I’m sure when I was born, my parents expected me to become a good Roman Catholic girl, but I guess we can’t always get what we want or what we expect. Instead, I grew up to be a good Jewish boy, likely breaking my parents’ hearts in the process.
People love to ask me why I transitioned or why I converted, as if any of this was some form of choice that I actually made for myself. Neither truly was. I have always found the term Jew by Choice is a misnomer and certainly the LGBT population has never been known to have a significant choice in the matter.
Like many transgender people, I knew from a young age that I was not the gender others assigned to me. Everyone always asks, “How did you know?” Well, how does anyone know? How does a cisgender male know he is actually a male? A cisgender female, a female? I myself was somewhat tomboyish and the fights we had over dresses could have gone down in history, wearing dresses or acting like the other girls was just not in my nature.
Due to my transgender behaviour, and of course never-ending question-asking, found me excommunicated at age 8 from the church. Hurtful things were said to me by many devout Christians, which should have been said to no one.
In all fairness, I hated the church. Growing up in South Florida was almost like growing up in New York City. I felt more at home with the many Jewish friends my parents both had. The Jews seemed to care little about my unusual behaviour, they cared more that I was a good person. After a few years of soul-searching, I started pursuing conversion at 14 and I approached a Conservative rabbi.
I knew tradition dictated a prospective convert needed to be turned away. I was aware of the fact that I had to be turned away. So I was turned away. Once. Twice. Three times. Then I started to ponder as to if they were supposed to accept on the third or the fourth, so I asked two more times as perhaps I miscounted. I learned it was not my age he was concerned about, it was my behaviour. There was a fear that I was really a lesbian due to my attitude and walk, and the rabbi just could not make another gay Jew. The best I could ever hope to be was a Noahide and probably not even that. The problem is, I loved tradition and had an internal sense that Conservative towards Orthodoxy fulfilled my need for traditions and rituals while giving me the structure I enjoyed. The only thing that bothered me about even Orthodoxy was the segregation of men and women during prayer and issues with skirts making up the bulk of an Orthodox woman’s closet.
The rabbi’s words hurt. As far as I was concerned, this was evidence that HaShem hated me. I was already being rejected and insulted by many of my classmates for the same reason, so what is one more person hating me? It seemed HaShem was just like his Christian counterpart and I could not handle that the G-d of my friends also hated me.
For the next 15 years, I entered into this strange love hate relationship with Judaism. I both wanted it close to me, but knew I would get hurt and pushed it far away. I would study intensively and then remember what that rabbi said, cry, and then I would stop for a time when the pain became too great. I resolved to stop thinking about converting to Judaism and for a time I was embarrassed about even entertaining such a thought.
I really didn’t think about conversion again, I was too distracted by transition. It was not until I was on an LGBT panel at Emory and a medical student asked, “How did your sexuality impact your spirituality?” I did not give the full answer and as soon as I skipped over my “Jewish phase,” the guilt became unbearable. I am certain I heard HaShem ask if I was embarrassed and perhaps it was time to come home. The guilt I felt made me realise maybe it is time to return to Judaism. Maybe I needed to transition first and to accept myself as a man before I could even entertain the thought of converting.
Just a little over a year from that LGBT panel, and having been rejected by five more rabbis, did I finally make it to the mikvah with lucky rabbi number 7 on my 31st birthday. I was finally home and my conversion certificate was my first document identifying me as male. People can say what they want about the Reform movement, but I will always remember it was a Reform rabbi who set aside the transsexuality and was willing to take a chance on me. I will always be grateful.
Since converting, my transsexuality has been almost a non-issue. In fact, since I have always been more towards the traditional end of the spectrum, my tzitzit are more frequently made fun of than my transsexuality.
Despite the liberal conversion, I was still traditional. I did not know how to function as an observant transsexual Jew or even if it was possible. It was only in a comment during a Webyeshiva class where I learned that there were other genders in Judaism besides the primary two and I decided to investigate it further. Luckily, during this time, I went on a wonderful Israel trip with “A Wider Bridge” and met other LGBT Orthodox Jews who became such good role models that I suddenly realized there was no conflict between being traditionally-minded and transsexual.
While the community has been good to me since I converted, there are still needs that are not being met. I, for one, am still working out the halacha about what would happen if I converted to Orthodoxy, had a child and how I would explain my status to the child? Would Orthodoxy insist I start dressing as a woman and stop laying tefillin? Would they state I had to move to the women’s side of the mechitza even if I had a full beard?
My journey is still ongoing and I hope you will come with me as I tell you more about my journey.
Melvin Marsh, who prefers to use his Hebrew name Mordechai Yisrael, is a "Reformadox" female to male transsexual interested in the Halacha of sex and gender. He currently lives in Augusta, Ga where he is attending medical school.