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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community.

Balancing on the Mechitza Transgender in Jewish Community Edited by Noach Dzmura
North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California
250 pages $16.95

The transgender issue became a reality for me sometime in the 1970s when I met a guy in a Philadelphia public library. After going for coffee, we went to my place to become intimately acquainted. Almost immediately after disrobing and settling in under a number of quilts (it was a cold February) I noticed that George had what resembled emerging breasts. Since some male breasts contain excess fatty tissue which gives them the appearance of the female bust, I assumed that George had the fatty “gene” and left it at that.

No sooner did I think this then George looked at me and asked, “Would you mind calling me Becky?” His body stiffened at the question, as if he expected me to make a mad dash for the door.

I lied and told George that I didn’t mind while inside I did somersaults: I wanted a George and not a Becky. But since a name, after all, is just a name, we continued our romp without any mechanical difficulties. When it was over, it was over: I never saw “Becky” again.

Twenty years later a similar situation occurred when Milo, a twenty-four year old music student, answered a personal ad of mine. Milo, who described himself as being slight of build, agreed to a blind date and asked if I would meet him “halfway” at a local subway station. When I met Milo that October night, we boarded a bus for my house for an evening of pizza and movies. Three hours later, sitting side-by-side on my sofa, the truth came out. Although agreeable enough when it came to holding hands, when I later made the transition to “holding” Milo’s leg, he stiffened and became uncomfortable.

“I have to tell you something,” he announced. “I am a female to male trans person. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t.”

The announcement made me think of Becky, only this time I was actually making moves on a woman. “If you want me to leave, I will,” Milo said. I told her to stay because I wanted to hear her story. In fact, we remained seated for another hour or two talking about her transition, although the hand holding stopped. When it came time to say good-bye, conventional gender roles came to the fore: I walked and waited with Milo at the bus stop. Of course, I never saw her again, despite mutual promises that we would remain friends.

I mention these experiences because when the book “Balancing on the Mechitza, Transgender in the Jewish Community,” crossed my desk, I thought of Milo and how quickly the hand holding stopped once the sofa “mechitza” was firmly established. That division didn’t exist when we were operating as two males, but once the gender difference was announced, my attitude towards Milo changed considerably. Milo, you see, was a woman interested in becoming a man so that she could have relationships with men as a gay man.

The twenty-five contributors to this anthology include trans men and women from diversified backgrounds. Genderqueer activist, professors, Talmund scholars, rabbis, and seasoned writers reveal their personal stories in this book that will no doubt become a ‘must read’ in trans gender literature.

“Perception is crucial to Jewish notions of gender,” writes FTM Mechitza editor Noach Dzmura. “In fact, one minority Orthodox ruling on the ‘true gender’ of a postoperative transsexual is based on the idea that perception carries halacha. According to this possuk (rabbinic legal decision maker), a transsexual woman is a woman.”

Here we get into the nuances of ancient Jewish law, such as when Dzmura reminds readers that transgender people “force us to confront gender in a more complicated way, tacitly or overtly positing a hard to define ‘third space’ that exists outside the gender binary. It can be hard to categorize a person in a gender category, and harder still to remain certain about gender as a person transitions.”

I’ll say. After all, once Milo revealed his true sex, I didn’t know what to do. I was disappointed that there’d be no hot date, but on the other hand I knew there was a good story coming. It helped that I genuinely liked Milo.

Many times during the reading of Mechitza I found myself double checking the gender of the authors of the essays, proof positive that I had fallen into Dzmura’s “third space” where I had to figure things out.

In Jewish antiquity, for instance, something called the Mishnah Androgynos proscribed religious duties for a person with two sexes. As Dzmura notes, “True hermaphroditism is mythical…but intersex conditions (genitalia that exhibit some aspects of both sexes) are quite common. “ Hence (according to Dzmura) it is fitting to categorize some trans people in the same category as intersexed, meaning that although the authors of the ancient text may not have envisioned it that way, “there’s nothing to prevent readers of that ancient text today from thinking that way.”

Essayist Beth Orens writes, “…There was a time when I looked over the mechitza from the men’s section and wondered at the strangeness of a world in which I was trapped on the wrong side.” For Orens, transitioning within the Orthodox Jewish community was the only option; for her there simply was no option for an “easier” transition in the secular world.

“The thing about being Orthodox is, the law is the law, even when it’s inconvenient. I’d started electrolysis treatments, but the only way I could show my face in public without stubble or shadow being obvious was to apply what my friend called ‘big, thick, tranny makeup.’ But that sort of makeup wasn’t something I could use on Shabbat. So for eleven months, I spent every Shabbat alone, in my apartment,” Orens writes.

In ‘Queering the Jew and Jewing the Queer,’ Ri J. Turner, who was once “a frilly little girl,” writes about cultural stereotypes, how Jewish women and girls are thought to be assertive, argumentative and intelligent while the men and boys are seen as “shrewd, short, small-penised, and hopelessly awkward on the playing field.” Ri, who went through many transitioning stages (including shaving her head bald), writes that she never felt “quite female.” The only bra she could get herself to wear was a sports bra. She admits to having “failed” in “the girl department.”

“I didn’t wash my face often enough to wear mascara regularly. I was too short, too dirty, I was too informal, I shared too much information, I was too sexual…..And my nose was ugly.”

Today, Turner dresses in men’s clothing with her hair cropped very short. “I don’t attempt to pass as male, nor do I usually desire to,” she says. “I continue to feel shame and discomfort about my body and gender….My gender is certainly not ‘finished.’”

Jhos Singer describes himself as a “transgender person who as a child survived the 19060s,” who’s been a “tomboy, a firefighter, a butch dyke rock drummer, a deckhand, a neo-Hasidic androgyne, a Jewish lesbian spiritual leader….”

Singer’s journey, like the other personal stories in Mechitza, is about relationships—with the world and with God.

“Knowing who we are in relationship to the world and/or God and having a clear understanding of what is around us are flip sides of the same coin, and I would argue that being transgender is as well,” Singer writes.

Five thumbs up for a marvelously honest no-holds-barred anthology.

****** This review drew some fire from one or two or three online trans activists. They objected to my "treatment" of Becky and Milo. They stated that I should have referred to "Becky" as "she" (because that was "Becky's gender choice) rather than (the given) biological "he." Ditto for Milo. I was told that I was trans-ignorant and trans-phobic because I referred to Milo as a "she" when Milo told me that "he" was a "she." But I met "Becky" in the 1970s when trans issues were still in formation. "Becky," in fact, wanted to be referred to as "Becky" only in the bedroom, not in real life. We had a discussion about this then. When Milo told me "she" was in transition, the implication was that this process was still in formation, and that "he" was still a "she." There was no talk or mention of me calling Milo a "he" as we concluded our evening together. In fact, we got along quite nicely. I even castigated myself somewhat in the original story for falling back into conventional gender roles, and treating Milo like a woman who needed protection (walking her to the bus stop).

Unfortunately, the mysterious (and nameless or first name only) trans activist overseers did not even read the rest of this review. Had the trans activists read the full review, he/she would have walked away with a different feeling about the review. Calling me trans-phobic was a wake-up call. This sort of shrill paranoia and over-the-top paranoia doesn't do anything for dialogue.
Perhaps the trans movement has no place under the gay/lesbian civil rights umbrella.

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