Archive for December, 2006


trans and orthodox, or, a bizarre obsession with genitals

December 28, 2006

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published two articles this week about transgendered Orthodox Jews (When Abba Becomes Imma: Transsexuals in the Orthodox World, and Toronto’s Orthodox community adjusts to Nicole, nee Mordechai (subscription required). The individual stories of Orthodox transpeople are probably the best part of both articles.

“From when I was 7 years old, I knew I was a girl,” Beyer said. “Standing there with the boys, saying ‘she’lo asani isha’ every morning,” the prayer where men thank God for not making them female, “it was like swallowing crushed glass.”

Some interesting and not exactly unfamiliar topics and arguments came up. The focus of the first article isn’t that being trans and Orthodox isn’t necessarily a new thing, but being trans and remaining Orthodox is pretty novel and is being pioneered by a few brave souls. I should get some of the annoying stuff out of the way though.

-Both articles talk about ‘transsexuals’ and refuse the world transgender.

-There is no mention of transmen in either article. I know this may be because of who is willing to speak up, but there wasn’t even a line about attempting to find transmen.

-Genital talk! Hello? When has it ever been appropriate for any news source, let alone a Jewish news source, to talk about someone’s genitals like you’re talking about their eye color?

Criticism aside, props to the JTA for always using the proper pronoun (I hate that I have to give props for this, but the mess-ups happen too often in mainstream news sources). Also, I think they treated their subjects with dignity and respect. And that’s a lot.

Now, onto some specific points. One of the things that differentiates this issue from that of gay Orthodox Jews – and perhaps something that makes it murkier – is that the Western trajectory for gayness ultimately leads to being ‘out’ – it’s generally understood that a general state of happiness and calm will arrive only after you are no longer keeping your sexuality a secret. With transpeople, though, there is a larger spectrum of ‘outness.’ Meaning, it’s not always a requirement to be out about your trans-ness. For many transpeople, being able to pass as one’s transitioned gender, without having to reveal what they used to be or used to look like, is the ultimate goal. And this, it seems, is what might be most frightening to the Orthodox community: having a freak among them who looks just like everyone else!

Transitioning “is an impossible situation,” [Rabbi J. David] Bleich [an authority on Jewish law, ethics and bioethics] said. “Shul is the least of such a person’s problems. If such a person is looking for acceptance, it’s not in the cards. He should be happy if people don’t criticize him to his face.”

I guess the transition itself is more of a problem than the transitioned person. Meaning, if you look like a freak, you’re not wanted here. But that’s less about Halakhah (Jewish law) than it is about cultural norms, no? We don’t go around policing people’s gender and asking what genitals they were born with.

The article fails to mention something so obvious which would shed some light on why this community functions the way that it does: stringent gender roles and many unspoken rules relating to those roles. It’s not the notion of being one gender or another that scares people so much (or even moving between them, so long as you plan to stay far on one side). It’s that inbetween space that is most frightening. Seeing someone, transsexual as they may be and headed in the direction of the other end of the binary, in the inbetween stages of transition is enough to shake those around that person whose lives, religion, and cultural norms are structured heavily around a gender binary. Even the Conservative movement doesn’t know what to do with gender-variant people:

In December 2003, the Conservative movement officially recognized that those who have undergone full sex-reassignment surgery “are to be considered as having changed their sex status, and so recognized by Jewish law.”

Oh, genitals. I never thought I’d see so much genital talk. Sigh. And for all the genital talk, there’s no mention of that other gender taboo: intersex people (for statistics on the frequency of intersex births in the US, see ISNA). The general halakhic argument against sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) is related to the notion that our bodies do not belong to us, they are sort of ‘on loan’ from God, and therefore we are not permitted to harm them or mutilate them in any way. Interestingly, though, many people are not aware that Rabbinic literature addresses intersex bodies at great length. I wonder how, if at all, these discussions factor in to the transphobic revulsion in this article. Probably not at all. Which begs the question, is this about Halakhah or cultural/community standards?

I don’t want to go into the second article too much, but one quote struck me as really central:

“Do I need to expose my five-and-a-half-year-old daughter to this? Why do I have to give her the option that she might say she wants to be a boy now?” Martell asked. “It’s not normal. In a normal, nonreligious society, there would be issues, too.”

The fear isn’t that God will punish the transperson, then. The fear is that your children might be exposed to something that they could misinterpret as an option for them. Which, clearly, it’s not. What this person fails to understand, though, is that the Orthodox Jews seeking SRS were not necessarily exposed to a transperson as a child. If they had been, though, I would assume they’d probably be a happier and far more well-adjusted than they were in all their years of struggling. Here’s one place where I can align transphobia and homophobia. A child exposed to a gay person is no more likely to become gay when they grow up. However, if that child is or becomes gay, they will have a much easier time accepting and loving themselves and will be so much happier. I’m happy to see that there are Orthodox Jews who are taking these bold steps within their own communities, difficult as they may be to take there.


surprise: internalized racism still alive and well

December 27, 2006

Yesterday an interesting story in the NYTimes revealed some of the problems faced by middle-class black families in hiring nannies to care for their children. In my work with JFREJ, we talk at length about the intricacies of the power dynamic between Jewish employers and their employees, most often women of color. The story that the Times tells is one of fraught internalized racism, usually involving some combination of stereotypes, fear, and perhaps self-hatred:

…interviews with dozens of nannies and agencies that employ them in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Houston turned up many nannies — often of African-American or Caribbean descent themselves — who avoid working for families of those backgrounds. Their reasons included accusations of low pay and extra work, fears that employers would look down at them, and suspicion that any neighborhood inhabited by blacks had to be unsafe.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that much, considering how much internalized racism/ classism/ homophobia/ anti-semitism/ etc. is such a huge part of how all those ‘isms’ function. The truth is that the stereotype of employers of nannies, at least in New York City, is white and middle- and upper-class folks. It would follow that nannies and potential nannies would hold that stereotype as well.

Because of the nature of domestic work and the means through which most nannies find their jobs (only a small percentage find their jobs through agencies) and also because many domestic workers are undocumented*, statistics on the racial and class makeup of employers of domestic workers are hard to come by. (some statistics on domestic workers, by the way, are available in a study that came out last year, published by Domestic Workers United [DWU].)

The one thing that the article doesn’t stress quite enough is how unofficial the nature of the industry is, how despite the large numbers, most nannies find their jobs through their own informal networks. This is an environment in which rumors and stereotypes thrive. This angle might have set the context a bit better.

The interesting parts of the article are, of course, the most extreme stories of discrimination and stereotyping. A family living in Clinton Hill described their painful search for a nanny:

One sitter, a Caribbean woman living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, asked about the “colored” people in the Boones’ neighborhood, Clinton Hill. A Russian sitter said enthusiastically that although she had never cared for a black child, she could in this case, because little Emerie Boone, now 7 months old, was light-skinned. All sitters expressed surprise that a black couple could afford a four-story brownstone.

A Harvard sociologist analyzed the complex power dynamics resulting from a black nanny working for a black employer:

The problem may be as much about class as race…for nannies, working for an employer of the same background or skin color “highlights their lower economic status,” she said, but “the fact that their employers are black just makes that more intense.”

Here it is. If a woman of color who lives in Queens works for a white family on the upper east side, the differences are about so much more than class. Differentials of race, religion, culture, even location, can add to the equation of power, when the basic inequality is that of class. And that differential is even more pronounced when race can’t serve as a marked difference (the most obviously visible) between an employer and employee.

As a JFREJ member, my initial reaction is that this is an indication of a larger problem with the domestic work industry, which is the lack of standards and legal protection. Neither domestic workers nor their employers are protected by any kind of legislative standards. The other problem, which is certainly related, is that because domestic work takes place in an intimate space and between one or two employers and one employee, combating stereotypes and assumptions is an even more daunting task than it might be in another industry.

*or “illegal,” according to the NYTimes. I hate that it’s still acceptable in mainstream newspapers to call human beings illegal.


back with a vengeance

December 21, 2006

After I brief hiatus, I have returned to the blog world. I needed a vacation. I know you missed me.

A salty list of unrelated bullets to bring us back. Nothing intense too soon.

-It’s been awhile since I read the Onion, which is unfortunate, because it’s pretty fantastic. My perverted rabbi friend passed on an article called Israel Bombs Anti-Semitism out of Lebanon. Brilliant, totally brilliant. Quote: ‘”After destroying much of our infrastructure and displacing nearly 1 million civilians, we’ve come to respect Israel as a legitimate power and a beacon of democracy, and not a pack of lying, usurping, hook-nosed dogs.”‘

-Next, on to Alternet, where Cristina Page explains that contrary to right-wing fundamentalist discourse on reproductive freedom, contraception and birth control have allowed pre-marital sex, which leads to fewer extramarital affairs, thereby strengthening marriages/families. Page explains:

the uptick in fidelity today is the result of a society that accepts our sexual urges as natural and couples that can look within marriage for fulfillment of desires once branded indecent.

OK, so I’m not sure what her sources are, but it’s a worthy argument and one that the pro-choice movement should take into account. It’s the fault of the anti-choice movement that the pro-choice movement has been branded “pro-abortion,” when in actuality, it’s really a pro-family movement. At least how Page sees it, anyway. I’m not sure how I feel about co-opting anti-choice language about saving marriage and families, but it might just be the only ticket to winning over the American public. (P.S. 95% of Americans have had pre-marital sex. Thank you, Feministing.)

-New to the blogroll: Gender 3.0., a refreshing, well-written, thought-out blog from a trans dyke in San Francisco. An excerpt from a post titled He’s a Dyke:

But I’m not a woman who refuses to accept her place; I’m not a woman — for me, personally, the word is irredeemably steeped in its connotations of motherhood and nurturing. (For this, I blame the Second Wave feminists.) The constitutive thrill of being a male-identified dyke is feeling like those prescriptions simply don’t apply. Problem is, femmes and other gender-savvy dykes tend to be the only ones who recognize this basic fact of masculine gender identity…

Thank you, thank you. I guess I can take identity politics when they’re not all “woe is me, my life sucks.” I look forward to lots of interesting posts.

-And finally, a Hannukah/birthday present for tragika in San Francisco. Seizure me elmo, coming to stores near you.

Happy Hannukah!


still out there?

December 5, 2006

Dear readers,

Please excuse me for being MIA for the last few weeks. You know the drill – life gets hectic, work gets full, new apartments need to be made into homes, time flies. I’ll be back soon.