Posted by: Emily | 20 November 2012

Toldot: Voices and Transgender Day of Remembrance

This is the d’var torah (discourse) I gave to my Jewish community at my synagogue this past Shabbat. A d’var torah is based around a theme in the week’s Torah portion in the annual cycle of readings, which last week was the portion Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9). We were commemorating Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is today, 20 November. In this d’var torah I explain some of my problems with the commemoration, as well as how, for me, the issues faced by many trans* people today have some ancient parallels in this week’s portion.

[Trigger warning for strong and explicit language, discussion of body image issues, allusions to assault, and death.]

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Gen. 27:22)

So says Isaac to his son Jacob, dressed up in Esau drag, as he, a visually impaired man at the end of his life, tries to determine which of his two sons stands before him requesting his blessing. The rabbis raise an objection to this story. My question is this: was it really possible that Isaac was fooled? Rebecca conspires with Jacob to ensure that the father’s blessing will go to her favored son. She dresses up Jacob in Esau’s clothing, and puts goat skins on her son to simulate Esau’s hairy body, but ultimately the performance must be put on by Jacob himself. He fools him on touch, on behavior, on external appearances, but can the visually impaired Isaac really not tell his sons apart based on their voice? The Midrash—ancient Rabbinic exegesis and commentary—answers the only way it really can, with the goal of preserving the story as written: Esau’s and Isaac’s voices really were so similar that they couldn’t be distinguished in sound only.

I would challenge this question and push it even further. Is it possible that Isaac couldn’t tell that the hair on his son’s body felt like goat hair rather than human hair? Why didn’t he give his son a Turing test, and say, “Tell me something only Esau could know?” If their voices are truly so similar, Isaac and his sons have presumably had to have this kind of conversation before. This can’t be the first time in the family’s history he’s had to ask which one of his sons he’s talking to. So shouldn’t he have known what his son’s hands felt like? Why are their methods for determining who they are so easily subverted?

One major theme of this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, is deception. The tension between appearance and reality figures very prominently in the way the Torah tells the story of the third generation of Abraham’s family. First we get the story of how Jacob convinces his brother—tricks him, really—to sell him his birthright for a mess of pottage. We get a close repeat of two earlier stories about Abraham and Sarah, when Isaac passes his wife Rebecca off as his sister in the land of the Philistines, so they won’t kill him out of jealousy for her beauty. And, of course, there’s the famous story here, about the deception Rebecca and Jacob play on Isaac to ensure the blessing goes to the “right” son.

After he is deprived of the blessing which should be rightfully his, Esau cries out that his brother has deceived him twice: first with the birthright, now with the blessing. The Torah gives Esau a play on words here: the Hebrew root ayin–qof–bet means “heel”, and was the source of Jacob’s name ya’akov, since he came out second grasping his twin brother’s heel, but it also means “to trick” or “to deceive”, as Esau says here: va-ya’k’veini, “he tricked me” or perhaps even “he Jacobed me”. Esau is upset with his father for falling for Jacob’s deception, for not being able to tell which son stood before him, by not being able to tell appearance from reality.

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Like Jacob and Esau, our histories are written all over our bodies. My scars, the scars on my transgender body, my transgender hands, tell the history of my identity. The scars on my transgender voice speak that living history.

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Not every trans person has this particular experience, but I have always suffered from some form of dysmorphia—the feeling that my body wasn’t correct, somehow, even if I was too young to understand exactly how to express it—but it wasn’t until two Wednesdays ago that I was hit with any significant dysphoria regarding my voice. I had volunteered to read the Torah portion at the First Annual Jewish Transgender Gathering in Berkeley, but a few days beforehand a feeling of utter despair hit me. My voice, which I thought I’d made my peace with, was about an octave too low, and there wasn’t really anything I could do about it. Certainly not on that short a time frame; probably not ever.

I asked some of my friends who are trans women, and they directed me to some resources: classes, lessons, videos, with instruction about how to “feminize” your voice. Hormones don’t help, because you can’t shorten the length of the vocal cord again once it’s grown and stretched due to testosterone. All my friends disagreed on what had worked for them: it’s all in the range, said one. No, said another, it’s all in the breathing. A third said it’s all in the words you choose, and the way you deliver them. I let them fight that issue out while I went to go check out some of the websites and programs.

So much of what these programs had to say revolved rhetorically around the idea of “passing”: minimizing situations where you’ll get “read” as trans, or worse, “really a guy”. You can look the part all you want, is the message, but if you haven’t got the voice to go with it, you’re going to get read. “You’ve got the looks, but not the voice,” started one program’s copy, and concluded with the following line: “And now, my clients can finally express themselves as the women they always were!”

What a poisonous statement: to imply that I am not capable of expressing myself as the woman that I am now, simply because fourteen years of exposure to testosterone have left me with a voice slightly below the range of most cis women. But what really stuck in my craw was the notion that if I didn’t “pass” I was somehow “less than”, I wasn’t worth anyone’s time, I would never be taken seriously. I posted this to one of the support groups I had helped found, and what resulted was an explosion.

I was told that trans women who are our “community leaders” but who don’t devote sufficient energy to working on their voices and making themselves more “passable” are not only not doing themselves any favors, they’re actually doing the rest of us a personal disservice. They are setting the cause back by not being as palatable to cisnormative society. I’ve been told that when I go out, looking like I do and expecting people to call me by my correct name and pronouns, I am actually making things harder for other people. “When you do that, you’re making it harder for those of us who put so much effort into their appearance and voice to be taken seriously.” “You’re letting the side down.”

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Deception. Trickery. And what’s worse, we trans people are so very, very practiced at internalizing this transmisogyny and self-hatred. We weaponize it and turn it against ourselves. We are deceivers by means of these tools. We trick society, we trick each other, we trick ourselves.

Julia Serano, a noted trans woman activist, biologist, and author, wrote one of the foundational texts of transfeminism, a book called Whipping Girl. It’s not without its flaws, but it makes several very important contributions to feminism and gender studies in general. She notes that in our society, as a trans women, especially in media coverage, you will be shunted into one of two roles: either the “pathetic transsexual”—the “oh, isn’t that sweet, he really thinks he’s a woman” archetype—or the “deceptive transsexual”—the “just waiting to commit rape or worse because he’s really still a guy with a penis” archetype. Think of the trans women in Transamerica and Ace Ventura as examples of the two sides of this trope in the media, and then think of any other media coverage of trans women and you will see these tropes at work.

But it goes beyond representations of trans people in the media: this is a function of trans lived experience. To transgress the societally sanctioned normative boundaries is to commit an act of deception against society, against the individuals you come into contact with. But either way, your gender is not real, and your identity is a deception. You are not real. You are practicing an unforgivable deceit upon the world if you are thought to possess the voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau.

If you don’t “pass”—and even if you do—it’s your own fault when you get called names. “Tranny.” “Shemale.” “Chicks with dicks.” “That’s really a guy.”

If you don’t “pass”—and even if you do—it’s your own fault when you get hurt. “If you sit next to her, it makes you gay.” “Thank god I didn’t sleep with her, because that would really have made me gay.” “Yeah, bro, can you imagine?”

If you don’t “pass”—and even if you do—it’s your own fault when you get killed. “She had it coming because I didn’t know she had a dick.” “Tranny fag.” “The world’s better off without her.”

If you don’t “pass”—and even if you do—it’s your fault simply for existing. “You should have disclosed.” “You can’t blame them for being men.” “Boys will be boys.” “Not guilty by reason of they didn’t know it was actually a guy.”

As much as I can avoid it, I don’t go in public washrooms, especially when I’m presenting femme or even just wearing a skirt. It’s not safe: if I go in the women’s washroom, I risk getting yelled at and called a rapist, and if I go in the men’s washroom, I risk getting beaten up. The security officer at San Francisco airport took an extra few minutes to feel me up fairly roughly because he read me as male but my driver’s license says female, and my breasts became the subject of a federal investigation. I’ve been called ugly things on the street and in restaurants, had insults thrown at me from strangers passing by in cars. I walk home the long way when it’s dark because it’s better lit than the short way. A few weeks ago a random guy on the subway put his arm around me and started to rub my neck and shoulders.

“With the skins of the kids of goats [did she] cover his arms and his smooth-skinned neck … and Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Come close, please, and let me feel you, my son, so that I may tell whether you are indeed my son Esau or not.'” (Gen. 27:16, 21)

Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Verbal abuse. “Bitch.” “Whore.” “Faggot.” “Cunt.” “Pussy.” “Slut.” “Tranny.”

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Our society allows this to happen. We do it, and then we give it our approval. The “trans panic defense” can work in court. The killers of Gwen Araujo deadlocked a jury with it. CeCe McDonald is currently serving 41 months for the crime of defending herself against assault. Roseanne Barr and Cathy Brennan recently teamed up to yell at me on Twitter and call me awful things simply because I’m trans, but Brennan has done far worse: outing a transgender teenager to his high school in the name of “safety” and—honest to goodness—”feminism”. “Women should have the right to go to the bathroom without fear of getting raped!” Yes, I completely agree. But I disagree that the only reason that I, a trans woman, could possibly want to go into a bathroom is to rape someone.

And who bears the brunt of this transphobia, this senseless hatred? More than just transgender people, or even transgender women, but disproportionately so, it’s transgender women of color. When we talk about Transgender Day of Remembrance and fail to recognize that the people most at risk in this way are transgender women of color, we allow ourselves to colonize and appropriate their identities to serve our own. When we talk about the senselessness of their deaths, it must be with the promise of addressing the intersectional challenges that they and we face: racism, classism, ableism, sexism, transphobia, transmisogyny. Nothing operates in a vacuum, but it’s still a revelation to many people that oppression can exist along multiple axes. Failure to see that is called privilege, and it can be blinding. And too often, Transgender Day of Remembrance is co-opted by privileged people, well-meaning or not, and subverted to make the deaths of these individuals—in large part, trans women of color—transactional and cheap. Trans guys who make it a “let’s have a celebration!” day—like having a dance party, of all inappropriate things—or cis folks who do all the organizing and can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce the names of the trans women of color whose deaths they’re supposedly commemorating, or even just white trans women like me who don’t acknowledge these issues and actively work to overcome them—we let our privilege blind us, and we become part of the problem here.

Monica Maldonado, a queer Latina trans woman activist, puts it this way: “It’s a day where trans women of colour have greater value dead than we do alive.”

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Earlier this week, I woke up to find myself on the front page of the Jewish Daily Forward. I have several dozen unread emails sitting in my inbox from friends, media, and the rest of it. Some I’m sure is positive, and some I’m sure isn’t so positive. Like it or not, I am suddenly finding myself in that position of community leadership. And I’ll be honest: it terrifies me. I’m terrified of the external transphobia and the external dangers, and I’m terrified of these same things when they’re internalized by my own “community”. I barely know who I am, and I don’t yet know how to move through the world—not as a woman, not even as a trans woman, not as a person with disabilities, not as a friend or a lover or even simply as myself.

I haven’t yet found my own voice. And yet, in a very real sense, the one I’ve got is still the exact same one I always had. Two Wednesdays ago, all of a sudden I discovered that I feel a touch disconnected from the speaking voice I possess. My “community” tells me I should not like it, and I certainly should not expect to get anywhere in terms of community leadership with it. Add that to the fact that I don’t know what my metaphorical voice is like yet, really—and suddenly both paths to self-expression have now become paths to deceit: deceit of myself, and deceit of the world. I was doubly silenced, both of my voices gone, deceived two times.

“[Esau] said, ‘Is it because his name was called Jacob, that he deceived me these two times? He took my birthright away, and look, he has now taken my blessing away! Have you kept no blessing in reserve for me?’ Isaac answered and said to Esau, ‘Look, I have made him a lord over you, and all his kin I have given him as servants, I have supported him with grain and wine—but for you, where or what can I do, my son?’ Esau said to his father, ‘Don’t you have even one blessing, father? Bless me too, father!’ And Esau raised his voice and cried.” (Gen. 27:36–38)

I began with a problem the Midrash raises: was it really possible that Isaac was fooled by the deception? The Midrash answers, in order to preserve the story as written, that the voices of Jacob and Esau were indeed so similar that they couldn’t be told apart in sound only. But another question immediately presents itself. If that’s true, what could Isaac have meant when he said “the voice is the voice of Jacob”? How did he know? The Midrash answers: the “voice” is metaphorical: it refers to two different ways of speaking, one of which was characteristic of Jacob, and the other characteristic of Esau. It was their metaphorical voices that were distinct, even if their speaking voices were uncertain.

When Moses ascends Sinai to receive revelation from God, the Torah says the following enigmatic verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” The Talmud says that this means that God spoke back to Moses at the volume of Moses’ own voice—or possibly in Moses’ own voice. What a powerful image: revelation is given in one’s own voice! A voice is more than just a way to identify a person: it’s a beautiful blessing in and of itself. And the divine voice, the voice of that revelation, is really nothing more, and nothing less, than our own voice.

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

I am still finding my voice. I am still learning who I am. But at least I can be grateful that I have the freedom to do so, the privilege to allow me to explore these things for myself, at my own pace, and in relative safety in this community, in my family, and in my associations. Transgender Day of Remembrance is not about me: a living, breathing, relatively privileged white trans woman. I urge us all to raise our voices in allyship, to not simply wring our hands and mourn the dead, but to demand change, to work for real results that can make a real difference in this world, to face the hard and inconvenient problems of privilege and intersectionality, to not make the deaths that we are commemorating cheap. This is what we must do, for the sake of these individuals. They were seen to have the voices of Jacob, or the hands of Esau, and for this transgression, they were slaughtered.

So two weeks ago, I rose before a group of my transgender sisters, brothers, and kin, and our cisgender allies, to read from the Torah. The reading was the Akeidah, the story of the Binding of Isaac. I took a deep breath, channeled and challenged my innermost doubts, and let my own voice—for I cannot speak, or sing, or produce any sound in anyone else’s voice—fill the space of the room. The black fire of the sound of a single transgender voice—wavering, new, uncertain—sprang into life on the white fire of a holy gathering of transgender Jews, all responding to each other’s blessings, each uttered in a different, beautiful transgender voice, speaking the living history of its owner’s beautiful transgender body, responding Amen.


Responses

  1. This is an outstanding piece. Beautifully written. Have just started following your posts and can’t wait to hear more from you.

  2. [...] Toldot: Voices and Transgender Day of Remembrance [...]

  3. Such a beautiful piece. Wow.


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