Laverne Cox Is a Woman and I Am a Jew

Ever since the writer converted to Judaism, she’s been told she’s not a real Jew. Does this identity disparagement sound familiar?
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The first time I saw a rabbi about my irrational but persistent feeling that I needed to convert to Judaism, she told me that according to Jewish tradition, the souls of every still-unborn Jew—i.e., Golda Meir, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Portman, the rabbi herself, and all future converts (possibly including moi)—were at Mount Sinai when God gave the Torah to the children of Israel. I was touched. I wasn’t sure I could get behind the concept of a Jewish Wayback Machine, but it was encouraging to learn that the tradition was that inclusive.

This was helpful to remember later on when various thoughtless, presumptuous people felt it imperative to tell me that they didn’t quite consider Jews by choice to be A-list members of the tribe. At a synagogue dinner shortly after my conversion, someone ragged on me for ordering the vegetarian option. “How can you be a Jew?” she wondered, apparently assuming I had also converted to chicken soup and brisket. This stuff still happens 15 years later: I was recently asked if the woman I’m now dating is a “real Jew” or, you know, the other kind. Like me.

A few years after I became a Jew by choice, I had a delicious fling with a woman in another city who at some point during our affair offhandedly described herself as a butch. It was news to me. She was cute and tiny, with lots of long blue hair, and I pretty much perceived her as an art punk … but, hey, whatever. Eventually she and I went our separate ways. We remained friends, however, and I tried to see her when I was in her town.

One day, she told me that she was going to a support group for people who were thinking of transitioning. She confessed she wasn’t a butch after all; she felt like a female impersonator, and was exploring how to integrate a deep, pervasive, interior sense of maleness into her life.

Cut to the present. My friend is now a guy named Asher. I thought of him recently after the National Review published internet troll provocateur Kevin D. Williamson's rant entitled “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman,” aiming his target at the transgender star of Orange Is the New Black, after Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Williamson insistently used male pronouns throughout the article, calling Cox  an “effigy” of femaleness, and nattered on about how we’re all being forced to “treat delusion as fact” by recognizing the new genders of Cox and other trans people.

One can laugh at PC rigidity, and sometimes I also do just that. Over the years, I’ve rolled my eyes at New Age hippies who “feel” like they’re Native American. I’ve also resisted using honorific female pronouns for drag queens who resume their male personas after they finish performing and can take a much more pleasant late-night subway ride home than I can. But I have come to believe that there’s a big difference between a whim or a costume and a hard-fought permanent identity.

I toyed with the idea of Jewishness-as-identity for years. It seemed crazy for a middle-aged WASP who wasn’t marrying a Jew (been there, done that) and who was ambivalent about organized religion in general to be convinced nonetheless that somehow this was where I belonged. But I was convinced. I had even done a massive atavistic genealogical search of my family after a friend of mine—a woman who was married to a rabbi who converted people—told me that people like me often ultimately discovered that they had a hidden Jewish grandparent or great grandparent. (I found out that not only do I lack Jewish DNA, but that I’m probably descended from the kings who kicked the Jews out of England and France.) 

Becoming a Jew is a hassle. In the old days when Jews were vulnerable to accusations of proselytizing Christians away from the “True Church,” it was standard procedure to test a potential convert’s commitment by turning her away three times. Nowadays the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist branches have a pan-denominational drill that usually lasts at least a year. You study, going both to organized classes and one-on-one sessions with a rabbi. You’re encouraged to attend synagogue, celebrate the Jewish holidays, slap a mezuzah on the doorpost, light candles on Friday night, and otherwise live a Jewish life. If you’re a man, you have to undergo circumcision or a symbolic pinprick of the penis. You choose a Hebrew name. On the big day, you’re required to get naked—no rings or even nail polish—and go through a rebirth ritual in a body of living water deep enough to roll around in. (I did mine at dawn in the ocean off Miami Beach, trying to keep my butt from bobbing up above the waterline for the amusement of the tourists on the boardwalk.) Then you have to go before a special court that grills you about your knowledge and your motives.

But all of this is a walk in the park compared to changing your gender. (Not to mention that even if I could have simply signed on the dotted line and gotten some sort of quickie Reno conversion, my new status would be protected under the law. Transgender status usually is not.)

I had met a few trans people before Asher was on the cusp, but he was the first person who welcomed all of my nosy questions. No facet and no possible motive for his journey were off-limits. I learned about the sexual jolt of testosterone, and how it can make those whose bodies it’s coursing through act like dicks, even if they don’t necessarily have one. He told me about his fears, from the physical side effects of hormones and surgery to possibly never finding a woman who would love his new self.  

Asher was also the first person I knew who was on the road from female to male, and as a feminist, I was more dodgy with that than about the opposite route down the highway. But I already knew that Asher was a feminist, too, and that he certainly wasn’t afraid of being openly queer. He saw his transition through that prism even as he had new experiences, like male bonding. He did not equate masculinity with power or dominance. But as he began to dress as a man, cut his hair short, strap down his breasts, and take hormones that grew his muscles and narrowed his hips, he realized, even at five-foot-two, that he was already reaping the benefits of male privilege every time he walked down the street without feeling like a target.

But ultimately, his maleness, he once told me “is just something that is.” He had a profound conviction that the male gender was where he belonged, and whatever it took to get there was worth it. All the rest was commentary.

Accusing someone of not being a woman (or a man, or a Jew, or anything else) after she’s busted her butt for years to earn that status is as stupid as refusing to recognize that someone you knew in fourth grade who has since gone to medical school now gets to be addressed as doctor. We are the people we’ve struggled and sweated to become. As at Sinai, maybe where we end up is where we were destined to be, or at least should be respected as such. It’s not a delusion. If anything, it’s a delusion of grandeur to insist otherwise.

In fact, to insist otherwise is to be—as my people say—a schmuck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lindsy Van Gelder is a San Diego–based writer whose work has regularly appeared in Allure, Ms. Magazine, among many other national publications.

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