Communities, institutions, families and friendships create a sense of common identity, a sense of “we.” Since no two people – no two Jews, or gay men, or lesbians, or transgender people, or Orthodox Jews, or even identical twins – are the same, that sense of common identity is always created despite our differences, as when my family saw my sister as one of us despite the fact that she was the only blond, blue-eyed, left-handed member. Those were trivial differences, but they still made us uncomfortable; my parents teased my sister about them, and when she was small she would sometimes cry, because she didn’t want to be different. She wanted to be one of us.
I knew how my sister felt. Even though I looked the way a member of my family was supposed to look, I knew that I was different – different in a way I feared would, if it were discovered, permanently exclude me from my family, the Jewish people and, for that matter, the human race. My body was male, but my gender identity was female. I looked like and tried to act like a boy, but my male body and identity felt deeply, disturbingly, wrong.
Though we teased my sister about her differences, my parents and I understood them as part of the normal range of human variations. My parents knew that even among Ashkenazi Jews, children can be born blond, blue-eyed and left-handed. But I knew that my difference would be incomprehensible to them. Differences like mine didn’t appear in TV shows or movies, they weren’t referred to in school, they weren’t acknowledged by authority figures who always seemed to address children as “boys and girls” and adults as “ladies and gentlemen.” When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there wasn’t even language for differences like mine. The umbrella term “transgender” hadn’t been invented yet; a few (very few) doctors treated “transsexuals,” but that word wasn’t used by anyone I knew. So no matter how good I was at acting like one of “us” – a member of my family, one of the boys, a Jew – I knew I was different in a way that couldn’t be spoken about, that no one could understand.