Transness Through the Words of Rabbi Hillel
Everyone seems surprised to think that there might be more than one trans person in one family. And yet, here we are: me, Spencer, a 17-year-old trans boy; and my sibling Jo, a 20-year-old vibragender demiboy (Google those words, they're fun!) I've been out for almost two years, and Jo has been out since April. Both of us fall on the general spectrum of transgender identities.
About a year ago, I used a public men's room for the first time. It was in the giant M&M store in Times Square. I remember it mostly because there was someone taking forever and a day in the stall, and the person at the urinal offered it to me after he was done. I'd been out as trans for around six months at that point – I wasn't used to people assuming I was cis (and I'm still not, as it doesn't happen all that often). It was an unexpected moment of gender validation because, as a trans boy, I'm not necessarily used to people defaulting to "girl" – but I'm certainly not used to people defaulting to "boy."
My sibling's "big trans moment" came only a couple of days ago: Jo learned how to tie a tie and took the first picture in which they truly look masculine. The first self-tied tie is a big moment for any transmasculine person (transmasculine is a term used to describe transgender people who were assigned female at birth, but identify with masculinity to a greater extent than with other gender categories). It's a confirmation of our ability to be masculine in a "traditional" sense. For Jo, tying a tie for the first (and second, and third) time – and posting the pictures to prove it – made them feel more confident in their masculinity.
Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" For trans people, it can be very difficult to out ourselves, to be our most authentic selves around people who may judge us or even hurt us. At the same time, it is difficult to remain in the closet; to knowingly misgender ourselves in the situations that may require it. For us, knowing we were trans meant we had to act upon that knowledge – because we were the only ones who could.
Hillel's saying continues: "If I am only for myself, who am I?" As trans people and as siblings, we've become each other's strongest allies in many spaces and allies to all our other trans friends. The trans community does not necessarily agree on everything – or, indeed, anything – but we support one another and are our own allies.
Hillel's famous quote ends: "If not now, when?" In this day and age, it has become even more obvious that the struggles trans people face are not sustainable. We are often lumped into the category of "other" and forgotten, and we cannot stand alone any longer.
This is a time of political unrest, of change and upheaval and general chaos. At such times, it is absolutely vital that we come together as Jews to promote tikkun olam and stand with marginalized communities. For me and my sibling, for the big and little moments that define our transness, for every other trans person we’ve ever met or ever will, now is the time to stand.
[Editor's note: This piece was originally written in 2017, but the author bios below were updated on June 29, 2020, at the authors' request. Jo wishes to convey that the piece itself no longer represents their current identity or experience; it should be read with that perspective in mind.]
Jo Rothman is a queer educator and advocate based in the Boston area, as well as a creative writer and editor specializing in young adult fiction. In their free time, they enjoy devouring novels, binge-watching Adventure Time, singing, and baking. (Reach Jo by email.) Spencer Rothman is a bisexual trans man who just finished his first year at art school. He enjoys video games, Dungeons & Dragons, and listening to a frankly unreasonable amount of music (he's been on a Cosmo Sheldrake kick lately). He also reads occasionally and draws even less. (Reach Spencer by email.)