Wednesday 15 January 2014

GITTEL'S DAUGHTER: The child of an Orthodox transwoman

 NB. The author of this interview is not related to the author of the previous post. It is purely coincidental that they are appearing around the same time.

M: My birth father is a lesbian. Her name is Gittel (names have been changed to protect the privacy of all of the individuals in this interview). I don’t see myself telling just anyone this story.  Usually people have a harder time hearing I am not religious than that my birth father is transgender. They’ve heard of Off-The-Derech but they haven’t heard of transgender. But I should start the story at the beginning.

I grew up Orthodox in a large city in the United States. I have an awesome family. I’m nineteen and the oldest of seven. Even though my step-dad is not my biological father, he feels like my father. My mom remarried when I was three years old and I had a very normal childhood. I didn’t think there was anything different about me. I went to religious school and youth group and I was very social.
 Growing up, we always referred to my birth father as “Daddy”. My brother and I never asked where Daddy was, but in 5th grade, I wanted to send my daddy a letter. I showed my mother that I had a letter but my mother said she had to discuss it with a psychologist first. Afterwards, I never brought it up anymore. It wasn’t an issue. That year was hard for my parents. I used to yell at my dad, “You’re not my real dad.”

Later, in 10th grade, I had an advisor, because I had a tough time in school. There were a lot of talks with my parents. My dad was really pushing me to go to classes, and at some point, the advisor said, “You don’t have to listen to him. He’s not your real father,” and I responded, “YES HE IS.”  He treats me like his daughter, no questions asked. I was three when my mother married him, and they had another five kids together. He treats me the same as the other kids.

When I was younger, and also when I was in high school, my mom always said my birth-father wasn’t ready to be a father. I honestly thought he was mentally ill. I thought he was locked up somewhere. So I didn’t think too much about him. When I was about fourteen, or maybe fifteen, I found pictures of my dad, because my mom had cut up pictures of me and him (baby pictures) and removed them from the album. I put these pictures in my purse and carried them around with me. I don’t know why. I wasn’t missing anything. I was always told that I looked like my daddy, so there was that. I would prefer not to look so similar. I would prefer that there wasn’t such an obvious relationship. It’s funny, because my brother was told that he looked a lot like my step-father. But he’s also Gittel’s son.
 Not long after I opened my first Facebook account when I was sixteen, I got a message from someone saying, “I know your birth father. I know he hurts.” A whole lot of stuff, giving me information that I clearly didn’t want to know! I showed it to my mom, and I asked her if I should read it or delete it, and she said she would prefer that I delete it. I messaged this lady saying please don’t message me again. But then she messaged me again with even more details that I didn’t read.  Who does that to a sixteen year old? It’s not something you message someone about on Facebook! I thought, for a little bit, that maybe it was my birth father, using a fake account, trying to get to me.  Then I figured out it wasn’t.

Just before I turned seventeen, when I had gone out with my friends, my parents called and said they wanted to talk with me. I was freaking out. I thought I did something wrong!  Then, when I came home, they told me that my grandfather wants to fly me to the Belgium to spend a month with him. I said, “You scared me! I thought something serious happened! You called me to come home!?” But then they told me they wanted to tell me why my original parents got divorced.
 My parents were worried that when I traveled to Belgium, my birth father would find out that I was in Europe and try to contact me and they wanted to be the ones who told me the story. Until then, all my life, my mom always told my brother and me that the reason she got divorced was because my birth father wasn’t fit or ready to be a father.

That night, when she started talking, first she brought up an article about Joy Ladin, an Orthodox transgender woman, that we’d read a year or so earlier. I don’t remember exactly what my mom said when she began to tell me about my birth father, though I know she never said anything negative to me. That was difficult, too! My mom hates keeping secrets. We are extremely open and talk about everything so I am sure it was even harder. Afterwards, my parents told me that if I had any questions I could ask, but I didn’t have any. My mom wanted to know how I felt. How should I feel? She just told me that my birth father is now a transgender woman and a lesbian!
 When they told my younger brother [who is the son of my birth father], the only thing he wanted to know was “What happened to the tallis and tefillin?” I love him.

Hearing this story resolved some mysteries for me. When I was about twelve years old, I guess, I found an old cassette tape that my mom had recorded ten years earlier, to send to a friend. On it, she mentioned that she had seen my birth father walking around London with lipstick and she thought she might have to get a divorce. When I heard that, I thought my birth father must be a gay man, so I never talked about finding the tape or hearing what it said with anyone. And then, when my mother told me about Gittel, my birth-father, it clicked in my mind.
 That night when I learned about Gittel, I needed to get out of the house, to talk and share with my friends. My mom told me not to tell my younger siblings. She told me I could talk about it with a friend, so I went out in my friend’s car, running errands. It was already night, and I told her, “My birth father, he’s a woman.” She said, “You don’t tell me that when I’m driving, M! What’s wrong with you?!” 

In general, things don’t bother me. Things flow over me. It took me a long time to tell most of my friends. I had thoughts about what it meant about me, about the way they would view me, but part of my reluctance was sheltering them, for sure. One of my closest friends still doesn’t know because I know she wouldn’t be able to deal with it.

Apparently, there had been a court order that Gittel couldn’t contact me until I was eighteen. My mom didn’t think the court order was a good choice. But for me, I do feel like it was the right choice. Where I grew up, the schools I went to, the friends I had…my life would have been very different if I had known about my birth father being a transgender woman. If I knew when I was younger, I would have dealt with it, but I feel it was very healthy finding out when I was older and had an open mind. As a younger person, I went to a very religious school and I am sure a transgender parent wouldn’t have been accepted.

When I turned eighteen, Gittel [not her actual name] messaged me on Facebook. When she messaged me first, she had opened up a fake Facebook account in her previous name that was obviously not real because it had no pictures or messages or friends or anything. I think after that first contact, she just friended me with her real Facebook, but there was no conversation. No chat. Still, that was the beginning. Just after that, Gittel and Zahava (her partner) invited me to their son’s bar mitzvah on Facebook, though the event was a year away. I didn’t think I would go, but I was trying to figure out if I wanted to go or not. If it’s something I would be interested in being at. So I didn’t respond right away. I just left it.

 Then, a few months before the bar mitzvah, they contacted me again, asking if I wanted to come to the simcha (happy event), so all of a sudden it was real. They offered to fly me in to Belgium! I thought a lot about it, for such a long time, discussing it with my mom and my friends, and then I decided that it’s important for me to go and get to know them and decide if I want a relationship with them or not.  And I decided to come to Europe, but it was clear to me that if I was coming to the Europe, I would have to go see my grandfather, because he wasn’t doing so well at that point. And also, I didn’t want to spend too much time with my birth-father’s family. I wanted it to be short. I wanted it to be manageable. I had a lot of people telling me, you can come stay with me, take all these telephone numbers, find somewhere else. People were surprised that I would stay at their house. Zahava (Gittel’s partner) actually offered for me to stay elsewhere but it seemed silly to me.
When I was planning the trip, everyone asked me, “What does your mom think?” But she didn’t speak. At some point, I confronted my mother and she told me, “I have two worries. 1. You might become not religious. 2. That you might stay there and not come home.” That was never in my plans. I know myself. I knew I wouldn’t stay in Europe. I don't even speak French! My mom still has very positive feelings towards Gittel’s family. She had a relationship with them. My mom tried never to say anything negative to me about Gittel or about them. My mom is awesome. She’s really cool.

I can’t put my finger on what ended up turning me off to religion. I never really connected with it.  Then, about a year and a half ago, I came to terms with not being religious. It is still very difficult for my mom though, since she doesn’t like the influence I have on my siblings. We fought. But at one point, she asked me if I no longer keep shabbos and kosher, and I said I don’t. Then the fights calmed down, after it was all out there. It’s good to get everything out in the open and not keep secrets.

Anyway, since I had been friends with Gittel on Facebook for almost a year, I knew what to expect when I finally met her. It was a good ease into it. I had no expectations for anything so I wasn’t surprised. I think I try to avoid expectations, I don’t know if it comes from a healthy place or not. I know Gittel was very surprised to see me in pants, not because she told me. She’s frum and the pants bothered her.

She says a lot. She says she feels like I was raised well. And that I lucked out not to grow up with her. I know that she tried to follow us as much as possible online to find out about us. But there aren’t any pictures of me or my brother around the house. I was always told that it’s painful for her not to be part of my life and that she would like to have a relationship with me and my brother. I was in touch with Gittel’s cousins, and her family used to tell me that “my father” loves me, or that “there’s someone out there that’s in pain and would like to have more of a relationship with you.” But the fact is, there aren’t any pictures of us in Gittel’s house. We aren’t Zahavah’s kids. I wish (there is a long pause while M cries) she kept one picture of us from when we were little kids on her desk, something.
Gittel doesn’t exactly feel like a parent to me. But if people ask me about “my mother”, I don’t correct them. I’m nineteen, though, and I don’t feel like I need a new parent. I already have two parents. Gittel is a relative of mine who I know cares about me. I do care about her too, but I don’t have words to describe what kind of relation she is to me.

I think that the frum community, where they live, people mostly accept them. I don’t see how they could live in New York or Israel or in some of the other really frum places. I wish it were different. Here, where they live, there is more acceptance than in other places. The hardest thing for me is actually that Gittel and Zahava and their children are frum, more so than any other thing. I don’t know why.
I’ve said this and I believe it: Gittel made a choice that affected her relationship with us [her children], but I’m happy about the choice she made. It’s better than growing up with a miserable father. It enabled me to have a normal childhood. I did luck out.

I wouldn’t change my life. I am happy with who I am and what I am, even though there is this corner of my life that doesn’t fit into my world. If I could erase this part of my life, I would. Not Gittel but the challenge of her. But really, I am at peace with everything I have gone through in my life.

Now, I relate to Gittel as Gittel. I have a mother and a father and a Gittel. To someone who doesn’t know, I refer to her as my biological father or my birth father. But I, myself, I don’t know how to refer to her. She’s just Gittel to me.

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