Birthright for the Trans* Person

Note: This is not a post on the political or religious aspects of Taglit-Birthright Israel.  It is also not at all endorsed by the programme.  It is a personal post designed to help trans* people decide whether or not the trans aspect of their identity will be a problem on the trip.  All information came from either my own experience or that of trans* friends (most of whom are male identified with a few women and genderqueer people mixed in).  Your experiences may vary.

Now that that’s out of the way, this entire post will essentially be a series of “it depends”.  Taglit-Birthright is set up in such a way that every trip is different.  If you go with an Orthodox operator your experiences will be different than if you went with a Reform or Conservative or non-denominational one.  I will try to give the best information I have from a group of approximately 25 friends and acquaintances (not including myself) who went on trips with various operators in the winter and summer of 2011.  Most of us went with nondenominational or Reform groups with one deciding on an Orthodox trip.  There are still a handful of people coming back from the summer 2011 tours so this may be updated in the future.

All tours have gender-segregated rooming.  Generally you will be three to a hotel/kibbutz room with your gender being whatever is listed on your passport.  Some trips have the same rooming all ten days, others rotate so you share time with everyone of the same gender on your trip.  If for some reason you can’t get a passport in your correct gender (keep in mind the updated rules so this no longer requires surgery) there were two people who got correct room assignments after calling their trip operator and explaining the situation.  This requires speaking to both your tour operator and your guides once you get to the airport to make sure they know what’s going on.  If you go with a friend you can also ask your trip operator if it’s possible to upgrade to a double room for a small fee.  This system is designed for young married couples going on trips together, but some organisers were willing to make exceptions to ensure maximum traveler comfort.  It is not, however, an option any of us took.  Unfortunately, all aspects of gender on the trip will be very binary.

Oddly enough, the only problem any of us had with bathrooms were the few times we were with other Americans who weren’t on our trip.  Most of the time you will be with your tour group so expect bathrooms to be full.  If you’re pee-shy you may find yourself waiting until you get back to your hotel for the night.  All bathrooms, even the ones at the tourist Bedouin site, involved stalls with modern plumbing so no worries about having to pee in a bush or anything.  No one reporting back found a single gender-neutral bathroom on their trip, but we obviously didn’t see all of Israel so they may exist somewhere.

Religious sites:
The only gender-segregated site any of us visited was the Kotel (Western Wall).  None of us trans people had issues accessing the side of the Wall we wanted, however there were two cis women who were given some trouble accessing the women’s side.  In general if you can pass for a 12 year old boy you should be pretty ok.  There were people who visited both sides without problems if you are interested in that.  I’m not sure I’d recommend it as it requires a particular type of androgynous appearance, but it’s something to keep in mind if you have a non-binary identity.

You will also spend at least one Shabbat in Israel during your trip.  Generally this means the option for services at an Orthodox shul even on non-denominational trips.  Once again, none of us had problems going to whichever section we felt most comfortable in.  Some of the nondenominational trips offer either services or a discussion group, several people took the discussion option which was entirely gender neutral.

A visit to the Dead Sea is a standard part of the Birthright itinerary.  This is where things got most tricky for us.  The changing cabanas at the Sea are group style with five or six people changing in front of each other.  There are bathrooms.  You’re not meant to change in them, but on my trip I certainly wasn’t the only guy using them for that.  Those of us who are pre-top didn’t get any questions about our rash guards as the Sea is rather notorious for causing rashes on people with sensitive skin.  I will warn everyone to not shave anything for two or so days before going because the salt will get into every little nick or cut and burn like you would not believe.

This is where things will vary the most.  On my trip there was one other trans guy (who I knew vaguely from synagogue, go figure) who was out to everyone.  He had no problems at all being out, everyone was incredibly respectful and polite.  I had to field a few questions that were fairly easily brushed off with “no, my family just has shit genes”, but after that there wasn’t a problem.  Honestly, I think I was being a little paranoid because I’m not used to being in groups of cis people with the level of trans knowledge my trip mates had.  Everyone else’s experiences ran the full spectrum from “stealth and fine” to “stealth and way too many questions” to “out and fine” to “out and uncomfortable”.  Even people who went with the same organiser on different buses had wildly different experiences.  I suggest going with a friend so that at the very least you have one person you feel comfortable with.

The Israelis:
Every Birthright trip includes at least 3-4 days with Israeli young people joining you on the trip.  No one has had a problem with them so far.  In many cases people felt more comfortable with the Israelis than with their American peers.  For my part, the best friends I made on my trip were with some of the Israelis I met and eventually stayed with after I extended my stay.  Do not be afraid to talk to them, their kindness and acceptance has been one of the few things everyone I’ve talked to has agreed on.

It’s a pretty widely held belief that Birthright is what you go on to get laid.  In many ways that’s true.  I don’t think any of us have been on a trip where at least a few people weren’t screwing around with each other.  You’d think it’d be difficult with that whole three to a room thing, but most people stay up late in the night chatting in various rooms so you can usually kick your roommates out pretty easily (or ask them to join in…)  Obviously this poses problems for those of us who are stealth.  I did not get laid on my trip (not that I’d have turned down a few of the guys…), but the out guy who was with me did.  If you’re out and interested in someone it follows pretty much the same rules as any other hookup with the added challenge of having to sit on a bus with the person for the next however many days.  None of us who are stealth did anything more than have a drunken makeout session, but the challenges of stealth are about the same in any group of people sharing a small community: you never know who might tell what.  Don’t expect true love or anything, 99% of what happens are casual flings people forget about by morning.  Take protection, consider your own needs and wants, and have fun.

Other information:
There are some aspects of every trip that do feel rather like hetero Jewish matchmaking.  This is irritating to everyone queer and not a single one of us ended up on a trip where we were the only ones (even the one girl who went on an Orthodox tour) so don’t feel like you’ll be left out in your grumbling.  Like in any other group, family tend to find each other.  Luckily, the heterocentric parts are very short and very small and likely something you won’t even really remember compared to the whirlwind of the rest.  All trips go at a clipping pace, you barely have time to breathe let alone think about the two seconds of heteronormativity.

Like I said at the beginning, it depends on your group.  The majority of us had very good experiences and will be recommending the trip to anyone who asks, but there were a few who were less than satisfied.  Of the less than thrilled people, most were more irritated by non-trans aspects of the trip (it’s ten days with largely upper-middle class, educated, white Jews, you can imagine the problems when discussing oppression).  If you’re worried sign up with a friend or sibling you can rant to at the end of the day or see if you can put it off until your passing is closer to 100%.

Jewish Trans Resources

I don’t normally do resource posts, but I’ve gotten more hits for variations on “Jewish transsexual” in the past hour than I have for any other search term in the history of the blog.  I’m not really qualified to speak authoritatively on the subject myself (not being all that well-versed in biblical Hebrew, let alone Jewish law) so here are a few pages I’ve found that may be of interest.

Judaism and Gender Issues – I’m hesitant to link this one because [a] it’s focused on MtF transsexuals and [b] it’s from an Orthodox perspective and therefore mildly anti-gay, but it may be of use to someone so it’ll stay.

Jewish Mosaic – GLBT positive site that includes trans* specific resources.

TransTorah – Kind of a cool site that includes blessings and prayers specifically for trans* people.  Bit too new age and gender theory for me, but still interesting.

I wish I knew of more places, but that’s all I’ve got.  If anyone can point me to more I’ll be happy to add them.  I’m especially interested in pages that discuss transsexuality in terms of Jewish law, but they seem to be hard to find.

On being FtM and Jewish

I, along with being gay and trans and fabulous, am Jewish.  I wasn’t raised Jewish, I was actually raised batshit-one-step-away-from-cult-Jesus-camp-Pentacostal-Seventh-Day-Adventist-Evangelist-Christian.  However, I’ve been studying Judaism since I was six and unsatisfied with the answers I was getting from pastors, deacons, priests, nuns, elders, and Sunday school teachers.  Interestingly enough, most of my Jewish friends have a similar background.  Apparently we have “Jewish convert” magnets or something.

One thing most people have trouble wrapping their heads around when they find out that I’m Jewish is how I can be gay, trans, and a Jew all at once.  After all, some of the most strict admonishments against homosexuality can be found in Leviticus and other books of the Old Testament (Sodom and Gomorrah is in Genesis, in case anyone was wondering).  What they fail to recognise is that most Jews (particularly in the US) follow liberal Reform movements rather than conservative Orthodox ones.  Being gay and trans isn’t just tolerated, it’s accepted to the point where the Union for Reform Judaism has a special blessing and seder for those who are transitioning.

I have never had a Jewish person — Reform, Orthodox, or otherwise — tell me I am evil for being trans or gay.  One friend has.  Once.  The person ended up being a Jew for Jesus.  My rabbi and cantor regularly officiate at gay weddings — and have since the early 70s.  Neither of them batted an eye when I came out to them.  Really they were more confused by the fact that I have no Jewish heritage or partner and still want to convert.  The same goes for the members of the congregation I am a part of, they’re far more interested in why I want to convert than what goes on in my pants or what I do in my bedroom.

What about those pesky passages that say man shall not lie with man and women shall not wear the garb of men?  They’re old.  They were written based on the social conventions of the time, much like documents from WWII era Germany which claim that Jews are an inferior race.  We know better now, most of us have moved on.  Those who haven’t are generally respectful enough to allow the rest of us our opinions — provided, of course, we’re equally respectful to them.

Really my trans history and sexuality never enter the equation.  The closest I’ve come to anyone caring was when a (well-meaning) father asked if I knew of any places his daughter could find a nice Jewish girl to settle down with.  It was kind of adorable, even if he did totally miss the “Gay Boy” t-shirt I had on.