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.

Like this post?

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.

Discover More

Jewish Feminist Thought

Jewish feminist thought seeks to create theological narratives that merge Judaism with feminist values.

Orthodox Judaism and LGBTQ Issues

Efforts to make the community more compassionate have stopped short of sanctioning gay relationships.

Where Childbirth Gets Short Shrift

Why is birth nestled between dietary restrictions and skin diseases?