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Saturday, 12 October 2013

HUMBLE BELIEF: THE ORTHODOX TRANSWOMAN


 Good evening D. Can you introduce yourself a little?
D: I grew up modern orthodox in NYC area and I got involved pretty early on in modern orthodox youth groups. At the time I was living on the boy’s side of the mechitza, and I got a better Jewish education than a lot of girls in the more black hat yeshivish circles.
I knew something was different about me. Even in the modern Orthodox Jewish world, conformity is a very very good idea. When it comes to religious doctrine, it’s a lot easier when those in authority don’t have to think too hard about how you fit in. They want everyone to fit in and stay Orthodox.
I was different and one of the pieces of rhetoric that came at me was that certain things don’t happen to good Jews. For example, did you know there are no Jewish homosexuals?
                                Who me?
What was your favourite piece of clothing when you were younger?
D: When I was 8, my best female friend showed me a white dress that she was going to wear for the Jewish holidays and I thought it was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to be treated by my parents the way she was, as feminine. I wanted to be able to express myself the way I wanted to. It was something about being girly. I didn’t know exactly what it was. I was so jealous of my friend. It triggered something. I held back on expressing that, an instinct not to say what I wanted to, because of fear that bad things might happen.
What I owned, though, as a kid right before my bar mitzvah, was a suit with a solid coloured jacket and it had a reversible vest that matched 2 pairs of slacks and that was my first understanding of what separates are, mix and match. I thought, variation is nice! I was not sensitive to colours, but I did notice that girls' clothes had more colours than boys clothes and I liked that.
Who was your favourite frum yid, growing up?
D: My father is in the running, but I’m not sure he was my favourite…
Oh my god, this is a hard question! Hmmm. It’s strange but I can’t think of one. My father is definitely in the top three, though.
He was Ralph Kramden with a yarmulke, a guy who always wanted to be Mr Party, lampshade on the head, almost anything for a laugh, scheming for how to make a buck, and always losing, every single time, because he was not a business man.
What he was really great at was doing everything associated with the shul…he was a wonderful cantor and wonderful baal tefillah, and he could take any group of Jews and liven them up, just in a way of making things fun. People loved him for that, but also, a big part of him wanted to take complaisant Jews and make them a little happier. I admired that in him.
How did your father react to you?
D: My father died before I came out to him. Had he been alive, it would have killed him.
Did your father think there was anything unusual about you?
D: I was a whacky kid. I got bad reports home from school. My father didn’t say anything about it. He was not a macho guy himself. Guys drink beer and watch sports but he was a good Jewish man who worked hard to support his family. I don’t think he noticed much about me, but he definitely wanted me to fit in. He wanted me to lead the prayer services. He grilled me for months before my bar mitzvah, and he wanted me to be perfect. He taught me how to lein and I became good at it and I liked it. I was an extension of him in Yiddishkeit. I was so and so’s kid, a good Jewish kid.
What about the rest of your family?
D: I have one older brother. I haven’t talked to him in 22 years. He was not happy about me. He called me faggot and sissy and he accused me of being in love with my best friend, and I don’t have much of a poker face for that kind of thing. My brother said I should have the telephone surgically attached to my navel because I was on the phone with my friend so much. I don’t think he got the extent to which I loved feminine things.
When I was thirteen, I read a book, Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and it blew me away and it continues to blow me away. I understood something about the forbidden things in life. I could never bring anything home. I ruled a lot of things out. I was afraid I would get yelled at by my older brother, especially after my father died. My brother took it upon himself to be my surrogate father, except he was nothing like my father. 
So I collected sports cards. I didn’t know much about the players, but this was an easy thing I could do to fit in. 
I was fourteen when my father died. It was for the best. Because  (sighs), he probably would have seen how I was developing and would have tried to counteract my effeminate behaviour and I don’t know what those measures would have been. 
In 6th through 8th grade, I was in a Jewish day school that was very strict, a black hat school, but I played the guitar. All the high school girls wanted to get to know me! I was a faggy kid who was making it with high school girls. The other boys had no idea how I did it. 
In my high school year book, I was remembered for my little black book, the symbol for someone who had a lot of girls' phone numbers. Meanwhile, in truth, I was the faggy kid who liked girl things. I was nowhere near as cute as the modern gay boys are, but still…
What has been your greatest challenge as a frum transperson?
D: Oh my g-d! In 1980, I met someone who was out, frum and gay. I was shocked. He worked in a very gay place. I was astounded. I was frightened AND thrilled. I’d never met anyone like that.
In 1985, I met another frum gay man. I told him that I had a yarmulke in my pocket, and this was old hat to him. He said “You are not alone” and I couldn’t believe it. I started out as a gay boy, and I went to these gay Jewish boys and met the first victims of pray away the gay. They’d been told they should pray and marry and have children and all this nonsense would go away, but all that ended up happening was that they ruined their own lives, the lives of their ex-wives and the lives of the kids. It wasn’t easy and it left scars on the gay men.
In 1987, I walked away from the frum world. I stopped being observant for 22 years. I was afraid that if I came out as a gay boy and was told to pray away the gay, I would end up like those people, I would end up like those men, angry, hating Judaism. And I didn’t hate Judaism.
In 1997, this whirlwind of a person decided to create things for Orthodox trans people because there were none. And she created the Dina List (link) which still exists in what we now call a list serve for Orthodox and Orthodox-friendly trans people. She and I were best friends. There is no stopping her. She’s brilliant. She has a great mind for studying Torah and for analysis and for getting to the heart of Jewish history and law. She found a little known decision from a major rabbi that said that with post operative transsexuals what you see is what you get. The target gender is their gender. Dina List starways.net/beth/tzitz.html
Why did you start being observant again?
In 1997, I kept on saying it can’t be done and I walked away, but there were people who managed to live an Orthodox life. That's inspiring.
My rebbe lived an orthodox life, and there were others too…there was one person who came from a black hat yeshiva and all her friends knew, and it was a scandal, because she transitioned in place where she lived. She had guts! She was a role model and she was smart and articulate and lovely and all these things that I wanted to be, and I started to feel classic Jewish guilt, that these people were managing to be Orthodox and I wasn’t. At the time, I lived in walking distance from two really great shuls. Why didn’t I just go? I made a deal with G-d. It was a one sided deal because G-d never agreed. I said I would start going to shul and that if anyone made a fuss at any shul, I was out and I was not coming back.
If a fuss was made, it was too quiet for me to hear about it. No one told me I couldn’t come or that I should be on the other side of the mechitza. I am still shocked that no one has ever made a fuss. In several cases, I recognized people I knew from before, when I was in yeshiva, and I couldn’t say hello, because that could be a triggering incident. I had decided that I would be modest and not out myself in shul.
What’s your level of observance now?
D: I’m back to where I was as a kid. That’s my comfort level. Only I’m a little bit more enlightened. I see the depth. As an adult, the religion means something deeper to me.
Do you have a partner?
D: I really want someone Jewish, someone orthodox. And that’s a possibility now. There’s a community.
Why do you want to be with an Orthodox queer partner?
D: In a relationship there are things that create life, like shabbos. Without that, the relationship stagnates. I want a relationship in which Judaism can prosper. In which I am not lonely. Feeling lonely in your own home is not a good feeling.
Why don’t you go with a guy and be “straight”?
D: The Jewish community will talk. Most frum guys would be scared of being with a trans woman, and Jewish geography would out us in a minute, even if we moved. Any frum guy who would take me into his community, it would raise eyebrows. I think the Jews would hurt me, they would hurt him.
With a trans woman and a lesbian in the orthodox world, they can just pretend that we are “roommates”. “Roommates” is a way to fly under the radar. You can find some acceptance even if people know. Do volunteer work at your synagogue, they won’t kick you out. Be a good Jew, become part of the community, it becomes much harder to throw you away. A guy, a straight marriage, would be far more problematic. There are plenty of examples of lesbian couples who have managed to stay in their frum communities and stay frum.
Do you think the trans experience is harder than the general gay experience within orthodoxy?
D: The Orthodox community hasn’t gotten past the gay thing yet, but at least we are in queue, they’ve seen glimpses of it with Joy Ladin. The Rabbis still operate on the belief that heterosexuality is the paradigm, therefore if you like men, you must be a woman, or some variant thereof. A trans woman liking another woman is challenging. They can’t get their heads around it.
At the Chabad house in Carlsbad, California, there is a non-gendered space in the shul. The population demanded it. So that's great!

What makes you sad?
D: Not being able to find love.
What are you afraid of?
D: Too many things to come up with an honest response. But here’s one thing: Complete rejection by the Orthodox community. Because then I will go back to having no spiritual life. There is no stepping down. I want my Orthodox spiritual life.
What do you love the most in Orthodoxy?
D: The idea that we have a direct connection to G-d and that He listens even if he doesn’t grant every wish. We still know He hears us and the requests go through.
What gives you the greatest joy?
D: The prospect of being loved, and the ability to make people laugh. Hearing sincere thanks from someone I have helped.
If you could ask anything from the frum community, what would it be?
D: I saw it on a bumper sticker many years ago. It said "G-d protect me from Your followers." It’s the greatest prayer I’ve ever heard. Please stop listening to rabbis who say hateful things. They are dangerous. Call them on their bull sh*t. Don’t let them substitute political concerns for human concerns.