Even in a society that is making progress on LGBT issues, as demonstrated by the victories for marriage equality in the recent election, it’s incredibly challenging to be an LGBTQ youth. From our series “Jewish LGBTQ Youth Voices”:
When I heard that there was going to be a workshop on “De-stigmatizing Stealth” at the Keshet LGBTQ youth Shabbaton, I was a bit skeptical.
As a trans* person who had done an extensive amount of thinking and research on the issue of being stealth, I was sure there was nothing anyone could say that would make me lessen my opposition to the practice of trans* people living in their preferred gender roles full time, and not telling people that they were assigned a different gender at birth. (A note on terminology: These days there isn’t just one type of transgender body or identity. Some people are transgender, transexual, bigender, a-gender, genderqueer, etc. The trans-asterisk is used as a way of recognizing and respecting this diversity, while still keeping a condensed title for the community as a whole.) The topic is a heated one both in trans* and queer communities and in the larger culture. On one hand, I understood the desire to be stealth. If you are a trans* identified person who has gone through so much to transition, and you acknowledge that you are and have always been, say, female, then why would you want to keep coming out all the time, and permanently call attention to your gender identity and choices?
But as I always saw it, trans* people have a responsibility to come out to people and live openly as trans* people. I was sure that this second option – not being stealth, but rather always coming out – was the moral high road. It was our responsibility to bring visibility to an incredibly underrepresented minority. The importance of continually coming out seemed an extra burden assigned to one the day they decided to start using their preferred pronouns, but it was a burden I felt was necessary. The idea of “de-stigmatizing” stealth made me a little suspicious.
In the workshop, we were led through an activity where we imagined ourselves in two scenarios: one speaking with our friend’s grandmother, and the other a club or organization at our high school interviewing us for membership. In both situations we were supposed to think of three responses to the other person saying “So, tell me a bit about yourself.” We discussed what parts of our identity we disclosed and what parts we didn’t. This, of course, prompted the question, “Why?” Why not tell the other participant in the conversation that you were queer, or that you were Jewish, or anything else for that matter? The answers varied. Some based their decision off the listener, deciding what to put forward based on the other person’s age, relation to them, politics, and the like. Others said that it just didn’t come up, or that it wasn’t something that was in the forefront of their mind. There was a real diversity of responses.
Everyone has their own reason for being stealth. It’s not just that coming out is hard/awkward, sometimes it’s dangerous, sometimes it’s just not that relevant to the conversation. Whatever the reason, I realized that no one should have to disclose their full biological history (or any other kind) to someone whose business it just isn’t. I was changing my mind, softening towards the idea that maybe being aggressively out, as opposed to stealth, wasn’t necessarily a responsibility or requirement, but wasn’t being out still the “right” thing to do?
Gender-Stealth, Religion-Stealth: My First “Aha!” Moment.
Later I was talking with a friend about how I no longer desire to be “out” as a convert to Judaism either. That is not to say that I want to stop being identified as Jewish – I want to stop being described as a different and, to some minds, lesser-than Jew. I was tired of explaining the story of why and how I “decided to become Jewish.” I was tired of biting my tongue when I wanted to say that I never had to become Jewish, because Jewish is what my soul has been all along. I grew weary of being looked upon with judgmental eyes and fielding questions about my Jewish knowledge and observance, as if it was some sort of pop quiz to prove my Jewishness.
I was tired of all eyes watching how I dressed, spoke, carried myself, all breaths held as they searched for signs that there was some deceptive disconnect between who I said I was, and who I actually was, who I used to be. I knew I’d fail if I didn’t meet some stereotype. I was ashamed that I began to question myself and allowed these questions to slowly chip away how valid I felt in my identity. I was comfortable in my own skin, and didn’t feel like “convert” was a necessary labeling. I didn’t feel a need to highlight the differences between myself and my peers; I’d rather just focus on the similarities.
And at the end of the day, my background is nobody’s business. It doesn’t affect them and shouldn’t affect how they relate to me. I had already gone through a transformative process to have the powers that be legitimize my identity; I didn’t need anyone else’s validation (and I no longer needed to hear “I would’ve never known,” or, “You don’t look like a ______.”)
In the face of all these complaints, I realized what I had to do. I had to try on being a “stealth convert.”
Was I betraying my roots, erasing my history, being selfish?
I’m not sure. I don’t think so, though. Maybe not every person needs to know that I wasn’t “born and/or raised Jewish.” But if I were to encounter a person considering conversion, and wondering what the process is like or how it feels to come out on the other side, I would tell them my story. For those I didn’t choose to disclose to, it wouldn’t make me a liar, poser, or “trap.”
Replace every reference in the above paragraph regarding my own Jewishness/“convert” with “Transgender;” “other Jews” with “queer community;” and “Gentile” with “cisgender.” Now you can join me in a groan over how silly I was being attaching stigma to my trans* brothers, sisters, people who choose to be stealth, instead of continually coming out.
I’m not sure how final my decision is on the matter of being stealth, either as a trans* guy or as a “convert” to Judaism; but in the mean time I’ll choose who I want to or don’t want to disclose to, and I certainly will not waste any of my time judging those that choose to keep that part of their lives private.
So my friends, I submit this article anonymously. A way of affirming and embracing that being stealth, in any context, is an intensely personal choice and should be respected (even if you don’t necessarily agree). Maybe one day I’ll reveal my identity, maybe I won’t, but either way it is my journey and I intend to take control of it.
LGBTQ Jewish youth: Let us know if you’d like to write for the Keshet blog! We want to feature your voices as you explore your experiences, speak your minds, and challenge your communities to be more inclusive. You can read a previous post in the “Jewish LGBTQ Youth Voices” series on “Senior Year: APs, College Prep, and Coming Out in My Orthodox High School.”