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.
When teens transitions to a new gender, what happens to the rest of the family? In November, we shared a post from the perspective of a daughter whose father transitioned to being a woman; now, we’re bringing you the first of two essays written by a sibling. Sophie, a high schooler whose sister (now brother) transitioned within the last few years, writes here about what the beginning of those changes felt like for her as a sister. In her next essay, she’ll discuss her brother’s eventual surgery.
I would first like to start out by saying I love my brother.
There is nothing I wouldn’t do for him. In my life, he is the person I have spent the most time with. Unlike most siblings, we are best friends. I am proud to say that even with all that we are going through, it had made us even closer. Still at such a young age, he has gone through so much and I will always be there for him. The following group of memories show my struggles and my acceptance of who my brother is and part of why I love him.
It was the last day of sleep-away camp four years ago. I cried and cried every year – camp is my favorite place on earth and I hate leaving. I kissed my friends goodbye and promised I would keep in touch. My only thoughts were, could I stay away from this place for another year? My sister and I had always gone to camp together but this year, instead of just staying for one month like me she would stay for two months.
Tears streamed down my face as my bunkmates and I savored our last moments together for the summer. Then suddenly I heard my dad say “Hey, Sophie!” I immediately ran as fast as possible to him. “I missed you,” I said, tears still drying on my cheeks. My dad knows how hard it is for me to leave every year, but this year would be even harder with my sister, Shayna, not coming back with me.
Before we left camp my dad, Shayna, and I walked around the camp like we had in the past. Like every other year, I showed my dad everything over and over again even though I already knew he had seen it; he always let me show him because he knew it was important to me. I said goodbye to my friends, old and new, and for the last time promised to keep in touch, even though I might not see my closest friends for a whole year. I knew that today, the hardest goodbye would not be for a friend, but for my older sister, Shayna.
Surprisingly, Shayna walked out with my dad and I to where all the cars were parked. As I started to see my dad’s car tears gushed from my eyes for the hundredth time that day. Just then, I heard Shayna say the seven words that will never leave me, “I have to tell you guys something.”
At that moment, I knew exactly what she was going to say, and in my head I prayed those words wouldn’t come out. All I could think was not today, not now. But this conversation would happen with or without my consent.
“I think I like girls,” Shayna said.
“Okay,” my dad, said, tears swelling in his eyes. I knew that wasn’t the whole story.
“And…” Shayna went on “I think I’m going to start using non-gender specific pronouns.”
Now, all I could do was bawl my eyes out, partially because I was leaving camp, and partially because my whole world had just been turned upside down.
At that time, my dad didn’t get what she was telling us, but I knew, I always knew; she didn’t have to tell me. At that moment I said six tiny words that will haunt me forever; I wish I could take them back and throw them away into whatever ugly place they escaped from. I looked her in the eye and I said, “Promise me you won’t get surgery.” My sister stared at me for a while; “I won’t,” was her only response. We said our goodbyes and my dad and I got into the car and began what felt like the longest car ride from camp to my life back at home. I cried and cried. “Everything is going to be fine,” my dad said, although looking a little choked him. But he didn’t get it. He hadn’t heard what Shayna had just told us. He didn’t hear his little girl just tell him she was transgender.
Shayna came back from camp a month later, and I couldn’t have been happier to see her – all I wanted was to talk and laugh with my sister. I needed to know at that time she was still mine. Yet it was not until she told me she wanted me to start calling her Eitan and using he instead of she that I almost lost it. I was mad at myself – I had always been supportive with other people I knew were transgender, but I could not bring myself to accept the fact my sister was my brother… just yet. I was scared because I knew who he was, but I didn’t want to let go of my sister yet. She was the person who had always been stable with me my whole life and now she was supposed to be my brother, but… she was born this way, and what right did I have to keep her from who she really was?
People at camp started calling Shayna, Eitan. It was not till one night when my nightmares came true. I was walking to my bunk from the shower house at camp with my best friend Mandy. Right before I was about to open the door to my cabin Mandy turned to me and asked, “Sophie, does Shayna want to be a boy?” So shocked by her sudden question and scared of having to admit the truth, I quickly said “no.” “Oh,” she said, “Well, why do people call her Eitan?” I didn’t want to loose the last piece of Shayna I had left so I lied again and said, “It’s just a nickname.”
For a while, I had totally rejected the idea of calling my sister Eitan. It was not until I finally saw the pain in my brother’s face every time he was referred to as she, or called Shayna, that I began to change. His pain helped me get over my fear that not being able to call him my big sister or never being able to call him Shayna Chaya Weitzman again meant that I was losing my sister. My issues with Eitan at that time were not about who he wanted to be, but whom I was afraid to loose. I finally realized it wasn’t in the name; Eitan loved me just as Shayna had, and he needed me.
I started by calling him Eitan but still referring to him as my sister. Then, one day, my best friend Mia Pare was over my house one afternoon and Eitan walked into the room. “Hey Eitan!” Mia said her usual cheery self, “Hi”, he said back. I could see the shock on his face but more importantly, I could see the happiness in his eyes. That’s the exact moment I knew it was time to call Eitan my brother, and I haven’t looked back since.
Today I am the proud younger sister of my wonderful older brother Eitan. The process of being able to say that was hard but to not accept someone is not in my blood, especially since he is my own blood. Now I have been there for every time he needed to talk. I have been there to support him, make him laugh when he is down. I was there for him when he went on testosterone, and I will be there with him in December when he undergoes chest surgery. Would I have liked more support through this journey? Yes, but that’s not important anymore, because I learned that I wasn’t losing a sister, I was gaining a brother. And, in that process, Eitan didn’t change. We are still best friends, we still fight, we still have inside jokes, and we still tease each other. And still, most importantly, the love I have for him grows everyday, and that will never change.