In an effort to continually raise awareness and celebrate transgender people, GLAAD has conducted interviews with transgender individuals of faith as part of an ongoing series. This series aims to highlight the reality that transgender people exist across many religions and faiths.
Abby Stein is a second year student at Columbia University's School of General Studies studying Gender Studies with a concentration in Political Science. Abby was born and raised within a Chasidic family of rabbinic descent in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, attended Yeshiva, completing a rabbinical degree in 2011. Abby left the Chasidic world to explore different views of life, while struggling with gender identity. A few months ago, she came out as a woman of trans experience, and her goal now is to raise awareness to people going through a similar experience. Her story has since been covered by the New York Times, New York Post, Jewish Daily Forward, Huffington Post, CNN, Fox News, and more. She also founded a support group for trans people of Orthodox backgrounds, and is raising awareness for trans related issues within the Jewish community.
GLAAD: What is your relationship to your faith?
Abby Stein: I currently identify with the liberal, humanistic, Jewish Renewal Movement, where Judaism is seen as a personal spiritual guide towards being a better human being, rather than following commandments from a divine presence. Personally I also identify as a Jewish Atheist, which is that from a philosophical perspective I think that there is no reason to claim that the world has a divine creator, or divine providence. However in ways of relating to something more than surface human level, I connect to an idea of deeper understanding, a connection between all of humanity, and a universal connection with everything in existence. In my experience, the Jewish Tradition as well as the Hasidic Tradition (a mystical Jewish movement founded by my ancestor the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century) via the Neo-Hasidic teachings, offers a lot of insight. In terms of the Ultra-Orthodox faith that I was raised in, I currently fully reject their theology, way of life, and more. I do love their food though...
GLAAD: How has your faith impacted your coming out process/transition?
Abby Stein: In terms of community: Being Jewish helped me immensely in so many ways. They are numerous Jewish LGBT support networks such as Keshet, JQY, Eshel and more, where I found an amazingly supportive community and family. Also my community, Romemu, is one of the most Trans supportive spaces I have ever been in, and the same is true for Footsteps - an organization dedicated to help these leaving the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. Since leaving my community of origin in 2012 I have never been around so many accepting Jews as I have now in Queer spaces. In terms of family: I came out to my father a few days before I went public. It went really bad. He came down to My Rabbi’s house, and we both tried to explain it to him in Jewish context, but he refused to accept it. His beliefs and faith came between us. I have not heard from him, or my mom since. In terms of theology: Orthodox Judaism today is as segregated by gender as a community can be. Guys and girls have nothing in common, from dress, social circles, school, hanging out, and so on. The only women I had a normal conversation with growing up were (myself… and) my mother, sisters (8 of them) and aunts. Even talking with first cousins was considered taboo. However, Jewish tradition had more than two genders. The Talmud has at least six different genders, and Jewish law is full with laws about people that are not fully one way or another in society’s eyes. For me, studying Kabbalah - Jewish Mysticism was the only place where there was actually movement between genders, there is the concept of female souls in male bodies and vice versa.
GLAAD: What do you want to tell to people of faith who do not understand what it means to be transgender, or still hold onto misinformation and stereotypes?
Abby Stein: I think the most important message is that we have to keep in mind what’s the main goal of having faith, and following a religion or relating to a divine presence. There is no doubt that every religion’s (at least says so) goal is to make the follower a better human being, for yourself or to others. Therefore, all you need to know that we are people just like the rest of humanity, and this is who we are, whatever you understand it or now, we are part of humanity and, if you will reject us, it wouldn’t change that fact. In a deeper level, perhaps, it is important to keep in mind the statement of the American constitution: “All men are created equal”. We are all the same, but first we have to be OURSELVES. They are some religious people who believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God who doesn’t make any mistakes [sic]. But trans people are not mistakes. We are perfect just the way we are. Even if we have to go through medical treatment sometimes to be able to live out loud, it is nothing different from anyone else that is going through a medical procedure. Would they claim then that God doesn’t make any mistakes?
GLAAD: What stories or lessons from you faith do you find inspiring as a transgender person?
Abby Stein: They are a lot of them. Most inspiring are these stories of fighting for self-determination that Jewish folklore is filled with. From my great grandfather the Baal Shem Tov they are stories how as a young child he would wander in the wilderness by himself, enraging his teachers, but he felt that there is something missing, something he couldn’t find in his own house. They are Midrashic stories of our traditional forefather Abraham, who rejected his father’s faith because he believed it is wrong, even though that meant a death sentence for him. They are so many stories from people throughout our generations, who were marginalized, beaten and killed for following what they believed to be the truth (a word that I don’t like). This was the biggest lesson I grew up with as an American Jew; Live the life that is true to yourself, and don’t care what others say. With no doubt, that helped me on my journey towards finding and living a life that I can own.
GLAAD: If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
Abby Stein: You are not the only person who feels the way you do, they are other like you, and your feeling are true and valued!