This Is How Trans Jews Survive

March 28, 2024

By Matt Lacoff

Dear Transgender Jew (or ally),

As a trans Jew, myself, I have experienced some of the difficulties as well as moments of joy that come with existing in the intersection of transness and Jewishness. Yet, despite the growing breadth of literature on gay, lesbian, and other queer-identifying Jews, there’s still a gap in materials about trans Jews.  Almost three years ago, I sought to begin this work of teshuvah (returning), to fill in the gap. Here’s how I did it and the takeaways from the interviews, including how we, as trans Jews, stay resilient and find hope. Read on to learn how some trans Jews carve out spaces where our wholeness can thrive.

About the Research

Over the course of a year, I interviewed 45 trans Jews across the U.S. with support from my faculty mentor, Dr. Tennley Vik. I connected with participants through personal referrals and by putting out a call in queer Jewish Facebook groups, Discord servers, and on TikTok. Our conversations ranged from 30 minutes to three hours and frequently led to us sharing intimate and vulnerable stories and telling jokes as though we were old friends, even if it was the first time we had met.

The participants represented a diverse set of racial, ethnic, and gender identities, coming from 17 different states in the U.S. Participants identified with all major U.S. Jewish movements, including Reconstruction, Renewal, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Haredi, and many identified with more than one movement. Only a few participants identified as Orthodox, and only a few as non-Ashkenazi, showing that there is still more research to be done. 

Real-Life Experiences

Jewish spaces can feel unwelcoming to trans people, especially when the space is set up to reinforce the gender binary. A mechitza (separate seating for men and women), gender-segregated events and clubs, rules for who can or must wear tallitot (prayer shawls) and/or kippot (head coverings), and even the bathrooms can all pose barriers to participation for those who are transitioning or are nonbinary.

Brooke (she/her) shared how she was expected to adhere to a male gender role, including wearing a kippa, within her Reform Jewish community: “Everything’s so heavily gendered that it really does force you to pick a side.” 

Ari (they/them) works at a synagogue with no gender-neutral bathrooms, shared, “I usually have to rush home and go to the bathroom afterwards.”

Lack of queer representation in congregational discussions and text studies also can make trans Jews feel alone.

G (they/them) shared,“It’s not easy to tell where I fit into the story of the Jewish People. I have to keep working to make a place for myself.” 

Trans Jews also face the very real threat of being completely cast out or isolated from our communities. This is especially — but not exclusively — true in Orthodox communities. 

Feygele (she/her), who has not come out to much of her community as a woman, shared, “There are rumors about me in Haredi communities about mishkav zachar (men lying with other men). Now it’s hard, because people are calling me and really trying to pressure me into marriage, because their thought is that marriage solves everything.”

X (they/them) explained that they have had to distance themself from their Orthodox family and community: “Hearing all the talk among Jewish people about how transgender people aren’t real, ‘it’s all in their heads.’ I’ve had arguments with family members about the Torah’s view on gender and sexuality…I know there are definitely Jewish communities that would accept my identity, but the Orthodox community would not.”

Outside of Jewish communities, trans Jews may experience a different set of barriers in queer spaces, because of their religion.

As Vik (they/them) put it, “Many queer people especially have suffered religious trauma, especially in America…and unfortunately, these people tend to put their religious Christian trauma on the rest of us.” 

Some of the people I talked to felt singled out and questioned about their stance on Israel, regardless of their age, expertise, or personal connection or views on Israel:

Feygele (she/her) shared that people online revoked their donations towards her medical care when they found out she was going to be attending yeshiva (religious school or college) in Israel, even though she does not identify as a Zionist: “They knew that I was Jewish and they then assumed that I had a type of politic about me, and then used it to try and discriminate against me [regarding] access to medical care. That’s evil, and it didn’t matter that I was brown, and it didn’t matter that I was trans.” 

If you’re a trans Jew who knows these experiences personally, you’re not alone. There are queer and trans Jews across the nation facing the same obstacles. On this Trans Day of Visibility, I want to remind you and every single trans Jew that we don’t just deserve to survive but to THRIVE. With our resilience and strength, we’ll create a world where no trans Jew has to feel this way. 

Finding the Good

While trans Jews face obstacles to our very existence, we also know there is divine joy in being our full selves. I asked survey participants what wisdom they wanted to share with other trans and nonbinary Jews. These are their tips for creating spaces of joy and how they find hope:

  • Always prioritize your safety.
  • There are so many people and communities who will respect, love, and support you, even if there are some that do not.
  • Being in community with other LGBTQ+ Jews will bring you joy, comfort, and a lot of laughter. Find and befriend other queer and trans Jews, whether in person or online. This is necessary for survival.
  • Learn about queer Jewish history and look for queer representation in our religious texts.
  • You don’t have to affiliate with a movement or limit yourself to just one.
  • You do not have to come out if you aren’t ready or if your current environment is not safe to do so.
  • Find joy in the beauty of being your authentic self. Savor it.

Even as a young trans Jew, I can speak to how hard it is to be my authentic self in this world. Before I started my transition, I couldn’t imagine life past 22. I felt like being trans would make it impossible for me to have a career, a committed relationship, and all the other trappings of an adult life. But I can happily say that I was wrong. My life is not perfect, no one’s is, but I am happy in my own skin and I have hope for the future. It is possible.

There may be times when you think that you will never be able to live openly, happily, and safely as your full trans self. But you deserve the radical joy that comes when you find community, role models, and all the love you need. You are a blessing on this earth and exactly the person you were meant to be. I love you.

Happy Trans Day of Visibility,

Matt Lacoff

Matt Lacoff (he/him) graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2023, where he studied Communication Studies, Japanese, and Music. He now works for San Francisco Hillel as a Jewish education specialist. You can find him on Tiktok @matthewinthehatthew.