More than 60 people gathered at the Jewish History Museum on Sunday, March 17 for “Gender Speak: Understanding the Trans and Gender-Evolving World.”
Amy Hirshberg Lederman, a Tucson educator, writer and attorney, and Ariel Vegosen, a California-based gender inclusivity trainer, led the workshop, which looked at gender from a Jewish and anti-oppression lens.
Lederman said that as a “cis” woman — one whose gender identity matches the sex she was assigned at birth — and an ally and friend of the LGBTQ community, she is “constantly learning how truly complex, complicated and continuously evolving these worlds within worlds actually are.”
Lederman, who noted “my pronouns are she/her/hers,” said that because she cares deeply, she wants also to better understand the gender-evolving conversation, which she finds “difficult to grasp, despite my best intentions.”
“I know what I hear, but I don’t always understand enough of what is being said or not said, what is being felt, or feared,” she said. “And I know I’m not the only one.”
While much of the day’s focus was on the trans community, the “T” in LGBTQ, Lederman said she hoped it would be the first of many such conversations in the local Jewish community.
One goal of the workshop, she said, was to learn how to ask gender-related questions without being awkward or offensive.
To that end, attendees received a handout on “The Ten Commandments of Pronouns,” created by Shine (www.shinediversity.com), which Vegosen founded. The first commandment, “Pronouns are important,” explains that “Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect of their personhood and gender identity.” Another commandment reminds us that “you can respect people’s pronouns even if you don’t fully understand,” and even if it feels a little awkward for you.
Vegosen, who identifies as genderqueer and non-binary, said that being a playful person, “I like to use all the pronouns,” alternating among she, he and they. “I don’t identify as a boy or a girl,” Vegosen explained, “so none of the pronouns really work for me.” But this unusual approach is Vegosen’s preference — other people who identify as non-binary may have a single pronoun choice. A tip: If you are unsure of someone’s pronouns, just use their name.
Vegosen noted that “genderqueer” and “gender non-binary” are words that literally did not exist in their high school and college years, so it wasn’t until age 26 that they came out in their gender identity.
“We are an evolving species,” Vegosen said, promising that we can adapt to new ideas around gender and language, just as we learned to use cell phones, Facebook and Twitter, all of which did not exist until fairly recently.
In addition to the importance of pronouns, Vegosen had three major points to impart: that sex and gender are not the same thing, that gender is a journey, and finally, that “Judaism has space for all genders, including those living outside the binary.”
Another page in the handout detailed the six genders that are mentioned in the Talmud. In addition to the words usually translated in English as “male” (zachar) and “female” (nekeivah), there is androgynos, a person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics; tumtum, a person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured; ay’lonit, a person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile; and saris, a person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics at puberty and/or is lacking a penis. Saris can be further categorized as occurring naturally (saris hamah) or by human intervention (saris adam).
Vegosen also pointed out that even cis-gendered people are on a gender journey: think of all the things women and men are allowed to do now that were once restricted to a single sex, such as being a firefighter.
The second half of the workshop was an opportunity to hear from four Tucsonans, Andrea Carmichael, Teré Fowler-Chapman, Rambo Rose, and Hamilton, about their gender journeys.
Carmichael is a program manager for the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, and a volunteer with numerous other nonprofit organizations.
As a child growing up in a Conservative Christian home, Carmichael said, she thought she was broken and asked God to fix her. For many years she tried to fit into her assigned male identity, even marrying a woman and having two children with her. She explored the idea of living her new identity in secret for four years before she came out three years ago, at the age of 46. The last three years have been extraordinarily challenging, including the end of her marriage and estrangement from one of her siblings, but she has no regrets. “I look in the mirror and now for the first time in my life I love the person I see; I finally feel whole.”
Teré Fowler-Chapman, a gender fluid poet and educator, arrived in Tucson at age 17, homeless, wrestling with their sexuality. Even as a child, they knew they were trans, liking toys and activities that were perceived as masculine but being told “that’s not how girls act.” Transitioning has brought some strange new experiences, from feeling male privilege to
having someone pull a firearm on them because they saw them as a black male.
Over the last five years, the climate at the high school where Fowler-Chapman works, and transitioned, has become more open, they said. They had advice for young people in the audience on how to help other schools be more open, including asking pronouns and joining the school’s gay-straight alliance. Asked how to deal with students making insensitive jokes, they stressed assessing your own safety first, then perhaps finding an administrator to deal with the situation — knowing which teachers are allies — or reporting the incident to an adult at a later time.
Rambo Rose, a queer trans woman, fitness coach, body builder, burlesque artist and non-binary femme, said that for many years she thought she was a cis-gender male. While over time she became more comfortable not being “hyper masculine,” and had friends who were queer or non-binary, she had lingering unhappiness.
“I just woke up one day realizing I don’t have to be a man,” she said. She transitioned in 2015, five years after coming to Tucson.
“In history, there have always been and there always will be humans who exhibit gender and sexual variance,” yet they are omitted from the historical narrative, she said. “It’s an act of violence to exclude people who are LGBTQ from pop culture and mainstream history.”
Like Carmichael, Fowler-Chapman and Rambo Rose also had marriages that ended when they transitioned.
The final panelist, Hamilton, is a black Chicana feminist born and raised in Tucson, working on a master’s degree in school counseling at the University of Arizona. Growing up with two sisters, Hamilton always felt like “a weird girl,” especially being 5 feet 10 inches tall in the fifth grade.
“I began to feel ‘she’ as a pronoun for myself was gross,” they said, and discovered the term non-binary on YouTube — a source of information other panelists had also mentioned. Although now happy with non-binary as their gender identity, and happy to still be with their partner, a queer woman, “it was hard to give up the lesbian identity that was important to me at one time,” Hamilton said.
Community members gave the workshop high marks.
“I had considered myself fairly knowledgeable about LGBTQIA advocacy, but was confused about how and when to ask for or use non-binary personal pronouns ‘they/them/their,’” said Leslie Glaze, a former speech-language pathologist and active Jewish community volunteer. “Not only did the Gender Speak workshop demystify that usage,” it also clarified “important distinctions between gender, sexuality, and sex. I left the session with more comfort and confidence in my ability to respect gender fluid expression appropriately.”
Shira Dubin, a sophomore at University High School and one of several Jewish Latino Teen Coalition members at the event, also highlighted the importance of learning the differences between gender, sexuality, and sex. “Growing up in this time, there’s a lot that is changing,” she told the AJP, “and it’s hard to keep up.” Hearing from the four panelists was interesting, she said, as “all had such different backgrounds.” In her classes at UHS, there’s at least one person who has transitioned, she affirmed — “I know he uses he/him pronouns.”
The Jewish History Museum sponsored the event, said JHM Executive Director Bryan Davis, as a way to continue exploring the topic of its exhibit “Invisibility & Resistance: Violence Against LGBTQIA+ People,” which occupied the Contemporary Human Rights space of its Holocaust History Center from September 2017 through May 2018.
Wrapping up the workshop, Lederman asked attendees to continue educating themselves, and reminded them “we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.”