Trans Remembrance Shabbat Drash – Shabbat Toldot , 21 November 2014
By Zsa Zsa Joshua Irving Gershick
In this week’s Torah portion, Tol’dot, in the Book of Genesis, Jacob barters for his twin brother Esau’s birthright and steals Esau’s blessing by tricking Isaac, their father.
Esau, born first, a red, burly, hirsute baby. And Jacob, smooth-skinned, smaller, second-best, emerging moments later, holding onto the heel of Esau.
As they grew, Esau became a skilled hunter, “ a man of the outdoors,” says the text, bagging game for his father’s table, while Jacob is described as a “mild man” who “stayed in camp” and was domestic. Issac, their father, favored Esau, while Rebekah, their mother, favored Jacob.
Jacob and Esau. Twins. Dualities. Opposites in manner and interest, occupying opposite ends of the gender continuum.
Once when Jacob was cooking a lentil stew, Esau came in from a hard day’s hunt nearly depleated and demanded, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished!”
Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”
Esau said, “You’re asking me to sell my birthright for a bowl of stew? If only I weren’t so hungry, so hungry and exhausted and near death.”
“But ya are Esau, ya are,” said Jacob.
And so Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of stew.
Sarra Lev, in her essay, “Esau’s Gender Crossing,” in the book “Torah Queeries,” suggests that Esau did not, in fact, want his birthright, that he felt stifled by his father’s exacting standards of masculinity and constricted by Issac’s expectation that Esau would, in time, become a patriarch.
So, Lev, writes, Esau was only too glad to surrender his tsures to Jacob.
When Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see, says the text, he called to Esau and said, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your … quiver and bow, go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”
But Rebekah overheard this and hatched a plan of her own.
Perhaps she remembered G-d’s telling her during her difficult pregnancy that two nations existed in her womb, and that the older would serve the younger; or perhaps she was still smarting from the incident years before, in another town, when Issac had palmed her off to the townspeople as his sister so that any man who might want her for himself wouldn’t kill Issac. “She is beautiful,” said Isaac, “and I thought I might lose my life on account of her.”
Centuries later this might have made a Jerry Springer episode, “I Pimped My Wife to Save My Life.”
At any rate, when Rebekah overheard Isaac’s request of Esau, she sprang into action, hatching a fine plan. Using two choice kids from their herd of goats, she would make a dish such as Isaac liked and send Jacob in with the goods to receive Isaac’s blessing.
“But my brother Esau is a hairy man and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse not a blessing,” said Jacob.
Rebekah, whose descendants would one day appear on the “Real Housewives of New Jersey, said “Just do what I’m telling you.”
Rebekah dressed Jacob in his brother Esau’s clothing and covered Jacob’s hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of the goats. And Jacob marched into Isaac, to present the goat-surprise and get Isaac’s innermost blessing.
And Jacob was blessed.
The late writer Gary Rubin says that the story of Jacob’s blessing is an “affirmation of the freedom of humans to act in the world” to over-ride a seemingly set destiny, according to their sense of right and justice. Perhaps.
Or maybe it is the story of someone who so desperately wants approval and love that he will deny his own nature (smooth-skinned, sensitive Vegan chef) and assume an outward identity (Mr. Field & Stream) that is leagues away from who he is really is.
Jacob’s donning of the goat skins to appear rough-and-tough- -and-worthy of his father’s blessing, when he is truly something altogether different. Masquerading as something he is not to gain favor. Afraid to be who is he, afraid that his people won’t love him if they discover he is actually something other than what they think he is or expect him to be. I understand that.
Because after years of struggle and reflection and, finally, acceptance, I have come to own that I am transgender.
I have been terrified that if I said my truth aloud – that I am Trans – really revealed myself, then people, my community, wouldn’t love me any more.
I didn’t experience this terror in 1977, when I came out as a lesbian. Burst out, really, with no hesitation or qualms or guilt. I was gay! Hooray! When people told me how they agonized over their coming out, worried about what their parents would say, wondered whether their people would still love them, I’d say, with great compassion and a deep concern for their well-being, “Get Over it!”
How could I have known that I wasn’t all the way out?
The clues were there all along, and I have been thinking about them: As a child, I always drew myself as a boy, felt like a boy, couldn’t wait to tear off the girl’s clothes that society insisted I attend school in. As a new recruit in the Army, I was shocked and astonished when the quartermaster issued me an armful of WOMEN’s uniforms. I thought, “What? Why would he do that?”
As a 33 year old, I had a vivid dream in which my consciousness was in a man’s body. A woman stood beside me, embracing me, and a tall Being stood beside us. On a table nearby was a lifeless “Zsa Zsa,” my female form. (In a smart linen skirt and matching jacket: Always look your best.)
I looked at her lying motionless and was filled with worry. I said to the Being, “But my sense of humor, I can’t leave that behind.” And the Being said, “Your sense of humor is YOU, your essence. You will always have that.” And I awoke.
It’s been a decades-long process really, this unveiling of myself to myself.
And this Fall, I reached a point where I no longer could contain that knowledge. I felt dishonest. Ready to explode. I wanted to pummel clerks and waiters who called me “ma’am” and shout, “Why can’t you see who I am?”
Elissa, my wife, says that I don’t allow myself to dwell on the things that could weigh me down – like my health. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a weight, she says. My girl suit was getting heavy.
So what to do?
I have been researching my Trans Coming Out the way I might research a book or a play or a film script, reading everything. The Human Rights Campaign has put together a remarkable booklet, “Transgender Visibility: A Guide to Being You,” download-able from the HRC Website. Throughout the disclosure process, says the booklet, it’s common to feel scared, unsafe, confused, guilty, empowered, exhilarated, relieved, proud, uncertain, brave and affirmed.
Yes. Yes. And yes. I am having all those feelings.
I recently told a long-time friend, a kind, Cover-Girl-beautiful- -tomboy-lesbian, what I had been feeling. That I had been telling myself, “What’s wrong with you? Just stuff this. Stop making waves. Everything’s good. Why do you want to make a mess?”
“That’s interesting,” she said. “That’s exactly what I told myself when I was trying to suppress being a lesbian.”
I next went to Rabbi Lisa. We met at a popular breakfast spot in West Hollywood. I was frank and direct. “I’m Trans,” I said. She listened in her loving, gentle way, took a sip of tea, and then said simply, “I think that’s wonderful. … Want to do the drash for Transgender Remembrance Day Shabbat?”
Then she said, “I’m wondering if you can help me?” And she told me about a congregant who needed assistance, a kind of assistance that she knew I could give.
Perfect. Perfect. And perfect. Out of self and into service!
In fact, a number of people have come to me in recent weeks asking for a kind of help that‘s right up my alley. That is my G-d at work, letting me know that She/He has got this transition business and that I should turn my attention to helping others.
And I am glad to know at 55 that I do need help (all the time, for a multitude of reasons) and can ask for it, too.
For Coming Out assistance, I called Kadin Henningsen, a member of our BCC community, who is in grad school in Wisconsin, at present. I’d seen him make his own journey, from Katherine to Kadin over a period of years and blossom right here in our congregation.
He is a beautiful, generous person who shared his experience, strength and hope with me. He told me that his essence hadn’t changed, that, if anything, he felt MORE like himself. He is a Feminist, a gentleman, who embraces the feminine and the Lady he was, and is often, he said, perceived as a gay man.
And, he gushed, “There’s a Facebook page for Female to Male Transgendered people over 40!”
Thank you, Kadin.
Kadin said he felt more himself. That’s good. I want to be me. Everything I possibly can be. My being myself gives others permission to be who they are. All that they are.
But I have spent a lot of time worrying recently. Worrying: “What if people love only “Zsa Zsa,” that name, that persona. “Zsa Zsa”! (When I am giving a talk and I introduce myself, I typically say my name in that big GAY way, “Zsa Zsa”! Because it is so unlikely that I should have that name.)
But what’s in a name? I have lived for five decades with a name that, at first was too big, needing cleavage, ill-fitting. Then a name that I worked hard to embrace, did finally embrace, owned, even glorified. And now find spent. If I call myself Joshua – Joshua Irving Gershick – can I become Joshua?
This is a bigger life crisis than a convertible can fix.
And, yet, it is not a crisis. But merely a statement of fact. A new beginning.
The first person I introduced myself to as “Josh Gershick,” was author/educator Yiscah Sara Smith, who came to the LA Gay & Lesbian Center last summer in connection with her book, “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living,” the story of a man facing his truth, embracing the woman she was always meant to be and returning to her faith with wholeness and authenticity. A beautiful, open spirit, Yiscah had, at 50, transitioned from male to female.
A transition, she said, was personal, a process. It wasn’t one-size-fits-all. And it took the time it took.
“I understood that I must finally make a choice,” she said of her transition. … “Continuing with the lie … was no longer an option. I was exhausted. The daily struggle of living that lie had pulled me apart. … I took a leap of faith, … not knowing where it would take me, what I would have to leave behind, or what I would need to reclaim from my past in order to be truly whole.”
Wow. And this journey to wholeness brought her back to G-d.
G-d has blessed me with a gorgeous, vibrant community, in fact, several thoughtful intersecting communities of light and love. And I have always felt loved and respected in them. I have always had fellowship. I have always been a part of something beautiful, generous, stimulating and wonderful. The thought that all of that would disappear if I were to be myself is numbing. And it does disappear for many Trans people.
The scholar Joy Ladin, the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution, Yeshiva University says, “Gender … is not a matter of bodies or even souls, it a way of relating to others that enables us to feel like ourselves.”
And being ourselves is not a small thing. Some people pay for it with their lives.
We are here on this Trans Remembrance Shabbat to memorialize and remember victims of transphobic violence killed in the last year.
According to the National Coalition of Antiviolence Programs, of which our own L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center is a part, there have been 12 transgender women killed in the United States since June, 11 of them transgender women of color. The latest, 24-year-old Gizzy Fowler, was found shot to death in Nashville. Think of it: 24, only the barest beginning. Murdered.
Hear their names. There was Artegus Madden, Mia Henderson, Kandy Hall and the Angeleno Zoraida Reyes, an activist for immigrant rights. Thirty-eight year old Lee Parkerson, a white man, is charged with choking Ms. Reyes to death. After murdering her, Parkerson kept her body in his trunk and a day later dumped it behind a Dairy Queen in Orange County.
In a press release on the killing, the Orange County District Attorney referred to Ms. Reyes by her birth name, Cesar Reyes: Her personhood and dignity denied, even in death.
Among the slain this year also were Yaz’min Shancez, Tiffany Edwards, Ashley Sherman, Alejandra Leos, Aniya Parker and an unidentified gender-nonconforming person whose name remains unknown.
These women were bludgeoned, shot, stabbed, raped, dragged behind vehicles, lynched and dismembered. The homicide narratives, which describe their murders, recount horrors at the intersection of misogyny, racism and transphobia.
Fact: 72 percent of those killed in LGBTQ or HIV-motivated crimes last year were transgender women, and 67 percent were transgender women of color.
But wait, just to underscore that we truly all are in this together, the National Coalition of Antiviolence Programs also reports that White gay men (gay men who were born male) represented the largest group of hate violence survivors and victims in 2013, showing that hate violence remains a pervasive and persistent issue for all LGBTQ and HIV-affected people.
We ALL are in this together.
The late Trans educator Matt Kailey, author of the very funny and moving book, “Just Add Hormones” wrote, “In the United States when particular words are spoken, like ‘convicted felon,’ ‘tuberculosis patient’ or ‘trans-sexual,’ people get very nervous and slowly edge away, muttering apologies until they’re at a safe distance.”
Do not keep your distance.
Get to know us. And let us know you. We are human, just like anyone else, made B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d. And we are your mishpoche. Be curious. Assume nothing, Ask what pronouns we prefer. Educate yourselves about trans people – and how trans identities are discovered, evolve, and are expressed.
Am I a man? Not precisely. Am I a woman? Not precisely. I am both and neither. I have been in an in-between place for a long time, perhaps forever, alternately being “sir-ed” and “ma’am-ed.” Sir? Um. Ma’am? Um. Sir. I mean, Ma’am?
Matt Kailey, too, was in this between place before he emerged on that far shore and began to think of himself as “a transman, a different animal entirely.”
“I no longer felt genderless,” he said. I felt transgendered.”