Sex and Gender Identity… A College Student Starts the Conversation

This is a Guest Post by Nathan Scheiner, a Sophomore at Macalester College. Nathan is a double-major in Biology and Philosophy and a pre-medical student.
If you and I were to have a conversation about gender and sexuality, you might not guess that I only seriously began to consider what it means to be a male, female, transgendered, post-gendered, straight, gay, or bisexual (or anything in between) in this past spring. I was at a retreat teaching sex education to 7th grade Jews at my synagogue.
Before this spring, though, I always took mom’s advice: “do unto others as I would have them do unto me.” If I left everyone else to figure out what ‘gender and sexuality’ means in peace, they would leave me in peace as well, right?
To me, it’s ironic that I haven’t considered gender and sexuality sooner, since my first year of school at Macalester College was rife with relevant examples. My (now graduated) Residential Advisor is transgender. My roommate is gay. The girl across the hall came out during first semester.
This question could even have been examined long before I entered college. Why was it that there were only a couple of openly homosexual individuals at my high school when somewhere between 5 and 10% of individuals are projected to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Why weren’t there any openly transgendered individuals? There must have been a reason why I chose not to think about how gender and sexuality apply to me as both a rational individual and a member of the Jewish community.
My initial response is that I shouldn’t care what Judaism has to say in the first place. We are all individuals with unique paths to forge in this world. Who cares what it means to be a man, a woman, or anything in between when my choices don’t affect you and your choices don’t affect me?
But that’s where I was wrong.
A central principle in Judaism is study. We are commanded to study the torah. We are commanded to teach it to our children. Rabbis have worked to understand the intricacies of the texts for thousands of years. Cheesy as it may sound, why not study the fine details of life as well?
When I began to learn about gender identity, I already had a notion that there was no clear definition of “man” or of “woman.” It was elementary to me that what we know as “masculine” and “feminine” are simply constructs of society; they’re definitions imposed by popular belief. Although I was able to deconstruct this notion of a gender role, I still couldn’t figure out why we have such a hard time discussing what makes us different from one another in this capacity.
When I began to examine gender and sexuality in the context of Judaism, I turned to the central tenant of Judaism that tells us we must treat each other with kavod, or respect, owed to each person created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. Everyone is created b’tzelem elohim. With respect for all comes a duty to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity we find in humanity. The assumption that everyone is created b’tzelem elohim additionally claims that all are created in the image of perfection, since God is a perfect being.
I reasoned that to identify as anything other than “straight” with a defined gender role is not identify with a “wrong” gender or sexual identity. It is to discover the perfection in the image of which we are created.
After this crucial first step of self-identification, we can begin to have a discussion of what it all means. Since the dialogue centers on who we are as individuals, we must therefore be exchanging ideas about different facets of perfection. From a Jewish perspective, surely a dialogue about perfection in the eyes of God is holy.
As I have continued my conversations about sex, sexuality, and gender, I have found that my initial avoidance of the topic was simply a fear that I would not be able to handle such a conversation. On one level, this included the emotional weight such a conversation could carry. On a more fundamental level, it was my unease with the very language of GLBTQ issues. When I first began to engage in discussions of gender and sexuality, I feared that my lack of experience with the vocabulary would result in an insult when I simply wanted to know more.
So, while I was recently discussing homosexuality in Lady Gaga’s new music video, “Alejandro,” I was amazed at how easy it had become for me to slip into the vernacular of a discussion on gender and sexuality. I was surprised at how much easier it had become to open up to an exchange of ideas that used to make for an awkward conversation when I’m with my parents or relatives.
And that’s where I was when I knew I was wrong to say I was not affected by others’ identification with various ticks along the spectrums of gender and sexuality. I may not be physically affected by anyone’s gender or sexual identity, but I’m certainly affected in an emotional and spiritual sense.
When I and others are willing to be open about our identities and to communicate our thoughts to one another, it gives us all a chance to practice having the conversations that are necessary to becoming comfortable with such dialogue. It leads me to discover what it means to be a person, and in the eyes of Judaism, what it means to be created b’tzelem elohim.
(Photo: FredoAlvarez)