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.
I often wonder what my life would look like were I a few years younger. Given how quickly the world has changed in my lifetime, I suspect my life might look rather different.
Growing up, I never quite fit in with the other kids my age. I was too much of an eager student. I was perceived by the world as a girl, but I didn’t fully pick up on the social norms of the girls my age. The boys who let me play with them when we were little started looking at me differently once puberty hit. Puberty was a strange time, though I’m sure it is for us all. I looked around for adults I could relate to, and the closest I could find fell into a couple disparate boxes: there were my rabbis and there were a few butch lesbians (AKA “dykes,” as they preferred to call themselves).
When other kids were looking for excuses to get out of synagogue, I was the one finding reason to bring my family. I was inviting the rabbi for Shabbos meals. I was the public school kid who wore a kippah, sculpted payos out of my shaggy hair, and convinced my parents to let me go to additional yeshiva lessons. The rigidity of my Judaism, its rules, traditions, and history helped anchor me in a confusing time.
When I wasn’t at shul, I found myself drawn to the masculine women I encountered. I knew from a young age that I had crushes on girls in my class. I also had crushes on boys in my class, but I assumed that I was like these masculine women, and therefore, like them, a lesbian who must ignore those boy crushes … right?
It was a momentous year in my life when, instead of wearing the customary ankle-length frum (Orthodox) skirt to shul, I instead wore pants (with a shirt and vest, of course, because those butch dykes were my role models).
I had never heard the word “transgender,” let alone words we hear with increasingly frequency today, like genderqueer or genderfluid. On occasion I would hear the term “transsexual,” but always with a negative connotation, and usually in the context of a sleazy daytime trash-show. These butch lesbians were the closest example I found to help me understand what my gender could be.
But I had come to realize what I was feeling inside: male.
While I once happily attended services at a variety of synagogues across denominations, it wasn’t long before the rabbis at each took notice of my changed appearance and started making assumptions; once a star pupil and frequent leyner (Torah reader), as a lesbian I wasn’t welcome in my city’s shuls any longer. Shunned from the Jewish community that I loved, I turned to the gay and lesbian community for support. As time passed, I realized I couldn’t continue as a lesbian, that just wasn’t who I was.
My city’s main teaching hospital had a gender clinic, a place where people who wanted to transition could go. It was a place where one had to jump through numerous hoops, assessments, and their strict adherence to what was then known as the Harry Benjamin International Standards of Care for Transsexuals.
Despite convincing my doctor to write me a referral to this clinic, I was turned away repeatedly. It brought to mind the story of potential converts to Judaism who have to make several attempts to show they’re serious. In my case, they turned me away as I would be their youngest patient. (I’m certain that record has since been shattered.)
The details of my transition aren’t relevant to the story, but one part of the gender clinic’s process is: the mandatory group therapy sessions.
I sat in a room filled with fellow “patients” seeking approval to medically transition to the women they knew they were; I was the only one there transitioning to male. While my peers in the group were all middle aged (and often even older than that), I was 18. We had little in common. And yet, the psychiatrists who ran the group told us all, repeatedly, the same advice until it was drilled into our heads: As soon as you can “pass,” move away from here. At the time, transgender acceptance wasn’t on anyone’s radar; people weren’t transitioning to be identified as transgender, they were transitioning to be male or female. I was transitioning to be male; the advice meant that as soon as I could pass, as soon as I could walk through the world as a man, I should – and I shouldn’t tell anyone otherwise.
The scare tactics worked. I moved. Guys who went through the gender clinic after me also moved. I didn’t tell anyone. All these years later, though the climate has changed, I still do not. And I know many others like me – despite not being out, we have our own secret networks.
I wonder if I would identify differently had I come out 10 or 15 years later? Would I be open? Would I want to identify with that “T” in LGBT?
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years and, actually, my answer is still no. I don’t think I would want to identify as transgender. I am male, I am not transgender. While I support the fact that the gender binary does not work for some people, it does work for some of us – including some of us who could be included in the “trans” label. We’re the people who don’t go to the trans community rallies because we don’t want to be outed. Perhaps we identify ourselves as allies to the trans community, but some of us are too nervous to do that.
Wondering how I should end this blog post, I asked a friend of mine, who transitioned a few yeas after me, who also came from a traditional Jewish family, who is also not out, whose friends and colleagues would never suspect he had been born a female, for suggestions.
Here’s what he said:
“Sometimes it’s lonely being on the outside looking in. Sometimes it’s lonely knowing that there’s a community you could be a part of, but only if you change who you are and take on a different label that doesn’t quite fit. Sometimes it’s lonely hearing the trans community ask for support from allies, when they forget to fight for people who are within their ranks but are invisible. A lot has changed, is changing, quickly. It’s hard to feel like we went from being pioneers to being forgotten – and I’m not yet 35.”
And that’s the bittersweet conundrum my friend and I and many others like us are left with: We fought for the right to be forgotten, and now that we are, we have become invisible, making it hard to contribute to the fight for those who come next.
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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: yuh-SHEE-vuh or yeh-shee-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, a traditional religious school, where students mainly study Jewish texts.