This year, more than 450 bills have been introduced in 44 states, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker, that make it harder for transgender and nonbinary youth to get the support, respect and health care they need to survive.
Within days of each other, Mississippi and Tennessee enacted bans on gender-affirming health care for young people. Arizona moved forward one bill that would ban from schools any books that promote “gender or pronouns” and another that would prohibit teachers from using pronouns for young people that differ from their biological sex, without a parent’s written consent. A bill in Florida could allow a parent to remove children from a supportive home with their custodial parent and take them across state lines to keep them from receiving gender-affirming health care — even if those children are simply “at risk” of getting that care.
This legislative attack is often framed as a battle between traditional religious values and modern ideas about gender. But we are real people, not ideas, and we have always existed, including within age-old religions. In my own tradition, Judaism, our most sacred texts reflect a multiplicity of gender. This part of Judaism has mostly been obscured by the modern binary world until very recently.
There are four genders beyond male or female that appear in ancient Jewish holy texts hundreds of times. They are considered during discussions about childbirth, marriage, inheritance, holidays, ritual leadership and much more. We were always hiding in plain sight, but recently the research of Jewish studies scholars like Max Strassfeld has demonstrated how nonbinary gender is central to understanding Jewish law and literature as a whole.
When a child was born in the ancient Jewish world it could be designated as a boy, a girl, a “tumtum” (who is neither clearly male nor female), or an “androgynos” (who has both male and female characteristics) based on physical features. There are two more gender designations that form later in life. The “aylonit” is considered female at birth, but develops in an atypical direction. The “saris” is designated male at birth, but later becomes a eunuch.
There is not an exact equivalence between these ancient categories and modern gender identities. Some of these designations are based on biology, some on a person’s role in society. But they show us that people who are more than binary have always been recognized by my religion. We are not a fad (emphasis added).