They Think I’m a Man: The Trans Person

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

This is the second in a series of three edited interviews with Orthodox Jews who are LGBT.  Read part one here.

I am a queer person, in my thirties, living in the frum community. I spend most of my time and energy in community, building the Orthodox world. I am a student. I am married to a woman, and we are raising two children.

When we decided to get married, we spent a tremendous amount of time researching a halachic [Jewish law] and spiritual ritual that would tie us to one another, eventually settling on a brit shutafut [covenent of partnership] instead of the traditional language. The idea was that we could outline for ourselves the terms of this partnership. We had a big celebration with family and friends. We had a shtaar written up, and we made a kinyan [formal acceptance] over it and signed it together. We were very warmly welcomed by our Orthodox religious community, even more so than by the non-Orthodox communities that we were involved in at the time. We were married by a rabbi, someone I have known for decades. He was very happy and excited to perform our wedding.

Frum people have responded to our marriage with a whole range of responses. We make our home in a frum community, and they didn’t bat an eye. They held a shower for us before the wedding, and they spend shabbos with us in our home. The rabbi knows he can call us a few hours before shabbos to get a place for people to stay. He trusts our kashrus. But then there are other Orthodox places where the word “‘wife”’ sticks in their throat.

I use the mikva [ritual bath], and one of the attendants told me that unmarried women can’t use the mikva. It caused a huge fuss, and I didn’t know what would happen. But in the end, it was the very frum woman who was in charge of the mikva committee who made the decision to allow me to go to the mikva. She said, “You have to let this woman come to do the mitzvah. Every positive action stands on its own.” For me, the real outcome from that encounter has been that despite opposition to gay frum Jews within the Orthodox community, there is also support from all over the place! Frum women were willing to stand up and say that we are a frum family and we cannot be turned away from the mikva. That was an amazing thing to find out.

I know many LGBT Jews have had very difficult experiences in the frum community, but I also know our synagogue committee loves us and values us. Though the city where we live is, for the most part, on the right side of conservative, within that, our own community is filled with openness and curiosity. It’s unusual. And there’s a real sense that everyone wants to connect with H-shem [G-d], no matter who they are, and that’s the whole point of community.

I think my wife and I try to invite support by going through life assuming the best of people. We try to open our home and our lives toward all the people around us, so that perhaps we receive an unusual degree of openness in return. I don’t think we are doing anything that other people aren’t doing. I don’t think we are trying harder to find acceptance.

I do, however, have a hard time navigating the gendered expectations within the Orthodox world, in particular because I do not share those beliefs. For me, it feels like a contradiction. It makes it hard for me to continue to build my religious life. It’s definitely an area where lack of acceptance comes up, and then I ask myself, why am I choosing to be here, among Orthodox Jews? I don’t want to paint this in a negative light, though, because in general, I get to live my life with wholeness, and I don’t need to divide myself into two selves . . . I have a sense of integrity.

Gendered expectations are challenging for me because I identify as transgender, and that’s very much highlighted when I walk into a religious space and there is a mechitza down the middle of the shul. At the same time, when I am in the Orthodox world, the way in which my gender is not the same as that of the other people on the same side of the mechitza is most definitely observed and acknowledged. I feel noticed in a way that isn’t true outside of Orthodox space. I was initially intimidated, to begin attending an Orthodox shul in pants and a kippah [skullcap] and a tallis [prayer shawl, traditionally garments worn by men], and I wasn’t sure I would be welcome, but in our particular Orthodox community, I am welcomed.

In some other Orthodox synagogues, particularly more right-wing spaces, I felt that I was welcome as a guest. I got the sense that the way I presented myself was not a way that would be considered normative/acceptable on a regular basis. The congregants had derech eretz [respect] and didn’t make my experience an uncomfortable one, though they might have. I think that people greeted me in a way that was welcoming but distant, and it was obvious that I was outside the community.

Sometimes, I do experience hostility over my gender expression. Absolutely. I think it happens more when people feel confused, because that confusion makes them feel foolish. I travel a lot, and I can tell you it happens with the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] agents, and they aren’t Jewish! It’s about people wanting to know, wanting to be able to say, with clarity, this person is such and such a gender. They act out when they don’t know how to respond to my gender. They feel like they are on the defensive.

This weekend, for example, I was chased down a very long hallway by a screaming security agent, because I came out of the “wrong” bathroom. She then dragged me back to the bathroom and pointed at the sign. I smiled politely and then walked away. People!

I get mistaken for a man a lot of times. It’s fortunate that I don’t mind it so much. Once, I was in a shul in Jerusalem, and I was physically dragged over to the men’s section. I explained myself to them repeatedly, saying, “Ani isha” [I am a woman], but they weren’t having it, so I gave up.

As a student, I would definitely find it easier if I were consistently identified as a man. But not in so many ways as you might think. Out in the field, there are hiring and salary advantages that men have, but that’s true in any profession. Actually, if I were consistently identified as a man, I think I would feel invisible as a queer person. I don’t think that the logistical ways in which life would be easier would outweigh the things that would be lost.

Even with DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], my wife and I still live in a state that doesn’t recognize our marriage, and we do have to make sure that we are protected in case one of us were in a medical emergency. We have no idea how we will file taxes, with the state calling us single and the federal government calling us married. I worry about the legal status of my relationship to our kids.

Our children are my wife’s from a previous marriage, and they are with us half the time, and with their father half the time. They have another stepmother, so they are very thoroughly mothered! We also hope to have more children someday. Don’t get too excited! It isn’t much more than a hope. We haven’t planned or decided whens and hows.

For our kids, living in a gay frum household and having gay parents is normal. That’s all they know. It’s all they remember. They do know not everyone is gay, and they know there are places where not everyone approves of gay families. This past summer, we passed a house that had a pride flag up. My daughter asked, “If there is a pride flag out for everyone to see, why don’t we do that?” She’s a smart little kid. I said, “That’s an excellent question,” and then we put our flag out for the month of June.

I think that for a lot of Jews, the idea of a queer frum family is completely abstract until they meet real people, and when they see us, they have a concrete example. We are a stable, normal, warm, loving family. We help with the babysitting at shul, and we bring crowds of people home for shabbos lunch. It becomes a lot harder to argue that we undermine religious community and family structure once you’ve met us. I think that people become more aware of what their assumptions mean and the impact of their negative stereotypes when they see us every day.

What is most striking to me is how completely normal our rabbi is willing to make us in his community. There has never been a moment of him asking or wondering what he is going to do with a family like ours. Even when we were new to the community and it was clear that people were taking some time to digest this new information, when it was clear my wife and I were together, the rabbi was very good about never speaking to us in a way that made us feel unusual or different or complicated for him.

If I could ask one thing of the Orthodox community, I would ask why so many of them are scared of difference. I would say, “What are you afraid of losing by encountering us?” It hasn’t been my experience that the frum world is so afraid, and yet I know there are large parts of the frum world where gay people experience the community as threatening, but it doesn’t have to be like that.