Monday, November 12, 2012

Transgender Jews: Moving Towards the Blessing of Inclusion

Many thanks to all those who made the Stefan Presser Memorial Social Justice Shabbat 2012 such a profound experience.  Donald Joseph, our chair, Rabbi Annie Lewis, our Darshan, and our four fabulous speakers all deserve our thanks: Nurit Schein, David Teutsch, Leiah Moser, and Yoel Solís.

Here are the talks by Rabbi Lewis and Leiah Moser.   They are long!!

To See and to Celebrate: Community, Identity and the Stories of our Selves

Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5773 * November 10, 2012  

see me through
your own eyes
i am here.

don't look for me
in poems
i'm not there.

don't look for me in
shadowy faces
i'm not there.

see me through
your own eyes
i am here.

once. when or with whom
i disappeared went
into hiding behind
my own skull
wasn't seen for a decade or two
wasn't seen for a decade or two.

now i am back
carrying my life in a small bag
now i am back
holding open my hands
holding open my hands.

see me through
your own smile
i am here.

see me through
your own smell
i am here.

see me through
your own eyes
i am here
i am here...

We enter today’s parsha with a question.  Has anybody seen Isaac?  He has not been seen since the day his father bound his limbs with wood on an altar on a mountaintop.  But even before that, did anybody really see Yitzhak?  He was God’s gift to his parents.  He was the miracle of Sarah’s old age.  He was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that from him would spring a great nation.  But who is Isaac is his own eyes, in his own right?

When we meet Yitzhak again this week, he is on his way from a place called Be’er Lechai Ro’i.  He has gone out into the field in the light of late afternoon, to pour out his prayers.

This place called Be’er Lechai Ro’i was given its name by Hagar, after she ran away into the desert, fleeing harsh treatment at the hands of her mistress, Sarai. Here, God appears to her and promises her that she, too, will be a great nation.  Here, Hagar gives God a name, El Ro’i, the One who sees me. Here at Be’er Lechai Ro’i, whose name means, “the Well of the Living One who sees me,” parched and worn down, Hagar’s spirit is restored to her.

According to Rashi, at the opening of this week’s parsha, Yitzhak has gone to Be’er Lechai Ro’i to bring Hagar back to his father - so that Avraham might marry her after the death of Sarah.

Giving voice to Isaac on the altar, Rabbi Shai Held offers a different reason for Isaac’s pilgrimage to this place called Be’er Lechai Ro’i.  His experience of trauma at the hands of his father binds him to Hagar.

In Rabbi Held’s words, Isaac prays, “If somehow I make it out of here alive, I am going to go find Hagar and bring her home.  I think I know what she must feel like.  Maybe we could comfort each other.”

Isaac knows there is a person who will understand what he has been through.  He knows there is a place where he might be seen for the fullness of who he is.  There is an oasis where he might be free from the rigid expectations of others. Our Torah promises that there is such a place of seeing and being seen.  Hagar found solace and nourishment in this place and named it “Be’er Lechai Ro’i - the Well of the Living One who sees me.” Yitzhak went there to reconnect to life.  Can we imagine creating such a space of healing and wholeness? A place where we may call out, “See me through your own eyes.  I am here.” 

Throughout my life, there have been times when I have found a type of “Be’er Lechai Ro’i” in the words of a poet or in the pages of a book.  I want to share with you the wisdom of one of those books today, a book called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.[2]  Covering was written by Kenji Yoshino, a law professor and poet, a gay American, and the son of Japanese immigrants. Yoshino touches on questions of civil rights and the complexity of expressing one’s full identity in the public sphere. I share his teachings in memory of Stefan Presser, zichrono livracha, who was so deeply committed to civil rights, human dignity and the diversity of human experience.

“Love is a narrative permission,” Yoshino writes, “Stories can be told from within its bounds.”
“Love is a narrative permission.  Stories can be told from within its bounds.”

I discovered Covering as I was living in Israel and applying for rabbinical school.  It was the year the Jewish Theological Seminary changed its policy to admit openly gay and lesbian rabbis.  My first year as a student, as we approached the anniversary of the Chancellor’s momentous decision, I came together with a group of students and faculty to plan a “Day of Celebration.”  We got some pushback as there were those in the community who had disagreed with the change in admissions policy and the responsa ratified by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that precipitated the decision.  They found the change incompatible with their understanding of halacha.  They believed in the pluralism of the Conservative movement and they felt that a celebration of one position would exclude them and render them outside the camp.  In the name of respecting their sentiments, we were asked to tone down the name of the event, to change it from the “Day of Celebration” to the “Day of Inclusion.”

Frustrated, I flipped through the pages of Covering.  Blending personal story, poetry and legal history, Yoshino addresses “the covering demand,” what he views to be the “civil rights issue of our time.”

“Everyone covers,” Yoshino writes in his opening line of the book. The term “covering” was coined by sociologist Erving Goffman.  “Covering” is defined as the act of downplaying an aspect of a stigmatized identity. Though the law presumably protects an individual’s right to inhabit a minority identity or one disfavored by the mainstream, demands may still be imposed on a person to mute the volume or decrease the visibility of traits tied to this identity.

Yoshino gives examples of how Americans have been asked to cover when it comes to aspects of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and physical & mental disability. He reminds us how President Roosevelt covered, hiding his wheelchair behind his desk when appearing before his Cabinet.

He discusses American Airlines’ policy prohibiting employees from wearing all-braided hairstyles, a policy that was challenged in court by an African American operations agent claiming it was discriminatory towards African American women. In that case, Rogers vs. American Airlines, the district court ruled in favor of the airline.

Yoshino traces the narrative of the struggle for civil rights for gay Americans.  He tells of a time when there was a widespread societal demand for "conversion," in which those who were gay were subjected to painful methods such as electric shock therapy in the hopes that they would become straight.  Then came an era of passing, as seen in policies of "don't ask, don't tell".  More recently, as the law has expanded protections for those who are openly gay, covering demands remain in place - cultural pressures that ask individuals not to flaunt their sexual orientation.  

In some places in this country, overt discrimination and violence against gay and lesbian Americans has given way to more subtle, institutionalized discrimination and lack of equal protection.  Reading Yoshino’s book helped me to find language for the gap between the work of policy change and the work of culture change.

When I arrived at JTS, people no longer had to hide in the closet, fearing expulsion if their identities were revealed. With the shift in policy, gay and lesbian Jews were able to study at JTS to be ordained as rabbis or invested as cantors.  Yet, that first year after the policy change, when  we were asked to change the name of the “Day of Celebration” to the “Day of Inclusion,” it was clear that though the policy had changed,  the culture had not yet caught up.  It was okay to be queer in theory, as long as one was not too loud or outspoken about it, for fear of offending others. For those of us at JTS who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and queer allies, there was still much work to be done. 

I will always remember that first “Day of Inclusion” at JTS. It was, in fact, a day of celebration and a day of storytelling.   Moving away from the focus on responsa and legal argumentation  that had dominated the conversation in the Conservative movement for years, alumni who had gone through JTS in the closet returned to the sanctuary to speak their truths and to tell their stories.  Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, sang “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy,” inviting all who were present into the space in our fullness.“It’s safe to come out now,” she said.  Together, we celebrated and wept for the blessings of inclusion.

We wept and celebrated and before we knew it, it was time to fight again.  We realized that the Seminary hadn’t extended its admissions policy to bisexual or transgender students and that our Seminary’s Israel program required students to enroll at Machon Schechter, an institution that at the time did not permit the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.  There was much work to be done to create a culture where students of all sexual orientations and gender identities could flourish in our fullness.

My teacher, Merle Feld, once asked me, “Annie, Are you more connected with what has changed already or with what still needs to change?”  In general, I would say I am more attuned to the thirst for change.  However, standing on the stage at my ordination as a rabbi, I had a moment of gratitude for the way things had moved at the Seminary in the five years I had been there.  Machon Shechter, our sister seminary in Israel had just changed its policy to allow for the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. For the first time a course was offered on issues of “Gender & Sexuality for Religious Professionals.” For the past year, the Chancellor has been meeting with a group of students to discuss the Seminary’s admissions and employment policies for transgender individuals. 

Often, I wish the change would come faster.  And at the same time, I am humbled by and indebted to those who passed through the halls of JTS before me, who fought hard for the inclusion of women and queer rabbinical students. I feel hopeful picturing the faces of the students who are there now, continuing the work of policy and cultural change that my classmates and I inherited.

This week in our country, there is much work to be done and there is much to celebrate in the work of advancing civil rights for queer Americans.  In Minnesota, a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was defeated. In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin was elected as the first openly gay member of the United States Senate. Same sex marriage was legalized in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Soon by you, Pennsylvania! Soon by you!

This Shabbat, as we honor Stefan Presser, zichrono livracha, as we think about civil rights and as we prepare to hear the stories of transgender Jews in our community, I want to offer some questions for conversation to help us think about our own community, where we have come from and where we hope to go to ensure the flourishing of the multiplicity of individuals within our midst.  To create among us a type of Be’er Lechai Ro’i - a life-giving well, a place of seeing and being seen.  A place of “narrative permission,” where love flows and stories abound.

Here are some questions and prompts for discussion:

Are you more connected with what has changed already or with what still needs to change? What factors in your life have shaped your stance?

Tell a story of an experience when you felt pressure to “cover,” to downplay an aspect of a stigmatized identity in order to conform with social norms.

What can we do to make our “community of communities” here at Germantown Jewish Centre best resemble Be’er Lechai Ro’i, an oasis of seeing and being seen?
A Parting Blessing:

May the One who created the world through words give us the courage to tell our stories. 

May God grant us a life-giving combination of patience and urgency,
as we work for a community and a country where all individuals may flourish in their fullness. 

May we see one another through our own eyes.
As we are.

[1] Sonia Sanchez is the poet laureate of the city of Philadelphia
[2] Yoshino, Kenji. Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. New York: Random House, 2006Leiah Lin Moser


Leiah Moser's Words:

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 (and still have) a partner whom I loved and who loved me in return. 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.

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