Gavin's Story: A Conversion to Remember

Gavin's Story: A Conversion to Remember

October is LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I will be featuring transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hope to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights.

By Gavin WyerContributor to Manning Up and part of the Transgender Project

“I have text from Miriam*”, Joel said: “She says that there is a complication and that she will text us again in half an hour” and I stopped breathing. What if this wasn’t going to happen after all? We were on our way to the synagogue to complete my conversion ceremony. I was to finally be recognized as a Jewish man. It had been a long road to get to this point.

About four and a half years ago I had begun my transition from female to male. That was not an easy choice or an easy journey, but it was right. About a year and a half into transition I believed that I had pretty much arrived as a man. I was in for a shock when I attended my first transgender conference. I found out that my assumption, that I would change my body, and nothing else, could not have been more wrong. I discovered that, in terms of transition, I was a baby and that I was about to go through a second adolescence. Everything was about to change. Adolescence is much more than physical changes. It is also about discovering who one is as a person. Now I had to sort out the big identity questions. What did it mean to be a man? and What kind of man was I to be?

Clearly I was going to need some help with all of this. I was lucky and found a wise mentor at the conference who would guide me through this second adolescence. Joel was endlessly patient with my questions and my emotional instability as I began to navigate psychological transition. To this day I cannot imagine having to sort everything out without his unwavering support, but there was to be another surprise challenge.

Joel was Jewish. This was a huge problem for me as Judaism was something I had been taught as a child to stay far away from. Throughout my life it had come up again and again but I always avoided ever facing the fact that there was something there that just would not go away. So now it was presented to me again and, this time, I knew that I had to figure out what this thing was.

I studied Judaism on line and was surprised to find that I agreed with everything I read and that it felt somehow familiar. Then I went to see a Rabbi. I told him that I wanted to ask questions about conversion. He asked why I would want to convert and I had to tell him that I was not at all sure that I did, but that I had this feeling that I might have to. It didn’t make any sense to him, or to me. I met with him several times and he began teaching the rudiments of what it meant to be Jewish.

When I told Joel that I was talking with a Rabbi and that I really didn’t understand why I felt compelled to do that, he said something that I would never have thought of on my own. He said; “I think you might be Jewish”. I rejected that idea because it made no sense to me. How could I be Jewish and not know it? After several more meetings with the Rabbi I discovered that those strange words my grandmother used when I was very young were Yiddish and the strange foods that I remembered were Jewish dishes. Then the big one: That weird ceremony when my little brother was a newborn was a bris (a Jewish ritual of circumcision).  OK, so maybe Joel was on to something.

Next I hired a genealogist to see if I could find the truth. That turned out to be a failure. It seemed that my grandmother had changed her name and her original name, along with her place of birth etc. was lost forever. After speaking with several Rabbis I decided to look into conversion in order to be formally recognized as Jewish.

Converting to Judaism is not at all like joining other religious groups. First there is significant study required. I had to study Jewish history, philosophy, beliefs, laws, culture…it goes on and on. After over a year of independent study came formal classes for another two years. Then I was ready to participate in a formal conversion. There was a problem. My Rabbi was unable, or unwilling, to schedule this event. After several failed attempts to get him to set things up, and several months of being completely ignored, I discovered that the other members of my class were having their conversion ceremonies while I was not.

Fortunately I had formed a friendship with another Rabbi over the past few years. When I told Miriam what was going on she said that she would set things up for my conversion. Miriam is also trans and became an Orthodox Rabbi prior to transitioning from male to female. So I was to be converted as a trans man by a trans woman. This was an interesting twist that felt somehow entirely appropriate. My being a trans man and my being a Jewish man seem to be linked in ways that I don’t entirely understand. Both identities have been about a coming home to who I really am after decades of living as who I thought I was supposed to be.

It was decided that Joel and I and my sister and brother in law were to travel to a nearby city where Miriam lived and would perform the ceremony. I was a nervous wreck. This was very important to me and there were some uncomfortable aspects to the ceremony because I am trans. First there was the Beit Din (a formal Jewish court of three knowledgeable Jews lead by the Rabbi) wherein I would be asked questions to determine my readiness to become a Jew. This would be the same as for anyone else seeking conversion.

Then there was the Hatafat Dam Brit (a ritual circumcision). A male who is being converted must be circumcised or, in lieu of that, have a drop of blood drawn from the penis as a sign of accepting Abraham’s covenant with God. Here, my being trans was a factor. I have had bottom surgery (a metoidoplasty) so I have a penis but it is clearly different than that of a man born physically male. This would be uncomfortable and embarrassing.

After that would be the Mikvah (an immersion in water). I would be required to be completely naked and to be examined by an attendant who would ensure that I was not wearing jewelry or anything else that would prevent the water from touching every part of my body. Like most transgendered people I was not at all keen on having someone carefully examine my entire body, and then watch me immerse myself in water. Joel, who is also trans, would be my attendant, but I was still not at all looking forward to having him study my, not at all normative, body.

If I was to become Halachically (legally, according to Jewish law) Jewish, I would have to somehow get past my discomfort and embarrassment over my body. So these are the main reasons that I was a nervous wreck that morning waiting to meet Miriam at the synagogue. The Beit Din questioning was enough to make anyone nervous but it was more that everything to follow was going to be especially difficult for me.

Then, at the last minute, there was some unknown complication. It felt like hours waiting for that second text. As it turned out Miriam had been in a car accident on the way there. No one was hurt and everything was simply to happen a little bit late. OK, so I could breathe again. Anna arrived with her friend Jonathan, a Jewish trans man who would serve on the Beit Din. It also turned out that Joel would be needed to serve on the Beit Din. This meant that all three members of this Jewish court of law would be transgendered people. This was very likely an historic first.

We proceeded with the Beit Din after Miriam made note of the historical significance of this event. It was difficult, and the questions were challenging. Then it was time for the Hatafat Dam Brit. Miriam took me into a private room and we prepared a lancet. Then she said “OK drop your pants” I did and she looked at my surgically created penis and said “Oh that’s very nice”.  I could not help but laugh. This was a trans woman telling a trans man that he had a nice looking trans penis. Then she pointed to the lancet and said “Go ahead”. I was surprised and asked “Oh am I doing this”? To which she responded “Well I’m not touching that”. Well, of course not. This was a trans woman who had had surgery to remove her own penis and who identified as lesbian. She would not be at all inclined to go anywhere near any penis! Thus a solemn, and nerve wracking, occasion became an exercise in irony.

Next up was the Mikvah. I took my clothing off and showered. Then I met Joel next to the water. Joel looked at me and couldn’t help but chuckle. I was wrapped in a large sheet. He commented that with the sheet and my partially bald head I looked like a monk. His humour served to diffuse the last of my nervousness. I was laughing as I removed the sheet and prepared to enter the water.

I recited the appropriate blessings and immersed in the Mikvah water the required number of times and it was over. I dried off with sheet and dressed in new clothes and then rejoined the others. There I was welcomed as a Jewish man for the first time. Joel surprised me by having a shofar (a hollowed out ram’s horn used in some Jewish ceremonies) which he blew as I entered the room. He also brought a challa (Jewish bread) which his wife had sent as her way of being present for me. I was presented with a Tallit (a prayer shawl worn by Jewish men) and there were tears. This was a conversion to be remember.

*All names have been changed except my own

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photo credit: A Sunset Prayer via photopin (license)

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