Jon Tebble’s aliyah marking the completion of his transition @NNLS on parashat mishpatim.

Jewish culture By Masorti Judaism 18th Feb 2020

Transition plays a big part in the history of the Jewish people. Ivri – the root of ‘Hebrew’ – literally means ‘to cross over’. From the moment Abraham left his birth home in Ur and heeded the call of God to become our first Patriarch, to the flight of the Israelites from Egypt into the wilderness, to, finally, the moment when we followed Joshua into the Land of Israel, the story of the Jewish people has been one of finding oneself: a journey of becoming, a formation of personal and national identity. From time immemorial, Judaism and Jewish peoples have transitioned, changed narrative, changed time and space and practise. This evolution is proud, and integral to what Judaism means to me as a Masorti Jew. To evolve doesn’t mean to eradicate what came before, but to step forward with new solutions and new challenges.

This profound narrative of journey is one that resonates with me when I think about my own transition. 

On parashat Mishpatim, at New North London Synagogue, I mark a special aliyah which marks the end of my transition. 27 years ago, I was born a girl. But I knew that, even though I was created btselem Elokim, my outside didn’t match the soul that was inside me. At the age of 15, I came out to myself, my mum, and my friends, as a boy. So began my own journey of discovery, and here I am 12 years later. 

LGBTQ Jewish people have been, and are, important members of many Jewish communities across the world. Some of us might be trapped in a community which doesn’t feel accepting or celebrating, and others might feel at home right away. For many, it’s a mix: there might be trepidation and a hesitancy to come out, and a synagogue might have their own journey to go on to be fully welcoming, but ultimately my experience with the Progressive movement in the UK is that there has always been a willingness to understand and to include. It’s why I was fully open about my trans and queer identity when I converted 3 years ago, even though I had already been living as a man for many years. For me, the final piece is marking the end of my transition in a Jewish way, which I haven’t had the opportunity to do

A few months ago, I became legally recognised as male: I changed the sex on my birth certificate from female to male by obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate. For all intents and purposes, I am now recognised as male in the eyes of the Law, even though I’ve been able to go to work as a man, get a new passport as a man, have my medical record changed to ‘male’, use single sex changing rooms and toilets, and live as a man full time with ease since I started to transition over a decade ago. 

This Gender Recognition Certificate, or GRC, is a layer of legal protection outside of the protection from discrimination offered to trans people under the Equality Act 2010. In order to get one, I had to submit a lot of medical and social evidence to prove that I had been living as a man for a number of years. In an uncertain political and social climate, where transphobia is once again rearing its head in mainstream media, many trans people who have lived comfortably without a Gender Recognition Certificate are now registering for one. Its uses in practicality are seen by many to be limited – why would someone need a piece of paper to confirm something that they already know to be true? I need a GRC to get married as male, and whether or not a trans person has one gives them protection from discrimination on the basis of their legal sex. However, the fact that I have one is kept completely private. 

Many trans people don’t get one, preferring not to go through the bureaucracy. The interaction between the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act 2010 is a complex area of law. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’, two different terms meaning different things, are used almost interchangeably in Law, and it’s confusing to unpick these legal intricacies. It’s small wonder why there are approximately 5,000 trans people with a Gender Recognition Certificate (in 2018), out of an estimated population of 600,000 trans people in Britain. And its few uses are why many trans people are asking if it’s useful to even have such a stringent process for trans people wanting to be legally recognised as their sex.

For me, it’s a personal decision that I have taken on myself. It marks a period of closure for this chapter of my life, the final step to feeling safe and secure in my identity. Just as the waters of the mikveh marked the final step of my Jewish transition, delivering my new, male, birth certificate to my mum felt like a part of me had come to its resting place. It also feels right that this closure of transition should be acknowledged spiritually as well as legally. Through the roots that Judaism’s rituals give us, the growth we experience in every moment of our life cycle can be infused with meaning and holiness. I also know how important it is to see trans lives normalised and our simchas celebrated within Jewish communities: I decided to convert at my previous synagogue partly because I saw a trans Jew speaking openly on the bimah. 

As I receive the blessing of this aliyah, I bless all of us to take time over Shabbat to examine how we ourselves are transitional beings, how we choose to celebrate our physical moments in spiritual joy, and how we can support members of our community who are brave enough to be true to themselves.

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