Tag Archives: trans

Why I’m Passionate about Transgender Justice

If you’re in Boston, please join us for Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 23rd at 2:30pm in John F Kennedy Park. After, we will join the wider Boston community in the 16th Annual Boston Transgender Day of Remembrance.

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As the Boston Community Organizer at Keshet, I’ve been working with community members on a Jewish observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance. A few weeks ago I sat down for an early morning meeting with Simcha, the Community Organizer at Boston Workmen’s Circle who is also gender queer.

Over the steam of my small cup of coffee the question “why are you so passionate about transgender justice work?” floated in my direction. It was a question I had been mulling for quite some time, but I had never quite found the answer.

I began to offer up some semblance of an answer: “Well, it all started in college. I had a lot of transgender friends. I witnessed what they had to deal with, and it wasn’t fair.”

I knew that wasn’t quite the answer, after all those words were about my friends and not about my stake in this work.

I pushed myself to find the real answer. Why am I so passionate about transgender justice work?

Fighting for transgender rights is fighting for the right to move beyond the boxes of “man” and “woman.”

I fight for folks who do not fit in either box or want to be in a different box. And, in doing that work I had to think about my own gender and what box I fit into. Here are a few of my boxes:

  • I enjoy cooking.
  • I don’t walk home alone in the dark.
  • I bless Shabbat candles.
  • I speak up in board meetings.
  • I don’t pretend I never fart.
  • I’ve wrapped Tefillin.

I don’t fit squarely into the “woman” box, and yet, I feel every bit like a woman. My blessing of Shabbat candles, a mitzvah typically reserved for women, does not at all feel at odds with when I wrapped Tefillin, a mitzvah typically reserved for men.

And, that’s when it struck me.

Doing transgender justice work was for me. When I fight for those who very obviously transgress the lines of gender, I am also fight to expand the walls of my very box. Trans* work is gender work and gender work is for all of us.

This year we mark Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston on Sunday, November 23. I invite you to come do gender work for the community, but just as importantly for yourself.

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Posted on November 21, 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

Why Jews Need Transgender Day of Remembrance

In honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender, such as “Transgender 101,” personal reflections from two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, a Tachlis of inclusion post on“How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi,” transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs, and even what a rabbi learned from binge watching the show Transparent. Also, be sure to check out Duncan’s earlier reflections on the freedom—and the burden—of coming out. 


Today we share this beautiful and painful rendition of “Unetanah Tokef,” a poem from our Yom Kippur liturgy, in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance and the lives we have lost. Trigger warning: This post includes violent imagery.

The Bloods of Thy Siblings

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Untitled picture by Flickr user “ceruleandepths.”

Because I weep every Yom Kippur,
To read ‘Who by fire?
To hear ‘Who by water?’

Who by strangling?
Who by gunshot?
Who by apathetic silence,
And who with deafening rage?
Who by the edge of a knife
And who by blunt force trauma?

Destroying a single soul destroys the world.
Because we destroyed 238 worlds last year,
And because the world seems unaware.
Because we say Never Again.
Because its still happening.

Because every week I recite Kaddish
For another trans person, another trans woman.

And because sometimes there is not even a name for the lost.
Because there can never be a word big enough for this loss.


 TDOR_20132

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

Posted on November 17, 2014

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Transgender Day of Remembrance and the Life of Sarah

This d’var Torah was given by Rabbi Becky Silverstein at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center on Friday, November 14th. We are privileged to share these words of wisdom in honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.

16 years ago, Rita Hester, a transwoman of color, was murdered in her Boston apartment. The first Transgender Day of Remembrance was organized to remember her and protest her death.

This year Michelle Sherman, Jennifer Laude, Alejandra Leos, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, and Kandy Hall were all killed for being transgender. As was Aniya Parker, who was murdered only two miles away from my apartment in Los Angeles.

TDOR_20132These are just some of the names of transgender people in whose memory I offer these words of Torah.

It is somewhat ironic that this week’s Torah portion is called Haye Sarah, the life or lifetimes of Sarah, as it mentions her only in death.

א וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִיםשְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.  ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹבְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her.

The last we hear about Sarah’s life is in last week’s Torah portion, giving birth to Isaac and sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness—a mixed legacy indeed. Throughout the earlier chapter of Genesis, Sarah is more often the subject of objectification than a person with her own voice. Twice Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister without her consent. Her voice is heard only when she expels Hagar and Ishmael in chapter 16 and in last week’s parashah, laughing at the somewhat strange way G-d has constructed her life.

Even these moments of voice only serve to narrow our picture of this matriarch, a woman tied to her ability to conceive. The text presents us with a caricature of a person, a part of a life, used as a literary tool.

Like Sarah, transgender people are often reduced to being only partially human, used as a canvas on which we displace our own fears about gender and society. Questions about our personal history, our medical transitions, our desire for equal rights; confrontations about our chosen pronouns, our chosen names, and chosen families: these all serve to dehumanize the transgender community. It is this dehumanization that allows for the separation and fear to grow in other human beings, and creates a scenario in which one human can possibly think it is okay to kill another because of their identity. Even in the time of Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black, and Transparent, the transgender experience is presented in limited ways that often serve to exploit or dehumanize. That both Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have had to explain on public television why questions about their medical transition are simply inappropriate is evidence of this trend.

As little as we know about Sarah’s life, we know even less about her death.

ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן–בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.  ג וַיָּקָם, אַבְרָהָם, מֵעַל, פְּנֵי מֵתוֹ; Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her. Abraham rose from beside his dead…

Sarah’s death is told only through the lens of Abraham’s actions. Midrash Tanchuma helps a bit, typing Sarah’s death to the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. According to the midrash, upon hearing the news that Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah’s soul departs from her. The midrash teaches that in the moments before her death Sarah cried out with the broken cries of the shofar, those broken notes the only sounds her body could emit, the only sounds adequate for her anguish.

Though Sarah’s voice could not be heard, her cries continue to haunt us.

I wonder if this is how Sarah thought she would die. I wonder if being beaten and shot was how Michelle Sherman, Jennifer Laude, Alejandra Leos, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, Kandy Hall, and Aniya Parker thought they were going to die.

Let’s move from Sarah’s death to how she is treated in that death. The text does not tell us, but I imagine Abraham wanting to know why and how Sarah died, and that if Sarah died in the age of CSI that her death would be fully investigated. This is where Sarah’s story and death depart from that of those we remember today: transfolks, transwomen, transwomen of color, whose life experience is ignored even in deathwhose deaths are not investigated and whose burials are not noteworthy.

Our Torah portion continues by retelling Abraham’s purchase of Ma’a’rat Ha’Machpelah, the cave of Machpelah from the Hittites. Abraham seeks to, and succeeds in, securing a burial place for his family, a place that will keep Sarah’s memory alive, a touchstone for her in death and for her family in the future. Who creates these sacred places of memory and connection for those who are brutally murdered on our streets? For LGBTQ homeless people living in the shadows? Sarah has a family and a future, even in her death. Even today, people flock to Hebron to visit the burial place of our matriarchs and patriarchs, a trip that is its own sermon. In my first visit I marvelled at the ornate decoration and wondered what was actually in the coffins. Even I, a cyncial post-modern rabbinical student, was moved by the religious devotion. Visiting the grave of a loved one can be a powerful experiencethe grave itself making concrete the death the visitor remembers and helping them to make concrete the memories.

The knowledge that one will have a place to be buried and those to look after them is a privilege. Those who are killed on our streets or in their homes because they are transgender are often wandering, disconnected from their families of origin, and they continue to wander even in their deaths.

kaddish_hpThey float from protest to memory, to newspaper story to Transgender Day of Remembrance. Very few have someone whose responsibility it is to say Kaddish for them. The community is their connection. The transgender voices who live make real their lives and experiences and stories, we tell them to ourselves so that we never forget. I, and now all of you, are part of that connection.  So that we never forget that the world is stacked against those who dare to transgress what society expects of uswith respect to gender or other identities.

Why bring this Torah today? Because kavod hamet, respecting the dead, is one of the greatest mitzvot our tradition teaches. Because justice is a Jewish value and Transgender Day of Remembrance represents the intersection of gender, racial, and economic justice. Because the life and death of transgender folks is not outside of our community, and it is our obligation to stand with each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow.  

Doing the work of deconstructing and consciously choosing our gender identities is work that is important for all of us. Consciously choosing to wear a dress or a tie or a relatively androgynous cardigan is empowering, and once we feel empowered in our own choices, we can better understand how others make theirs. Begin by doing the internal work and standing up for your own right to express your gender, fight the misogyny and gender essentialism in your own lives and the lives of your families. This can be a painful and difficult process, and it is also unavoidable.

More externally focused, respect everyone’s right to choose their pronouns and names and decisions about their bodies, support them in those decisions in their company and when they are not around. One easy place to start is right here, reminding folks that I use he/him/his as pronouns. Try on correcting someone, see how it feels. And of course, there are plenty of opportunities for political action. In doing all of this, we will create a space for the memory of transgender folks, just as Abraham, by securing a burial spot, creates a space for Sarah’s memory.

I want to end on a more personal note. Transgender Day of Remembrance is both about who I am as a transperson and not about me. Most of the names I read earlier are those of  transwomen, and the majority of those transwomen of color. I do not have friends who have lost their lives because of their gender identity, and, thank G-d, do not feel that my life is at danger. And yet the night Aniya Parker was killed two miles from my apartment, I called my girlfriend crying, shaking, scared. That taste of fear is part of what places Aniya and I together in the same community. My identity as a white transman means that I privilege to use as an ally. And, I hope that my sharing words of Torah for you will elevate the stories of those who have died and continue to make their memories a blessing.

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

Posted on November 17, 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 Jewish Themes Behind the TV Show “Transparent”

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,” transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs, and a father’s pride at being a dad to his transgender son 

Binging

In this image released by Amazon Digital, Amy Landecker, left, and Jeffrey Tambor appear in a scene from "Transparent," a new series on Amazon Digital.

In this image released by Amazon Digital, Amy Landecker, left, and Jeffrey Tambor appear in a scene from “Transparent,” a new series on Amazon Digital.

In the days following Yom Kippur, I found myself wondering why we cannot just space out the holidays a little. Why does Sukkot follow so immediately after the consuming intensity of the High Holidays? While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer ample opportunities to transform oneself and modify one’s less healthy behaviors from the past year, this year I returned immediately to my bad habit of binge TV watching, thanks to the arrival of Transparent.

I had been eagerly awaiting this TV series ever since Jill Soloway, the uber-Hipster Jew and screenwriter, released the pilot of this story of a Jewish family. The show’s witty banter, carefully developed characterizations, and clever plotting of familial drama drew me in. Finally, both the Jews I know fully realized for television, and an honest portrayal of transformation and its affect on one’s family and community.

What distinguished this show as uniquely captivating were the very present Jewish elements and themes. As I binged my way through episodes two and five between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then in an even more accelerated pace after Yom Kippur, I finished season one just in time for Sukkot, starved for more.

Each of Transparent’s Pferffermans, a wholeheartedly Jewish family, strive to transform their lives, their relationships, and their selves through an exploration, re-creation and reformation of their personal histories. Their individual paths may diverge from my own, yet their hunger for connection, meaning, and teshuva feel very close to home.

 Transparency

Transparent provides ample relational drama and sexcapades in the vein of the millennially inspired Girls, but for an audience born before 1980. Beyond its often outlandish hipster quirkiness, Transparent’s greatest treasure is its title’s namesake, Maura Pfefferman, whose process of transition and revelation to her family, and herself, drives the narrative from the first episode.

Not merely a plot device, Maura’s revelation that the Mort—the man that her family, and the world, have always known—is and always has been a woman, provides the soulful impetus for the entire show’s transition from a quirky family comedy, to a deeply meaningful and enrichinTransparent-300x206g journey. With each episode, Maura becomes more fully visible to us. She transforms in her family’s eyes, and even our own eyes, from their beloved father Mort to the woman that she has always been.

The story of Maura’s gender identity begins long before we first meet the Pfeffermans, illustrated by carefully woven flashbacks and revelations. Very quickly and clearly, the show becomes transparent that Maura’s gender identity has long been transient, and nowhere near as permanent as it appeared to those even most close to her, who only knew her as the man, Mort. Maura’s joy and pain, discovered in bringing greater permanence to her more transient external self, delivers the show’s driving soul and spirit.

It is through Maura that we truly appreciate that healthy return to one’s primary state of being, in the true sense of teshuva, ferments out of the recognition and acceptance that one’s seemingly permanent structure are truly merely temporary structures, which are much more adaptable and flexible than we often perceive.

Fostering Trans Inclusion

For more than a decade I have been striving as an activist, educator, and rabbi to foster greater inclusion for those in our community whose journeys towards healthy transformation has been blocked because they are LGBT.

In Transparent and its Maura, I have found a worthy hero who calls out for us to care for her, understand her, and include all those who live within our lives and communities as transgender people.

Available research tells us that approximately 0.25%-2% of our population experiences some degree if gender dysphoria. Transgender people encounter a great deal of pain: to their psyche, to their relationships, and their lives.

Joy Ladin, a professor at Yeshiva University, elevated the conversation of the Jewish community when she came out as transgender. Her brilliant, poetic, and often painful book, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, paints a vivid picture of Joy’s journey of transformation, and the deeply Jewish path this journey became. Her announcement opened many doors for conversations about gender identity, and she has even served as consultant for LGBT inclusion and the creative team behind Transparent. (Editor’s note: If you haven’t read this book, carve out time to do so. It is one of the most honest and beautiful books you will ever read.)

Taking Action

For years I have worked with Keshet, and I hope to continue to change and grow with my community. We need to take every opportunity to align our religious and spiritual language. We need to support those who come out and provide them with the transformational power of Judaism to support their personal journeys. With Transgender Day of Remembrance only a few days away, we need to support a Jewish community that embraces people of all gender identities.

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

Posted on November 13, 2014

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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

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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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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

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

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

Everyday I Come Out for my Child

Rabbi Ari Moffic, the Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, is a member of the Chicago Chapter of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program, a national leadership and mentorship network of parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews. Want to get involved? Know someone who could use another parent to talk to? Find a chapter, get support, take action. Ari and Tam

Before our child was two we realized that their inclinations, interests, and style for dress fit with the “opposite gender.” Everyone we know had a hypothesis about why this was so. We started down a journey, led by our child, of new language, new specialists, new research that was foreign to us.

As is often the case, our child’s interests lead us to learn about and experience new things. In our case, the very identity our child was affirming brought us into a new realm. I feel that I am coming out every day with this child.

Our children are separate entities from us but are a reflection of us in some ways. Every time we are in public and another mom makes a comment about my child’s dress, or assumes a gender, or looks confused because she thought our youngest was a different gender, I am coming out. That’s all about me and my insecurities and my fears and my still unease at times. Imagine how my five and a half year old must feel.

We have a confident, engaging, happy, wild, full of life, articulate, passionate child. I don’t want to project my stuff onto our child. But I do know, because we have talked about it, and because there have been tears and anger and hurt that my child has felt different, has felt vulnerable, has been embarrassed to be who our child is. Other kids make comments, sometimes daily, about how our child dresses, what our child likes, which pronouns my child asks to use and honor.

As a rabbi married to a rabbi I think we know about the offerings in our Jewish community. However, it was in meeting Joanna Ware at a Jewish conference, that I learned that our own Jewish Child and Family Services had a support group for parents of L,G,B,T,Q children. If I didn’t know this existed, I wonder how many other parents are clueless too.

If there was ever a time to be a gender variant child, now seems to be good. Sprouting up in major cities are gender programs at Children’s Hospitals. Facebook groups and in-person play groups exist. However, there is something different about getting support from our own Jewish community. For me it is comforting, specific, and familiar to be with other Jewish parents on this journey.

Our Response Center, an agency of JCFS, led by the approachable, warm, and knowledgeable Rachel Marro, offers a monthly Parent & Family Connections group in partnership with Keshet. In addition, she offers support as parents mobilize and take action as allies and advocates. Rachel also matches parents with mentors who can serve as one-on-one support through email or in-person to brainstorm everything from school issues to playdates to camp to daily angst and communicating with extended family. There is nothing like talking mom to mom.

Response offered a program lead by Biz Lindsey-Ryan this fall on gender fluidity among children. The program was well attended by both teachers and professionals who work with children as well as parents. Biz taught us about language and terms, she led us in interactive exercises helping us explore our concepts of our own gender and through videos and slides helped us understand how we can help ALL children move beyond binary and strict gender roles to be free to explore and lead however they can without the stigma of limiting and harmful labels.

It was just a thoughtful and helpful program and many in attendance will now look to Biz to come to their schools and synagogues for follow-up conversations. I am thankful that our Jewish community offers these opportunities for connection and learning. The more Jewish professionals know what is offered in their neck of the woods and the more we are willing to talk about the gender elephant in the room, the more we will feel less like hiding and will feel embraced and understood.

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! Like this post? 

Posted on October 7, 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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