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Jewish Journal

How Converting to Orthodox Judaism is Like Being Transgender

by Susan Esther Barnes

October 16, 2013 | 1:00 am

Image from Wikimedia/Bienniale Mediations

I’ll start by saying I’m not converting to Orthodox Judaism, and I’m not transgender. So this whole blog post is written from an outsider’s perspective, and as a result, it may contain inaccuracies. I apologize to anyone who feels I have given an inaccurate picture of either the conversion or transgender experience.

I have read quite a bit of commentary by transgender people over the last couple of years, as well as by people who have converted to Orthodox Judaism. And it struck me how much these two groups of people have in common.

One thing both groups of people must contend with as they realize their situation and decide to pursue it is they have no idea how their friends and family will react. Both groups are likely to experience some resistance from at least some of the people who are closest to them. Both may experience feelings of rejection and hurt.

Families of both may feel like the convert/transgender person is rejecting them as well, even when they are not. They may think, “Why won’t the converting person eat in our home any more?” or, “Why won’t my daughter wear the beautiful earrings I bought for her?” Some of these issues may be smoothed over through conversation and attempts to understand the viewpoint of the other, but they may result in long-term confusion and hurt feelings.

In addition, both groups have to contend with doubts about their motives and sincerity. Both may run into people who think they’re not pursuing an identity that feels authentic to them, but may think they are “acting out” in order to get attention. Both groups are likely to run into people who believe what they are going through is “just a phase” and that they will go back to their “normal” life once they’re a little older and more mature.

Next, both groups have to contend with gatekeepers who test their sincerity and try to keep them out until they are able to “prove” that they belong. Both groups are asked to live the life they say they want to adopt, and neither group is taken as sincere until they have done so for some period of time.

Orthodox Jewish converts must meet with rabbis and possibly others who monitor their progress, just as transgender people frequently meet with doctors and mental health professionals who monitor theirs. Both groups are at the mercy of these gatekeepers, who may tell them that they cannot convert or, if they want reassignment surgery, they can’t get it.

Furthermore, even if the gatekeepers allow them in, they are held to a higher standard than others who were born into their adopted group, and there are always others who will continue to doubt their sincerity.

For example, those who are “frum from birth” may break the rules every once in a while, without anyone doubting their Jewishness. But a convert who is seen breaking those same rules will raise doubts about whether his or her conversion was sincere. In some cases, conversion has even been revoked.

Similarly, for example, females who are born with a male body are expected to always wear their hair and to dress in a feminine fashion, while females born with a female body are free to wear short haircuts and wear more “masculine” clothes without anyone doubting their gender or raising a fuss.

I’m sure there must be other similarities I haven’t mentioned. It just goes to show how difficult it can be when a person seems to be born into one group, but doesn’t fit into that group, and makes an attempt to be recognized as part of another group. I would like to see a world in which both Orthodox Jewish converts and transgender people could recognize their similarities, share their experiences with each other, and support each other.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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