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Breaking the Gender Covenant

Gender is a covenant I have broken: a covenant with others and a covenant with myself.

“Did anyone ever teach you to be true to yourself?” a therapist once asked me. I had come to her in the midst of what I call my gender crisis — the physical, mental, and emotional breakdown I experienced after 40-plus years of living as the male I knew I wasn’t. I had just told her about my shame about hiding for decades my lifelong sense that I was female. Having failed to keep faith with my own gender identity, how could I now break my covenant with my wife, my children, and all who knew me as a man?

Image by Stephanie Keith, © All Rights Reserved.

Gender is a covenant, a promise that the maleness or femaleness we present in public represents both our genitalia and our gender identity, our private sense of whether we are male or female. People who visibly fail to keep this covenant, those we call “transgender,” are subject to severe penalties: exile from family and friends, loss of employment, and verbal and physical abuse.

Every week, one or two transgender Americans are killed, in a hate crime, for breaking the covenant of gender.

Most of us are literally born into the covenant of gender, when those who deliver us from our mothers’ wombs examine our genitals and proclaim, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” My body entered me into the covenant as male, and, for 45 years, that is the way I presented myself to the world. But though my gender presentation matched my genitalia, I was still breaking the gender covenant, because the maleness I presented to others didn’t reflect my own sense of who I was.

Image by Stephanie Keith, © All Rights Reserved.

Transsexuality — the mismatch between physical sex and gender identity — causes many kinds of suffering; for me, one of the worst was the guilt and shame I felt about pretending to be a man. Those feelings drove me to confess to my college sweetheart, the woman I later married, that I was transgender when we were sophomores in college. She offered me a private version of the gender covenant: As long as I lived as a man, she would love and stay with me, even though she knew my gender identity was female. That was the first gender covenant I could keep, for it meant that at least in one relationship, I could meet the expectation of others without betraying my sense of self.

For the next two decades, I kept this covenant: to be true to my wife, and, later, to our children, by living as a man. I wrote and published poetry, gave divrei Torah and served on the board of our local nondenominational synagogue, completed a doctorate, and finally landed a tenure-track job at the Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, where I taught, and still teach, writing and American literature. In short, I became what we call “a successful man,” which in my case referred to the lines on my C.V. but not to my success at living, loving, writing, and teaching as a man. If I had really been that man, I could have lived happily ever after within the terms of the gender covenant. Instead, I became steadily more miserable; by my early 40s, it literally, physically, and emotionally made me sick to live as a man.

Image by Stephanie Keith, © All Rights Reserved.

Most people — the vast majority whose physical sex matches their gender identities — don’t realize that “covenant” applies to gender until they see someone like me breaking it. Then, they tend to be angry. Some people have told me that my gender transition is pathologically selfish; having lived as a male for 45 years, why couldn’t I keep living as a man for the sake of my wife and children? Others have become angry at my now-ex-wife for not staying with me through and despite my transition.

The moral value of a covenant can be measured by how we respond when it is broken. When the Israelites at Sinai broke their brand-new covenant with God (constructing the golden calf), the responses — Moses’ passionate pleas for divine presence and God’s forgiveness and revelation of the thirteen attributes of mercy — resulted in a greater understanding and a deeper mutual relationship between God and Israel. When the covenant of gender is broken, the responses — blaming, shaming, victim-villain narratives — tend to mirror rather than to expand the narrow binary terms of the gender covenant.

Image by Stephanie Keith, © All Rights Reserved.

My experience with breaking this covenant has taught me to strive not just for a more embracing, nonbinary conception of gender, but for a more embracing, nonbinary moral language — a language that acknowledges suffering, and the need for growth and forgiveness, on all sides. My transition has not only been from an inauthentic life as a man to an authentic life as a woman. It has also been from a gender covenant based upon physical sex and social convention to a new gender covenant in which gender doesn’t mean being male or female, but being true to others by becoming our truest selves.

Reprinted with permission from the journal Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas May 2013, as part of a larger conversation on rethinking covenants.

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