‘Trans’forming our attitudes in a ‘world gone mad’

Originally appeared in Times of Israel

Personal disclosure: As a wife, daughter, daughter–in-law, and anticipated future mother of Orthodox rabbis, I wish to indicate that while this post and my previous one challenge the views expressed by certain rabbis, my intention is to engage in respectful discourse.

In a post this week on Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer defends the North Carolina Anti-LGBT Law, which seeks to limit bathroom use by transgender people according to assigned, rather than identified gender. Arguing that preventing transwomen, (or as Rabbi Gordimer refers to them, men who “by dint of their self-perception and belief that they are really female”) from access to women’s bathrooms, protects the safety of women from “real” men, who may enter ladies’ rooms to satisfy their male curiosities and interests. Rabbi Gordimer indicates that this issue “illustrates ever so acutely both the deterioration of the most basic biblical values throughout Western society, as well as the fact that the fringe left, in pursuit of its agenda, is totally oblivious to arguments of reason and even safety.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky blogged recently about the “world going mad” and the deterioration of traditional values, citing campus morals and transgender bathroom preferences as an “assault on society’s sensibilities.” “The latest such insanity,” he writes, “is the decree that so-called ‘transgenders’ must be allowed to use the bathrooms of whatever sex they claim to be, regardless of their biological reality.”

It is understandable that some Orthodox rabbis may take this position. After all, the idea that gender may not be absolute, or may even be fluid, flies in the face of traditional values and distinct gender roles. This is particularly true in Orthodox Judaism, as the Torah forbids men to even dress as women and vice versa (although allowances are made for Purim in some circles.)

Before addressing the issue of bathrooms, which so distresses these rabbis, let’s examine the reality of transgender individuals, who do not experience the dissonance between their assigned and identified gender as a “misguided social imposition.” Transgender people are individuals whose gender identity differs from the one they were given when they were born.  Transgender people may identify as male or female, or they may feel that neither label fits them.

People don’t choose to experience this gender dissonance, nor do men “decide” to become women due to preference, sexual perversion or pathology. The feeling that their gender sense of self doesn’t align with their body usually begins at a very young age. What is most difficult for people who are transgender, or are gender fluid and do not identify with a binary gender of male or female, are the societal expectations to conform to assigned biological gender. Clearly this is more challenging in Orthodox society, where distinct gender roles are highly valued.

Some transgender people choose to transition socially and without medical intervention, while others may transform to one’s affirmed gender through hormonal medications and in some cases, surgery. For individuals committed to living a life in accordance with Jewish law, these interventions raise salient questions that rabbis have and will continue to deal with.

The awareness that for some, gender is not as absolute as our traditional society expects is certain to feel threatening. However, this is a reality, just as sexual orientation that does not conform to the traditional heterosexual model is a reality, and this reality exists amongst Orthodox individuals as well. Many Orthodox rabbis, including the revered Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, ob”m have differentiated between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, thus calling for acceptance and inclusion of homosexual individuals in Orthodox communities. It is time to examine the halachic questions of transgender people, while educating ourselves non-defensively and validating and accepting that this experience exists.

Transgender individuals have been shunned and shamed throughout history. They are a minority and as such, experience discrimination and misunderstanding. The attempted suicide rates are very high amongst transgender people, 41%, as opposed to 4.6% of the general population in the United States. Studies indicate, however, that the anxiety and depression is related to the distress of non-conformance and not to their trans identity, which is in itself not a pathology.

Society’s expectation to conform with biological gender puts transgender individuals in a state of cognitive dissonance, which is heightened by gender-segregated situations, such as bathrooms. Rabbi Gordimer echoes conservative Christian groups, in citing potential danger to women by transwomen, or men posing as transwomen, as a reason to force bathroom use according to assigned gender. However, there is no statistical evidence of such violence to justify this claim. In fact, it is the transgender people who experience a lack of safety, bullying and violence. This is not about an agenda intended to disrupt society’s core values, but about simple humanity. Considering that only an estimated 0.5 to 3 percent of the population identifies as transgender, it is unlikely that this issue will tear at the fabric of society.

Learning more about transgender, being non-judgmental, and accepting that there are Orthodox people who experience this as well, is an understandable challenge for both rabbis and community members. Fortunately, some rabbis, such as Rabbi Zev FarberRabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, and Rabbi Efrem Goldberg have addressed the issue in a sensitive fashion, providing education, information and halachic guidelines to the Orthodox community,

May we have the fortitude to remain understanding, sympathetic, compassionate, and inclusive.

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