Being transgender and Jewish

“There is a place in Judaism for everyone, including transgender people, it just might not be the sect your were assigned at birth,” Hannah Simpson says.

Hannah Simpson, born male, always knew she was a girl and came out as transgender in 2012, at the age of 28 (photo credit: DANIELLE ZIRI)
Hannah Simpson, born male, always knew she was a girl and came out as transgender in 2012, at the age of 28
(photo credit: DANIELLE ZIRI)
NEW YORK – It was Yom Kippur 2013, a sunny Saturday in Boston. That afternoon, then 29-year old Hannah Simpson was preparing to give a d’var Torah at the Vilna Shul, a historic synagogue in Boston, where she lived for a few years after college.
It wasn’t the first time Simpson was going to speak in front of her congregation. She had given talks there on Yom Kippur for two years, but then she had done so as Howard Simpson.
“Allow me to reintroduce myself,” she told the 150 people sitting on the wooden benches in front of her. “If you’ve known me prior, you might suspect that I no longer wish to be referred to as ‘Mr.’”
“I introduce myself to you all over again; a little changed, a little re-imagined, but this is no different from what each of us should be doing on Yom Kippur,” she continued.
Yom Kippur 2013 was the day Simpson came out to her congregation as a transgender woman for the first time. She let her long hair down and put on makeup for the occasion, even though that’s not what Jewish women usually do on that day.
Simpson spoke for about 10 minutes and drew parallels between the Jewish people and the LGBT community as “progressive yet misunderstood, often isolated, people.”
When she finished speaking and lifted her eyes up from the paper in her hands, it was an unusual sight for Yom Kippur: everyone was cheering.
“I had never gotten applause for a sermon before,” she told the Magazine in an interview. “And then a big hug from the cantor and so many lovely comments afterward of encouragement and people thanking me for the brave and very different speech.”
Simpson is one of an estimated 700,000 transgender people in the United States. Like many, she knew very early on, at the age of two, that she is in fact a girl. She regularly cross-dressed in her sister’s clothes, which were never even her size, and hid them in the back of her dresser so she wouldn’t get caught.
It took more than 20 years for Simpson to come out as transgender. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 57 percent of trans people have experienced significant family rejection after coming out. But that was not what she was afraid of.
“My biggest concern was not that my family wouldn’t support me. It was that my family would and that they would move heaven and earth to get me the support that I needed, possibly even move to another city or state,” she explained.
While she was raised as a secular Jew, her family was always very involved with their Conservative synagogue.
“There is a place in Judaism for everyone, including transgender people, it just might not be the sect your were assigned at birth,” Simpson, who wears a rainbow-colored Star of David around her neck, said.
THE DISCUSSION of LGBT rights in the US and greater exposure of the issues facing transgender people in particular gained traction in recent months. The LGBT community celebrated last year when the US Supreme Court ruled banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. However, in the state of North Carolina, a debate on which bathrooms trans people should use led to an outcry over discrimination for this community. On June 12, the community suffered a severe blow on June 12 when a terrorist gunman attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53.
But in New York last week, over a million people took to the streets of lower Manhattan in a show of support and celebration of the LGBT community for their annual parade.
Eighteen-year-old Kellen Gold, who was born female and is currently in the beginning stages of his transition, felt the two were not compatible.
Gold grew up as an Orthodox girl in the hassidic neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where he attended an all-girls high school, an “awful” experience according to him. He is the oldest of three siblings, two girls and one other boy.
“That’s small compared to the average family in that neighborhood,” he told the Magazine.
Having a religious family made Gold’s coming out more difficult than it already is for any transgender person. It was, in his own words, a “traumatic” experience.
“There was a lot of screaming from my father, and my mom was just upset,” he recalled with a trembling voice.
The National Center for Transgender Equality explains that family acceptance can be a defining factor for transgender individuals. Not getting this acceptance from their loved ones can expose transgender people to many threats to their well-being.
The latest NCTE’s Discrimination Survey shows that 32% of transgenders who have been rejected by their families have used drugs or alcohol to cope, compared to 19% for those who have their family’s support; and more than half of rejected transgender individuals have already attempted suicide.
In addition, 26% of trans men and women who have been rejected by their families have experienced homelessness, a statistic which Gold is included in.
After his Orthodox parents found out about his desire to change genders, just a few months ago in March, Gold left his home and stayed in a friend’s basement for a few months. The situation took a toll on him and he was eventually admitted to a hospital by a psychological examiners’ board. Today, he lives in a shelter for LGBT youth and works at a pizza shop in Brooklyn.
“I miss my little sister a lot but I never felt very close to my family,” he told the Magazine, adjusting the thick black glasses on his nose. “It came from the religion, from gender identity and from not wanting to follow the path they had set for me.
“They have been making steps, though. They have started calling me by my preferred name, but it’s hard get over trauma and really start speaking to them again,” he admitted.
Gold knew his family would not approve of his decision, but for him, there was no real choice to make: being himself was the most important.
Two years ago, he made his first attempt to connect with his masculine identity and bought a pair of pants. They were $7 jeans from the store “Forever 21,” tucked in the corner of a drawer and taken out only for special occasion including sneaking out to attend concerts or parties.
“When I had to wash them, I used to take them to a friend’s house and wash them there,” he recalled with a smile. Since coming out and moving out of the house, Gold has forsaken the everyday practice of religion. He dyed his short hair blue, and stopped eating kosher and keeping Shabbat. He also admits he is angry with God or “whatever is possibly up there.”
“I always felt that being queer and being a religious Jew is just not something that happens,” he said. “But I liked the holidays, I still do them in a way. I want to retain more of the cultural aspect than the by-the-book Torah stuff.”
FOR JOURNALIST Dawn Ennis, who only came out as a woman at the age of 49, Judaism was a choice.
Ennis was raised Catholic, but married a Jewish woman, Wendy, in 1996.
“Before getting engaged, when we were dating, we had openly discussed whether we would raise children in a religion and which one,” Ennis, who lives in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut, told the Magazine on the phone, as she was sitting in the passenger seat of the car her 17-year-old son was driving. From time to time, she would interrupt the conversation to give him directions.
Neither Ennis nor Wendy ever thought about converting, but in addition to being involved with church, Ennis also became very involved with their Jewish congregation, which was important to Wendy. Their children, Sean, 17, Sophie, 13, and Liam, nine, were raised Jewish. Ennis only had one request: that they attend church twice a year: Easter and Christmas.
They had been married for 17 years when Ennis decided to start transitioning into a woman in 2013. A year before that, when she was still struggling with gender identity, she decided to share her feelings with the rabbi of their synagogue, a place she had already been accepted into as a Christian and felt comfortable in.
“He told me that I should remember that I’m made in God’s image and that I didn’t need to worry at all about which gender I presented in because God loved me as I am,” she recalled.
“As a Catholic I was surprised because I was expecting him to tell me to get up and leave and he was nothing but supportive.
While it was a relief to finally not have to pretend to be someone else, the transition cost Ennis her marriage.
“Wendy’s faith was very strong. She not only wanted a divorce but she wanted a get,” Ennis explained. “I didn’t want it, but this is not what she bargained for. She was a straight woman who had no intention or desire of wanting to be seen as a lesbian.”
But Wendy never got her divorce or get; she died last January from a rare form of cancer.
Ennis moved back to the house they once shared in Connecticut and is raising their three children alone.
The Jewish congregation in their hometown, she said, has been a strong support system, as she is grieving, but also trying to take on the role of a mother for her kids, in addition to her identity as their father.
“Our temple is where our children are educated and where I not only have been accepted as a transgender woman but also where our family, through all the crises we’ve had the last year, has benefited from incredible support.
“They have been a rock for us,” she added.
Dawn Ennis and Hannah Simpson talk very openly about their transitions today. They have both written and spoken about their stories in various forums. Ennis even keeps a blog where she talks about different issues related to being a “mom/dad” as she calls herself.
In recent years Simpson has made it a mission to help transgender youth by sharing her experience. That is how she met Gold, for whom the journey has only just begun.
Just a few hours before speaking to the Magazine last week, Gold had gone to the courthouse in New York and started the process of changing his name from a female “very Lubavitch” first name, which he prefers not to divulge, to the Irish gender-neutral name Kellen.
But the name and gender marker switch is only the first official step towards Gold’s new identity. Next month, he expects to start the biological part of the process and receive testosterone injections.
He is looking forward to growing a beard, which he jokes shouldn’t be too hard to do, given his Jewish genes.