Gender Expression isn’t a Purim Costume
Jews across the world are getting ready to celebrate Purim in costume. Some will be characters from the Purim story. Some will be famous actors. Some will be fictional heroes and villains. And no doubt, many people will cross-dress and dress up as someone of a different gender. Most people won’t think twice about whether their costume will be accepted on Purim, as it is almost expected that people will dress up for the holiday.
However, for many people who dress in clothes that are traditionally worn by other genders or who are transitioning to their actual gender, their gender expression is not a costume, nor is it something they can take off at the end of the night — it is a core part of their identity and how they express themselves.
Purim is a holiday about breaking gender norms and gender stereotypes. The story of Purim begins with Vashti refusing to parade naked before the King. While Vashti’s decision would be considered reasonable and justified in today’s world, Vashti lived in a world where women were expected to be subservient to men, let alone to their king. Vashti’s decision to reject the king’s command is also a rejection of the expectations of women in that society. Today, Jews continue to break gender norms and stereotypes on Purim by dressing as other genders.
People who decide to dress as another gender on Purim will benefit from the safe space that is created in Jewish settings during the holiday. However, far too many people who are actually gender non-conforming and transgender struggle with not having that safe space on a daily basis. The Transgender Non-Discrimination Survey, which defined transgender broadly to include “those who transition from one gender to another (transsexuals), and those who may not, including genderqueer people, cross-dressers, the androgynous, and those whose gender non-conformity is a part of their identity,” found that transgender people face high rates of harassment in places of education, places of employment, homeless shelters, and in public accommodations, among other areas.
Judaism has recognized multiple sexes and genders since rabbinic times. Rabbi Reuben Zelman, the first openly transgender person accepted to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, explains that Mishnah Bikurim 4 teaches:
“...people of intermediate sex and gender were not to be harmed; their lives were of equal value to any other person’s…This Jewish approach allows for genders between male and female. It opens space in society. And it protects those who live in the places in between.”
As Jews, we therefore have a responsibility to make sure that we create and advocate for open, welcoming, inclusive communities transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. We celebrate that Purim has become a time when people feel free to dress as whatever gender they choose - but let's also make sure that comfort is afforded to people who wish to do so every day of the year.