“Today I am a Man” Takes on New Meaning

L.A. native Benjamin Harvey (a pseudonym) transitioned from female to male in 1982, and celebrated his bar three years later. Here he talks about fitting together the Jewish part of the puzzle with his gender identity:

I always enjoyed learning about Judaism, but I never had a bat mitzvah. My family was very assimilated—we didn’t have a Christmas tree, but we never went to services. About the time I transitioned, I was in this support group for FtMs and I mentioned that I wanted to have a bar mitzvah; somebody recommended I talk to a local Reform rabbi who was running a b’nai mitzvah class. I had to learn the prayers, the aleph-bet. everything. I never stood on the bimah and said, “today I am a man,” but for me, the bar mitzvah was a sign of accepting responsibly in the Jewish community as a man. Up until then I hadn’t had my birth certificate changed; the bar mitzvah was the impetus—legally, I wanted to be a man by the time I had my bar mitzvah. I had the birth certificate changed in October and my Bar Mitzvah in December—I wanted everything to line up.

Before my bar mitzvah, I had meeting with the rabbi, to tell her my situation—somebody had told me that, in order to be bar mitzvahed, I was going to need a certificate of circumcision. I’m like, I don’t have that! (laughs.) The rabbi was very surprised—she asked me if I had felt like my life was at stake [in my decision to transition gender.] I knew I would have killed myself if I hadn’t transitioned, and I told her that. She said, “There’s nothing to it, you did what you needed to do. When a person converts, it’s an insult to call them an ex-Christian. It’s the same thing, you’re a man now.”

For my bar mitzvah speech, I talked about the part of the Torah that says, “You should love your neighbor as yourself” I said, “We’re instructed in the Torah to do this, but what if you don’t like yourself?” I didn’t mention specifically being trans. [I said.] “If I am not for myself, who will be for me—if I don’t like myself, who will respect me? And if I don’t respect myself how can I respect others? And of course, there’s no time like the present. You’ve got to have self-respect, you’ve got to like yourself—or how can you possibly treat others that way?” The people [at my bar mitzvah] who knew me knew exactly what I was talking about, and the people who didn’t still got something out of it.

My dad and uncle came to my bar mitzvah, but my mom couldn’t deal with being in a room with 150 people all calling me Benjamin. Which, needless to say, hurts a lot.

Today, if I go to services, people see me as a short Jewish guy. I can’t imagine going to a service where [my gender identity] would be something they would even think about. But I didn’t want to go to the congregation until I had had chest surgery—I didn’t want to wear a binder[to bind down my breasts] to temple. It was uncomfortable and hot, and if somebody pats you on the back—I didn’t want to deal with questions that might come up. I just wanted to go to a service, to be accepted as how I felt myself being without anything getting in the way. And, I’m sorry, 38Cs will get in the way! (laughs.)

People have asked me, “Why did you go through all of this? [Female bodied]is the way God made you.” Which, according to their argument, means that there’s no such thing as a birth defect, because God never makes a mistake. According to this logic, a kid with a club foot should never be corrected. But—on the other hand—the same people who say “God made you that way” to me would try to “correct” a child born with ambiguous genatalia.