January 26, 2008

Transgender Issues / Judaism

I wanted to share an amazing experience I just had with all of you. Foregoing my usual Friday night service, I instead went to a service at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, an LGBT synagogue that you can learn more about by going to http://www.kol-ami.org/. I went this week because of a posting I saw on GayGevalt, specifically this one.

You see, the special guest this evening was HUC-JIR student Reuben Zellman, the first Transgender student to be admitted to Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement's seminary. I wanted to hear what he had to say, and it was truly phenomenal.

He spent a lot of time talking about ENDA, and how much the LGB community has in common with the T community. He spent a lot of time answering a question he says he often received when going to gay and lesbian synagogues: "Why are you here?" He even told us that there are over 200 references in the Babylonian Talmud and the Mishnah to gender variant and intersex people, all of whom were well-respected in the texts. The sermon was amazing; if I can find his contact information somewhere, and he is willing to share, perhaps we'll be able to either post a copy or link to it elsewhere.

It was fascinating also to see how the congregation (one I am admittedly unfamiliar with) dealt with this. The congregation appeared to be about 90% gay men, though I will note that I'm making many assumptions here (such as: a) That they were men, and b) That they were gay.) When Reuben offered to answer questions, and when he stayed for the oneg afterwards, I overheard some questions and comments made to him:

1) "My understanding is that transgender people are not gay or lesbian. Is this true?" As if Reuben, by being transgender, was the expert on these issues. Perhaps I should have just screamed "No. It's not true." But Reuben's answer was probably better: He noted how being transgender illustrates how society's little boxes don't adequately fit everybody. And with those boxes, it's hard to tell what "gay" or "lesbian" really means.

2) "You're the first transgender person I have ever met." This person was not young, so you have to wonder whether he had met somebody before in his life who is transgender but not "out", as it is customarily defined. Or has he not even thought about the gender variance in this queer synagogue alone, and realized that trans issues aren't out there, but in our everyday lives as well?

Reuben had been involved in the making of a pamphlet entitled "Making Your Jewish Community Transgender Friendly." I don't have time to type out all the suggestions, but I wanted to provide the list of resources so that they are available to everybody. I am copying everything listed:

TransTorah: www.transtorah.org (Coming Soon)
Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity: www.jewishmosaic.org
The Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation: www.huc.edu/ijso
The Sylvia Riviera Law Project: www.srlp.org
The Intersex Society of North America: www.isna.org
The National Center for Transgender Equality: www.nctequality.org
For basic definitions: http://web.mit.edu/trans/

Perhaps later, when I'm able to find the text, I'll include something else that was brought up that highlights the importance of not leaving members of our community behind (i.e. ENDA). That will be for another post.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for telling us about this. It sounds fabulous.

Hearing all this makes me think we should get some folks with fabulous ideas like Reuben Zellman to guest post if they are interested.


icarus said...

that sounds so great! also, GayGevalt is a clever name. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hey - thanks for yr great post! Wanted to let you know that www.transtorah.org is up now, and you can find the document "Making You Jewish Community Transgender-Friendly" there! (www.transtorah.org/resources.html)
Micah Bazant