What if a Jew Becomes a Jewess?
A few months ago, I got a call from my mom, a university professor, who had a student she described as “extremely androgynous with a unisex name.” She didn’t know how to address this student using a pronoun and asked me: “What should I do? What should I say?” I didn’t have a good answer. A few weeks later, at a party with some of my classmates from college, I found myself in a room with a number of biologically female alums who had begun using male pronouns, changed their names, or had altered their appearances either by dressing “male” or by starting a transition process with hormone therapy; many of these students had formerly identified as lesbians, and now, here they were as transmen.
Over the past few years, and particularly within the past few weeks, there seems to have been an explosion of transgender-related articles in the media, i.e. the Boston Globe, and in independent progressive Jewish publications -- Lilith, Zeek, the Jewish Week etc. This heightened attention is in sync with my perception of what’s going on around me: an increasingly visible and vocal transgender community. And so, in an effort to wrap my brain around all of this (which, for me, can be challenging), I’ve been thinking more about transgender issues and genderqueer identities particularly as they relate to feminism and the Jewish community.
While gay and lesbian identities are now overwhelmingly accepted by feminists and by (most) progressive Jews, transgender identities are still relatively new to the conversation. The word itself can be difficult to understand. Transgender, an umbrella term that encompasses anyone who doesn’t identify with the gender assigned at birth or whose gender-identity falls outside of the normative categories of “male” or “female,” can include individuals who take medical steps to modify their appearances and those who do not. To me, this definition is feminist in its orientation since loosening or deconstructing binary thinking about gender roles, gender presentation, and sexual identity is a feminist aim.
But what implications do transgender identities have for the ways in which feminists, particularly Jewish feminists, talk about gender? And how do trans identities fit within the Jewish community; a community whose organizational structures are built upon gender binaries, and whose liturgy, texts, and laws are largely gender-specific? Where does a trans person daven (pray) if there is a mechitzah (divider) that creates space for men and women, but no space for an uncategorized gender-identity? If an individual has undergone sex-reassignment surgery and has fully transitioned from female to male, does he count in a traditional minyan (the quorum of 10 men required for prayer)? What if a trans person is called to the Torah for an aliyah -- a special honor -- and the only language available for receiving that honor involves identifying oneself as either ben (son) or bat (daughter)? What about rabbinical school admissions policies? How might these policies affect rabbinical students who transition during their time in school? What about Jewish membership organizations that are gender-specific? If a member of Hadassah (a women’s organization) becomes male, how might this affect his involvement and/or membership status? These questions are just the beginning. And the answers aren’t easy.
It will be interesting to see how the mainstream Jewish community begins to address trans issues, which, like those for gays and lesbians, present a healthy challenge to the organizational structures upon which our community is built. These issues demand attention from the leaders and decision-makers of the Jewish community’s religious and cultural institutions whose perceptions of "the Jewish community" are often narrow. With time, I hope there can be greater inclusivity and accommodation of the range of gender expressions, experiences, and identities among all Jews.
For a more extensive read about trans issues and the Jewish community, check out Leah Koenig’s article in NewVoices, “The Wondering Jew: Judaism and Gender Identity”