I’ve always had a complicated relationship with religions. One that has been inherently distrustful even before I realized I was a queer trans man. Yet something about a higher power and the magic of religion has always fascinated me. I wasn’t raised religious, except in the vague Christian-normative way most secular families are. Christmas might not have been a “religious” holiday for my family, but it’s still a religious holiday underneath. You’d be hard pressed to find a wholly secular “Christmas” holiday, though the McElroys’ Candlenights does try its best, it’s ultimately pan-religious rather than secular.
Despite the fact that I wasn’t raised religious, religion was always an option. My mom, an ex-Catholic and religious history and comparative religion double major, made it very clear that religion was an option, should I ever want to pursue it. As a result, I had Hanukkah books and Kwanza books alongside my Christmas books, ate latkes and knew how to play dreidel, but also sang Christmas carols and got a new Christmas ornament every year. I also remember spending at least one holiday with a Jewish friend when I was in kindergarten or first grade, though I could not for the life of me tell you what holiday it was.
After briefly looking into what conversion would mean when I was in college, I didn’t actually make the decision to look into converting formally until I moved away from home. Approaching Judaism is not easy, it’s a journey, but it’s one I feel prepared to make, due to the fact I’ve made a similarly massive transition before with my gender. Just like with gender transition, converting to Judaism isn’t a massive change in my worldview, it’s just a change in how I approach the world.
That said, just because Judaism is what feels right to me doesn’t mean that it’s still not easy to grapple with the historical stigma that chases queer and trans people wherever they go. Noam Sienna’s “A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” presents an incredible historical record, but it’s also one that isn’t wholly happy. In between loving homoerotic poems and stories, you also have first hand records documenting the persecution of queer people in history. While court or arrest records are sometimes the only historical documents that remain of queer presence, it doesn’t make it any less challenging to read them, especially when they come from a religion you are looking to join.
However, the way Judaism has evolved into it’s various branches means that the Judaism of then is not the Judaism of now and there is absolutely space in Judaism for queer people. This is made apparent through the existence of books like “A Rainbow Thread” and “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible,” as well as through the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which is a congregation in New York City that is explicitly for the LGBTQ community.
One other book that I have found particularly important in twining my conversion and gender together is “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community,” edited by Noach Dzmura. It’s designed with a readership of transgender people in mind and as a result is an indescribably cathartic read. Some might find the terminology dated, because the book is almost ten years old at this point and many of the authors writing are older, but that doesn’t detract from the messages that the book brings.
If you’re interested in pursuing something that isn’t Judaism. Some other books I would recommend are:
- “Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality & Black Magic in Brazil” by Kelley E. Hayes, which “examines the intersections of social marginality, morality, and magic in contemporary Brazil by analyzing the beliefs and religious practices related to the Afro-Brazilian spirit entity Pomba Gira.” Pomba Gira being a figure who has been linked with trans women and gay men, which if memory serves is either talked about on in the book or in the accompanying DVD, “Slaves of the Saints.”
- “In from the Wilderness – Sherman: She-r-man” by David E. Weekly. “In from the Wilderness” is a memoir, that details Weekly’s life as a transgender man holding religious office in the Methodist Church.
- “Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach” by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. I haven’t read this myself, but I have heard very good things about it. It seems to be a more Christian approach, but I can’t tell if it’s geared toward any one specific denomination.