I had an amazing experience this Shabbat speaking at Germantown Jewish Centre for Dorshei Derech’s Stefan Presser Memorial Shabbat. The outflowing of warmth and support was simply amazing, and it was great to have my first experience talking publicly about this journey in such a safe environment. I really wish I could also post my partner Emily’s amazingly eloquent and heartfelt words, but I can’t because they were completely extemporaneous, which makes them all the more remarkable.
Stories don’t come easily to me. The fact of the matter is that only now, when I’m thirty years old, am I finally starting to learn how to tell stories about myself the way that most people seem to be able to do naturally. I’m used to hiding behind the words I use, holding them up up as a sort of mask, a surface I use to comment on the world while at the same time distancing myself from it. For me, words have been a survival mechanism and a safety blanket, a way to hide the fact of my profound disjointedness, to fill in the holes I feel within myself. These holes are many and various, but as far as I can see, they all seem to be bound up in the impossible conflict between what I need to in order to fulfill my responsibilities toward others and what this strange thing I call myself seems to need in order to survive.
The first gap I have trouble hurdling when I try to explain myself to others is that I did not grow up as a child with a strong sense of gendered identity. I didn’t play sports or go in for roughhousing, but I wasn’t into Barbie dolls, I didn’t play dress-up in my mother’s clothes, and the only princess I wanted to be like was Princess Leia from Star wars. I didn’t distinguish much between my male and female friends. My closest friends were always girls, but I always had more male friends than female, and if the boys sometimes seemed a little weird or I sometimes felt a bit more comfortable and emotionally secure playing with the girls, that didn’t seem so unusual. If it had occurred to anyone to ask me in second grade what I felt like on the inside, I probably would have told them “a robot,” and felt that answer made perfect sense.
In rather simple and obvious terms, what happened next was adolescence and puberty. My family moved from Athens, GA to Geneva, IL when I was in the middle of fourth grade, and suddenly finding myself in a new social environment forced me to wake up to the realities of living in a world where people were either male or female, whether they wanted to be or not. In Athens, I’d been permitted to go about life in my own quirky way, more or less insulated from the world around me by my tendency to get lost in worlds of my own imagination. Suddenly it had become very important to know the right way to act in order to “fit in,” and what I quickly discovered was that I didn’t.
At the same time, my body was starting to change, and that in itself came as something of a horrible shock. I imagine that many adolescents, once they’ve gotten over the initial awkwardness of puberty, learn to accept the changes they are going through with a certain amount of hopefulness as they find themselves maturing into the adults they are in the process of becoming. For me, the growing awareness of my developing body was like waking up to find oneself dressed in an ill-fitting set of clothes it is impossible to take off.
At some point or other in middle school I picked up the knowledge that some people are born intersexed and surgically modified at birth to conform with one gender or the other. For the longest time, I secretly believed that this is what had happened to me, because it was the only way I had of making sense of the overwhelming sense of wrongness my body gave me. I used to spend a great deal of time imagining being suddenly transformed into a girl. I’d walk through strategies in my head for dealing with having to exit the boy’s bathroom without being seen. Somehow in my mind this would always happen while I was in the bathroom at school, probably because of the sheer misery of anxiety public restrooms caused me and continue to cause me to this day.
Eventually the discomfort I felt settled into a kind of routine I thought I could live with. I told myself that the feelings I had around my body were probably completely normal for boys. I was convinced that all people born with male bodies were aware on a subconscious level that nature had played a terrible trick on them, and that this feeling was the real reason for all the sexism and misogyny in the world. I comforted myself that at least I was more aware of this than other “boys” and was therefore better able to control and mitigate the sense of resentment I felt at not being lucky enough to be born female. Sometimes I would console myself that in being “male” I was living up to a heavy but necessary responsibility that had been placed on me, and that perhaps in some future life I would be rewarded by being born a woman.
This was the attitude that got me through high school and college, and to be honest it’s almost scary how easily it translated into my new life when I converted to Judaism. I was not raised to believe in any kind of God, and I’m too avid a historian to believe in “Torah mi Sinai” as a matter of fact, but the language of religious obligation carried and still carries a great deal of resonance for me. The idea of a God who commands certain behaviors, not because they are necessary or even comprehensible from a human standpoint but for His own inscrutable reasons, makes a certain kind of sense when even your experience of your own body is of something unnatural imposed on you from the outside.
That was my life for the longest time: Being what I wasn’t for the sake of those I couldn’t live without. It wasn’t all bad, by any means. I had a partner whom I loved. Eventually I found a new community and a new spiritual language in Judaism–a language and a community that inspired me enough to make me want to go to rabbinical school. But at the same time there was always that dissatisfaction at my center, that sense that unhappiness was an essential part of my life–which made me feel very confused sometimes, because one of the religious obligations which I understand myself to be commanded to observe requires that I take pleasure in my existence and in that of the world my creator has placed me in.
So what changed things? I’d like to say it was some profound spiritual insight, but in fact all it really took was meeting someone–one person–who had felt the same way I did and had been courageous enough to do something about it. I ask myself sometimes how it could be that something as simple as that could have been the catalyst for such a profound change. You can spend your entire life staring up at the sky and dreaming of flying, but so long as it remains completely outside the realm of possibility you can learn to live with the sadness, carry it with you wherever you go, always there but never acknowledged because you know if you mentioned it to your friends they’d simply laugh and assume you were joking. But then one day you see your first airplane and your whole life changes, because somewhere inside of you a tiny piece of that sadness is transmuted into a faint hope that, though you will never have wings, you may nevertheless someday get the chance to fly. And from that day on it will never be enough simply to live with that sadness anymore.
The situation I find myself in after coming out is that of having to constantly negotiate and renegotiate the terms between the tradition I’ve fallen in love with and the self that seems to be constantly threatening to spill over the boundaries within which that tradition operates. It is not so much the violation itself that I fear as the possibility of finding myself in a place where the tradition cannot support me nor I it. In seeking out the lesser-known corners of the Jewish tradition for language that seems to speak to my situation, I’m never entirely sure whether it’s the tradition’s boundaries I’m stretching or my own. And somewhere throughout the process, silently watching from the wings, is the God who made me in this particular way but then left me alone without comment to search for my own answer to what that means.
A recent incident may serve to illustrate what my dilemma looks like in practical terms. I was contacted by a local rabbi who operates a small, independent religious school for children. She wanted to put me in contact with a family that needed a tutor to teach their daughter Hebrew in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah. I sat down with the family and had a great interview. They seemed very happy with what I had to offer and we arranged for a date for the first lesson. This was the first job I’d ever managed to get as myself, and for a little while I felt super confident.
But then about a week after the interview I received a call from the rabbi who’d recommended me for the job. There was an issue–the daughter had asked the parents about the irregularities in my appearance, and whent hey’d talked to the rabbi about it she’d had to confirm that I was a trans-woman still in the process of transition. The mother called, we talked. She was more or less sympathetic to my situation, but felt like she had to balance my right to have my identity respected with her daughter’s desire to have a “female” teacher, someone who had had a “Bat Mitzvah rather than a Bar Mitzvah,” someone “she could look up to as a role model.” In the end, several days later, I received word that they wouldn’t be requiring my services after all.
I make no judgment about the validity of the mother’s concerns. Twelve years old is a delicate age, as I remember all to well. No one, especially not a child, should be forced into a situation that makes them genuinely emotionally uncomfortable. At the same time, this situation illustrates the kind of difficult balancing act I find myself in every day. I wanted to become a rabbi in order to make myself useful to my adopted people, to fill a necessary function and feel like I was one of the folks working to help keep Jewish communities tightly knit and alive to the wisdom of our traditions. In order to fulfill this function it is necessary for me to be truly present for those I live and work with. I don’t have the option of burying myself deep inside and going through life in an emotionally deadened state. But at the same time, being who I truly am is frequently distracting and often actively disruptive in the places where I am needed. It’s a dilemma I haven’t solved yet, and I don’t expect to any time soon.
My experiences being transgender in the Jewish community have been mixed. It has certainly been the case that throughout this process I have been the recipient of more acceptance and earnest goodwill than I ever would have dared to hope. I believe that many people, both here at the GJC and at the RRC, have been able to pick up on how happy I have been to be able to be more myself and have been ready to respect where I am on this journey. This is one place where the “live and let live” attitude of progressive Judaism has been an enormous benefit to me, which is ironic, as I always seem to find myself arguing for a more structured halachic approach.
The other side to this, however, is that while in itself permission to simply be who you are is an enormous gift that I have no intention of taking lightly, it is only part of the equation. Always in my life up to this point, being for others has meant giving up who I was in order to be who they needed me to be. Now, to draw on Rabbi Hillel, I have been slowly, painfully learning how to be for myself. What still eludes me is how to be for others *as* who I am.
In order to get to that place, and in order to be the rabbi I need to be, it is vital to find a place for transgender identities that can live within Judaism, not simply as an exception falling within the range of tolerated difference, but growing out of our texts and traditions in an organic and essential way. For me, and for many transgender Jews like me who are active in the Jewish community, this is a project that we undertake every day out of necessity, but its eventual success depends just as much on the participation of people in communities like this one throughout the Jewish world.
3 thoughts on “My Talk at Presser Shabbat”
Yasher koach, Leiah. This is beautiful and brave. Being an agent for change is not always easy. But it is important and necessary work, and your strength will help give others strength.
It was a very moving talk. I’m a trans convert-to-be… I introduced myself after the panel. Is there a way we could get in touch by email? It’d be great to get to talk a little more.
Your blog entry is great Leiah! I think that it’s the personal stories have the most impact on people, help build acceptance in society and for those going through the same or similar journeys