As I write this, trans and nonbinary people are under a renewed and vigorous assault from the executive branch. As with the rise in overt white nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant agitation and Islamophobia, we don’t yet know if this is a bump in the road towards liberation or the beginning of a violent regression. We do know that the stakes are higher now than they were not very long ago.
My name is Dev, and my pronouns are they/them. I call myself genderqueer, nonbinary, trans. These words are simultaneously breathtakingly liberating and woefully inadequate. Many cultures, including Rabbinic Judaism’s, recognize that human sex (usually physical) and gender (usually identity) exist on a spectrum, and cannot neatly be confined to the two mutually exclusive islands of “female” and “male” offered up by our Western ways of thinking. While most humans may feel at home in the clumps at those two poles, some number of us cannot comfortably be contained there.
For most of my life, my experience of my gender has been surprisingly consistent. But trying to reconcile my experience with the incoming labels, messages, treatment, language, expectations and assumptions from family, teachers, peers, doctors, check-out clerks, TSA agents, and on and on has been a lifelong engagement. Trying to map my experience onto the shifting available models of gender identity, named and unnamed, has been a lifelong practice—at times somewhat dormant, and at times intensely active, but always present.
As Rabbi Elliot Kukla taught me in a workshop at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the early 2000s, gender is complicated for everyone, not just for trans and nonbinary people. All of us hit up against places where our sense of what is expected of us clashes with our experience of who we are. Maybe as a young boy you loved those sparkly pink shoes, and you or a parent knew you’d pay a price for wearing them to school. Maybe as a girl you felt shame about your body because some part of it didn’t look the way you’d understood it was “supposed” to. Bumping up against the limits of our society’s models for gender is something all of us do. But some of us bump up against those limits a little bit now and then, and some of us do it with bone-breaking force all the time, and, of course, some of us are everywhere in between. And maybe for all of us, the anxieties we feel about fitting into the gender models we’re given are less about our inadequacies to fully align ourselves with those models and more about the inadequacies of those gender models themselves.
I don’t think we’ve arrived yet at a deep understanding of human gender in Western thinking. We’re doing the best we can with imperfect models and constricting language. I imagine that’s part of why the language keeps shifting, as we build, little by little, on the insights and creativity of those who came before us, and those outside Western cultural boundaries in time and space.
From this perspective, the fabulous drag queens of Stonewall, and Yentl the yeshivah boy (I.B. Singer’s more than B. Streisand’s), and all the other brave and battered gender warriors who, try as they might, Just, Couldn’t, Pass, have liberated us all. Many of them, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, did so at the cost of their lives. Unable or unwilling to contort themselves into the confines of the binary and mutually exclusive “male” or “female” categories, they burst open the boundaries, expanding two isolated points into a line, two lines into a plane, two planes into a vast new three-dimensional space.
Layered atop their radical living came the radical thinking of scholars like Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin and Joan Roughgarden. Western attention to indigenous traditions, often by queer scholars, has made us aware of other cultures’ nonbinary models of gender. Rabbi Kukla, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Max Strassfeld, our own Rabbi Sarra Lev and others broke open the rabbinic construction of multiple sexes/genders, lifting up previously passed-over texts that offer radical affirmation for trans and nonbinary lives. For example, in Bereshit Rabbah 8:1 the first adam is understood to be an androgynos, and in BT Yevamot 64a, Abraham and Sarah are said to be tumtumim. Many other rabbinic texts are not so kind and affirming to the androgynos and the tumtum. The texts that are elevating have been life-giving to our community, and even those that are not have at least granted us a visibility that had been absent in our dominant culture. Recently, Lior Gross, a brilliant young nonbinary person, and Eyal Rivlin, their Hebrew professor at the University of Colorado, launched a website publishing their work to create a full nonbinary grammatical structure for Hebrew.
I was assigned female gender at birth, and with that came the pronouns she/her/hers. No one, until I was an adult in queer spaces, asked me what my pronouns are. I was taught that my gender was exclusively a function of my anatomy. I consistently experienced and expressed myself in more typically masculine than feminine ways. That created problems for me as a kid, and it clearly worried and disturbed the adults around me. Now, parents and kids have some incredible resources to turn to. But without language or stories or models to help process and understand my experience, both I and the adults in my life did our inadequate best to navigate the difficult terrain. I was a “tomboy” or a “rebel” or a “little feminist.” Later, I was a “lesbian” or “expanding the range of what it means to be a woman.” While any or all of these may have had some truth to them, none of them named the core of my experience. And all of them, in trying to capture my identity, instead ended up diluting or distorting it, leaving me with another set of tangled knots to untie before I could see myself more clearly.
Queer spaces, and queer Jewish spaces like Nehirim and SVARA, offered me safe places to experiment with different kinds of language, and through that experimentation, to feel my way closer to what is true for me. Meditation retreats also played a big role for me, with many of my deepest and most enduring insights emerging with crystal clarity during long periods of silence.
My gender identity is complex and evolving and deeply personal. How much I want to share about it depends on lots of things—the setting, the relationship, what kind of day I’m having. My pronouns occupy the public space of my gender identity. They allow me to share what you need to know in order to treat me respectfully, without requiring me to explain myself or to share more than is necessary, relevant or comfortable for me. By using my designated pronouns, people honor my identity, whatever they may know or not know about it.
It’s been an amazing process for me to move more fully into nonbinary gender identity, and the use of “they” and “them” as pronouns. From the first time I tried them on, “they/them” pronouns felt like they fit better than any others. And I felt free—liberated from the constant irritation and falsehood of “she” and “her.” Each time someone uses my correct pronouns, I feel a little boost of affirmation, visibility and truthfulness. Each time I am misgendered, I feel a little sting of dysphoria and displacement.
I know that it hasn’t been an easy shift for the people around me, and I have asked a lot of them. I don’t expect people to get it right all the time, and the little stings are a small price to pay for the ever-increasing little boosts. Each time someone uses “she” and then catches themselves, either apologizing or shifting to “they,” my heart opens in gratitude for their intention and awareness. More challenging are the inevitable TSA searches, the quest for all-gender bathrooms in public places and the feeling that there may be a freshly painted target on my back.
I’ve been unbelievably blessed to be serving a congregation that has supported me in word and deed every step of the way. I know that few of my trans and genderqueer colleagues have that kind of support or can expect it when they set out on a job search. Allies can help our colleagues and those we serve immensely in several ways:
- Routinely offer people a way to share their pronouns along with their name, but don’t require it. You might consider adding your pronouns to your nametag, email signature or other public designations, especially if people rarely or never misgender you. This practice creates space for trans and nonbinary people not to be alone in the practice of sharing our pronouns. And it helps to normalize the messages that we each get to say what our pronouns are, and that a person’s pronouns may or may not align with the way we read their gender.
- Please don’t use pronouns lightly. Sometimes, in an effort to be allies and to share their understanding of the messed-up state of all things gender in our society, cisgender people will say their pronouns are “she, or they, or whatever you want,” or “he, and they is OK, too,” or some variation of that. While the intention is appreciated, the impact can be to suggest that pronouns aren’t that important after all. Just the opposite is often true for trans and nonbinary people—using the correct pronouns is a critically important way to respect our personhood.
- Please keep learning and paying attention. There are lots of resources here and many more available, and things are changing fast.
A few months ago, a bar mitzvah student came into my office, and during our conversation he misgendered our education director, Rabbi Gray Myrseth. I said to him, “Rabbi Gray uses ‘they.’ ” He said, “Right. ‘They.’ ” Then he thought for a minute and asked, “Do all rabbis use ‘they’?”