I stepped into the warmly-lit living room of the Cohen residence with a certain unease. After all, stepping into someone’s house only to ask about the very basis of their self-identification is not the most comfortable ordeal.
I was immediately greeted by Star Cohen. He had a kindly, shy smile as he shook my hand and led me to the couch. Star’s hair was cropped, his jeans were baggy, and his nails were the bright shades of blue and green. I had come to speak to him, in particular: a genderqueer high school student. Soon after, Star’s mother, Inbal, joined us.
I had reached Star through his mother’s award-winning photography gallery, which presented Star’s transition as a genderqueer teen in hindsight. The photos received second place in the local and international press photography exhibition for the category “A Story in Pictures.”
None of this did anything to ease my nerves. Star, a 17-year-old from Ra’anana, was genderqueer. I felt as though I was about to tread on eggshells in interviewing him and his mother. Inbal, without hesitation, brought me a glass of water as I set up.
In the meantime, Star began to tell me that he is writing a book and inventing a new language. When Inbal joined, he began to tell me about himself.
“I have known I am genderqueer for almost two years,” Star told me. “I remember discovering the term ‘genderqueer’ and thinking, ‘Hey! That’s me.’”
Star’s candidness immediately eased the tension. When asked what exactly genderqueer is, he explained that it is not man or woman, but rather the taking of traits from each gender to build someone’s self-definition.
“The entire process, for Star, was done in a very open way,” said Inbal. This was not hard to believe. The fear of having to tread on eggshells eased considerably. “The second he wanted to be addressed in mixed pronouns [sometimes “he,” sometimes “she”], he just asked for it. It started with the mixed address, then it shifted to male address.”
“I discovered who I am with other people,” Star explained. “I didn’t have a closet to come out of, per se.”
“What was the hardest part of coming out?” I asked him, enraptured.
“The name,” Star responded without hesitation. “At first I got a haircut, then asked for a change in pronoun, then a different name.”
When asking questions about the surgical process, I hesitated. This is where eggshells may come into play. Star, however, did not show discomfort of any sort. “There was one really nice time when a doctor took my medical forms, looked at me, looked back down at them and said, ‘Something is wrong. The incorrect gender is written here.’ That was really sweet.”
“We had a very positive experience, but that does not mean everyone else does,” Inbal clarified. “I always present him by saying, ‘This is my son. He is transgender.’ I do not open a door for criticism.”
“I know of other mothers that, when taking their children to the same medical examinations that Star went through, received criticism,” she continued. “Every time we explained the situation, people accepted it. There are people who are not so lucky. This leads to a lot of distress.”
When asked to clarify where genderqueer lies on the “spectrum” of male and female, Star explained that it is not that simple. “There’s a confusion between sex and gender, and people think those two things go together. That is when they do not understand what I mean when I say I am transsexual,” said Star.
Inbal explained, “Biologically, there are different kinds of man and woman. There are many different phenomena on that spectrum. Biologically, it’s not something unequivocal.”
Inbal described the heart of the struggle of transsexual people, the understanding, as she described, that transsexuality is something natural. “Our culture fears it so much that it shoves it into these two boxes [man and woman].”
“However, there’s a percentage of babies, not such a low percentage as you might think, that are born intersex with different qualities of both sexes,” Inbal continued. “For many years, the practice was to just choose what sex the child will be for them, but many times, it did not suit them.”
“All of this is part of the natural spectrum that we live in and is reflected in research, literature, and even the Talmud,” she said.
Research performed by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, as reported in The Jewish News of Northern California (Jweekly) upon my later inspection, presented seven sexual categories in classical Jewish legal discourse, with more possible categories yet to be found in the texts. Fonrobert, in her work, explains that gender identification had a high importance in Jewish culture due to gender-based religious rituals, the most prominent and urgent being the brit milah, leading to distress around the gender identification of a child. It was feared, for example, to circumcise a baby who is later discovered to be female and not male due to intersexuality.
“There is no simply ‘man’ or ‘woman,’” said Star, “but even if there were, I am living proof that is not the case, aren’t I?”
Inbal explained that transsexual people exist all over the world, even in communities that have no exposure to the phenomena. “When you feel something, it does not come from hearing it and thinking it is nice, but rather your entire body and soul tell you something, that you are a certain gender. Culture gives us the freedom to be who we are.”
“Or takes it away from us,” Star added.
The meeting point between culture and self-identification is where Inbal’s photography exhibit depicting Star post-surgery comes into play. “Before the surgery, I would not agree to be photographed at all,” Star told. “And then, after the surgery, mom placed a camera in front of me.”
“After the surgery, we both felt a weight lifted off our shoulders,” Inbal added. “I wanted to finally tap into this incredible process we went through over the past year so that we can finally look back on it.”
“Star wore his heart on display in these photos, which were not easy to take,” Inbal said, smiling at her son.
“I get told a lot that I’m brave for supporting him on this journey,” Inbal continued. “This is not bravery. To be the parent that your child needs you to be, you do what you have to do.”
Star piped in, “Parents, listen to your kids.”
With that, I collected myself and bid them farewell. Inbal Cohen Hamo’s photo series on Star was displayed at MUSA Eretz Israel Museum Tel Aviv as part of the Edut Mekomit (Local Testimony) annual exhibit.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>