Max Guttman wanted to grow up to be a rabbi. But, as Guttman got older, one aspect of going to synagogue became a dreaded ritual: dressing up.
Or, in Guttman’s case, putting on a dress.
“As a kid I always felt like I was a boy, but I never really verbalized it,” said Guttman. “I really identified with the word ‘tomboy.’”
Everyone said it was a phase, but it wasn’t. Now 22, Guttman, a Rockville native who lives in Boston, identifies as nonbinary transgender and uses the pronouns ze/zir/zirs, not he or she, pronouns which denote gender. Guttman does not identify with female gender, as ze was assigned at birth, or with the idea that people are necessarily male or female. Guttman said ze is somewhere in between.
There are 1.4 million people in the United States who identify as transgender, according to a 2016 survey by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. And issues surrounding transgender rights have moved to the center of national dialogue. Danica Roem, a transgender woman, last week became the first transgender person elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Last month, a federal judge blocked a potential ban on transgender individuals serving in the military that President Donald Trump announced in July.
All in time for Nov. 20, also known as Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day observed for those who have been murdered for being transgender — 25 so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which is up from previous years. Bet Mishpachah, an egalitarian LGBTQ congregation in Washington, is holding a special Shabbat Nov. 17.
Because they are a small segment of the population and because they have until recently been largely ignored — or worse — by the mainstream, transgender individuals often have created their own communities. At the same time, they’re demanding to be seen by the mainstream. That includes in the Jewish community.
And the Jewish community is responding, said Dubbs Weinblatt, education and training manager for Keshet, a national Jewish LGBTQ organization. There is a movement in Jewish institutions to include trans people and make them comfortable, added Weinblatt, who identifies as genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns.
“Because of the political climate, it’s nice to know Jewish institutions are stepping up and we can turn to our Jewish community to feel safe,” Weinblatt said.
Being inclusive doesn’t have to be a big overhaul, according to Weinblatt. It can mean adding “gender identity” to a group’s inclusion mission. It can mean updating forms to include more gender options or using “partner” instead of “husband” and “wife.” It can also mean working to adapt Jewish rituals with less focus on gender.
Societal expectations can create shame for those who feel they don’t fit a certain mold, especially with “such a core piece of who we are” like gender, said Rabbi Laurie Green of Bet Mishpachah.
That makes the support of the Jewish community so important, she said. “We need to be able to bring our whole selves to our spiritual lives.”
Bet Mishpachah is where Ian Brown and Davi LaBarre found their spiritual community. Though separated by three and a half decades, Brown and LaBarre have a lot in common — military service, for one thing. LaBarre, 72, a trans woman, was closeted while serving as a man in the Army as a veterinarian. Brown, 37, a trans man, has been able to serve openly as a man while stationed at the Pentagon as an executive officer.
LaBarre, who now lives in Gaithersburg, converted to Judaism in her 20s for her first marriage, to a Jewish woman from an Orthodox family. They divorced after 19 years, LaBarre remarried, to a non-Jewish woman, and she drifted away from Judaism.
She didn’t necessarily plan to come out at all, but hiding just got too hard. She had so many low points and contemplated suicide.
“This had been a struggle ever since I was a little kid,” she said. “I sort of came to a crisis. It was just a matter of trying to get through life and ignore a lot of things that were wrong. And I was very good at that.”
It was YouTube videos that pushed her over the edge four years ago. If these people can come out, why couldn’t she?
“I felt I had to do it,” she said. “There was just no choice. The light just went on.”
And it lit up many paths. She started to live as a woman, and also reconnected to Judaism — something that had been there since she converted, she said, but had ignored. She started attending services at Bet Mishpachah, which she found just by Googling. She took up meditation and yoga at the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington at Adas Israel Congregation.
Her transformation? In a word: “Amazing,” she said.
“People have told me I’m totally different now. It’s night and day, actually,” she said. “I wasted so much time.”
She hopes to have a naming ceremony or bat mitzvah equivalent in the near future — “definitely before I croak off” — to enshrine her identity as a Jewish woman.
Rituals were less important to Brown, who was already going by Ian when he finished his conversion to Judaism under Green after moving to Washington last year. His Hebrew name, Yochanan Micha, is based on his current name and identity.
Unlike LaBarre, Brown had identified with the LGBTQ community for a while, but as a more traditionally masculine gay woman. As he traveled the world with the Army, exploring different cultures and joining different communities, he was finally able to put language to what he was feeling.
“In 2015, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is it,’” he said. “And then I became able to vocally identify, ‘Yeah, I am trans and these are my pronouns.’”
It was while living in Japan for two years that Brown started to seek out and participate in the Jewish community.
“I’ve always been drawn to Judaism,” he said. “I couldn’t really explain it. I was so intimidated by all of it, but still was like, ‘Well, I need to figure out what this is,’ because I’m still not settled in my spirit.”
Like LaBarre, Brown’s trans and Jewish identities came together around the same time. He started living off-duty as a man and started the conversion process to Judaism in Japan.
“I never found that my Judaism and how I practiced and how I observed conflicted with my trans identity, my queer identity,” Brown said. “It was one of the few places I felt totally accepted.”
It took a little more reckoning with their Jewish roots for Guttman and Dana Beyer.
Beyer, 65, knew who she was from a young age, but also knew it wasn’t who she was supposed to be.
“I knew who I was at 7,” she said. “My earliest memory was of being a little girl watching TV and wondering why I didn’t look like [the girls on screen].”
She attended a yeshiva in New York and loved it, but also felt like her participation as a Jewish boy was built on a lie. It was an incredibly painful tension, she said, especially around her bar mitzvah.
And so being closeted put some spiritual distance between her and Judaism. Still, she built a life for herself — became a doctor, got married, had kids.
“I worked myself almost to death and then crashed and had to confront who I was,” she said.
The coming out process was long and difficult, but now, with more than two decades’ perspective on it, she feels it was the best thing she ever did.
“I came out to everyone and it turned out they liked me better,” she said. “It’s so much better just being myself. It’s really striking how much has changed.”
Before her surgery as a part of her transition, Beyer met with her rabbi. She was nervous and had a whole speech prepared, but he surprised her. He had just one question: Would she still be as involved with the synagogue?
“I see it as my role to be out in the Jewish community,” she said, adding that she is especially proud of the work she did in helping the Conservative movement to affirm its trans congregants. “It’s not about your identity, but what you contribute to that particular person or that particular community.”
After a career as an eye surgeon, Beyer wanted to focus on helping those coming out after her. Beyer, who lives in Chevy Chase, is executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, a transgender equality organization, and also on the board of Keshet.
She has run for office three times and has just filed for her fourth — running for Maryland Senate in District 18 — and she’s optimistic after Roem’s election earlier this month.
It’s important to her to “[make] queer Jews feel comfortable in the Jewish community and [to help] the Jewish community feel comfortable with queer Jews,” she said. “I think the Jewish community, of all faith communities, is a leader in [acceptance].”
That acceptance brought Guttman back into the Jewish fold. Growing up, ze attended B’nai Shalom of Olney with zir parents, but the cost — in mental and emotional turmoil — of participation became too high.
“The High Holidays were always a source of tension for me,” Guttman said. “Finding me a High Holidays outfit was a big production for my mom and me.”
But it turned out to be the High Holidays that pointed Guttman back to Judaism. During junior year in 2014 at Macalester College in Minnesota — and by that time, ze had come out — Guttman was offered the chance to blow the shofar for the High Holidays by the campus rabbi.
“I went and was like, ‘Oh right, I really like this,’” Guttman said. “It was like, ‘Oh, if you can feel comfortable here, you can feel comfortable with [Judaism].’”
It was Guttman’s dad who suggested a naming ceremony at the family’s hometown synagogue. They decided to do it the Shabbat after Thanksgiving in 2015.
“My baby cousin was there and everyone thought, oh, it’s for him,” Guttman said. “And then a 20-year-old kid walked up.”
Guttman said it marked a renewed participation in Jewish life.
For Guttman, Beyer, Brown and LaBarre, identity was a difficult thing to pin down. Sometimes, it just takes a leap of faith.