During orientation Tzedek Fellows were asked an important question—how did you discover your passion for social justice? Inevitably, the stories of coming to activism led to all sorts of coming out stories. Here’s Lea’s. Lea is the 2016-2017 Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at the Asheville Jewish Community Center, where she works on LGBTQ, environmental, and youth initiatives.
By Lea Andersen
My journey to coming out as trans was a long one, filled with confusion, discovery, but perhaps most surprisingly, holiness. Like many trans people, I have multiple coming-out stories, but this is the story of my first night being out to myself.
Three nights before my undergraduate thesis defense, the chaos of completing and scheduling the defense was finally settled. On this night, I finally named my dysphoria for what it was. After a string of frustrated expletives reverberated through my thoughts for about an hour, I started to find some comfort in the idea of being trans. Finally, an answer to what had been happening—the feelings of confusion, of being in skin that just didn’t fit quite right, of looking in the mirror and seeing something that looked like me but was somehow off, not just these past months, but for years! I was trans, whatever that was supposed to mean.
I was no stranger to the idea of transness. Trans people were very visible in the life of my college, and I’d read many articles on the subject. Two helped me understand trans identity through the lens of Judaism— Eliot Kukla’s exploration of the tumtum and Ari Lev Fornari’s piece on attaching tzitzit to his binder. Over the course of the previous year, I began to understand transness as mitzvah (or commandment), and I’d written theology to reflect my thinking. I thought about passages from the Torah that seemed like a prohibition on trans people.
“The garment of a man shall not be upon a woman, nor shall a man wear a woman’s dress. For abhorrent to the Eternal your God is each of these acts.” (Deuteronomy 22:5)
These words read like prohibitions, until I realized that if trans men are men and trans women are women, then a trans person is representing themselves and their gender appropriately. Perhaps, the act of a trans person coming out, and transitioning, fulfills the words of the Torah instead of contradicting them. I was ecstatic about this revelation. In my future rabbinate, I could do a lot of good for a lot of people by validating and celebrating their identities. They could, perhaps, find comfort in their religion where so many had found only pain.
While I had wrestled with trans identity intellectually, suddenly, the theology I’d written was for my own life. Perhaps it had always been for my own life, without my ever having realized it. Maybe it was even by some kind of divine providence that I created something revolutionary that I would, in fact, have to test myself. I was to be the living laboratory for this theology. If transness was a commandment from God, I was bound by my understanding of Jewish law to come out and transition in whatever way resonated.
But rather than explore medical transition or legal name change, the first order of business was to identify the proper blessings for acts of transition. Luckily, some transgender rabbis had already created blessings precisely for this purpose. The process of an act of transition in liberal Judaism works like this: the transitioner recites a blessing, which refers to God as “Maavir HaOvrim,” or “the one who transitions the transitioners.” What Jewish ritual highlights is that our acts of transition are not merely the result of our own intentions or actions. Transitions are as guided by the Divine as a natural part of human life, just as the growth of fruit trees or the crash of thunder is a part of the natural order of things. After an act of transition, the transitioner says another blessing, “SheAsani B’Tzelmo,” or “who has made me in God’s image.” This blessing reminds us that, no matter what we look like, or looked like, or will look like, we are and always have been in the image of God. Our souls are not changed by transition. In fact, transitions align us with the Divine.
I said these blessings as I came out to my friends. I said these blessings the first time I wore makeup. I have said these blessings with each new step I have taken in my transition ever since, and I have shared them with other Jewish trans people as they have begun their own transitions.
My Jewish identity is most central to who I am, thus bringing my transness into alignment with my Judaism was the most important first step I could take. As far as figuring out what trans identity meant for me …that took a bit longer. Early on, I understood myself to be genderfluid. Now, I’ve settled on the identity of a saris, a Jewish gender identity that is basically a nonbinary trans woman. I use she/her pronouns. While this resonates now, I’m open to additional transitions in the future.
In truth, I was terrified for so long about the consequences of a transition—from coming out in my application to rabbinical school to coming out to my parents—that I couldn’t get clarity about who I really was. But daily, I am reminded of the last line of the last psalm, “Kol HaNeshamah T’halel Yah,” or “Every soul shall praise the Eternal.” In the Hebrew, the word “neshamah” lacks vowels, and can also be read as “nishamah,” changing the meaning to “Every breath shall praise the Eternal.” My transition, so laden with spiritual connection, brings me closer to God. My transition is itself a praise of God.