year progressed, I began to notice the way in which the communal discourse continued to tell the story of the presumed status quo: heteronormative, Shabbat observant, two-parent and multiple children families.
I felt the weight of my self-inflicted censorship and lack of other LGBTQ-identified folks and vocal allies. As I struggled to articulate how being present in the KI community was difficult for me, I heard Ladin’s voice again, this time suggesting that I share her story as a way to bring a different voice into communal conversations. I asked my supervisor, Rabbi Rachel Silverman and a small group of board members, who had already begun discussing how we might make the community more inclusive, to read Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders together.
What follows are the reflections of one of the board members, Jennie Roffman. I am grateful to Jennie for her open-hearted and unequivocal support throughout my year at Congregation Kehillath Israel. Continue reading