Orthodox Jewish communities are just beginning to recognize the existence of people whose gender is more complicated than “male” or “female,” though the sages of the Talmud recognized the existence of what we would now call intersex people, and they interpreted Jewish law in ways that enabled people whose bodies weren't simply male or female to participate in Jewish ritual and community.
|"Through the Door of Life: A Jewish|
Journey Between Genders" (2012),
But there are signs that even the Orthodox world is changing. Since my transition, I have continued teaching at my Orthodox Jewish university as an openly transgender woman, and through that role I have met many individual Orthodox Jews who accept transgender people. There is also a growing organization of LGBT Orthodox Jews called Eshel which is working to educate Orthodox rabbis about transgender issues.
Human bodies are prone to all sorts of conditions, illnesses and disabilities that make it hard for people to live full lives and to be seen and accepted by others. I have met many younger trans people who have grown up in families that accept them and love them as they are; for many of them, the acceptance and love they have known seems to ease the pain that I and many other trans people experience. This leads me to suspect that much of the pain of being transgender is social, that the mercilessness we need to focus on is that of human beings rather than God.
I don't know who I would have been had I been born with a gender identity that fit my body, but I know I wouldn't be the person I am today, I wouldn't have learned what I have learned about being human, and I wouldn't have been able to do the writing and teaching I've done. All of this is a result of being transgender, just as the pain of living as a man I knew I wasn't and the agony of transition were results of being transgender. For me, it is hard to distinguish God's mercilessness from God's mercy – but since I am alive and living as myself, it's God's mercy that defines my life.
Monika: In addition, you are the author of six books of poetry: The Definition of Joy; Coming to Life; Transmigration; Psalms; The Book of Anna; Alternatives to History. In one of your interviews I read that while creating poems you loved revealing the hidden likeness of apparently unlike words because that act “rhymed” with your sense of being trapped in a wrong body…
Monika: What does it mean to be a transgender writer, poet or artist?
But it's also clear that many writers and artists who are transgender don't see their gender identities as crucial to their creative work, and even those who do (I would include myself among them) create work that is not about being trans. These days, for example, few of my poems address transgender experience, but in Coming to Life and Transmigration, I write both directly and indirectly about my experience of transition.
|With fellow trans poet Samuel Ace.|
American trans women of color are by far the most likely among American trans women to be murdered or seriously injured in transphobic attacks. Though most trans women have experienced harassment and discrimination, those of us who are white, educated and at least middle class tend to have much easier lives than other American trans women.
|Signing copies of her memoir during|
a visit to a Washington DC synagogue.
Monika: What was your reaction to “Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender and Moving On” (2012), a book written by your wife Christine Benvenuto, in which she elaborated on your transition and break-up of the twenty year marriage with three children?
Some things she writes are just not true – I never threatened to throw my family out in the street, and, as I think my memoir makes abundantly clear, I thought all the time about her and our children’s feelings and pain. The husband in Sex Changes not only has a different name; the character isn't me, but a transphobic stereotype that people are all too ready to believe: the trans woman who cares about nothing but her transition and no one but herself. There may be trans women who fit that stereotype, but I'm not one of them.
Monika: Do you still keep in touch with your former wife?