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.
Can you tell me the story behind this group and how you came up with it?
Sarah: Me and Naomi are girls, but we both like to dress in T-shirts and both have short hair. One day, Naomi went into the locker room in the YMCA, and some woman was like, “Boys aren’t allowed in.” Her mom got mad and told them, “No, this is not a boy, this my daughter.” Naomi called me and then we started making signs about it. We had a meeting with the Director of the YMCA, and some other people, and now there’s a new rule that you can’t tell people that they’re in the wrong bathroom or locker room anymore. Then we (with the help of Naomi’s mom) came up with the idea for a club, and it kind of went from there.
Karen: After the whole YMCA thing, Sarah and Naomi, who have been best friends forever, but are very private, spoke for the first time really about what their experience is going through life as gender creative and what it is to have people mis-gender you all the time. They had made a bunch of posters that said, “Don’t ask gender questions in the bathroom,” and “Let my people pee,” and “If you think you know what my gender is, check your assumptions, I’m in the right bathroom.” And then we had this meeting at the YMCA with some of their senior staff, just to talk about the experience, and that was an incredibly empowering experience for Sarah and Naomi, to be heard seriously.
Hannah: This club came as a response from this negative experience that we had, and I think the important thing, and what I said to my child, is that we can either conform to society’s negative expectations and feel angry about it, or we can do something. And it was ultimately her decision to do something. The club really came from the kids, and that’s what’s really important.
What did you tell your moms when you came up with this idea?
Karen: I remember you told me that you and Naomi wanted a club for “kids like you guys.” I said, “Great! Let’s do it!” This was before we really knew the term “gender-creative,” but Sarah had been talking a lot in our family about the experience of going to the bathroom and having people looking at her funny and that had been a real issue in our family for a long time. Sarah cut her hair first and that was a significant step in presenting the way that she wanted to present in the world, and then Naomi did as well, and then they recognized in each other a kindred spirit. After the YMCA incident gave them the opportunity to talk openly with one another, they got excited and they thought, maybe we should get a club for other kids like us and we should talk to them about it. So they proposed that, and we started to think about how we would find kids for the club. There was another girl on Sarah’s soccer team that Sarah thought might be interested, so I emailed the parents and said, “I may be going out on a limb, but if this is something your daughter would be interested in…”
Hannah: We want to create an accessible space and meet the kids where they are. It’s validating for them: here’s a person that looks like me. We have a whole spectrum, and there have been some kids who identify themselves differently in that space than they do in other spaces. It’s a safe space, or I would venture to guess that it feels safe, even though they’re still getting to know one another. It may very well be that even though they present themselves similarly, they don’t connect. But fortunately, that’s not what’s happening.
Sarah: My mom found somebody, Taylor, through people she knows, who isn’t a boy or a girl, and they were like a counselor, and helped people.
Karen: Yeah, they came to the first meeting as a facilitator. I wanted to try to find a young adult who might identify somewhere on the gender spectrum to come and hang out with the kids, because I’ve seen how significant it can be for Sarah when she gets to talk to or be with people she identifies with.
Hannah: The group is going well, it’s still pretty small. I think we’re making it up as we go along, and Taylor’s made a commitment to continue on as a facilitator. Karen and I both come into this with educator backgrounds so we’ve been co-constructing the experience for the kids, and then sharing the plans with Taylor. Now I think Taylor is going to come on more formally, and we’re going to leave it to them to come up with the ideas. It’s not a self-help group, it’s not therapy. We want it to be fun for the kids, and not be too educative. It should be resilience-building, celebratory, and fortifying and give the kids access to a community where they can really celebrate and be themselves.
Karen: At the first meeting, they played some kind of game to get to know each other. They designed T-shirts, they decorated cupcakes…
Sarah: We came up with a story. It was about a kid who was always getting bullied because he wore a dress and he met somebody who dressed like a boy but was a girl and then they both played in the girl’s baseball tournament and everyone said they wouldn’t win but then they won the championship.
Karen: And then you guys also had a conversation where some of the kids shared challenging situations that they’d encountered and they brainstormed how they might handle them. And then the parents also had a chance to talk, which is nice.
Hannah: The parents are all building community with each other, swapping different ideas and being there for one another.
Karen: There’s a range of kids, so there’s one kid in the group now who is a trans girl, who’s a member of our synagogue, and there are kids that may identify as trans and kids that may identify as gender-creative. Sarah had heard about name tags that you could get with pronouns. So we ordered them online, and that way people could write on them, so that everybody could be called what they wanted to be called.
Sarah: They say, “My name is_____. My pronoun is _____”
Hannah: In one of our meetings, all of the kids who showed up were Jewish. We made hamentaschen and read The Purim Superhero and talked about really being our authentic selves and how, sometimes, when people wear costumes, they get to be who they want to be. And while it’s not Jewish in nature, the way it’s worked out is that there are a lot of Jewish kids in the group, but we want to be inclusive of everyone who wants to participate.
Naomi: Once I was with my friend in the car and she was also with one of her friends, and she was trying to tell her friend that she was acting like a boy, and I said, “There’s no way to act like a boy or a girl, you just act how you act. You just act like a person.”
Hannah: And I think that those were the kind of things that the kids were imagining that is what an ideal community would look like, if people weren’t policed by gender. What’s it like seeing other kids dressed similarly to the way that you are?
Naomi: It’s cool…
Hannah: And you read The Boy with Pink Hair, which is about a boy who gets teased because he’s born with pink hair and he likes to bake things that are pink, and he’s made to feel really badly because of that until his difference comes in handy when there’s a special celebration at his school, and…
Naomi: And he has to cook for the whole school…
Hannah: And everybody loves his pink food.
Is anyone at your school involved in the group?
Karen: Sarah’s very private, so it’s not so comfortable for her to just say something in public. For example, when Sarah and Naomi made the signs about the bathroom, one thought was to put them up at school, but Sarah was afraid that people would recognize her handwriting and know that it was her. Sarah has had some challenges about using the bathroom at school for the last two years. So there’s an interesting tension between the total desire to find people that she identifies with, whether it’s with the club, or meeting adults, like Taylor, and the concern about privacy.
What are your plans for the future of the group?
Sarah: When we first came up with it, we were in second grade, and some of the ideas were over the top, and now we’re back in reality. Naomi was thinking about building a clubhouse and selling our posters to raise money for the club and going to Pride. But we don’t quite know how big we want the club to be, if it’s going to be at people’s houses.
Karen: I think the main thing about it is, trying to create space and opportunity for these kids to be with other kids that look like them and that are going through similar things, and hopefully to create a space where it feels safe and comfortable to talk about some of the things they’re thinking about and some of the challenges.
Hannah: We don’t want to make it so that their identity is a problem, because if we focus too much on the gender issue, then it problematizes it. It’s society that problematizes the kids, and we want to change that narrative. We’ve talked about potentially going to a rally together, or being a mentor group for other groups that may want to buddy up with ours, like a group for younger kids. We definitely want to cap our group at the age limit of 8-10. Our kids are all about 8 or 9. We have around five kids right now and would be happy to welcome more people. Our hope is that we’ll continue doing what we’re doing, that more kids will join, that it will continue to be an inspiration for other kids. Right now, they’re young, and this could be very impactful in their process of identity development, and they also could change. People keep asking me about Naomi’s gender identity. And you know what? She’s young. The best thing we can do for all of these kids is to just accept them for who they are and give them space to figure it out.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
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