Being A Woman

For me – and, I imagine, a lot of other trans women out there – the recent flurry of media attention around the appearance of Caitlyn Jenner in Vanity Fair has given rise to a whole complicated array of feelings, not the least of which may be longing for a time when everybody will finally stop talking about Caitlyn Jenner.

Partially, this is due to the way in which the discussion of Jenner’s transition in the media serves as a constant reminder of the painful dilemma which every trans woman with the audacity to want to live and be recognized as the gender she feels herself to be faces every day of her life: If she doesn’t “pass” – which is to say, essentially, if she doesn’t manage to live up to this society’s incredibly narrow and unforgiving standards of female attractiveness and feminine behavior enough to fly under the radar of those who would evaluate and pass judgment upon her femininity – then she is in constant danger of rejection, public scorn and even physical violence every time she walks out her front door. On the other hand, if she dresses or behaves in a way that comes across as too “stereotypically feminine,” or if she appears to take pleasure in any aspect of looking, acting or dressing in a feminine manner, then she opens herself to rejection and ridicule of another kind, this often coming from self-described feminists who, frankly, ought to know better.

If this dilemma sounds awfully familiar to cisgender women who at some point in their lives have had to deal with similar issues around body image and the toxic double standards of a society in which it is often just as unacceptable for women to be “too feminine” as it is for them to be “not feminine enough,” then it ought to give one pause, given that one of the many accusations which trans women find ourselves saddled with on a regular basis is precisely that we will never “count” as “real women” because we lack the “experiences” and “socialization” which constitute authentic female identity. Leaving aside the sheer blindness to cultural, racial, medical, economic and class differences inherent in the claim that that there is one unifying set of experiences which unambiguously establish one’s status as a woman, it is a source of constant amazement to me how comfortable certain people feel in making claims about the lived experience of others – especially when these claims are leveled for the purpose of invalidating the identities of an already marginalized group of people.

Frankly, I am tired of the debate about how to define womanhood – the standards in this debate are simply too prone to shift at a moment’s notice in any way necessary to support the preconceived notions of those for whom the invalidity of my identity is a foregone conclusion. Is it any wonder that trans people, faced with the constant, overwhelming pressure to justify themselves to a world which isn’t willing to accept them on any account, sometimes have recourse to simplistic explanations involving the brain or the notion of having been “born in the wrong body?”

The simple truth of the matter is that gender identity is an incredibly complicated phenomenon whose origins and nature have never been satisfactorily explained. Is gender physical? Neuro-chemical? Psychological? Cultural? Legal? Does it have its origins in our anatomy or our life experiences or in some mysterious realm of the spirit? If we are being truly honest with ourselves, the answer to all of these questions is an unqualified “maybe.” We simply don’t have the language to deal with something as complicated as identity with any degree of comprehensiveness. About the only concept that truly does it justice to gender identity is one which has sadly fallen out of favor in our hyper-materialist, over-medicalized society: the soul. It used to be that “a soul” was synonymous with “a person,” and the nature of a person’s soul was a deep, inner mystery shared between that person and the divine source from which it flowed. To presume to know another person’s soul required an incredible amount of time, patience and intimate closeness. In our efforts to reduce everything in the world to that which it is possible to analyze and critique in the space of an online journal article, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something along the way, something that would be tremendously useful in understanding gender.

In the absence of a clear understanding of everything that goes into making us who we are, all that I and people like me can do in the face of an unsympathetic world is to assert our experience – not some abstract, essentialist version of a unifying “male” or “female” experience, but the messy, concrete, lived experience of real people who know who we are, even if we can’t always show you the math of that equation in a way that would make sense to anyone but ourselves. And really, isn’t this inability to fully articulate the mystery of ourselves just another example of an experience with which all of us, no matter what our identity, can identify?

10 Things I Learned This Year At Philly Trans Health

10 Things I Learned This Year At Philly Trans Health Conference:

 

  1. There’s a lot of ableism in the way I habitually speak and I need to spend some real time working on that.
  2. There are a remarkable number of different ways to spell “Aiden.”
  3. There are so many trans Jewish converts out there I’m surprised we didn’t get our own section in the PEW report.
  4. It turns out I like the way I look in a bathing suit.
  5. Sometimes the familiar is more scary than the unknown. (Thanks Hannah)
  6. People on the autism spectrum always have the best toys.
  7. As Janet Mock said with so much more eloquence, self care is great and all, but we’ve really got to take care of each other.
  8. Apparently I missed out on some great fan fiction during the 90’s.
  9. Convention center staff can be summoned merely by uttering their True Name.
  10. My name in ASL from now on is apparently this:

subway

Gender Zones

“Will you wait here, please?”

The young man at the security desk scurried off to consult with his superior, leaving my travelling companion and I looking at each other across our massive pile of luggage as if to say, “Well, here it comes.” There’s a certain sense of inevitability that follows you when you’re travelling as a transgender person, the understanding that if this checkpoint goes smoothly, there’s always the next … and the next. Travelling long distances is disorienting for anyone, but for me it isn’t simply a matter of the time zones separating my destination from my point of origin, but of what I have come to think of as gender zones – those ill-defined fields of perception and official recognition within which my social gender is liable to fluctuate wildly in ways I can neither predict nor clearly perceive.

Gender zones are a fact of my existence. I move through them constantly every moment of my life. No matter where I am or who I am with, I’m never entirely sure how I’m being perceived. Nevertheless, there are some times in my life when the feeling is more intense. These are moments (going through security while preparing to board an international flight, for example) when the need to present identification or provide an official account of myself forces a breach in the barrier between all my different selves — the public and the private, the internal and the external, who I am for myself, and who I am in the eyes of others, particularly strangers. Under the gaze of officialdom the waveform collapses and all the complexities of my identity are forced, however incoherently, to speak in one voice.

“Is something wrong?” I asked the rather beautiful woman in a severe ponytail and an airport security uniform who was walking in my direction with a look of mild concern on her face.

“There is a question about your passport,” she said a bit hesitantly, fumbling for the words in English with which to politely articulate the problem. I doubt I could ever have explained to her how much the effort meant to me, but she needn’t have bothered. I knew without looking what part of the page she was pointing to. “It says here…”

“Yes,” I said, trying to keep as much of the fatigue and exasperation from my voice as possible. I’d already been waiting at the airport for several hours to be able to check in. “I’m transgender. I consider myself to be a woman but my passport still says I’m male. I haven’t been able to get my documents changed yet.”

“Oh,” she appeared to consider this for a second. “Alright. Did you pack your bags yourself? Are you sure someone didn’t maybe give you something to hold for him? …”

The usual round of repetitive security questions finished, we moved on to get in line to get our boarding passes. I was craning my neck to see how many more people were in line ahead of us when a voice called out behind me.

“Ladies?”

At first it didn’t occur to me that we were the ones being called to. When I turned around it was the same woman from security. “I will give you the name of my superior. When you go through the baggage check, ask for her so that you will not have to explain about these things again.”

There’s a certain sense of inevitability that follows you when you’re travelling as a transgender person, the understanding that if this checkpoint goes smoothly, there’s always the next … and the next. But sometimes, at this one, something happens — something you can take with you, to help face all the checkpoints to come.

Space Invaders

A sketch by the author

I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently: About the ways it shapes our lives, about the ways access to space is granted or denied. Space is one of those things — like any form of privilege really — that you don’t really tend to notice unless you’ve experienced for yourself what it’s like to have the right to the space you need to live challenged or taken away. The country where I live has a lot to say on the subject of space, of who belongs where, and why. I suspect that no matter where you live, you could say the same.

What really got me thinking about the subject of space was all the work we’ve been doing at JCUA this summer around immigration reform. During the course of my time working for Or Tzedek, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of brilliant, passionate activists working for immigrants’ rights and to hear their stories and the stories of many others who have been impacted by the utterly shameful mess that is the United States’ immigration system. Listening to all these stories, it has sometimes been surprising how familiar they seem. The experience of living your life in limbo, of occupying a space that doesn’t officially “belong” to you for reasons too complex and personal to be understood by those who are deeply uncomfortable with your presence — this is something that speaks to the core of my own experience and motivates me to be an ally for undocumented immigrants in their struggle for recognition.

There’s a blessing I say regularly, twice each day, when I am taking the hormones that are slowly working to make my body feel more like home. I believe it was originally composed by Elliot Kukla, and it goes like this:

ברוך אתה יי אלקינו מלך העולם המעביר לעוברים

Blessed are you our God, ruler of the universe, who brings across those who cross over.

There is a lot packed into this one, deceptively simple, little sentence. For starters, there is the terminology it uses to refer to transitioning and to those who transition. עבר in Hebrew is a verbal root meaning “to cross.” Its associations in Judaism are complex: On the one hand, it can carry the sense of “crossing over a moral boundary line,” as for example in עבירה — “transgression.” On the other hand, the idea of “crossing over” is fundamental to the Jewish concept of redemption. The two great redemptive moments in the Hebrew Bible — being taken out of slavery in Egypt and being brought into the land of Cana’an — both involve the symbolically powerful act of crossing over a boundary represented by a body of water.

In using עבר to refer to a transgender person’s move to transition toward living the gender they identify as, Kukla seems to be making a rather radical statement about the place of trans experience in Judaism — removing it from עבירה, the rejected periphery of transgressive behavior, and placing it right smack dab in the redemptive center of the Jewish tradition. Margaret Moers Wenig, in her article “Spiritual Lessons I Have Learned From Transsexuals” (in Balancing on the Mechitza), goes even further perhaps when she attempts to determine a proper Jewish term for “transsexual” and eventually settles on the word עברי — which also happens to be the Hebrew word for Hebrew!

Both Kukla and Wenig make the point that the experience of crossing over into a new and more authentic life is central to both Jewish and transgender experience, and hence that these two identities are not as unrelated or even contradictory as some might assume. In the seemingly radical act of creating a blessing for gender transition, Kukla is merely asserting what those of us who are trans already know in our hearts — that, legal or not, accepted or not, sanctioned or not, the need to cross over is inscribed in the book of our lives, written in letters too deep to be effaced, by a hand greater than our own.

It is that same need — the need to cross over, to be recognized and counted, to come out of the shadows and into the light — that I recognize in the stories of the millions of undocumented immigrants who live among us, who share the same space and contribute to our society in a thousand unacknowledged ways, and who nevertheless are frequently denied even the most basic elements of human dignity. It is in the courage of undocumented youth who, at incredible personal risk, come out of the shadows to protest the injustice of deportations and the denial of legal protection from discrimination and exploitation. It is a need that, like all human needs, is grounded in the lived experience of real people who deserve to be seen and to be heard, not hidden behind a smokescreen of anxiety and misinformation erected by those who would use our fear of a largely imaginary “other” to cement their own power and influence.

Access to space is important — space to live and to grow, to share and to prosper. To be denied that necessary space is to be denied an important part of one’s humanity. This is something I believe all of us know, deep down, although the stories we tell ourselves of danger and scarcity sometimes make us forget that truer, deeper knowledge. As the debate in Congress over comprehensive immigration reform continues, and as we perhaps consider whether and how to add our voices to that debate, may we not lose sight of that fundamental need — and of the ways in which each of us, in our own manner, has been impelled by the circumstances of our lives, or our own nature, or by the mysterious hand of the Divine, to be crossers-over.

Transitioning as care for the body

When the soul intuits that something is beneficial and healthful to the body, its thoughts are drawn to it, and it longs for it so as to remain free of bodily ills and afflictions.

Quote from Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda’s “Duties of the Heart” (חובות הלבבות), a medieval work of musar we’ve been reading excerpts of in Contemplative Readings. When talking about the love of God, Rabbi Bachya makes an interesting point: The body, as he sees it, is given to the soul as a kind of test, and it is the soul’s responsibility to care for the body and see to its welfare. While the soul has its own natural desires and inclinations, it must also see to the needs of the body that has been delivered into its care.

What this got me thinking of was a certain narrative about trans people I’m sure we’re all familiar with by now–the one that goes, “So-and-so is a woman trapped in a man’s body,” or vice-versa. The inherent dualism of this way of thinking is pretty obvious, as it seems to assume that a person (a soul?) is ontologically separate from the body they inhabit.  Furthermore, it treats the body as basically inert, a shell or a tool which we are judging to be more or less compliant with the soul’s wishes and sense of self, with little inherent value of its own.

But what if we, like Rabbi Bachya, thought of the body as a living, suffering thing in its own right, with its own needs and troubles which the soul is obligated to redress? From this point of view, it becomes possible to look at transition (hormones, surgery, or what have you) not as the soul bullying the body into complying despite its resistance, but as the soul doing its best to care for the needs of a body that is crying out desperately to be other than what it is.

The way I experience it, being trans is not fundamentally a sickness of the soul. Insofar as I believe myself to have a soul, I understand that inner essence to be essentially sexless and probably genderless as well. If we didn’t have bodies, we wouldn’t ever have to worry about gender. The body, however, has a sex and serves as a locus for gender, and it is the body as well that suffers from the unpleasant feeling of being off-kilter, unbalanced and ill-fitting. Unlike a number of people in my life who appear to understand my transition as something unnatural I am doing to my body, I understand myself to be responding to my body’s need to feel more natural, more comfortable “in its skin.” This is what is at stake over the attempts in some quarters to redefine being transgender from a mental condition to a medical condition, and I support this move because it seems to make more sense from the standpoint of many of us who have to live with this on a daily basis.

The Marvelous Land of Oz (Massive Spoiler Alert!!!)

So partially inspired by the kerfluffle over this latest Oz movie–where the producer apparently decided there just weren’t enough fairy tales with “good, strong male leads” and therefore decided to ignore all the awesome stories L Frank Baum actually wrote and make a movie about his fanfic where the wizard is totally the best and all those hot witches totally dig him or something–I decided to grab a collection of the Oz novels off Amazon and read some of the books I hadn’t before.

The first one I selected to read was The Marvelous Land of Oz, apparently the first one he wrote after Wizard. And I’m reading along and having a great time, but all the time I’m thinking–“This guy who made the movie is even dimmer than I thought, ’cause what is he talking about no male protagonists, lol?” Because the Dorothy-character in the second novel (i.e. token human protagonist who did not used to be an inanimate object) is a boy. His name is Tip, and he’s pretty cool.

It wasn’t until I was about two thirds of the way through the book that I started thinking, “Wait, he isn’t…this isn’t going where I think it’s going, is it? Not in a children’s book written before women had the right to vote?”  And then somehow, impossibly, it did. Major spoiler alert: Tip isn’t a boy. She’s a girl. A queen in fact, rightful ruler of the Emerald City, whose father was deposed by that jerkwad Oz. In order to cement his hold over his usurped throne, the wizard hands over the baby girl to a witch named Mombi who transforms her into a boy–because in Oz, apparently, people are going to be less likely to assume the child you’ve kidnapped is the rightful ruler of someplace if she’s a boy.

The scene in which Tip is returned to her original form alone is worth the price of admission. It’s beautiful, it’s sweet, and above all it’s respectful. Unlike just about every transformation scene in every fairytale in the history of ever, Tip is not transformed back into Ozma in public view with all the other characters watching like weird voyeurs made of wood, straw, pumpkins and various bits of metal. Rather, she’s allowed to transform in a private space, shielded from the eyes of all, even the narrator. As fantasies of transition go, it’s simply gorgeous.

But even beyond this, what struck me was the complete reversal of the tired, misogynistic gender values we’re so used to seeing. Finally, a book (a children’s book, no less!) in which changing from a male to a female is not looked upon as “trading down” in terms of dignity, respect and social status! Tip is initially slightly reluctant ti give up her status as a boy, but in the context of the story this reads more as nervousness about giving up the change to wander around and have adventures with her friends for the responsibility of being a queen–and she is immediately reassured by everyone that she cans till do all the things, and be all the things, as a girl that she could as a boy.

How is it possible that a book like this could have been written in 1904 and we’re still struggling with all this transmysogynistic crap in our own time? My advice? Give the most recent Oz fanfic a miss and read through some of the original books. You might just find something that surprises you.

עשיית רב (A Mentoring Ritual)

Introduction:

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות.

–Joshua ben Prachya said: “Make a teacher for yourself, get yourself a companion, and judge every human being on the side of merit.” (Mishna Avot, 1:6)

כל המלמד בן חברו תורה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו ילדו.

–One who teaches another’s child Torah is regarded by the tradition as one who gave birth to the child. (bSanhedrin 198b)

It has been taught: R. Akiba said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben ‘Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? — He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn. (bBer 62a)

The ritual of עשיית רב acknowledges that it is not solely in the study of Judaism’s sacred literature that a person might be in need of a Rav. Especially when we are undergoing radical changes in our lives we often find ourselves with questions about matters both simple and profound that we would ordinarily be too embarrassed or self-conscious to ask. Most people implicitly understand this fact about adolescents, and there are many people who naturally find themselves stepping forward to occupy the place of mentor in a young person’s life, but it is easy to forget that adults too go through such formative periods of change, and are sometimes in need of someone to whom they can say, “It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn.”

This is a ritual for individuals going through an intensely emotional transitional experience in their lives, one that will profoundly transform their sense of identity and the way they relate to others. Its inspiration comes from careful consideration of my own experiences going through gender transition. It seems that a lot of our life cycle rituals are too focused on marking a transition as a point in time and not focused enough on ensuring that the individual undergoing transition has access to the kind of support structure they need to grow into the new roles they are undertaking in life. This ritual therefore serves as a way for a person going through such a process to designate a mentor or mentors to help guide them through their transition, watch out for them, and help them learn some of what they need to know to comfortably grow into their new identity.

Preparation:

Before the ritual the person for whom the ritual is being performed (henceforward “the subject’ or “talmid”) should work with their rabbi  or spiritual advisor to find a suitable mentor or mentors willing to help them through their time of transition. Mentors should a.) have life experience appropriate to advising their talmid on matters relevant to their transition, b.) be generally mature and emotionally stable c.) have a personal connection with the talmid and a willingness to be available as a support and a mentor.

Setting:

The first part of the ritual should take place someplace relatively private. A rabbi’s study or a synagogue meeting room is ideal. The rabbi should welcome the talmid and the mentor and invite them to sit down. Everyone should take some time to talk about the nature of the changes in the talmid’s life, what she is excited about and what she is anxious about, and what she hopes to learn from the mentor. When everyone is comfortable, the rabbi opens as follows:

Rabbi:
In Pirkei Avot, it is written: עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות. “Make a teacher for yourself, get yourself a companion, and judge every human being on the side of merit.” (Talmid), as you enter into a new period in your life, with new challenges to be met and roles to be filled, you have chosen to heed the advice of Joshua ben Prachya by seeking out (Mentor) as a mentor, to learn from her Torah and benefit from her experience. In the traditions of our people, the relationship between teacher and student is very deep and significant. In the Talmud is recorded a saying that one who teaches another’s child Torah is regarded by the tradition as one who gave birth to the child. (Mentor), by entering into this relationship you are agreeing to help (Talmid) know what she needs to know in order to fulfil her new role in life, to bring her into the community of her peers, to support her as she steps forward to meet the challenges of her developing identity and to respect the boundaries between you. Do you understand? [Space for affirmation] (Talmid), by entering into this relationship you are agreeing to receive instruction from (Mentor), to show kavod for her Torah, to benefit from her experience and to respect the boundaries between you. Do you understand? [Space for affirmation]

If either of you feel the need to define any further aspects of this relationship in order to ensure the mutual trust and security required for learning, now is the time to discuss them.

[Space for discussion]

As for myself, I stand in witness of this relationship of teacher and student, and promise to support you both in your new roles to the best of my ability. I now invite you each to affirm your new relationship to one another in language drawn from our tradition:

Mentor:

כי לקח טוב נתתי לכם, תורתי אל-תעזבו

“For I give you good instruction–do not forsake my teaching.” (Prov. 4:2)

Talmid:

תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך / צריכה

“This is Torah, and I must learn.” (bBer 62a)

The second (optional) part of the ritual would involve the talmid receiving an aliyah in order to publicly affirm the new role she is stepping into, ideally with the mentor present to introduce the talmid to the congregation. This part of the ritual should of course be omitted in the event that the transition in question is of a personal nature or would cause undue embarrassment.

Finally, some thought ought to be given to marking an end to the mentor/talmid relationship. At some point in every transition the most intense period has passed and the individual has more or less adjusted to their new place in life and their community. The talmid and mentor should seriously consider marking this occasion with a siyyum of some kind, for example by jointly sponsoring a kiddush to honor the distance the talmid has come in their personal development.