Jewish history helped me understand transgender communities

Students should be comfortable studying communities and people who are hard to categorize.

THREE PAINTINGS seized by the Nazis are displayed at an official ceremony in Paris March 11, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
THREE PAINTINGS seized by the Nazis are displayed at an official ceremony in Paris March 11, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the borderlands of Eastern Europe,” Prof. Heather DeHaan stated, “drawing ‘borders’ between groups of people is sometimes rather difficult. To tell the difference between Slav and German, between Jew and Gentile, is more difficult than you would think.” My heart started to beat faster and faster as I listened to her lecture. Cultures thought by society to have very rigid definitions of membership are sometimes, in reality, much more fluid.
Peoples and traditions such as these have fascinated me since I can remember. Academically trained in Eastern European and Jewish history, I have spent the better part of my undergraduate career researching groups that found themselves caught in the gray area – groups to which historians have a tough time giving a definite ethnic or religious label. Take, for example, the famous Polish general of the American Revolution, Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in which he was born was once one of Europe’s most diverse empires, consisting of Jews, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians and, to many people’s surprise, large communities of Muslims left over from the Mongol invasion of Russia.
It should be no surprise, then, that Kosciuszko had two baptisms, one Catholic and one Orthodox, and that he in fact was ethnically more Ruthenian than Polish. But still, we remember him as the Polish Roman Catholic general who fearlessly fought alongside American Revolutionaries in our war of independence.
Another group that has always fascinated me were the Subbotniki of Russia. They were ethnic Slavs who, over the course of history, slowly took on Jewish traditions from neighboring towns. Some historians believe they started to keep kosher, then changed their day of religious observance from Sunday to Saturday. Soon enough, their descendants were indistinguishable from other Russian Jewish communities. However, no formal conversion ever took place.
When you study Eastern European history, you learn that cultures, ethnicities and religions exist on a spectrum. When deciding who belongs to which group, historians concur that sometimes there is much more of a gray-area answer than a concrete solution. “Kosciuszko was a Pole!” “The Subbotniki were Jews!” Well... not quite. These fascinating groups of people force the historian to begin to question his or her own identity. Such stories forced me to work on accepting the people that exist in the “gray areas” of the groups to which I myself belong.
As a gay man, I’ve had a lifelong misunderstanding of the transgender community – and even more of a discomfort with the individuals who claimed that gender existed on a scale. When I was a student in Binghamton University, I was one of the leaders of Keshet on campus, an LGBT organization that partnered with our Hillel. I frequently had to work on remembering who identified with which group of pronouns. I would always tell people that I didn’t believe in inventing new words, and that if their pronouns weren’t in the dictionary, I wouldn’t remember them. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have been on the board of this organization, and am ashamed that I refused to get to know and accept of a group of people that really needed support on campus.
It wasn’t until I was nearly complete with my Russian Honors thesis, which dealt with conversion into and out of Judaism in Eastern Europe, that I had quite the revelation. If I was enamored of historical communities that existed on a “scale” or that occupied the “gray areas” of religion, language and culture, why couldn’t I accept the same for gender? I had just written an honors thesis claiming that people who occupy the “middle ground” of an identity spectrum not only exist in history – but exist in incredibly large numbers! Scales, to my imagination as a historian, were a fundamental aspect of human nature.
Scientific explanations, whether in support of or opposition to the genderqueer and transgender community, occupy an unnecessary part of the discussion. Individuals, especially young people, are killing themselves because their families and communities refuse to accept their gender identity. It reminds me of the individuals who went through harsh persecution for their malleable and misunderstood identities in my beloved Eastern Europe. We do not need to submit these communities to a scientific analysis, but rather we need to begin to educate the masses that there is nothing new about scales and gray areas.
Students should be comfortable studying communities and people who are hard to categorize. When we get more comfortable leaving the black and white world we are educated to know and love behind, we become more comfortable accepting and befriending the transgender and genderqueer communities.
With luck, when I become a professor I will design an entire course around the history of scales and gray areas. I want my students to learn that the individuals and families who don’t fit easily into a larger group or a label are no different from you and me – and that we all in some way exist on a spectrum.