by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Do you remember the moment when you figured out the world would relate to you according to your physical sex? I realized this while picking apples with my family at age four; I was hot, and my dad said I should take off my shirt. For the first time I was horrified by the idea. For the first time, I felt it was wrong for me, a girl, to be seen naked. When did you emerge from the nascent childhood state of being an ambiguous pudgy blob and become aware that, for a while now, the world has been measuring you against a standard of “normal” male and female traits?
We are just beginning to explore the idea that gender is really different than our physical sex. What happens when we separate a biological reality from the way we feel, think, love, dress, talk and so much more? Is any trait inherent to a particular gender? I often hear Judy Chicago’s ‘Merger Poem’ in my mind, which was read aloud so many times at the synagogue I belonged to in Portland, Oregon:
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
Each time I heard this poem I became irritated, thinking, do we really still need to say that a woman can be strong and a man can be gentle?
Unfortunately, gender norms are insidious, and we are only just beginning to find out what questioning them can do. My Facebook feed explodes daily with religious and secular articles, posts, rants, and images -all pointing to a world where many of us are outraged by the violence and the limitations we experience because of our sex at birth and how we present our gender to the world.
A detailed account of all of the ways we are harmed by sex and gender-based violence is beyond the scope of this article; if you want more information read here and here to learn about how violence affects women and transgender people. It is harder to find articles that articulate the scope of gender-based violence towards men. Despite a privileged place in the gender-hierarchy and perhaps because of it, we don’t acknowledge institutionalized violence towards men. A closer look would cover their disproportionate rate of imprisonment; data on men who lost their lives serving in the military or who returned to poverty and mental illness; as well as an analysis of the much higher rate of homicide among men. As much as I scoffed at the words in Judy Chicago’s poem, it’s clear that the world still tells boys and men that gentleness is not for them.
At Mayyim Hayyim, we have had discussions about gender and mikveh immersion for years. The conversation is about the wording we use on our educational materials, our bathroom sign, and whether hours should be called male, female, and co-ed, or something else altogether. When I teach about mikveh to young people, they often specifically raise questions about gender. Here are a few examples of what I’ve heard:
Which mikveh is for boys, which is for girls? When a boy showers in the preparation room, is a girl allowed to use it after him? Do girls and boys use the same mikveh? Why didn’t you make one mikveh blue for boys and one pink for girls?
I often ask in return: “What do you all think: do all boys like blue? Do all girls like pink? Has anyone ever assumed something about you just because you are a girl or a boy? What if you were a boy who likes pink and you came to the blue mikveh, would you feel welcome?” I point to the intentional design of our space; the neutral colors and the unisex pools.
Underneath everything I hear them asking: Aren’t there distinct spheres in which each gender exists? Aren’t our roles, likes and dislikes, needs and wants defined by the gender we appear to be?
When I share the questions from these youth with adult learners, people are often dismayed. Of course not all girls like pink! Of course mikveh cooties aren’t real! True, we know about that. But whether you are secular or an observant Jew, distinctions of gender are part of everything we do. Jewish tradition assigns specific mitzvot (commandments), locations, and behaviors to men and others to women. Secular society does the same but without divine support. Women who dress ‘like men’ and men who act ‘effeminate’ confuse our expectations at best, and attract violence and hate-speech at worst.
We are starting to come up with words to address ambiguity, words like gender-queer, gender-variant, gender non-conforming and their accompanying pronoun forms. We are starting to demand a blank slate. It remains to be seen if this is going to help the cause in the long run. In the short term, these identities remind us that we can’t go on assumptions, much the way our mikveh guides are trained not to assume the needs of the immersee. They are taught to welcome each individual to a pool that offers an open canvas for their thoughts and prayers. Just like at our mikveh, our friends and family will (most likely) respect the way we choose to identify. The larger world may not.
At the end of the day, I wonder if these words distract from the actual problem. New identities won’t broaden our expectations of girls and boys, or the violence we experience because of our sex. That’s not their goal. They try to carve something outside a destructive binary. I wonder what gender norms would look like if we ended the sex-trafficking industry, created equal pay, changed the way we talk about abortion legislation, and how we run our prisons? What if we learned how to thoughtfully interrupt each other’s assumptions about gender while they were happening?
I doubt we will ever land on the perfect language or the perfect understanding of gender. Mayyim Hayyim will continue to think about inclusion in the most comprehensive sense of the term, because that is what we do. But the process will be messy. And perhaps that is the point. None us of knows what the future will hold, but I feel sure that, (to borrow Judy Chicago’s words), when we finally see the world as rich and free and varied… then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She loves hearing about the moment people realized they were a boy, a girl, neither or both.