Building a Community of Belonging in Your Gender Affinity Space

Explore ways to make your gender affinity space more inclusive and welcoming, and a safe environment for trans and nonbinary community members.

May 24, 2024

At Keshet, we regularly receive questions about how to include trans and nonbinary people in Jewish community, including traditionally gendered social spaces such as Men’s Clubs, Sisterhoods, and Women’s Rosh Chodesh groups.

While many Jewish communities have become more inclusive, there is work to be done to build communal spaces and a world where every person feels not just included but like they belong. As Jewish communities become more aware of the great diversity in gender identity and expression of our members, we at Keshet are often asked how best to include transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people in existing gendered spaces.

What can gendered spaces look like in the age of trans belonging?

This guide offers ways staff, community lay leaders, and other folks involved in the creation of Jewish communal spaces can better evaluate their purpose, programs, and events. This guide is not meant to erase gender from Jewish communities, but rather to create intentional spaces of belonging for all different genders. 

This guide provides suggested group guidelines and language considerations for spaces of belonging. To review the LGBTQ+ language used in this guide, please see Keshet’s terminology guide

 

What are gender affinity spaces and what is their purpose?

Many communities have clubs or societies that convene people around shared interests or identities, commonly referred to as affinity groups. For instance, a synagogue may have a gathering for young professionals or an “empty nesters” group. Affinity groups are often created by and for people who share a historically underrepresented or marginalized identity in society. These are valuable spaces for people to socialize, share, process common experiences, and make change through advocacy together. 

Affinity spaces can be powerful, as synagogue Sisterhoods demonstrate. Women’s spaces were historically created as a means of accessing synagogue life that was not readily available to them because of their gender. Today, many Sisterhoods provide essential services to community members and support advocacy efforts, such as safeguarding reproductive rights. 

We encourage spaces like Sisterhoods and Brotherhoods to continue to grow and thrive by creating the conditions for the inclusion of transgender and nonbinary people. 

 

Questions and Considerations for Gendered Spaces

When hosting a gendered space, consider the following questions:

1. Who is this space for, and why? How do people know?

Women’s spaces were developed as a response to a rising awareness of how women are marginalized because of their gender. Consider how this relates to people who hold marginalized gender identities, like transgender people and nonbinary people. When it comes to gender equity, how do we make sure that all folks who identify with the gender of the space, have a seat at the table?

A good first step is evaluating whether transgender men and transgender women are already welcome in your mens and women’s spaces. Men’s and women’s spaces need to include transgender men and women, respectively, because trans men are men and trans women are women. We often hear from organizers of gendered groups who feel that being a “women’s group” or a “men’s group” already implies that transgender women or transgender men are welcome; however, many transgender men and transgender women face tremendous discrimination and exclusion from gendered spaces. It is therefore often important to make explicit that people of transgender and cisgender experience are celebrated in a given space. 

While there are many transgender men and transgender women, many transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people are neither men nor women. For some nonbinary and gender expansive people, gendered spaces such as sisterhoods or men’s clubs can be affirming and provide many of the benefits of an affinity space, while for others, membership in binary single-gender spaces will not feel affirming.  When considering membership guidelines for nonbinary and gender expansive people, we need to consider the broad range of identities that are part of these communities. We will explore some of those considerations later in this guide.

Understanding and utilizing the terms and language associated with these marginalized identities—like these gender-inclusive language and pronouns, along with terms that group members use to describe themselves—also helps to describe the space to potential members. 

2. Is your space explicitly accessible and welcoming to all members of their respective gender?

Diversity exists within every space, even if it’s not visible or obvious. When creating spaces, keep intersectionality in mind, as you ensure the group is welcoming to People of Color, people with disabilities, people of interfaith backgrounds, LGTBQ+ people, and people of other marginalized identities.

Even within diverse spaces, gender discrimination is distinct for each individual experiencing it. For instance, a transgender woman will have a different experience than a cisgender woman, and it’s important to recognize how and why this discrimination takes place, if we’re going to create a welcoming and affirming space. 

Just as we recognize that gender discrimination is different for trans women versus cis women, we should also recognize how oppression affects each of these particular identities. Spaces of true belonging acknowledge each person’s experience, without diminishing others’.

3. What gendered expectations and stereotypes may exist within the group? What are you doing to combat these stereotypes and create new expectations?

Is your Sisterhood responsible for quilting community service projects? Does the Brotherhood build your sukkah and run the barbecue, while the Sisterhood owns food preparation and clean up? Do you assume that every man in the Men’s Club is married to a woman?

Where did these assumed roles come from? How might these gendered expectations limit the group? How might these stereotypes keep people from participating fully or at all?

We suggest revisiting the goals of the group regularly, especially when new folks join. Creating expectations together, that are not based on binary beliefs about gender (such as the idea that there are only two genders and everyone fits into one of two categories), can be an effective way to avoid stereotypes and bond as a group.

 

Addressing Concerns

When we discuss including the transgender community in gendered spaces, we often encounter concerns about safety, comfort, and scarcity of resources. This concern can apply to both men’s and women’s groups, but we see this fear mostly come up surrounding trans inclusion in women’s spaces.

Jewish women have long been part of feminist movements across the world, advocating for women’s equality and inclusion. Now that there is more awareness and understanding of transgender and nonbinary people, many women’s groups continue to fight for justice while also working towards liberation of all marginalized genders.

What could this look like in practice? Here’s an example often raised to us on this topic:

A Sisterhood decides to adjust their policy to also allow trans women and nonbinary members. Some cisgender women in the group feel uncomfortable. Many may feel anxiety over loss of their space.

By focusing on what is “lost” in this situation, those involved may  lose sight of the community work possible as the policy changes, driving a wedge between groups that would benefit from working together. 

Instead, practice thinking through a lens of abundance. Rather than perpetuating a sense of competition, we ask, “What are our points of unity? What would it look like if we could all have what we need?”

Furthermore, in this scenario it is important to distinguish between a “safe space” versus a “brave space.” Safe spaces prioritize emotional comfort, while brave spaces encourage us to confront our discomfort. Discomfort is not an inherently negative or bad thing, but can indicate growth, and is essential to our work in creating community.

When creating guidelines for membership, think about whose comfort is being prioritized. Does someone’s comfort come at the expense of another’s? Does this comfort prevent someone from joining who could truly benefit from the space?

One person’s experience of discrimination doesn’t rule out another’s. We can use these shared moments to find ways to connect and join together.

 

Proposed Language for Gendered Spaces

Gendered spaces must also address whether they are open to nonbinary and gender nonconforming folks. No community is completely homogenous; some nonbinary and gender nonconforming people will want to be included in a gendered space, others will not be interested.

We recommend erring on the side of making the space available for nonbinary and gender nonconforming people if they so choose to attend. It’s better to offer the option and not have folks be interested, than to exclude one individual who might want to join in the future.

For any space, make sure there’s a group understanding that gender presentation or expression does not determine how a person might identify or what group they may choose to join. This means that, for instance, an attendee of a men’s space may have a feminine gender expression. You can learn more about gender expression versus identity, and other terms, in our resource library.

Here are real-life examples of communities’ membership guidelines for their gendered spaces. Feel free to use these examples as inspiration when crafting language for your groups:

  • “Rosh Chodesh in our community is a gender inclusive space that welcomes women, transgender, and gender nonconforming folks.” 
  • “The Kavod Masculinities Group welcomes people who are called to explore their own masculinity in community with men and masculine-identified folks. We gather in the hopes of building more connected and open relationships, encouraging self-reflection and mutual accountability, and building positive behaviors and culture.”
  • “We understand Women of Holy Blossom to be an affinity space for those who seek female experiences and are comfortable centering female voices and needs. Yet, within every affinity space, there is diversity regarding the many ways in which we identify, including gender. Whatever gender identity one brings to the WHB affinity space is an asset to WHB.” [This community worked with Keshet on their affinity space guidelines, and this page on their website reflects their learnings and conclusions.] 
  • “Our Men’s Club is designed as an affinity space for men who wish to come together around a shared identity and constellation of experiences and to make our temple and the world a better place. We celebrate men of cisgender and transgender experience, and strive to be a space where all men can fully belong.”
  • “Our Sisterhood is unabashedly feminist and centers the voices and needs of women. It is open to women of cisgender and transgender experience, as well as to nonbinary and gender-expansive individuals who wish to be part of a space centering women’s voices and experiences.”

 

Resource Access Not Based on Gender Categories

If your community has gendered spaces, it is important to also have spaces for connection that are not based on the gender binary. 

 There should also be similar non-gendered opportunities for socialization, support, mentorship, that a person of any gender identity can access. There is nothing wrong with having gendered spaces in your community; but we advise against binary gender being the primary way that organizations arrange social and communal spaces. Gender is one among many ways that people might find community, commonality, and connection. 

Some questions to consider:

  • Are there ways to plan and attend programming and join leadership positions other than through gendered groups? 
  • Are there affinity groups arranged around identities other than gender (age/stage of life, professional categories, interests, etc.)?
  • Do these other groups and programs receive the same types of resources and attention that the gendered groups do? 

An Alternative: Themed Spaces

Another option for your community is to reframe gendered spaces so that they are organized around themes, rather than only being open to those with certain gender identities. For instance:

  • A Rosh Chodesh group as a monthly gathering focused on Feminism in Judaism, open to all
  • A “Feminist Seder” open to all gender identities
  • A “reproductive justice” task force instead of a group just for cisgender women’s rights, since people of all gender identities and expressions can get pregnant and are impacted by abortion bans

 

Moving Forward 

For some communities, the above recommendations may already be instituted, to various degrees. For other communities, adapting this guide will require more substantial change. This type of change can be new or even uncomfortable. You can ground these changes in your community’s existing values. Instead of viewing these changes as potential challenges, you can reframe them as new ways to accomplish your community’s existing mission. For example, building spaces for LGBTQ+ belonging promotes many Jewish values that may already be present in your mission statement, such as al tifrosh min hatsibur (do not separate from the community) and v’ahavta l’reicaha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself).

There is no “one size fits all” policy when approaching gendered groups and affinity spaces, and it may take some time to land on the guidelines that best fit your community. Allow yourself to be flexible, adaptable, and open to adjusting the policies over time. We especially encourage you to collect feedback and get folks involved in the creation and leading of their own spaces.

If you would like additional guidance regarding LGBTQ+ terminology and/or how to navigate these spaces, please reach out to Keshet for a training or consultation.

We hope this guide helps you and your communities build a world in which Jews of all genders can fully participate in Jewish life.