At the tender age of 70, I have come out to the world as a transgender woman. Plagued by intractable anxiety and preoccupied with all things feminine I was surprised by the inescapable intersectionality conferred upon me involuntarily – that not only am I transgender, but I am a transgender Jew.
Judaism always seemed the right fit for me. Its implicit refutation of our dominant theology appealed to me. Personified by modern folk heroes like Einstein, Dylan (Zimmerman), and Koufax, it seduced me with inspiration. With teleological certitude Jewish Messianism offers the promise of a just revolution in our time and a profound endorsement of the counter-cultural impulse. It encouraged our rage against Nazis. It made us as one with all of America’s rejected minorities from the original Native Americans to the most recently-arrived Syrian refugees.
I embrace this rare classification with enthusiasm. I’ve discovered that transgender Jewry features an elite element that could not possibly include me. Or could it?
Home offered this child ample love and flawless care. At the age of ten I had a solitary experience that informed me, unequivocally, that I was a girl. I realized immediately that this knowledge had to be buried, hidden deep within my soul. In those days I would have been the subject of clinical concern. Its consequences were to be avoided at all costs. Hiding it was easy enough though I did not understand its consequences at that time. Trans kids today enjoy a freedom unimagined by me. Legions of parents are opening their hearts to their trans children, welcoming a new awareness, encouraging the kids to authenticate, supporting their aspirations. Not so in the early 50’s. I never dreamed of sharing my secret with my parents. They were well-educated, open-minded, and liberal people but were poorly equipped to deal with a cultural paradigm shift of this magnitude. The girl inside me became a phantom.
The turmoil of adolescence was officially kicked off with my Bar Mitzvah. It would be the last hurrah for family togetherness before my maternal grandfather’s death and about a year before my two brothers and me were all arrested and convicted, independently, for cannabis offenses. I had no idea at all that our tranquil world was on the brink of collapse. The Bar Mitzvah reflected our baby boom generation’s reality. Three boys were squeezed in to that date, sharing the recitation of the weekly Torah portion, some months prior to my thirteenth birthday, I had been a serious student in Hebrew school. I embraced those studies and excelled at them. Judaism had become for me a prism through which I viewed the universe. I found it conveniently malleable and I selected features of it that resonated for me. The result was a progressive and ultra-modern version of Judaism that has guided me until now.
In Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein, the author displays a photo of herself at her own Bar Mitzvah. Kate is just a year older than me. Her family background is quite similar to mine – educated, middle class, Conservative (not politically conservative, in this case it ironically refers to a liberal movement in Judaism) Ashkenazic Jews. The photo displayed the image of a boy much like me, clad in yarmulka and tallis, prepared to assume the responsibilities of manhood. Unlike me, Kate reached manhood and soon took a sharp left turn. Kate became a woman in her 30’s and pursued a career in literature and theater in which she continues to succeed. She advocates gender fluidity, a step beyond the transgender pardigm. That is a bridge too far for me but I applaud her vision.
Adolescence was a time of extreme dysphoria for me After all, my gender conflict was well-interred and I gave it no oxygen. I dedicated myself to compliance with the prevailing cultural norms. I was unable to identify the reason but some essential part was missing from my life. A few aborted attempts at college made matters worse. It would be years before I was able to settle down and complete a college degree.
Transexuality, as it was then known, was launched into modern western consciousness by Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, founded by him in 1919 in Berlin. The Jewish-German physician and sexologist influenced a change in the way that Germans perceived sexuality. Naturally, he was targeted by Nazis. The institute was attacked in 1933 in one of the first of the infamous book burnings. The buildings were also thoroughly destroyed. Commenting on the book burnings was super-Nazi Joseph Goebbels. “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.”, thus a connection between the transgender world and the Jews was established. It is a connection that has survived the twentieth century and flourishes today.
At nineteen years old I was summoned by my local draft board to the Boston military induction center. I was determined to beat them at their game of exploiting America’s youth to benefit America’s defense establishment via Vietnam. I fibbed filling out forms asserting that I was a drug addict, a communist, a homosexual. I gave a speech to a roomful of willing recruits admonishing them that many would return in body bags from this adventure. I inscribed my Selective Service number on my forearm, as done in WWII concentration camps. I carried a letter from a psychologist claiming that my induction would amount to a disaster for the U.S. Army. I won – they sent me home early. I became an officially radicalized menace to the prevailing social order, but I’d carefully omitted transgender identity from my agenda.
Leslie Feinberg was born in 1949, a few months after me, to a working-class Jewish family. Her pronouns are fluid – Leslie herself was indifferent to them unless they were uttered by a bigot. Feinberg became involved with the Worker’s World Party in her twenties and eventually became managing editor of the Worker’s World newspaper. Leslie’s notable non-fiction works include Trans Liberation and Trans Warriors in which she advocates for people who have navigated the cultural frontiers of gender. While I was offering moral support to the left and mired in a miasma of trans-fear and anxiety, Leslie brought genuine leadership to an embryonic movement. Her name is displayed on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor in the Stonewall National Monument. Her legacy is iconic.
When I reached my 30s my hidden transgender identity had been established. Episodes of exploration and discovery had become the rule, albeit followed up with purging, gult, revulsion, and desperate intent to not repeat. It was a roller coaster of elation that inevitably resulted fear and loathing, a typical mode of transgender self-repression. It was about this time that I became aware of the plight of Dr. Richard Raskin. Raskin enjoyed elite perks. Both parents were doctors. He referred to himself as “a nice Jewish boy”. Raskin was an elite athlete at Yale. His sports talent qualified him for the professional tennis circuit. All was calm until he revealed his transgender identity. The U.S.Tennis Association changed its rules to obstruct his participation. The U.S.T.A. acted as if they were the cultural police, attempting to assure that social values would be safeguarded. Now named Renee Richards, she seemed to spend as much time in court as she did on the court. I was privately fascinated by Renee. Her heroic efforts to break through a quagmire of stagnant attitudes was inspiring. She eventually won her case against the USTA and played in the U.S. Women’s Open, also securing her place as a twentieth century transgender pioneer.
As my 65th birthday approached my transgender personality had become desperate and demanded attention…
So, now what? (Stay tuned for Part 2)
- Transgender Jews: Intersectional Study Part 2 – by R. A. Crevoshay - January 8, 2020
- Transgender Jews: An Intersectional Study Part 1 – by R. A. Crevoshay - December 10, 2019