As my 65th birthday approached my transgender personality had become desperate and demanded attention. Decades of self-deception did not bury my feminine self. She had in fact grown, despite isolation, neglect, and denial. I discovered a private dressing room, a place to give her a chance to breathe. I sought the aid of a therapist. Though I believed that I already had the answer, I asked whether I was, in her professional opinion, truly a transgender person. A dozen sessions later she affirmed my suspicion. Indeed I was transgender.
For decades my family had attended an orthodox synagogue. It was an exercise in cognitive dissonance for my hidden identity. Leviticus was at best conflicted about gender. I saw no possibility for reconciliation for Transgender vs. Judaism. Shortly after my therapist confirmed my identity, I heard breaking transgender news that stole my attention.
Abby Stein was an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jew. A direct descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, he was ordained as a rabbi at the age of 20. In 2012 she left the Hasidic community to authenticate her identity as a woman, incurring rejection by her entire family. That this could happen at all was a source of wonder to me. Hasidim are generally considered by mainstream Jews to be relics of a lost, archaic world. The Yiddish-speaking bubble that is Brooklyn (Williamsburg) featured English as a third language (after Hebrew) and American culture as background noise. Breaking out of that bubble is a one-way trip. Following her inner truth meant permanent isolation from her entire family.
That Abby emerged as an articulate spokeswoman for and passionate defender of Trans Jews was an inspiration. Her activism has set a standard for a range of progressive causes. Of particular interest to me was how she used her encyclopedic knowledge of traditional texts to demonstrate the case for gender flexibility in Judaism. She extracted explicit declarations from venerable rabbinic sources that validate the transgender experience. Orthodox rabbis generally remain silent in response to her arguments. They prefer to conceal themselves with the curtain of traditional censorship that admits no dissent.
In my 70th year it became clear that the lease on my secret life as a closet transwoman had expired. My youngest daughter was off to college. My marriage was on life support. The culture had slowly changed for the better – even Bruce Jenner could now become Caitlyn! The prospect of living inauthentically as a senior was repugnant to me. Coming out to my family, friends, and the world in general had surfaced as not a choice but an imperative and so, I came out.
For the previous few years I had studied the process of male-to-female transition. If I thought my diligence was thorough I was surprised by the reality. What seemed like a hermetically sealed case offered to my nuclear family unravelled quickly. I was stunned by their resistance and flummoxed by their rationale. My extended family took my news well, and close old friends accepted me generously. My business partner shrugged it off. In general the exercise went well but I had been met with sufficient unexpected resistance that I armed myself with a cautious defensiveness. I well understood that transition is a process fraught with uncertainty and unexpected outcomes.
The American poet and Chairperson in English at Stern College (Yeshiva University), Joy Ladin, encountered resistance to her coming out after earning tenure. The Orthodox institution responded in typically regressive fashion by classifying her as a person on paid leave from the college. Whether or not Ladin expected such a punitive measure is unknown but she responded with a lawsuit. She won. Her place is now secure as a gender visionary on the faculty of one of America’s most regressive cultural institutions. In her memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, she describes her gender transition and her non-orthodox religious faith.
My age has defined me as an outlier. To transition at 70 years old would seem to be a record but there is a precedent already set in this category. Susan Faludi (originally Friedman) in her book In the Darkroom describes her father’s transition at 74. This Hungarian-American Jew travelled to Thailand at her advanced age for gender-confirming surgery. As far as I know, she holds the septuagenarian record for transition. Better late than never.
The personalities, referenced here: Hirschfeld, Feinberg, Richards, Stein, and Ladin are all trail blazers. They have rejected traditional boundaries and definitions. They are or were all ethnic Jews, some religious, some not, but all motivated by essential Jewish values. A thirst for freedom and equality is applied to gender. Ladin fighting the legal battle against entrenched institutional conservatism. Stein turning the old-world values on their heads. Richards rocking professional sports, the nucleus of popular culture. Feinberg’s heroic leadership of the Female-to-Male transformation paradigm. Hirschfeld, possibly the original victim of Nazi violence as a champion of sexual-gender freedom.
All of them introduced fresh interpretation of reality at great personal cost. These are heroic individuals. The leadership and vision that they have displayed commands me to follow. The path forward has not yet been cleared and I’ll surely face some formidable challenges. I am guided by their courage.
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