A few years ago I partook in a Jewish ritual where I changed my Hebrew name to something that fit me better: Pesach Feigele. I borrowed a word from my parents’ Hebrew names; Pesach from my dad and Feigele from my mom. Feigele is Yiddish for ‘bird’ and iterations of it have been used as a derogatory slur against LGBTQ+ people – I decided it was important to be part of the movement to reclaim the word and I loved the idea of being free like a bird. Pesach, which is Hebrew for ‘Passover,’ also felt significant to me. Passover is a holiday that celebrates many themes, two of which are liberation and the importance of telling our stories.
I was recently on a road trip with a friend where we plugged in our destination’s address which popped up immediately, hit go, and we were on our way. We didn’t even second guess where we were going. We talked about how if it had been 20 years ago, we’d have had to print out our directions, pray there were no detours or missed exits, and hope for the best. Getting from point A to B nowadays is so much easier because of the tried-and-true routes and road conditions that are instantly updated and uploaded for the benefit of all travelers. Roadmaps help create a sense of visibility into our journey so we feel confident about where we’re going.
When I think about roadmaps, stories, and visibility into Trans and Nonbinary/Genderqueer identity, and especially Jewish Trans identity, it takes a little while longer to load. There haven’t been enough folks uploading their experiences to the information highway yet for the representation to just “flow.” Though trans and nonbinary/genderqueer people have existed since the beginning of time, for so long it hasn’t been safe to be out and talking about it, or our history was erased. I always found myself asking the same question over and over: where can I find the permission to be myself; where’s my roadmap?
Growing up without any concrete sense-of-self created a Mitzrayim, a narrow place; everything felt dark and hopeless and like there was no escape. Because I didn’t even really understand that I was struggling with my gender identity, I took what I needed from the representation that existed to help me feel a bit more like me. My liberation felt impossible. I thought I was going to be stuck in this narrowness forever.
When I was younger and privately exploring my gender (though I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing), I used to wear a California pink polo (is that a thing? I think I made it up), pretended my scooter was a motorcycle, and that I was a blend of Brandon Walsh and Dylan McKay from Beverly Hills 90210. I felt so at home and at ease playing this hybrid character even though I didn't know what it meant. I also dabbled in Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell, a hybrid Shawn Hunter and Cory Matthews from Boy Meets World, and Joey Russo from Blossom….WHOA.
I remember one of the first times I saw trans representation in mainstream media – I was in high school watching a movie in the late 90s called Boys Don’t Cry about a young trans man in rural Nebraska. I saw parts of myself in this character – not fully, but parts which felt incredible, mesmerizing, and also terrifying.
It was all immediately ripped away by the violence perpetrated in the film. I internalized that if I were anything like this man, there would be very dangerous consequences. This movie taught me to tuck away any feelings I was having so I could stay safe. My narrow place was getting narrower.
I had to wait more than a decade until I saw (or even registered) more trans/nonbinary/genderqueer representation/glimpses and even then, nothing that screamed “THAT’S ME!” It felt as if I was wandering in the desert searching for my own Promised Land of identity.
Each one of those glimpses into myself and my identity came in different forms and started carving away some of the narrowness. These moments included trans characters (whether or not they were portrayed by actual trans people is another article) and some were gender expansive in some way.
Seeing Lea DeLaria wearing a sports bra and boxer briefs in an Orange is the New Black episode was revolutionary for my gender identity exploration. I didn’t know I was allowed to wear sports bras all the time or boxer briefs ever. I know it might sound silly but I was so used to following a set script of who I was supposed to be that I couldn’t break out of it – I simply didn’t have access to what could be.
The stories we are told become the stories we tell ourselves. This drives our sense of self, and that’s powerful. But what happens when the story that’s being told to us isn’t actually our story at all? What happens when it is?
The show Transparent was crucial in me seeing myself as not only a trans person but as a Trans Jew. It made coming into myself and telling my family that much easier knowing I had something concrete I could show them. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t weird. This wasn’t unique to just me. Finally a story was being told to me where I felt like it was mine and I could retell it as my own.
For most of my journey, I had to create my own roadmap, my own story, because I had no choice. My liberation was in my own hands. I took what I needed from what was available and improvised the rest. Eventually through community, a reconnection to Judaism, and a lot of self-reflection and work, my narrow place became a wide-open field full of light, love, connectedness, and inner peace and calm.
The more we tell our stories and share our experiences, the easier it is for all of us to be liberated and to find our own open-fields. On this Trans Day of Visibility, I wish for all of us the roadmaps we need to find our own inner-liberation with just a bit more calm, connectedness, and ease.
Originally written for Haggadot.com and published on 3/29/22