Transgender 101

What you need to know to be welcoming and inclusive.

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.

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.

What does “non-binary” or “gender variant” mean?

Non-binary and gender variant or gender nonconforming are also umbrella categories that can include anyone whose gender identity, expression, or behavior is outside of social norms of women who are “feminine” and men who are “masculine.” Put another way, someone whose gender identity falls outside of the gender binary. Other terms people might use include gender expansivegenderqueeragendergender fluidgender flexible, and more. Some, but not all, non-binary people may use gender neutral pronouns like “they/them,” “ze/hir,” or no pronouns at all, just their name.

Isn’t using “they” to refer to one person grammatically incorrect?

Nope, it’s not. I know that might be different from what your middle school English teacher taught you, but the truth is that English has included “they” as a singular pronoun since the 13th century. It has been used by great authors, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, W.H. Auden, and more. Contemporary linguists agree, too. In 2016, singular “they” was voted Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. And, importantly, it is a critical tool in speaking and writing about non-binary people respectfully. Dismissing or ignoring someone’s pronouns because you’re not comfortable with the grammar sends the message: “speaking about you with dignity and respect is less important to me than my own comfort.” And that’s not an awesome way to be an ally. It’s okay if using “they” as a singular pronoun is new or uncomfortable for you, but it’s important to do your best to use it when someone tells you it is their pronoun, and I promise it will get easier with practice.

Bonus grammar tip: When using “they” to refer to one person, use plural verb forms. Ex: “Alex called, and said they are bringing challah for Shabbat dinner and they have a bottle of wine, too.”

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 (reception/gathering on Shabbat).

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.

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