“Yes, I’m a trans woman, but am I trans enough? And am I woman enough?” Since I started my social transition at the height of the pandemic (like so many of my trans siblings!), I’ve been walking a thin rainbow line of existing as myself out in the open, on the street, in my professional life, while keeping a secure lock on my social media accounts, not making my transition “Instagram official” and even dressing in full male drag whenever I spend time with family.
I did all this to try and seize the last hours of quality time with my family, having a pretty clear idea of my pending fate. And though this may make a humorous anecdote after the fact, the feelings of dread were real enough at the time that I lost many a sleeping (and waking!) hour to my thoughts, trying to conceive of a possible course forward in which I might maintain some ties—some contact, however, tenuous—with my loved ones.
So on my increasingly sparse family visits I’d wear my most masculine jeans and t-shirts with a heavy flannel button down on top for extra coverage, hide my long curls under a beanie or fedora, and wear my combat boots and even camo jacket for added effect. It worked. For the most part. There was the occasional spare remark like, your voice sounds different (no shit!), or your eyes have changed (huh?), but the mask kept for a while…Why cross that gender bridge before I get there?
All that ended when I published my Yiddish translation of “You Be You! A Kid’s Guide to Gender, Sexuality and Family” using my real name, headshot and bio. My active film and writing career meant that transition became a matter of public record—there were literal headlines in newspapers (oh, how quaint!) proclaiming “Ex-Hasid Comes Out as Trans,” “Unorthodox Rabbi Comes Out as Trans,” and, my personal favorite, the oddly-specific “Ex-Hasid Comes Out as Trans While Translating Children’s Book on Sexuality into Yiddish.”
Unlike my dear friend Abby Stein, I am not a rabbi, but I have played one on TV once too often (I often joke that I transitioned to defeat my seemingly immutable typecasting as a Hasidic rabbi). An “unorthodox” rabbi indeed.
With the cat out of the bag, I felt free to change my IMDB page, my website, and all of my social media accounts to reflect my true name and gender. And then I waited. I waited for the other not-so-sensible shoe to drop.
But it hung there like a pair of Chucks suspended above a Brooklyn intersection. My family, it seemed, was still in the dark about my journey. And I found myself continuing to shield them from the truth. The words just wouldn’t come. How to tell them that their pride and joy, their great Jewish hope, their baby, was not only queer but (heaven forfend!) a trans woman?! So, like Eliezer at the well, I waited for a sign, a tell that they knew. And I knew what that would look like.
It came sooner than I thought. It always does. Characteristically of my family, it began and ended with a Whatsapp message. A week or two after the first headline, my sister messaged me inviting me to go out for dinner with her and my other siblings to plan a vague surprise for my parents. I spent the entire weekend agonized over my response. I knew it was time—that I could no longer delay.
Still, I waited just a little bit longer. Three days later, I finally replied with a cryptic I-would-love-to-but-I-can’t-participate-and-can’t-explain-why-I-can’t-participate. Moments later, she had seen the message, as evidenced by the twin blue checkmarks. But there was no reply. And so I waited some more.
That night, at about 10:00, my sister-in-law called me from her cellphone. She never calls me. I let it go to voicemail. She called again. I let it go to voicemail. Again. Sensing something, I checked our family Whatsapp group to find:
“Heshy has removed you from the group.”
These seven words cut deadly.
Heshy has removed you from the group. Literally and figuratively. I was removed from my family. I was cut off. Such a simple phrase. Such a simple gesture. But so fucking final.
I did expect this. After all, this is just what I had tried to delay by shrouding myself for so long in a veil of masculinity and cis-normativity at great cost physical and mental. Yet I expected some warning, some hysterical alarm bell to go off in the form of my parents’ and siblings’ keening voices in a desperate bid to force me back into the narrow confines of my closet.
Just like that, I became orphaned from my family. Just like that, I will no longer know who was born, who died, who got married. Just like that, I will no longer see cute photos of my parents with their latest great-grandkids, of lively family gatherings, of my mother’s latest ostentatious update to the house. The one thing that kept me tethered to that world,, to my past, was no longer.
Heshy has removed me from the group.
But it wasn’t all over. The next day, my siblings made a new Whatsapp group, added me to it, and walked me through a gauntlet of very emotional blackmail on one side and not-so-thinly-veiled threats on the other, while also calling my phone in turns for an hour. No longer able to take the abuse, I finally answered my brother’s call. It started rough but the conversation turned calmer, respectful even, toward the end. He peppered me with questions about my transition and I tried to answer them as patiently as I could.
All things considered, it’s nothing short of miraculous that he—a very Hasidic, very conservative and very bearded and side-locked middle-aged man—listened to me expound on my trans identity. And yet, I knew that he didn’t really hear me. His final question laid bare his intentions: would I be willing to try conversion therapy? Of course, he didn’t call it that—in fact, he seemed unaware of its infamy, even its existence. The way he phrased it, it was as though he invented the notion then and there: if there would be a doctor out there with an alternate form of treatment for my pain and dysphoria that did not involve transition—would I be open to submitting to their treatment? And then he asked me to call my parents and “explain myself” to them. There was no chance of that conversation going well and so I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone. I just couldn’t.
About a week later, I finally spoke to my parents—I won’t repeat all the hurtful and hurting things they said to me. The word “disgusting” was thrown around a lot, as well as “sick,” “meshugge,” and the like. None of that shocked me. What did shock me was my mother saying that they wouldn’t even allow me to sit shiva for her “as a woman.” There was something terribly macabre about that. I now realize her true intent: to cut me out of her life posthumously. In this world and the next! She did always have a wonderful flair for the dramatic. I listened without responding much. What could I say to someone who repeatedly says that they will never accept me or even deign to look at me if I appear as myself?
At one point during their ramblings, my father—uncharacteristically emotive and verbal—decried a red carpet photo of me, dressed for an occasion in a fashionable number and strappy sandals. He then proceeded to describe (poorly) what I was wearing and his sick-to-the-gut reaction upon seeing me “in a short dress and high heels.”
Hearing him chastising my sartorial choices, I realized that he was actually slut-shaming me. My father—who just said in quite certain terms that he will never accept me as his daughter—just did the telephone equivalent of the “you went out in that?!” tirade that many daughters know too well. His reaction put a fine point on what I already knew but hadn’t yet had much opportunity to experience: transphobia is misogyny. No matter how loudly some people will proclaim that trans women are not women, their eyes and mouths will always put the lie to their claims. Like my parents just did, they lay claim to our bodies and our pronouns.
The common chord between conservative transphobes and their more “progressive” kin who claim to be acting in the name of feminism (known as TERFs) is that they want to assert ownership over us as a group, aiming to control us and how we express ourselves. “The least you can do is not post photos of yourself online—you owe us that!,” came my mother’s parting words after she literally wrote me off. I don’t think “chutzpah” quite captures her stab at owning my public face while disowning me in private.
Pardon me, Ma, but your internalized misogyny is showing.
In the time it takes to tsk-tsk, my parents went from seeing me as their prized-cum-prodigal son to treating me as the wayward daughter they never had. In a bittersweet turn of fate, it was their chauvinism that cemented my social status as a woman.
And after being summarily excommunicated, I’ll take what validation I can get.