Transgender Inclusivity in Jewish Spaces

A new gender-neutral bathroom at the CESJDS Upper School; photo screenshot "The Lion's Tale."
A new gender-neutral bathroom at the CESJDS Upper School; photo screenshot “The Lion’s Tale.”

By Rena Newman

As transgender identities become more prevalent in media and culture, there will inevitably be more transgender Jewish campers and youth. As an educator, one is constantly on the lookout for ways to be more inclusive and more effective. This is a letter initially written to the Bronfman Youth Fellowship staff for the purpose of giving concrete advice on how to be inclusive of transgender identities inside a Jewish setting. Here, I’ve edited it for a wider audience with the intention of being used as a source text to guide Jewish discussion on trans­inclusion. This letter includes both my personal experience and professional advice. I hope you find it to be a useful tool.

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Terminology changes over time, and I always strive to define terms before using them. In order to be as clear as possible, I’m going to provide some brief definitions for terminology I use in this letter:

1. Gender Binary: ­ A concept of gender that only includes men and women.

2. Cisgender: ­ A term for someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. (From the Latin “cis” meaning “on the same side”)

3. Transgender: ­ A blanket term for anyone who identifies as something other than the gender they were assigned at birth. (From the Latin “trans” meaning “across from”) This definition includes people who identify both as binary and as non­binary. Sometimes abbreviated to “trans.”

4. Non­binary: ­ A blanket term for a gender identity not within the gender binary (neither man nor woman), either between or outside of man and woman. Non­binary identities include genderqueer, agender, genderfluid, etc..

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My name is Rena Newman (they/them), a genderqueer Jew from Chicago, Illinois. I’ve been involved in gender advocacy work for the last two years, specifically centered around education about transgender identities. I came out publicly as genderqueer in the summer of 2015, during my time as a fellow on the Bronfman Youth Fellowship. Throughout my journey as a Jew, a young educator, and a member of the transgender community, I’ve found there’s much work to be done in Jewish spaces.

As Jews we are familiar with an experience of otherness, of being an outsider. It is precisely because of our history, our proximity to the status of stranger, that we are obligated not to exclude each other ­ especially those in our circles who are most at ­risk. Being inclusive of transgender identity fulfills mitzvot of community; it is a necessary part of welcoming the stranger. There are many steps that any staff member, counselor, advisor, or facilitator can take to create a safe environment for those internally struggling with their gender identity, who among us often acutely experience a sense of otherness.

A major part of trans inclusivity is language and accessibility – ­ little things make a huge difference.

Before staff even meets participants, there are a number of features on registration forms which can communicate gender accessibility. Use of the words “sex” and “gender” are often thought of as interchangeable, but there is a different between them. “Sex” refers to biological sex (male, female, intersex), and “gender” refers to identity (man, woman, non­binary). This distinction is important for communicating accessibility. Make sure your forms use appropriate terminology and wording.

If your program registration requires medical history, rooming preferences, or gender indication, there are small tweaks to ensure staff is aware of a participant with a transgender status. For gender indication, always be sure to include a third orOtheroption, as well as a space for the participant to explain their status. If gender-­based rooming is necessary, provide a space for participants to indicate their housing preference, also including an option to speak with a staff member if the situation is complicated.

Some transgender people use hormones or other medical products for transitioning. The medical application of hormones can take on different forms, from intravenous (shots) to external (gels). For medical history, be sure to allow participants to indicate a hormone therapy or treatment status, alongside other medications and medical needs.

When staff meets participants, introductions play a crucial role in establishing an inclusive environment. Make clear during a program orientation that staff is aware of transgender identities. One way to include this in an orientation or opening speech is to frame it as part of participant/staff relations. Just as if a participant needed to discuss personal health, the same resources should be available for transgender participants.

Including gender pronouns during introductions is another important facet of inclusion and respecting the identities of transgender participants. Gender pronouns are how someone would like to be referred to in the third person, such as “he/him,” “she/her,” “they/them.” I highly encourage that participants and staff, if wearing name tags, write their pronouns beneath their names at orientation. During icebreakers and get­ to­ know­ you activities, including gender pronouns is an important step towards being inclusive. When pronouns are asked in a space, facilitators make it clear to participants that assumptions should not be made about identity. Gender is not always obvious, just like one’s Jewish identity. Introductions with pronouns are a way of saying, “Hey, I don’t know anything about you until you tell me. I want to know who you are on your own terms.” Jewish programs should be anti­assumption spaces ­ – we can’t make assumptions about Jewish identity, and the same goes for sexual orientation, gender identity, and every other identity status. This way, we allow people to share who they are in the most authentic way.

As a staff, strive to use non­-gendered language when addressing the group. Instead of “Boys and Girls” or “Ladies and Gentlemen,” use non­gendered alternatives like “Folks” or “Friends.” In certain programs I’ve participated in, staff members have caught themselves using binary language and correct themselves by amending statements, such as “Ladies and gentlemen … and everyone else.” While it was certainly good that these staff members demonstrated an awareness of non­binary identities, the language itself was still othering. Though I knew that it was an effort to backtrack on non­inclusive language, I knew the words after the ellipsis were pointed at me. This was uncomfortable, as it felt like being called out for my identity during a time when it wasn’t relevant. In many of these moments, I felt most separated from the group. This is why sticking to non­gendered address 100% of the time is the most respectful action.

When referring to rooms, refer to them based on location, name, or number instead of calling themGirls’ Rooms” or “Boys’ Rooms.” If your program is overnight and does not have mixed ­gender rooming, refer to rooms based on characteristics other than gender. Give wings, cabin/tent groups, and other space designations names (Hummus and Baba Ganoush? Get creative). Though the majority of participants will likely be cisgender, this way, if staff needs to divide up the group for gendered reasons, this can be done without labeling and thus making assumptions about the fellows.

Always make sure there are clearly marked all­gender restrooms. If there are single stall gendered restrooms, consider making both of them all­gender restrooms instead. Transgender participants may not feel comfortable using gendered bathrooms for a number of reasons, often involving emotional and physical safety. Gendered bathrooms can be extremely uncomfortable and dangerous, especially for those with non­-binary gender expressions. Whether multi­stall or single­stall, there must always be an accessible, all­gender restroom available for use. Plus, the more bathrooms, the faster everyone can take care of their business.

There are many times that gender becomes relevant in Jewish programming. Gender plays a large role in group dynamics. Being inclusive of transgender identities does not mean ignoring cisgender identities. Providing affinity spaces for people of different genders for the purpose of discussing gender can be a meaningful way to build community. However, I highly recommend waiting to engage in gendered affinity spacebased activity until at least two weeks have elapsed of a program. If your program does not allow for that amount of participant/staff interaction time, it’s better to stay away from gender segregated programming. Having a waiting period is important because though participants with trans identities may still not be public, it’s important for staff to have a feel for the group in order to determine if such activities are appropriate. If there are transgender participants, reconsider such activities or ask those participants one-­on-­one about their feelings about the activity. Bear in mind, there are many ways to create meaningful programming about gender that is experience ­based and not body ­based, allowing participants to decide for themselves about which conversations they best belong.

Often, depending on how religious a program is, navigating observance, prayer, and Shabbat can present a significant challenge to being trans inclusive. Negotiating mechitzot and other gendered traditions require conversation and creative thinking. For communal prayer, having an egalitarian or tri­chitzah (divided into three spaces, woman, man, and mixed) option can be a solution depending on community norms. If augmentations of tradition are not possible, it’s important to have individual conversations with transgender participants about their experience, wishes, and feelings.

Inside of program ­created spaces, staff should use the above tools as often as possible. If the program involves extra­territorial interaction (going into the outside world) the best way to be inclusive is to have honest discussion. Instead of allowing the gendered traditions to go unspoken, perhaps allot an hour for a text study about it which acknowledges the complexity of gender. Discussing transgender identities in a Jewish space can be a way to a deeper understanding of Jewish identity. The discussions I’ve had regarding my own identity’s intersection with tradition and halacha have lead to a deeper understanding of Talmud, gender, and the intention behind the laws themselves. Approaching Jewish transgender conversations with this attitude is important to inclusion and personal development, regardless of if someone identifies as cisgender or transgender. Let participants speak about their own experiences and explore the complexities that can occur when spaces are gendered binarily. Talking about navigating gender is always a relevant pluralistic activity.

Unfortunately, I can’t give as complete an answer as I’d like for “How to be Inclusive In Traditionally Gendered Jewish Spaces.” ­ I’m still figuring it out myself. These days, in shuls with a mechitzah, I generally sit on the men’s side, wearing traditionally masculine clothing. When asked, I use my Hebrew name “Yehuda” in these spaces. I’ve done a lot of personal writing about how to negotiate this, about how to have a meaningful experience in a Jewish space that doesn’t technically have space for me. The best advice that I can give is to make clear that staff is available to talk, and to always try to provide a non­gendered alternative for participants who would feel uncomfortable in a binary divided space.

Most importantly, take all of these actions regardless of if there is someone publicly transgender in the group. Inclusivity is about accessibility – ­ if the resources aren’t accessible, it’s as though they aren’t there at all. There is always the possibility of having a transgender participant, even if they are not public about their identity status. Always let participants wear and present how they want in program ­created spaces, use language that acknowledges all genders, not just two. Having an inclusive space benefits everyone, allowing people to self-­actualize in a way that is authentic and unhindered by gender roles and assumptions.

Finally, if you are part of an organization that is beginning to assemble policy and guidelines for transgender accessibility, find transgender educators and resources to give direct input to your policy building. Including transgender voices (especially non­binary transgender people) in your inclusion policy dialogue is a necessary part of creating a truly inclusive community. Remember that the term “Transgender” includes people who are non­binary. ­ The needs of trans people within the binary (Female to Male, Male to Female) may be different than those who identify as nonbinary. Include non­binary voices in policy making. Do research on local groups, send out emails, ask around about transgender educators who would be willing to work with you. Describe your organization and its needs. Be specific. Reach out. There are plenty of wonderful organizations both Jewish (i.e., Keshet) and non­-Jewish (i.e., TSER, Lambda Legal) filled with resources and educators who can be employed to assist your organization craft an inclusive, sensitive, comprehensive policy.

Inclusivity and trans­consciousness are a process. Discuss with fellow staff members, self­-educate, and ask questions lovingly. The more time you take to reflect on these ideas, the more capable you are of creating inclusive spaces where everyone can be their very best self.