Temple Beth Shalom Discusses Judaism & Trans Identity in Hot Topics Program
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News Story by John McCallum
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”
Aretha Franklin’s call for equal treatment from her 1967 No. 1 hit could just as well have found a home alongside Biblical scripture, medical and historical perspectives and personal testimony at Temple Beth Shalom’s “Hot Topics” panel discussion on transgender identity last month.
“Judaism and Trans Identity” provided attending community members a chance for deeper insights into the controversy over transgender identity in the U.S. — a controversy that has sparked a record number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills across the country. According to a Feb. 17 press release from the Human Rights Campaign, more than 340 such bills have been introduced in state legislatures so far in 2023, with 150 specifically directed at restricting rights of transgender people, “the highest number of bills targeting transgender people in a single year to date.”
Examples include a bill banning gender-affirming care for transgender children signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on March 3, while on the same day in Florida, a bill was introduced in the state Senate allowing the state “emergency jurisdiction” over children who receive or are “at risk” of receiving gender-affirming care — or if their parent receives it.
The four panel members at the Feb. 26 discussion spoke to various aspects of transgender identity. Spokane family physician Dr. Amanda Oropeza provided a medical overview on sexual identity vs. gender identity along with explanations of procedures and some details of gender-affirming care.
Gonzaga University lecturer in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies Avery Dame-Griff gave the audience a brief overview of transgender relations and role in society dating back to the early 1900s; with Temple Beth Shalom Rabbi Tamar Malino presenting how Judaic scripture addresses transgender relations historically while Ian Sullivan, executive director at Spokane’s Odyssey Youth Movement, provided insights into the issue’s impacts locally.
But no matter the material presented, nor the discussion between audience members (some who identified themselves as trans) and panelists, the basic upshot of treating people in the community with different gender identities kept returning to two words — listening and respect.
“That’s really an important part of how we understand the conversation,” Malino said in encouraging everyone in attendance to speak. “And being a welcoming community means that we really listen to each other’s voices and that is an essential component of what we’re doing here today.”
Into and back out of the closet
People in society who don’t identify with their sex given at birth isn’t something new, as both Dame-Griff and Malino explained. The term “transsexual” emerged from German medical practice in the early 1900s, and was eventually replaced with the more applicable “transgender” term through the clinical work with transsexual individuals of endocrinologist and sexologist Dr. Harry Benjamin beginning in the late-1940s. Psychiatrist John F. Oliven first used the term in his 1965 book “Sexual Hygiene and Pathology.”
Dame-Griff said there were societal “pushes and pulls” throughout the 1960s and 1970s that forced trans people out of public life, including the determination made in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual in the early 1970s that transgender was a diagnosed pathological condition that should be treated. This resulted in the closure of university clinics involved in providing care to trans individuals and pushed them toward individual doctors who would consent — often under stringent conditions — with providing care.
This began to change with a desire for political activism on the part of some trans individuals in the late-1980s. That received a big push in the 1990s thanks to one very important and pervasive invention — the internet.
“If you’re wondering why we start seeing a rise, it’s because folks start to talk to each other,” Dame-Griff said. “You could put in the word ‘transgender,’ and within 10 minutes be talking and communicating with folks you had never met before. It was very important, especially for trans-youth.”
The Gender Unicorn
According to a June 2022 Pew Research report, 1.6% of adults in the United States identify as transgender or non-binary — that is neither a man nor a woman nor strictly one or the other. The percentage is higher among adults under age 30, with 5.1% identifying as transgender or non-binary, compared to 1.6% of adults age 30 – 49 and 0.3% older than age 50.
The numbers of U.S. youth experiencing gender dysphoria, described as “Clinically significant distress caused when a person’s assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify” is also on the rise. In the October 2022 story “Youth in Transition,” Reuters reports 42,167 youth ages 6 – 17 received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria in 2021, compared with just 15,172 in 2017.
Sullivan said they are seeing this increase among their drop-in youth clients at the center, which began 30 years ago as a support group for gay and bisexual men. Some of the drop-ins, which he equated to afterschool programs, are now 13 and younger and still learning about themselves, looking for support.
Sullivan said that 60 – 70% of those who participate in the drop-in identify as trans or nonbinary.
Finally, more people reporting themselves as transgender or nonbinary is helping to increase visibility among the rest of the population. In the Pew Research 2022 report, 44% of adults said they know someone who is trans while 20% know someone who is nonbinary.
With the transgender and nonbinary population increasingly more visible along with the percentages of people in the U.S. who know a transgender or nonbinary individual, it helps to understand a bit of the medical view of the equation. Temple Beth Shalom Hot Topics panelist Oropeza said sex identity can be thought of as what an individual is assigned at birth with regards to organs and other physiological factors.
Gender is more of a personal expression of how someone identifies themselves along a scale of possible combinations. Illustrating this aspect is the “Gender Unicorn” graphic developed by Trans Student Education Resources, which shows sliding levels of gender identity, gender expression, physical and emotional attraction.
“Each of us could have one of these turned all the way up, the other ones off,” Oropeza said. “Some of us could have turned up a little bit, the one a bit more, the other one off. It’s not just a one or the other, there’s multiple facets of gender identity.”
Oropeza described gender identity as more of a social construction, and likened it to race. There are no biological categories of race, she added, but there are social constructions of race that carry impacts on people’s lives, incomes and health.
“No biological categories doesn’t mean race isn’t real,” she said.
Furthering the question of gender identity is that biological aspects of sexual identity can also not necessarily be binary — man or woman, one or the other. As an example, Oropeza pointed to someone with androgen insensitivities, someone having male X and Y chromosomes but because they didn’t respond to testosterone in the womb, have a completely female phenotype.
“Where do we put people like that?” she asked. “Do we say, ‘Well you have XY so you’re a male.’ Do we say, ‘Well you look like a woman so you’re a female.’ The biological categories of sex are not binary, and so it’s more complicated.”
Evolving religion from history
Malino said Judaism has acknowledged historically that there are at least six different sexes in tradition: zakhar and nekevah (male and female), androgynos (a person with both male and female sexual characteristics), tumtum (an individual with ambiguous sex), saris (a eunuch either born or created) and aylonit (born female but later develops masculine traits).
Part of the challenge for Judaism, she said, is that it is built around gender binary. Men have one set of obligations and privileges while woman have another set, “not so many privileges,” and therefore had to be divided so that lists of these aspects could be developed and assigned.
But, as the concept of six sexes illustrates, “the ancients” knew there was more than just man and woman. Malino also pointed to biblical text of the Creation, where even though it may reference light and dark, day and night, tradition holds there is also twilight — aspects of existence in between.
“So the imagery of male and female can very easily be read as understanding, as inclusive of the whole spectrum rather than thinking about it in one extreme or another extreme of the end of the spectrum,” she said.
This is evolving over time, Malino added, noting development of reform in Conservative Judaism has helped move towards a more “egalitarian” stance in terms of religious obligation, commitment and leadership. National organizations such as the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards are also reviewing and working on changing traditional boundaries of obligations and roles within Judaism.
But this evolving religion and tradition also maintains a healthy connection with the past. Part of that is on ongoing review of scripture.
Malino provided several examples of this, beginning with Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Other translations cite “man” or “Him” in place of mankind.
Malino said recent work from the original Hebrew — including scholar, author and University of California professor Robert Alter — translate the word “mankind” as “Ha-Adam,” the human being. It shows man as having both singularity and plurality, and therefore reflecting his Maker, Elohim, “who also has singularity and plurality in His complexity.”
“Hebrew has objective pronouns, which is why it’s Him,” Malino added. “The human being is a more general term than a specific gender.”
Malino also noted Judaism doesn’t read biblical text literally, rather looking at the text through centuries of rabbinic teachers and interpretations. One of those dealing with creation and the idea of the first human as both sexes is Bereshit Rabbah 8:1, written in the 3rd Century, CE (Common Era).The text records a discussion among several rabbis from the era, one — Yirmiyah ben Elazar — who notes that “In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him [as] an androgyne.” The text also describes Adam as “double-faced” and when creating two sexes, God sawed him in two, adding that the use of the term “rib” to describe the creation of woman is translated more as “sides.”
“It’s basically saying the first human being, had both genders,” Malino told the Hot Topics audience. “Then split apart into two.”
Return to unification
This splitting is today working its way back toward a concept of unification under many sexual banners, as it were, rather than just two. Towards that end, all of the speakers at the February meeting, as well as members of the audience, pointed to the need for inclusiveness and respect — two means with which to unify people and move away from intolerance and the discrimination that is becoming more entrenched by law in some parts of the country.
One aspect of this in Judaism is with language. When people are called up to read from the Torah, Malino said that instead of using the Hebrew phrases for “son of” or “daughter of,” they are using the less gender specific “from the household of.”
Sullivan, from Odyssey, said there are little things people can do to show support — being an ally — for trans and nonbinary individuals, ranging from volunteering to help at organizations and groups that support people to passive signs like flying a Pride flag, reading books on the subjects and even displaying the rainbow “Support LGBTQ+ Youth” Odyssey stickers.
“Ally is a verb, not a noun,” he added.
Some in attendance urged others to step up and have the “uncomfortable” conversations with people who may not identify or approve of transgenders and nonbinaries in society. Oropeza said this can include discussions about medical interventions, such as using hormone blockers that delay puberty early and prevent more difficult surgical or gender-affirming decisions later in life.
“It basically stops puberty in its tracks so that kids don’t go through the wrong puberty for them, which can be very traumatic,” she added. “And, then if somebody decides that’s not the right path for them, you can unpause.”
She also encouraged people to listen to youth who may be transitioning or considering such a move, but stressed that adults in this situation should not process their feelings with their child, but rather seek support outside.
“Adolescents are more likely to tell you who they are because they are more likely to not be impeded by social constructs, not that they don’t know who they are with their gender identity, or their sexual identity,” she said.
Dame-Griff noted that supporting someone who is trans or nonbinary can be as simple as learning to refer to them by their new names or by the pronouns they prefer on lists or in conversation.
“It helps us immensely when you refer to us by our names, by our pronouns, when you stop buying the wrong clothing for us, when you stop pronouncing us as ‘this is my daughter, she goes by he,’” a trans male in the audience said.
It’s a process that in most respects has just begun.
“It’s an ongoing conversation,” Malino said. “Essentially, it’s listening to people and responding to them how they want to be included, how they want to be referred to.”
This news story was made possible by contributions to FāVS from readers like you. Thank you.
John McCallum is a freelance writer living in Liberty Lake. A graduate of Eastern Washington University with degrees in Journalism and Radio-Television, John spent 21 years at the Cheney Free Press as an award-winning staff reporter, editor, managing editor and photojournalist; writing and photographing people, places and things ranging from government to education, sports, religion and current affairs. He is a member of Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church, has served as a church leader on session and participated in worship through a variety of roles ranging from pulpit speaking to the Knox Drama Team. He is a member of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest Guatemala Task Force, making six mission trips to that Central American country. John enjoys time with his wife, Sheila, and their Dachshund, Lacey, at home and on the road — especially the Oregon Coast — along with running, biking and kayaking.
I’d have loved to attend this. I was born as one of the 6 alternate sexes: saris. Here’s my pencil journal (warning, it gets graphic, triggering for medical sadism) sarisimpapers.substack.com