Friday, August 31, 2012

Ki Tetze:
Confessions of a Cross-Dressing Rabbi*


Whoa! Put me out of business, Torah, why don’t you?
This thought always crosses my mind as we collide with this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze. It’s one of those Torah speedbumps. You’re cruising along through the portion, enjoying good, sound, compassionate dictates about helping your neighbor and caring for life and then, bang:
Lo yihyeh chli gever al ishah v’lo yilbash gever simlat ishah.
No male article shall be on a woman, nor shall a man wear a woman’s garment.
And the reason for this prohibition?
Ki to’avat Adonai Eloheycha kol oseh eleh.
Whoever does this is abhorrent to Adonai, your God.
(Which is not even a reason, frankly. It’s like saying, “It’s so bad we don’t even need to give you a reason!”)
I’m sure some people have been waiting a long time for me to take up the issue of this prohibition since, by my own estimate, I spend upwards of 80 nights a year soundly planted inside a skirt and heels, as Winnie of the Kinsey Sicks.
When I was younger I na├»vely imagined that by the time I had reached middle age, this prohibition would be academic. The distinction between men’s garb and women’s would have shrunk to a mere matter of size and fit. That as women claimed a place of power in the culture, the age-old cultural imperative for women to dress for men, to gussy themselves up in prescribed ways that we unquestioningly consider appealing and always consider sexual, would have fallen away.
But this is clearly not the case. Our secretary of state, indisputably the most powerful woman in this country, is still asked by reporters what designer she’s wearing and is criticized for appearing in public without applying paint to her face. George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, I’m sure, were never treated in this way. And the fact that this very thought brings a chuckle is a good clue that there’s a real problem here.
The pressure on women to look a certain deeply conventional but deeply unnatural way is astounding. Anyone who has taken a walk through the girls’ department of Target can see that we continue to train our daughters, with great gusto, that the price of being on this planet is their showing their skin: legs, shoulders, arms, midriffs. Our awkwardly adolescing sons are allowed to make themselves invisible in baggy pants and hoodies. Our daughters, though, are told that no matter how awkward or self-conscious their young age makes them, they are not permitted invisibility. They must put themselves on display for judgment by the male-driven culture. They can opt for baggy pants and hoodies, but I’d wager that most girls who do, feel like they’ve already failed in the marketplace of the flesh to which we subject them.
Winnie & cohorts. Photo: C. Stanley.
When I dress as Winnie on stage, I like to feel like I am pointing a finger at these inequities; demonstrating the artificiality of what we call femininity. Winnie, in her gawkiness, with skirt and heels and high-piled hair, with her secretly non-conforming body, is no more comfortable or natural in her getup than many or most women for whom dressing this way is the inescapable key to worth and self-worth.
We say we’ve reached a kind of gender equality in this country, which may be true in the law books but is not remotely the case on the ground. The fact that a man in a dress is either laughed at, stared at, or gushingly admired in the international press for his bravery (if he’s straight and European and doing it in solidarity with his 5-year old dress-wearing son) is a clear signal that men and women are not equal. If they were, why would it matter what he wears? Why would it be considered campy if he’s gay or brave if he’s not? Does anyone consider the bravery of a woman who is forced every single day to live with her physical appearance being the first and primary axis on which she is judged? And who, in response, lives a life in clothes that are too binding or too revealing for her own comfort? Who, for the sake of social acceptance, consents to wear shoes that make it impossible for her ever to flee an attacker?
That’s not to say women don’t succeed in this country far beyond any time in history. Of course things have changed! But women have to reckon with how they are seen in ways that men never do. They may choose on any given day or week or year whether to put on the dress and the makeup or just the jeans and the face that Nature gave them. But nonetheless, they must choose, and unlike for men, the choice is never a neutral one.
In Torah times, the notion of gender equality would have been an alien one. There were all sorts of codified social inequities. There was slavery, and indentured servitude. Women were property of fathers and husbands; they had no legal standing; except in rare cases they could not own land. In a system that relies on such distinctions in status, it becomes extremely important to know who is who. Status blur upsets the system. In a similar way to how mixed-race marriage was outlawed in the American south. If there are people whose natural role and purpose is to be oppressed, you must be able to confidently identify who they are.
The deep preoccupation people feel when they encounter someone and are uncertain how to read their gender is very revealing about how central - unnecessarily central, stupidly central - gender is to our culture. It seems someone’s gender is the most important thing we can know about them. When a baby is born, their sex is the first thing we ask, before we even ask about their health. We don’t know how to begin thinking about a baby without a proper pronoun, and an appropriate set of colors, toys and aspirations to go with it. (Even if the aspiration is that the baby should defy the limitations placed on their gender.)
There are people working hard to think about what it might be like to live in a society not so deeply marked by gender dualism. What it might be like for every binary opposition we dream up (hard/soft; loud/quiet; tough/compassionate) not to be painted onto gender. What it might be like for gender not to be revealed in pronouns. What it might be like really not to know the gender of people you hear about or hire or even meet. But people thinking or talking aloud about such questions remain on the fringe, because really thinking through and past gender conventions continues to be one of the most transgressive, outrageous things one can do.
In a world of extreme gender inequality, Torah, in this verse, in this prohibition, seems to be concerned with truth in advertising.
I, personally, would rather see other kinds of truth in advertising. I think plutocrats masquerading as populists are a much bigger problem this year. Haters of women dressing themselves as protectors of children. Racists garbed in ideas of meritocracy. Haters of the poor pretending to be proponents of economic tough love. That, my friends, is cross-dressing. And that is abhorrent.
If deep down, Torah is trying to say, “show your true colors,” then it is time for all of us to do just that. Whatever our true colors are; whatever our true colors tell us to wear. We owe this broken world that much. We owe our broken ideas of gender that much. We owe it to our mothers who weren’t allowed to just be. And even to our fathers who were never allowed the dress. We owe them that much. So let us show our true colors. To do anything less is abhorrent.
* Note: Irwin Keller readily admits to being a drag queen but vehemently denies being a rabbi.

Monday, August 13, 2012

No Reason, but Meaning Nonetheless: Losing Steve Norwick

I was honored to be one of many speakers at the public memorial for Professor Stephen Norwick yesterday at Sonoma State University. While colleagues, students and family members were able to share lovely and illuminating stories about this remarkable man, I wanted to take the chance to acknowledge the special nature of our shared grief. Some who missed the event asked to read the words I contributed. So I post them here.


It is customary for memorial services to take a certain tone; a dignified tone. We articulate loss and we express sadness and we try to speak of inspiration. And all those things are good and important and we will do that today in abundance. And certainly we’ve now had a couple months to get used to the idea of Steve being gone, time in which to begin to sort out our thoughts and our feelings. 

But I would like to break with tradition and with the demands of dignity. I would like to say in the deepest and most official way possible that this sucks. Being here today really sucks. Yes, every loss is deep and painful for sure. But this – happening the way it did, fast and flukish, unimaginable, inexplicable, and denying us anything resembling a real goodbye, robbing us of our chances to offer Steve our last face-to-face expressions of love; taking from this world without warning or fanfare a kind man, a loving man, humorous and bright-eyed, caring, connected, committed, beloved – this, my friends, sucks. This experience, this story, does not permit any easy residence within the place of acceptance, that Dr. Kubler Ross tells us exists.

We had every reason to expect to have more years of Steve; many more. And as is often the case in this world, we don’t get what we expect, and neither did Steve.

Some of us take refuge in the thought that “everything happens for a reason.” But I don’t buy it, not in its simplest sense. And I don’t think that’s how Steve saw things either. That kind of certainty wasn’t his style. Steve was open to the wonder of not knowing. His personal life was wrapped up in it and his academic life was born of it: the wonder of not knowing. He could look at a landscape, and speak to its geology and biology and mythology and still bear witness – and force us to bear witness – to the absolute wonder of it. How Creation continues to unfold in its convoluted and elegant and mysterious and messy ways. His life was about exploring the “how” of all of this, while standing solidly and joyously in the mystery of the “why.”

In the Jewish tradition, when we begin to mourn we articulate our not knowingness. We say:
Adonai natan, Adonai lakach. Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach.
God has given and God has taken away. May God’s name be blessed.

This ancient meme represents our communal shrug of the shoulders. Our resignation to the fact that we don’t understand it, and that it is out of our control; but that nonetheless, it was better, so much better, to have Steve in our lives, to have Steve in this world, than not. In fact, we might better translate it this way:
From mystery we come; and back to the mystery we go.
But through it all we get it that this life is a blessing and a gift.

But I will, before I close, admit that there is an important kernel of truth in the idea that everything happens for a reason, a kernel of truth that is especially true in this case. Down the road many or all of us will look back at how Steve influenced us and at how his loss affected us; we will one day see the sharp or subtle turns our lives made as a result; the new work we undertook; the ways we came to relate to the planet; the ways his memory subtly touched on our decisions both big and small, our hobbies, our pastimes, our beliefs, our political actions, even how we get around. We will notice how loving Steve and losing Steve helped form who we are in the world, how we live and how we guide others. We will see that we are different people, better people, because of him. We will look back at the landscape of our lives and we will think aha.

This tragedy did not happen for a reason. But still, it will have meaning. We will, knowingly or unknowingly, take something of Steve forward with us into the future, and we will pass it on to our children and our students and our friends, even if his name is no longer attached to it. The ripples of Steve’s life will continue to spread out, and who can say how far. It is – like this Earth that Steve studied and loved – a mystery.

Adonai natan, Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai m’vorach. From the mystery we come; to the mystery we return. And through it all we get it that this life – Steve’s life and our lives – are a blessing and a gift. And if you are so inclined, let us say, Amen.

Thank you to Rabbi Eli Cohen who introduced me to his "from mystery we come" translation of Adonai natan.