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%.

10 Replies to “Birthright for the Trans* Person”

  1. Israel is an terrorist state.
    The well armed Israeli military routinely attacks unarmed, civilian Palestinians, razing residential areas, destroying civilian property.

    Being aware of Israel’s aggressive actions does not make me an anti-Semite.

    • If you have to say you’re not an anti-Semite you’re probably an anti-Semite. Not intentionally, not in the sense that you think all Jews should die, but in the more insidious, subtle ways. Try reading something from someone other than QAIA or Code Pink. Hell, just read Wiki, it’s a fairly unbiased source that gets edited by people on both sides of the argument. There is far more to it than simply Israel = evil and Palestine = perfect.

      Also, THIS IS NOT A POLITICAL POST. Go spread your crap somewhere else.

      • Of course it’s a political post. Writing about a Birthright trip “apolitically” is a luxury you only have because you’re on the winning side. I guess it’s naive of me, but I would expect someone who has transitioned to be less disingenuous.

        • I’m not on the winning side. I hate to break it to you, but I didn’t go on Birthright because I’m some sort of Zionist. I spent my post-trip time both participating in Birthright Unplugged and visiting Gaza and the West Bank on my own so that I could see things for myself. I wrote this post because there is NOTHING else out there for trans people who want to go on the trip, I’m sorry that you can’t seem to see past your own political ideology.

  2. Hello,
    I have nothing in reference to this particular post. I ran across your blog and find it entertaining. Glad there are people out there comfortable to share so much and provide some advice to others. Also, I find it hilarious that I am an archetypical masculine transguy you seem to reference, and my name is Aiden.
    Best of luck to you.

  3. I went on Birthright when I was so far in the closet I was practically in Narnia, and so went as a girl, to the best of my ability.

    I fell in love with Israel, wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything else. It was home, though I knew nobody.

    I was not raised Jewish (my father isn’t), so then, and during my subsequent times in Israel, I was more concerned with “passing” in that respect, as religious enough to not offend others that were when necessary, etc. – when you’re already pretending to be one thing, “fake it til you make it” and all, adding another thing you’re not to the presentation isn’t that much more of a stretch.

    It’s only since I couldn’t get into the army there (or any other job, couldn’t learn Hebrew) and so came home “for good” when the money ran out and I became isolated from the Jewish community (I fit better with the Israelis than the locals) that the facade of religious-ness crumbled, and with that, my flimsy attempt at “womanhood”.

    It was never more than a costume.

    And I’m still confused. Because when I have more money, and try and learn some more Hebrew, I still want to try and go back. And that’s a good amount of what’s holding me back from being a man, the fear that I won’t be accepted in Israel if I’m trans, particularly as I’m gay too, and would be better off there as a woman.

    And then you posted. And now I don’t know anything anymore.

    I’d be interested in hearing more about your experiences there, both on Birthright and after your stay.

    (xposting to my own journal because I can never come up with my own content)

  4. As a transguy who just applied for a birthright trip, this is enormously appreciated! I’m glad I’m not the only one to have ever gone, and perhaps won’t even be the only one on my trip. I pass fairly well and have had all of my documents changed, so I’m planning on going stealth for the trip. The housing makes me a bit nervous (I’ve never roomed with guys) but I’m sure it’ll be fine. I’m kind of surprised to hear about all of the hooking up (and heterosexual matchmaking-like stuffs). I’m actually a bit more nervous about how people will see me because I’m in a serious relationship with a non-Jewish woman than if they find out I am a queer transman.
    Anyway, it’s great to hear about your (and your friends’) experiences and very helpful!

    • Hi! Glad to have helped. When I was looking at signing up there was literally nothing of use anywhere (it took me forever to even figure out how they handled rooming) so I knew going in that this was something I’d want to post. I didn’t expect to have help compiling stuff, but apparently I wasn’t the only one coming up on the age limit who was being held back by trans issues. Go figure.

      The hooking up is pretty easy to ignore. I knew it was happening, but only vaguely and only because I’m apparently the kind of person people like to gossip to when drunk/sleep deprived. This is going to sound bad, but it’s fairly easy to tell who’ll be doing the most hooking up by the end of the first day (which is LONG because of the time change) and then you can just avoid their drama.

      I wouldn’t worry at all about your relationship, to be honest. I think about 50% of my bus were kids from inter-faith marriages and there were a few people with non-Jewish parents even on the Orthodox trip. There’s usually a discussion or two on Jewish identity where things can get tricky if your main identity is something else (like for me where I consider myself gay and Latino and even trans before Jewish), but that was an issue even for the gay guy on my trip with two Jewish parents.

      Really I thought it was a great experience. Talk to your bus-mates early and often, the time goes by so much faster than you expect. I think all of us still missed one or two people we’d have liked to talk to more because we were too shy the first couple of days or got into a groove with one group and forgot about everyone else. And if it’s at all possible, extend your stay. Even those of us who didn’t have plans had fun. The Israelis on all of our trips were the most welcoming people ever and ended up taking anyone who wanted to stay a bit longer in.

      OH! And if you’re into photography take a GOOD camera. It’ll seem bulky and annoying, but Yaffo alone is worth it. There’s not a whole lot of time there, but it has some flat out gorgeous views.

    • I have no idea. I never even considered it because I have no desire to drop my pants in front of anyone who’s not my doctor or a sexual partner, but it’s an interesting question.

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