Last week at work a guy I hardly know motioned me over and asked, “Can I ask you a question?” Being at work, I assumed it would be some basic question about Judaism. Though to be sure, every so often at work I get asked a deeper more obscure question about Judaism, often under the backdrop of “why is God doing this (parenthetically, to me)?” So I wasn’t glib in accepting his request. He leaned toward me conspiratorially across the serving counter in the cafeteria (which happened to have been teeming with people at the time) and said, “Are you transitioning?”
I did not see that coming.
While I think about being transgender much of the time and while being transgender is the lens through which I experience the world around me and while I write about being transgender – the very reason I began this blog, and while I am always at least vaguely aware of being transgender in my waking hours, rarely do I actually engage in conversation about it with others. I never bring up the topic myself. And even when close friends broach the subject, my instantaneous reaction is to fill with deep-seated shame and quickly change the subject. There is only one exception and that is my friend J (more on that another time perhaps). Never do I even remotely consider engaging in a conversation about being transgender with others, especially someone I scarcely know.
Interestingly enough though, I can more easily imagine myself talking with a total stranger rather than someone I have even minimal connection with about being transgender. If I had to. I get irritated by some of the people who sign up to be *experts* or even *spokespeople* for or about *other-ness*, who are not *other* themselves. Even though I won’t put myself – as an *other* – out there to do so. I roll my eyes loudly at work where the people on the LGBTQ task-force (yes I know we are lucky to have one) are not L, G, B, T or Q themselves (never mind the fact that most of them have zero knowledge or understanding of LGBTQ issues and are woefully misinformed). Still, I’m not volunteering to be on the committee myself. I should have no right to complain.
And it isn’t exactly that I’m complaining. Merely musing. I’ve been thinking about it more lately because while I’m pretty comfortable not being a window of opportunity for learning or any other such gay guide or dysphoria docent, I have recently come into contact with the stories of two different transgender teens and their families where it is readily apparent that they might actually want guidance, support, or even just friendship from someone like me. And while on the one hand I am very much aware of that, on the other hand I feel as though I’m hardly a paradigm of permutation. I’m a progression without a plan. What possible help could I be to them?! I don’t have any wisdom or advice or even a string of witty words worthy of a poignant tweet. I know several people who eagerly share their opinions and advice readily on any topic, regardless of the fact that they actually have not a shred of knowledge about that topic. I simply am not one of those people. Though I do marvel at their audacity.
I was asked outright by the mutual acquaintance of both me and the family of one teen attempting to navigate the gender journey, if I might reach out to the family. First of all, this mutual acquaintance is not someone I have ever discussed being transgender with. She actually has no idea who I am or how I identify. I believe, from what little she said, that she thinks of me as sort of *gender neutral* or simply *androgynous*. And what little she told me about the teen in question, it sounds like they are considering hormones (though based on what she thinks she knows of me, she could be completely wrong about this teenager as well). This “friend” was worried because according to her “hormones are just terrible” and “come at such a high price and with so many risks”(sic). Since, in addition to all of this serious misinformation, the family and the teen in question have not reached out in any way to me, I have less than no desire to get involved. Part of me does feel badly because I know, because I’ve heard from more than just this one person, that this family is struggling as their teen attempts to traverse this gender odyssey. And while I wish I could ease their suffering in even some small way, I feel quite sure it isn’t actually me they need. It is neither my place nor my expertise and I fear I could do more harm than good if I were to get involved.
Also recently, a friend of Emily’s invited us to their home for Shabbat dinner. As Emily was reminding me of who this friend was, she also told me about her friend’s family and who was likely to be present, as well as general things going on in the family (in order to help me to be able to make polite conversation). She mentioned that one of their children had been struggling – in school, at home, etc – and that this teen had recently come out as trans. She wasn’t sure how the kid would be presenting when we got there and didn’t know many more details than that. What I remembered of this kid from our last dinner with them was a tall, quietly awkward, girl with long luxurious wavy hair (the kind most people envy). When we got to the house we were greeted by an exuberant family and their bouncy dog. The parents were happy to see us and welcomed us with hugs while what appeared to be 3 rambunctious boys tousled and shoved one another playfully. The boys took our girls (just Nina and Ruby) into the play room and we were left in the kitchen with the mom and dad. I wanted to say, “wow, your family seems so happy!” But that was too fraught for too many reasons. I knew they were struggling. And just because in this moment of Shabbat peace they were content, I knew better than to take that snapshot as ongoing fact. The brief silence between us was heavy. I ticked through potential ice-breaking topics in my head. I wished I’d asked Emily what, if anything, she had told her friend about me. I ended up saying something like, “So what pronoun does X prefer?” There seemed to be the hint of a sigh of relief. Or maybe I just want that to have been so. The dad said, “He prefers he, but…” and the mom interrupted, “They. I guess we prefer they.” And the dad concluded, “We’re messing it up most of the time. But we’re trying.” “That’s all you can do” I said, “It’s a process.” At that point Ruby came skittling back into the room. There were too many loud boys in there for her and anyway, she wanted to play with the dog. Her presence fractured the moment and the topic changed. We weren’t able to get back there. Everyone gathered around the table for blessings and dinner and singing. The meal was delicious and easy. I noted, with a bit of envy, how easily they hosted. Everything was ready, timed to perfection, still hot, plentiful and delicious. They had this Shabbat dinner thing down. Conversation flowed freely between topics of the hottest new toddler song – baby shark – to world events, to homework assignments, peppered with laughter, some good-natured teasing and plenty of good cheer. The silent agreement to diligently pretend not to notice the gender mishaps was adhered to by everyone. Through intermittent clenched jaws and weary postures their family members stuttered through, “Sh-HE” and corrected themselves over and over. The teen in question maintained an appearance of ebullience throughout. It was fascinating to me and I found it hard not to mention the elephant in the room. This once reserved almost sullen girl with the flowing hair who barely uttered a word before, was now a jubilant expressive boy with short spiky hair that was partially dyed blue. And I wanted to acknowledge him, greet him, welcome him, revel in him, celebrate him. But we were all busy pretending there was nothing to notice, that nothing had changed.
I noted with no small amount of irony that this is exactly what I seem to be doing in my own life. While I write some of my thoughts and feelings and musings here, that is the extent of my sharing with others about being transgender. On this topic, I am not engaging or interacting with anyone, even those closest to me, about any of the changes I’m feeling, experiencing or seeing. Though I now may understand those who are interested in, even eager to perhaps, acknowledge, greet, welcome and celebrate the changes in me that they are witnessing. Something to think about I suppose.