Showing all posts tagged trans:

TransJewCon and an abundance of disability feelings

I’d heard of Rabbi Emet Tauber zt’’l before my New York trip, and very much wanted to meet him at the Trans Jews Are Here event (or elsewhere, I’m not picky). Because I didn’t know him, because our social connections remained indirect, maybe because he didn’t know either, I had no idea he was so close to death. Even though I don’t know him, R’ Emet’s death is fucking with me, emotionally. I forget sometimes that EDS is terminal, not just inconvenient and disabling. At least one of my favorite people has EDS, as does their kid; my old doctors thought i might too.

I know I’m not supposed to want a cure, or feel sad about disability, but the abundance of people like me in communities like mine is rough. How many people die young, and how many of us are suffering? The number of disabled folks at Trans Jews Are Here was both fulfilling and difficult for me. Disability and impairment rob us of productivity, not just in the shitty capitalistic way but creatively, spiritually, interpersonally, religiously. It’s at best a tax paid in money or time we could be spending elsewhere, whether due to demanding access in a world built for other people or pushing back against a body behaving poorly or both. How much time that could be spent creating trans jewish art and spaces and community is spent waiting at the pharmacy? We are suffering, and some of the best of us are dying young. How many Jewish trans folks are destined to become rabbis but can’t? How many trans disabled people are destined to become Jewish but can’t?

It’s frustrating existing in a world not built for you, and it’s lonely as hell having to build so many spaces, to put time into projects that might disappear, even just as an attendee to balance complaints and criticisms with worries about whether they'll be seen as an excuse to cancel the next one. Disability is alienating. Transness can be too, depending on where you are; same with Judaism. It is hard to be like this and find community, even temporary, even in miniature talmud retreats and friend of friend connections, in chavurahs that make a minyan maybe once a year, in I-see-you nods across a crowded shul to the other GNC mobility device user, in sitting on the sidelines with a nice lesbian couple at the yiddish socialist concert where your chevruta’s in the opening band and you were worried about there not being a place to sit but wanted so badly to go anyway.

It feels so good and beautiful and necessary to make these spaces, and it is so tiring, and much harder if you’re disabled. My favorite part of this weekend was that I didn’t have to plan it, that I was around so many trans jews and I didn’t have to pinch-hit read torah or set myself a reminder to ping the email list or see if my friend is out of the hospital or give people rides or check on the organizers. I’m burning out, and I don’t work, and I have a secure living situation, and I don’t do this full time or for a living, and if I stop, maybe the next Emet will die before he finds any of us, so I can’t stop.

I can’t stop thinking about how I don’t have the mental energy to lead two seders this year, so I won’t be doing another internet seder when the one last year made me friends and was the only one at least two people could attend and the only one more people wanted to go to.

I can’t stop thinking about the many, many, many trans jews by choice I know, so many also disabled, continuing to struggle to find a class and rabbi that doesn’t deny their existence, that doesn’t take transness or queerness or nonbinariness as a reason to reject someone, when they deserve a community that will truly bring them into the fold and love them fully as trans jews.
I can’t stop thinking about the Kaddish podcast episode about trans tahara. What happens when nonbinary Jews die? Who performs tahara? Do I need to up my observance levels and go birth stealth and be trained so there is somebody here? Can I even do that, physically? What if I die, what if my friends die, what happens?

I want the world to be better than it is, for us and for them and for future generations, and I constantly run into inaccessibility struggles for myself while trying to bring the world into a position closer to the next, tiny increments closer to wholeness, repair, moshiach. I’m holding fragments. We are all holding fragments. What now?

Retaining agency in death

One Saturday in March, 1911, a New York factory full of recent immigrant workers—Irish and Jewish women, mostly—were working their shift, locked into the building as per usual. A fire broke out. They could not leave. They died.

Mayn Rue Platz was written in 1911 by someone who worked in sweatshops, about his family and friends who worked in sweatshops, after the triangle shirtwaist factory fire. A yiddish poem about death in sweatshop conditions, bodies left to burn up and be forgotten by all but their families. Its been put to music and sung multiple times, in multiple languages. My current favorite is Geoff Berner’s version available on Bandcamp.

The sweatshop workers did not have a choice about their post-death situation. Most bodies were unidentifiable, inseparable from the ruins of the factory—their final resting place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about agency after death. About whether people’s wishes are respected, and how particularly dehumanizing it is when they’re not.

Trans people are misgendered in death all too frequently. The deceased’s blood relations often end up making decisions of obituary wording and names used; if the person wasn’t out to their family, or had cut ties, or had bigoted family; if the family’s not in the picture, but the person hadn’t been able to update legal documentation of their name or gender; endless reasons, really. We slip through the cracks a lot.

It’s cultural violence when we are misgendered after our deaths.

James Miranda Barry, renowned surgeon and medical pioneer, was a man assigned female at birth. He was not widely out in life. He did have lovers, and bore at least one child, but he was a man and viewed as one until the day he died.

Once he passed away, not only did people find out he was trans, but his story began being told differently. Some now see him as a pioneering woman, in fact.

There is a cis woman writing a book about him, under this assumption. To her, Dr. Barry acted as and dressed as a man only to gain the social power and prestige men hold; to her, he was truly a woman all along.

How do we affirm someone's specific humanity in death? Are cultural practices recognized, or personal wishes, when the two conflict?

Are our bodies cleaned and prepared for burial, or unconsidered trash? Are we buried in marked or unmarked graves, or even at all? Are our requests about our bodies honored, if we even thought of having them?

What of fictionalization in a way that erases one’s true nature, or the struggles one faces?

The publisher has since said they are still publishing the book, announcing today (February 26, 2019) on twitter:

"In response to the discussions arising from the acquisition of the novel The Cape Doctor, Little, Brown publisher Reagan Arthur says, ‘As publishers, we support the freedom of writers to imagine any kind of life and situation, including ones based on historical people and events. E.J. Levy has written a novel that it [sic] is based on a real person, Dr. James Barry. it is a work of imagination, not a biography or a representation of fact.

‘Over the last week, we have listened carefully to members of the transgender community and their allies. We will work with E.J. Levy to publish her novel with sensitivity to the issues that have been raised, including the use of the proper pronouns to describe Dr. Barry’s embodiment. These are important issues that we take seriously, and we look forward to continuing this conversation as we bring The Cape Doctor into the world.’"


A true representation of trans life, and respect for trans death, may start at using the correct pronouns but it does not end there. I do not believe that the book that results will truly respect his legacy, or his life. No matter how many individual trans people serve as sensitivity readers, no matter if he/him pronouns are used in the book, the veneer of fictionalization has been spread by someone who sees Dr. Barry as a woman. It is a profound insult, a shame and a disrespect to a gentleman who lived a hell of a life, to treat him this way. I only hope that competing publishers are seeking out trans man authors to do his story justice.

Btzelem / tattoos

I don’t have any tattoos.
For a long time, I’ve wanted one of a jellyfish. gorgeous shading, some white ink work and pastel highlights, on my left thigh with tentacles flowing down the leg. I was originally inspired by Haeckel’s gorgeous illustrations and others of that era, but when I found out about his connection to eugenics my thoughts on inking his work on my body changed. Still, it might happen someday, and there are equally skilled and less problematic biological illustrators whose work could be adapted to body art.
When I read Bitch Planet, I knew I needed a non-compliant tattoo. Not solid black, either outline or patterned or in a color, somewhere on my body. The stories speak to something in my core, something about being different, wrong, incorrect-for-society, correct-for-me.
And now, as of this June, Pride month of 2018, I know I need a tattoo in hebrew. I know there’s a variety of responses people have to hebrew tattoos, most of them disparaging, but I know I need this like I know I need the noncompliant symbol, and I want this like I want the jellyfish.
One word: b’tzelem. We were each of us made in G-d’s image, btzelem elokim. People who don’t quite feel at home in their bodies often speak of how their tattoos make their bodies feel their own; how they feel at home in their bodies again.
I am trans. I am nonbinary. I am still working out what, for me, transition means; but one component is that things that make me feel more comfortable and whole, more as myself, bring me closer—not farther—from being in G’d’s image.
As transition brings our inner and outer selves closer together, we come to a nearer approximation of G-d’s image. As we use art to reclaim our bodies, we take a step closer, not farther. As we choose how to change our meat suits, our external selves, to fit in some but not other times, in some ways but not others, to fit the parts of ourselves we can and only compromise where we have to, to have control over whether and when to have a break between self-image and external perception—each of these struggles and decisions can be viewed through the lens of g-dly image.
I need a b’tzelem tattoo mirroring my noncompliant tattoo. One for the tradition I was born into, and one for the world I am forced to fit in; one to remind me where I am headed and another to remind me about my bullheaded roots. I am made in G’d’s image and I am non-compliant.