Matt Kailey, USA
Ask Matt: ‘Trans-Friendly’ Synagogue is Anything But
May 31, 2012 by Matt Kailey
A reader writes: “I’d like to know what you and your readers think of
a recent situation I was in.
“I am converting to Judaism. I have been going to a Reform shul (LGBTQ
friendly) and recently met with the assistant rabbi to talk about
converting and what I will need to do. During our in-depth
conversation, in which I admitted that I am trans, the rabbi asked me
my assigned-at-birth name. I told him that question is the only one I
won’t answer because it is never relevant.
“The rabbi told me that I needed to be ‘open and honest’ and maybe
that shul is not a good fit – that maybe I am not serious about
converting because knowing the context of a rabbi/congregant
relationship, I couldn’t be ‘honest and open.’ So I told him my
assigned-at-birth name (which is not my legal name, by the way.)
“I left the meeting in tears. I left the meeting angry. I left the
meeting wondering if he’s now going to look at me and think of my
birth name, of who I was and not who I am.
“If it were you, how would you have used that moment to teach him that
his question was inappropriate and irrelevant? What resources would
you point out to him (Transgender 101) so that he never does that to
another trans person?”
I am usually pretty laid back, but this situation makes me angry on so
many levels. I see this as not only a personal violation by a person
in a position of authority and trust, but as a violation of the trans
community – just as when any other LGB”T” or LGB”T”-friendly
organization adds the “T” to the end of their letters and thinks that
covers it, yet they know nothing about trans issues. What happened to
you is the opposite of trans-friendly.
However, I don’t know much about Judaism (or any religion, for that
matter), so I don’t know what the “honest and open” expectation
actually is. Is everything in your private life subject to the rabbi’s
investigation? If you refuse to answer any question he asks about any
aspect of your life, are you not being open and honest enough for the
I can’t imagine that this is possible, but again, I’m not sure. You
probably know better than I do what the “honest and open” thing means,
but I would be concerned about what other irrelevant matters he thinks
are important enough to harass you about.
The first thing that you might want to do is speak with the chief
rabbi and see if he or she is more aware. Perhaps this person could
work with the assistant rabbi on a little tact and trans knowledge.
But if you don’t have access to the person in charge, or if you feel
that you will be met with the same mindset, then you might want to
consider going elsewhere, if your city is large enough to support
several open and affirming synagogues, or you might offer to do a
little staff education. Hopefully, the administration will be “open”
to it and “honest” enough to admit that they need it.
As far as how I would have responded at the time, I don’t know,
because I always think of great things to say after the fact – like
> “If I were to tell you my birth name, I wouldn’t be being honest with you about who I am.”
> “The person sitting here now is the person asking to join your congregation. Is there anything more honest and open at this moment than that request?”
> “I’m sorry. I thought this shul was accepting of LGBT people. My mistake.”
> “I believe that God knows me and accepts me as (insert your name). I hope that you will do the same.” (or – “If it’s good enough for Him, it ought to be good enough for you.”)
You also could have gone into a mini-presentation about why the
question was inappropriate and irrelevant, and why trans people should
never be asked their given name at birth. But in my opinion, you
should not have to put yourself through that at a house of worship
that claims to be LGBT friendly. That should not fall on your
shoulders at such an emotional and important time for you.
You could have also told him what you told me – that you don’t reveal
your birth name because people see you differently when you do, and
you’re not comfortable with that, because that isn’t who you are. But
again, you shouldn’t even have had to think about that, because the
question shouldn’t have been asked in the first place, and if it was,
your answer of “No, I won’t answer that” should have been sufficient
I know you left angry and upset, but I don’t know how you left it with
him. If you plan to continue with that shul, you will probably have to
talk to him again to resolve anything that you’re feeling. You want to
comfortable in your place of worship and with your rabbi.
So you could ask for another appointment and tell him that you would
like to talk with him about how the question made you feel and how you
felt when you left. You could talk to him about what your impression
of an LGBTQ-friendly shul is and how his question didn’t fit with your
interpretation of that. And then you could ask him what the best way
is now for you to continue in your quest to convert to Judaism and if
there is any way that you could help him to better understand trans
people and trans issues.
You don’t have to be accusatory or hostile. That will just put him on
the defensive. Just be open and honest, which is what he says he
wants. His responses will give you some idea of whether or not you
will be comfortable there on an ongoing basis.
But even if it turns out that you are not comfortable with this rabbi
and this shul, that should not discourage you from converting.
According to the Jewish Federations of North America
<http://www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=31674> , there are
3,727 synagogues in the United States alone (in other countries, it
will obviously vary), and of those, 26 percent are Reform. Obviously,
most of them are not accessible to you by location, and some might not
accept you as trans, but at least it lets you know that there are
other options out there.
As far as resources, I’m sure that readers each have their favorites,
and I hope we hear about some of them along with reader responses. I
think Jamison Green’s book, Becoming a Visible Man
, is always a good one. And there is a new book out by Nicholas M.
Teich called Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue
that could be very helpful. You could also refer him to your favorite
trans blogs and websites, as well as those that readers recommend.
But I do suggest that you get this resolved with him if you are going
to stay with that congregation and convert there. You want this
experience to be a joyful, fulfilling one – not one that you will
remember with anger and fear. So the most important thing right now is
to figure out what you need – not what he needs, not what anyone else
needs – but what you need during this very important time in your
Readers, what are your thoughts and suggestions?