Keshet is a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. The organization equips Jewish leaders with tools to build LGBTQ-affirming communities, creates spaces for queer Jewish teens to feel valued and develop their own leadership skills, and mobilizes the Jewish community to fight for LGBTQ justice. Keshet’s blog spotlights this work, as well as the voices of LGBTQ Jews, our families, and allies.
We know that this post is much longer than our usual posts. We do hope you’ll stick with it to the end – Rafi’s story is very compelling. We promise it will be worth your time!
(This talk was delivered at Bonai Shalom, Boulder, Colorado, November 2, 2012)
My name is Rafi. I am a transgender Jewish man. This means that I was born female and transitioned to male. Thanks to advances in medical science, this is not something that you can see when you look at me. I’m an appropriate height for a (Jewish) male, I have lots of facial hair and other fur, my voice has deepened to the level of a higher-pitched male. For the most part, I “pass” as a dude.
When I was a little girl growing up in Colorado, I felt there was something different about me. I yearned with all of my heart to be a boy. I wasn’t particularly masculine as a child. Although I did love going fishing and “fixing things” with my father, my favorite colors were pink and purple, I played with baby dolls almost exclusively, I loved drawing and coloring, and playing make-believe games with friends. But at night, when I was about to go to sleep, I would pray, “Dear G-d, please make me a boy,” and was disappointed when I awoke and was still very much a girl.
We became Orthodox when I was a young child. I felt very comfortable in that community and still appreciate the values I learned there. Every Purim I would dress as “a boy” and wear a yarmulke and tzitzis and would bring pieces of my long hair forward to be “payos.” When my brother had his bar mitzvah, I woke up in the middle of the night once to try on his tefillin. I felt desperately that I was missing out on something that I should have experienced as well. I feel pretty sure that at some point I expressed my desire to be male to my mother. The response I remember (which is not necessarily the response she gave me) was, “Every little girl just wishes she was a boy.” She may have said, “Every girl wishes she was a boy sometimes,” or “once in a while,” but what I heard was that being a girl sucked and everyone else knew it too.
Around age 10 or 11, my magical thinking went away and I became aware that G-d was not going to change me into a boy. I resigned myself to being a girl. I wanted to be a “cool” girl or a tomboy. I knew some cool girls from camp and from the Orthodox Jewish High school in Denver and I modeled myself after them. I had a beautiful singing voice and I wanted to fit in with the amazing Jewish women who were my role models. I grew my hair long and wore skirts that fell to my ankles. On Shabbos I would even wear makeup and jewelry, though I did go through a stage where I would wear only white button down shirts, black skirts, with a black jacket. I felt it was unfair that boys got to wear the same outfit every day and I had to choose colorful feminine items to wear. I enjoyed my grey and navy blue school uniform and wore it diligently without complaint.
I still had angst about being female, especially when I was at shul on a holiday or at a Shabbos meal with boys. But when I was surrounded by only females in school and summer camp, I was able to forget my desire to be male and just be a “cool” tomboy. In school and camp plays, I regularly and happily played the part of the “husband,” “son,” or “uncle.”
My high school principal had to sit me down at one point to teach me how to speak in a “gentle and feminine” way because my blunt way of joking was making my classmates cry. I practiced using sweeter words and not making fun of people or being sarcastic. Others seemed to like me better when I was polite in this way, so I adopted this fashion of speaking for good. At one point, my principal wanted me to have a good role model from the community and she asked me to come up with a list of people I felt that I could learn from. I came back to her with a list of five to seven men from the community who I admired and wished to learn from. She was taken aback: “I meant for you to find women,” she told me. I was shocked and had a very difficult time thinking of any women in the community who I wanted to emulate. I finally found a very cool, interesting, and brilliant woman who was also our English teacher in 9th grade. She became my mentor and I spent some time with her family.
When I was in 10th grade, the movie Titanic came out. My friends and I watched it over and over and said the lines along with the actors. I became obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio. I didn’t know if I wanted to marry him or be him. That summer, I brought pictures of him from magazines to the hair stylist and requested a haircut like his. My mother cried, “Couldn’t you find a picture of women with short hair?” No, I couldn’t. I wanted to look like him. My classmates liked to tease me about being “such a boy” and I soaked in every “tease” as a compliment.
I started drawing pictures in my journals depicting what I looked like on the outside…and what I felt like on the inside. Usually, the “inner” me was an androgynous, goth-looking person with lots of piercings and tattoos. I started to use cigarettes, alcohol, and eventually drugs to escape the anxiety of feeling so estranged from myself. At that point in my life, I was struggling so much, I don’t think I really could have told you that I was transgender. I didn’t even know that transgender existed. I just thought that I was “messed up” and worried a lot about my status as a “good Jew.” I had always been attracted to boys but in high school I started realizing that I was also attracted to some girls. I thought, “Everyone must be bisexual – that’s why G-d told us that homosexuality is bad: we need to choose the ‘good’ thing.” I went to Israel after high school to a seminary for Orthodox girls. I loved it there. Lots of the girls were tomboys and everyone was a lot of fun. I went to a couple of other schools in Israel and none of them seemed to “work” for me. Because of my other issues, I was suspended from or kicked out of all three schools that I attended there.
I moved to New York when I was 21 and starting to live clean and sober. That’s when I met my first transgender person. He was a boy that I saw around at various sober events in Brooklyn. One day, one of my friends said, “Did you know his name used to be Rebecca?” and I was instantly thrown into a whole new world. My immediate thought was, “Wow, if I wasn’t Orthodox, I would totally be transgender.” But I didn’t think G-d made mistakes and I always wanted to be a mommy, so I tried very hard to stay female. I went to a therapist and we tried to dissect why I was so uncomfortable with being female. She had me go for manicures every week as “homework” to pamper my femininity. Slowly, I became less and less religious but more and more spiritual. I started acting and dressing more and more masculine, I cut my hair short again, and started wearing pants because I worked on an ambulance. People saw me as a lesbian so I started to believe that’s what I was. I knew I couldn’t date men because it was too uncomfortable to be treated as a woman. Dating women gave me permission to be as masculine as I needed to be. Imagine my confusion when one of my girlfriends told me she liked it when I was more femme!
By the end of 2006, I was fairly content living as a fairly masculine or gender-queer woman. I still used my birth name and pronouns. I worked in a group home for adult women with disabilities. I had a lot of great friends in and out of the Jewish LGBT community. But something was missing. I see now that I was about 85% of the way “there” — “there” being comfortable in my life and skin and experiences. I did not like to see friends from my childhood or from high school; it made me feel embarrassed and confused. Why couldn’t I just be a normal religious woman like they were? It was what I thought I wanted all my life. To grow up to be a frum mommy with 300 little kids who had payos and wore pants. But that wasn’t my life. It confused me. I wanted to be “normal” but was no longer sure what that meant to me.
In January of 2007, I had a life-changing couple of days. I had two weddings one day after another. The first was the wedding of my friend’s younger sister from St. Louis. I knew that people there would report to my mother about how I looked so I decided that it would be a “drag” night and that I would have fun with it. I wore my favorite “girl” outfit, a khaki suede skirt suit with pretty pink and maroon embroidery. I “straightened” my short hair, and I put on makeup, and even wore a pair of khaki slides to match my outfit. I was determined to have a good time but that I wouldn’t lie about my life. If anyone asked me, they would know that I was no longer observant and that I dated women. However, all night long, I felt that I was looking out through a mask. I felt like I was a lie. I wanted to scratch myself out of my skin. I went home that night and cried and wondered, “What is wrong with me?”
The next night, my boss was getting married. She knew me as a “butch” woman. I wore my black suit pants with a button down shirt and a tie. I wore the black jacket I would wear in high school and a black newsboy cap. I brought the women from the group home to the wedding and we danced and danced. I had a fabulous time and felt comfortable in my skin. I got a few funny looks from people, and someone called me “sir.” I just nodded and laughed inside. The juxtaposition of that night to the night before made it perfectly clear to me that something had to change; that I never ever wanted to feel that I had to dress in a feminine way again. But what exactly did that mean? I wasn’t sure.
I started doing work in “My Gender Workbook” by Kate Bornstein, I started going to a support group for people born female who were now on the masculine spectrum, and I started talking about this in therapy. I realized that I was not Orthodox anymore and that I had said, “I would be transgender if I weren’t Orthodox.” I realized that I was the only thing standing in my way towards becoming myself. There were a lot of difficult steps along the way but I had the strength to take them. It was around that time that Thomas Beatie (the ‘first’ pregnant man) was making headlines, and that inspired me, because I didn’t want to sacrifice giving birth to babies in order to be a man, and his story let me know that I didn’t have to.
I knew that my Orthodox family would not do well with this news. I told my younger step-sister first; she and I have always been very close. She was supportive but didn’t have a lot to say about it. I dreaded telling my mother and my older, ultra-Orthodox brother. I was “outed” to my step-father when he came to visit New York in spring of 2007. He asked me a lot of questions about it and let me know that he disagreed with my decision on a religious basis but that he still loved me and wanted to support me. He agreed to withhold the news from my mother for as long as he could. I had a name-change ceremony that June on my Hebrew birthday at the LGBT synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Before Shabbos started, my step-father called me to give me the blessing a father gives to his son. It was all I could do to choke back my tears. And that evening I was “born” into the Jewish world as Rachamim Refael Yehoshua Ben Zechariah Leib. From that point on, I asked my friends to refer to me as Rafi and with male pronouns. I started taking testosterone a couple weeks later after my 25th birthday.
Testosterone was perfect for me. I could feel the difference in my bones within a week or two. I started feeling more comfortable in my skin. My voice started to drop and I noticed a few more chin hairs a few weeks after that. My step-father finally caved and told my mother what was going on. She said she couldn’t speak to me anymore and then begged me to see a frum (observant) therapist, and said she would pay. I consented and said, “If he can cure me and make me want to wear a dress, I will happily go.” I went to see him. He was a modern Orthodox therapist on the Upper West Side; a pleasant guy. He was very matter of fact: “I know you are only here because your mother is making you see me.” He also said, “If you have Gender Identity Disorder, there are five options for you:
1. You can transition entirely with hormones and surgery.
2. You can just use hormones and not have surgery.
3. You can choose not to use hormones or surgery but still live your life as male.
4. You can live out your maleness in secret or in specific places.
Or lastly, you can suppress your feelings and continue living life as female.”
I asked him, “As a mental health professional, would you say that suppression is a healthy option?” He said, “No.” I asked him to please tell my mother what we discussed and left his office, hoping against hope that my mother would really understand that this wasn’t really a choice. Unfortunately, once my voice started dropping that fall, she decided that she definitely couldn’t speak to me anymore and we did not talk for three and a half years.
I had some Orthodox friends who were supportive of my transition, some who said, “Oh, that actually makes a lot of sense!” But unfortunately, not everyone was able to see beyond the black and white of what we’d been taught to support me through it. I lost quite a few friends, including one who even told me “Have a nice life,” at the end of a conversation in which she tried to get me to change my mind. A friend’s husband literally said that a physical suicide would be less harmful to my soul than what he saw as spiritual suicide. My brother cut off all contact with me and did not want me to see my nephews. My roommate moved out because she didn’t want to live with a boy, I got a new job working with Jewish special needs men but was then mysteriously laid off six weeks later. Times got really rough for a while, but I still felt that I was definitely walking on the right path.
Soon, I got a new roommate, an ex-Orthodox trans-woman whose name was also Rafi. I got a new job working with homeless young adults in Harlem thanks to a new friend, and things started to work out better and better. I started being able to date and have relationships in a way that wasn’t possible prior to transition. I actually wanted to reach out to my old friends and didn’t feel embarrassed anymore. I understood why I was the way I was and I wanted them to know too. I got my name legally changed and had all of my important documents switched over. I was living a new life. It was a life with promise and joy even though it had a fair share of sorrow as well.
Since my transition started in 2007, life has been life! There have been a couple of jobs, a boyfriend for two and a half years, I finished my bachelors at Hunter College in NYC, and I got a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University last year. I chose to move to Colorado so that I could be close to my grandmother and because New York is too expensive. I have been working as a community organizer for Keshet since last September. Keshet does inclusion work for the Jewish LGBT community — a goal that is obviously very close to my heart. I recently became approved to be a foster parent, which is totally incredible — I can’t wait to start having babies in the house. I still want to make aliyah back to Israel in a few years but I’m pretty sure that holding onto that dream is good for me, keeps me moving forward.
When I first started my transition, I considered changing my last name, hoping that it would be easier to be “stealth” (to be closed about my transition). I had always been popular and having a last name like “Daugherty” is pretty uncommon for an Orthodox Jew, so I was well-known. But after thinking about the repercussions of living with a “secret” past, I made the choice to come out in a way that left no room for hiding. I kept my last name, came out on Facebook to a thousand friends, and do public speaking gigs like this one. I find it important to spread information out to the Jewish community, let them know that folks like me exist so that if there is one transgender person in the community or in someone’s family, someone here can be the one who says, “I don’t really understand, but I once heard this guy speak, and I will just love you and support you to the best of my ability.”
Pronounced: a-LEE-yuh for synagogue use, ah-lee-YAH for immigration to Israel, Origin: Hebrew, literally, “to go up.” This can mean the honor of saying a blessing before and after the Torah reading during a worship service, or immigrating to Israel.
Pronounced: FROOM (oo as in hook), Origin: Yiddish, devout or pious, generally used to identify someone as Orthodox, or strictly observant of Jewish law.
Pronounced: PUR-im, the Feast of Lots, Origin: Hebrew, a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period.