Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Have Daddy and Mommy Issues: Yet I Am Finally Proud With It. A Trans Woman Coming To Terms With Rejection

“Mom, our family is breaking up because I’m a transsexual, and I can’t live as a man anymore.”
Years crowded into silence between us, years long gone and years yet to be lived. I thought I had prepared myself to lose her. After all, I told myself, you’ve never really had her. But, in that phase, when truly motherless years were only a breath away, I realized that I had never stopped clinging to the hope of her.
“I’ve heard about this,” she said at last. Her voice, rich and low, trained for a radio career she had never had, was thick with feeling. “I know that you have to be who you are, and, no matter what that is, you will always be my child.”
The air above my head felt empty. The sword that had always dangled above me, the terror of what would happen if my mother discovered what I was, was gone.”
Anyone who has been following my life experiences, in person, online on this blog, on different media outlets, or just via social media, knows that I rarely talk about my current relationship with my family (besides one genetic post I wrote over Hanukkah). That is not in any way because there is nothing to talk about; there is a lot to talk. Neither is it because I don’t care; I care more that I care to care. Rather it is because I can’t, I just cannot bring myself to talk about it. It hurts so much, so strongly and so deeply, yet (at least until now) I feel numb. I wanted to cry, just cry aloud like a newborn child, but my feelings are (/were) hard as a stone. On the other hand, I would rather describe it as deeply hidden beneath a rock. A Rock so big that the weight of it is more than any human being should ever have to carry.
          Today, as I read these above paragraphs, I managed to break through my stone-hard heart. I cried for over an hour, and I am in tears while I am writing these words.
          Since I was a child writing was my best therapy. I always used it to explain my inner feelings - to myself. Sharing it in public will help me more, and hopefully others who struggle.
These are some of my thoughts about my parents and family. Some of the reflections and heartaches I would like to get off my chest:
This is my way of doing it. The support I got until now from so many beautiful people in this beautiful world has been lifesaving, and I am counting on that even more. At the same time, please respect my families and my own privacy, and don’t ask for details I have not shared, as I don’t plan to share too many personal details, but rather emotional.
My father, maternal grandfather, and my great uncle, the Bobov'er Rebbe
On my third birthday
          If someone would ask me how I would describe my relationship with my parents, and even more specifically my father, prior to 2012 when I left religion, I would have to come on with a new term. Father-son relationship wouldn’t do justice. My father was one of my best friends; my father was probable one of the only people on earth who understood me in some way. For example, through my entire teenage years he was one of the only people who sincerely believed that there is something more going on beneath my identity struggles; and he was right. However, that this struggle might have anything to do with gender identity did not cross his mind,[1] because to him, cross-gender identity was a hypothetical idea discussed only in Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism). My father was the ONLY person in the world with whom I knew I can always be honest (not that I was, but that is a separate conversation), no matter what. He was the ultimate embodiment of the superficial “father figure” - but in a close reality. We had a lot of hiccups throughout the years, as my identity struggles all so often manifested in different ways, but we only grew closer.
          My parents have 13 kids, with eight of them marries that makes it 21, and tens of grandkids (I lost count), yet they both (used to, by now they only speak to twelve of them) speak with all of them every day. Growing up I thought this is how it is in every family. My father spoke to his parents[2] every day, it just felt ‘normal’ that we do the same. Until I went to boarding school at age 15 and I realized that this is not the norm, and in most families, kids speak with their parents a few times a week at most. Up to a few months ago, or to be exact, up until I came out to my father, I spoke with them every day. We disagreed on everything in life, but we were on the phone every day.  
My mother with my son on his third birthday
          My mother was kind of my doctor. She always said that having raised thirteen kids made her a better a doctor than a medical school ever could, and she was right 90% of the time. Whenever we (my siblings and I) wouldn’t feel well, she would know what it is just by looking on us. We would go to the doctor, but when we came home, she knew what the doctor said before we had a chance to tell her. Until two months ago, she was the first one to know when I was not feeling in best, and she was accessible by phone 24 hours a day, six days a week. I always knew that I can’t call her at three in the morning hoping that if she asleep she just wouldn’t pick up, because her phone was never on silence. She has thirteen kids, eight in-laws, tens of grandkids, and she knew every time one of us went on a doctor’s visit. Just like my father, she was - to me - the ultimate embodiment of the Mother figure.
          Throughout my life’s transitions, the thought of losing my relationship with my parents was always on top of my list of possible “Side defects” to living a self-determined life. It is one of the reasons I pushed off every change - especially to the big changes of leaving my ultra-religious community and coming out as a woman - until the last minute. However, it gets to a point where one realizes that “You cannot be a family member, you cannot be a child or sibling, if you are not you.” I always waited until I was a point where I simply wasn’t. When it got to a point where it was my sole existence and survival versus endangering my relationship with my parents, the option was clear. If I don’t exist, if I am not alive physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I have lost my family anyway. That was the belief and underlying understanding in family relationship that guided my actions, and is guiding them until today.  
          When I came out to my father as an Atheist, I was ready for the possibility that he will reject me outright. Yet to my great excitement his response was pretty much like the one of Joy Ladin’s mother in the abovementioed quote. His exact words were: “No matter what happens, no matter how you are, you are still my kid[3] (okay, he said son).” I continued to speak withboth of my parents almost every day, I still visited on holidays and family weddings, and so on.
          That all changed on Wednesday November 11th, the day I came out to my father.
          As much as when I came out to my parents as non-observant I was a point of knowing that I cannot pretend to be religious anymore, coming out as a woman was when I was already at a point of no return, after two months on HRT. I knew that I had to come out to my parents if I don’t want them to hear it from other people, I owed them that much. I knew it is going to hurt them deeply, I knew that the shame in a community that is not ready in any way to accept anything outside of its White Hetro-Normative lifestyle, put aside gender transition in a radically segregated society – is going to be close to unbearable. Yet at the same time I knew that I am not doing anything wrong. Wrong would be for me to continue to be in the closet until I would die physically and/or emotionally. As my therapist kept on telling me, and I know it is true, “they are doing it to themselves.” I had to tell them.
          I chose the most appropriate way to do that. I called my father and told him that I want to tell him something, but I want to do it in front of a rabbi. He came down to the house of that Rabbi, and we both spoke to him in the most Jewish, Hasidic[4] and Kabbalistic way possible. I was not expecting acceptance, well, I was prepared for utter rejection, but I was secretly hoping for a similar response to until now. Think that I am sick, think that I am crazy (for now), but talk to me.
          His response was: “You should know that this means I might not be able to talk to you ever again.” When I told him that the attempted suicide rate for people of trans experience is high, in a society that still has problems accepting us, and I asked if he would prefer me dead, he said “I am not going to response” - this killed me internally. Finally, he said “I will find a way to let you know what I decide (regarding staying in touch)” and for the first time in my life, he left me without even a handshake. THAT WAS THE LAST TIME I HEARD FROM MY PARENTS.
          Naturally it bothered me in the beginning, but when after an hour it stopped bothering me whatsoever, it bothered me that I am not crying. I can cry while watching Boy Meets Girl or Transparent, but my mind and heart were numb when it came to my parents. The fact that I felt like I don’t care while I knew I cared, bothered me more than anything, I knew it is unhealthy, I knew that I have to cry it out, but I couldn’t.
My parents, my son, and myself, on my son's third birthday
          Today I mourn the loss of my dear parents. I know this whole post sounds like a vigil journal entry, which is about right. This is how I feel. Today I celebrate in the most non-celebratory way possible a sad milestone. A milestone of realizing, coming to terms, and starting to heal the loss of my family. I don’t give up, I hope that they will come around in some way, but for the first time in months I feel like I have my family back. It is a family that is still lost, it is a family to whom I am still lost (at best), but it is a family that is openly on my heart, it is a family that I am no longer numb to. I DO NOT REGRET MY DECSION, EVERN IF I WOULD HAVE KNOWN CLEARLY THAT THIS IS GOING TO BE THE RESULT. More than ever, I know and feel that I have a family that I am trying my best to be part of.
          I am writing all of this not just to cry about daddy and mommy issues that I proudly have. I am writing to help myself make sense of all of this, and to tell the world, and others that are struggling that “You cannot be a family member, you cannot be a child or sibling, if you are not you. If your family gets hurt by you living a self-determent life, know that they are doing it to themselves. You are not doing anything bad to them.”
Writing in tears of longing and relief combined,
Abby @ The Second Transition

[1] And even when I tried telling him when I came to him that daddy you were right, something was going on, and this is what it is, he refused to accept it.
[2] Who also had ten kids, and by now have hundreds of grandkids and great-grandkids.
[3] He did add an ‘explanation’ that he looks on it as if I am sick, and if his kid gets cancer he is not going to reject them. It bothered me the way he looked on it, and for the next four years we had a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell relationship, but we had a relationship.
[4] For reference how much Hasidic Judaism means to my father: He is the tenth generation of the founder of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer - the Ball Shem Tov, in five different ways, and he always preached that to us, non-stop.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Reflections on a Jewish-Orthodox LGBT+ Retreat: There Is Hope! (Eshel National Retreat 2016)

A few weeks ago, I did an interview with one of my favorite blogs, Friendly Atheist. One of the questions the interviewer asked, was how I see my relationship with Judaism nowadays identifying as a Jewish-Atheist Woman of Trans experience. As usual, my response was that I believe in Judaism more than I believe god. The way I explained it was (one of the points; I hate quoting myself, but in this case it works best): “I like the community life, and also, interestingly enough, especially in the U.S., the liberal and progressive Jewish communities are usually more accepting and more progressive than the general American population.” I meant what I said, to me this is one of the beauties of progressive Judaism.
When I said that, I was referring to the Jewish communities I was involved with. First and foremost, the Jewish Renewal movement and Romemu that has been in the forefront of fighting for radical inclusivity in American Judaism and beyond since the ‘70s. As well as the Reconstructionist and Reform movements (which was one of the first major religious group in the US to formally adopt a resolution welcoming people of trans experience this past year), College Hillels, and even the Conservative world to some extent. However, I was clearly not talking about Orthodoxy, definitely not the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, but not even most Modern-Orthodox communities; they still have a long way to go towards full acceptance and equality. It did not seem like I will change my views on Orthodoxy anytime soon.
Last weekend, I put it to test, in form of attending an Orthodox LGBT reatreat.
The new Reb Zalman Memorial Library at  IFJRC
When I signed up to attend the Eshel National Retreat, I was torn. There is a strong possibility that if not for the fact that it was at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center - the hub of Jewish Renewal and home to Elat Chaim, I would not have signed up. Eshel is officially an Orthodox organization, and while they are inclusive to non-orthodox and formally-orthodox people, it is still an Orthodox environment, and it is no secret that I don’t Love that. Yet, I decided to give it a try, let me see what is A possible future in the Orthodox world. Now, if I do something, why not do it all the way. I signed up to attend, to offer a session on Gender in Kabbala, talk on a panel, and give two Daf Yomi classes (ya, shocking, I know).
I have to admit, I came home with a better view of Orthodoxy. Still not planning on ever finding myself as an observant Orthodox Jew (again), but if there was something that could have changed my views, change my utter despair that “Orthodoxy is never going to come around”, it was that weekend.
So here are a few short reflections on an amazing weekend.
One of the biggest benefits was meeting some amazing people. Starting with pioneers in Jewish LGBT+ advocacy, such as Shlomo Ashkinazy, who carries 45 years of diligent work for equality, and Rabbi Steve Greenberg author of Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition and co-director of Eshel. Moreover, I got to spend more than two full days with 125 strong, bold, beautiful and beyond courageous human beings, who were all screaming “We are Jewish and Queer” in one way or another. Everyone had a unique, yet - sadly – so similar story. We were a group of people that were raised all over the world, and from Ultra-Orthodox to Non-Jewish families. People of all colors and ages, and with different levels of education, wealth and status. Nevertheless, we are all trying to figure out, or better, work on, our dual identities as queer and Jewish, each to their own.
On Friday night we had a panel that was kind of the ‘Keynote’ speech(es) of the Retreat. We had five people on the panel, moderated by Rabbi Steve Greenberg. We each got about twenty minutes to talk about our experiences growing up in our respective communities, as well as our current relationship with Judaism. My favorite part of the panel was the diversity of the panelists. One of us was a professional TedX lecturer from a Modern-Orthodox background, who identifies as gay. Another was a woman raised in a secular community, and is now living with her wife and kids in an Orthodox community. Another one was a middle-aged queer person who has been fighting for equality in his Orthodox synagogue for years. Then there way my amazing dear friend and schoolmate, Talia Lakritz, aka Nerd With A Voice, who in addition to being the best LGBT ally I know of, was one of the first people I came out to, and helped me tremendously. Then there was me, a Formally-Orthodox, outspoken Atheist yet follower of Jewish Renewal, who loves Jewish culture and community.
Again, what brought us together was a shared vision for a future where Jewish ORTHODOX communities are accepting of the LGBT community in all its colors and alphabet. On top of that, this all happened in an Orthodox setting, moderated by a 100% observant Orthodox Rabbi. Yet none of us had to hide who we are and what we do or don’t believe in, in any way.
Performance of marriage arrangement 
Talia performing Dear RCA at the Talent Show
I can go on and talk more about these 48 hours. The amazing (hopefully) lifelong friends we all made. The Shabbos morning service where a trans-woman had her first Aliya (being called up to read from the Torah-Hebrew Bible) as her true self. The Talent Show on Saturday night which including a screening of the now famous Bagel video, a performance of Dear RCA, a nine minute standup by Dana Friedman, amazing singers, rappers, readers and performers, finalized by an arranged marriage playout. Nevertheless, I already passed my 1,000-word mark. Therefore, I will end here with one final episode.
Sunday morning before leaving, after the amazing (perhaps best of the whole retreat) session by the all-time inspiring pioneer Shlomo Ashkinazy, recapping 45 years of LGBT advocacy, we were sitting around and talking. Someone asked Rabbi Greenberg what his response is when someone asks him how he can be a gay Orthodox Rabbi. His response, mirroring his amazing personality, was simply crossing his legs and arms and saying: “Like this”… This is the vision of a Jewish community we were fostering and hoping to take home.
So from now on, if anyone is telling me that Orthodoxy is never going to “come around” I have an article that challenges that notion. I am not ‘joining’ Orthodoxy in believe or practice, but I can see myself ‘enjoying’ Orthodoxy. While with limits as of now, redemption is better attainable that I thought.
Thankful for the past, and hopeful for the future,

Abby @ The Second Transition

Watch the wishes of Retreat participants: 
Oh, ignore my Yiddish 5 seconds in it...