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31 May 2011, 4:00 pm 5 Comments

Gender Identity: An Open Letter to Witterick and Stocker

Submission by Gella Solomon, TNG contributor. Gella Solomon was from Brooklyn, New York before it was cool. She frequently reminds people of this fact, as Brooklynites often do. Gella’s identities include queer, feminist, middle child, and student of Judaism. She is currently learning at The Drisha Institute, a pluralistic women’s Yeshiva in Manhattan.

Dear Ms. Witterick and Mr. Stocker,

I hope this letter finds you and your family well.

I realize that my sending this letter will in a sense run counter to my own wishes that your actions should be of little or no importance to the world at large, but after engaging in numerous fraught conversations on the topic of gender, gender-role coercion, and so forth in the wake of the publicity your family has recently received, I felt that perhaps a supportive letter might not go amiss.

Let me introduce myself a bit so that you will have some background as to why these issues are so important to me that I feel compelled to argue about them into the wee hours of the morning and ultimately to write you this letter: I am a 29-year-old bisexual woman studying to be a rabbi in New York City. This is not a simple or easy position in which to find oneself. I am currently taking some time away from my rabbinical program to study in a pluralistic women’s Yeshiva, this being the first time in my life that I have been in a single-sex learning environment. I am also in recovery from an eating disorder.

The primary reason I needed to take time away from my rabbinical program to study in a small Yeshiva has to do, in large part, with my eating disorder. I entered a program of recovery during my first year in rabbinical school, and the combination proved too much for me to handle emotionally. Part of what is so difficult in recovery, is becoming increasingly cognizant of the negative messages about our bodies with which we, especially women, are bombarded every day. Not only in the media, but in our normal everyday interactions, our bodies are constantly scrutinized. Even that which escapes our conscious notice gets integrated into our sense of self and self-esteem. Even those statements which are meant to be complimentary, such as observations regarding weight loss, keep the emphasis on a woman’s value being dependent on her body-shape, comparing that shape to an unrealistic ideal, fueling her dissatisfaction with herself.

Upon entering the women’s Yeshiva, I came to a shocking realization about myself. I found myself in a classroom of women for the first time and realized that I immediately felt myself judging them, and assuming they were judging me. There were no men in the classroom with whom to feel camaraderie. I realized that my whole life I have looked down on women in a classroom setting by default. It was not until I had the dual gender dynamic removed from my environment that I realized just how much of the negative messaging I had internalized, and projected, while rejecting in myself as much of that negativity as possible not by feeling positively about myself as a woman, but by identifying with men.

It all started to come together: the negative messaging, the body-image issues, my inability to relate to either boys or girls in a healthy way even from childhood. I began to notice things I’d never noticed before. I began to see the little insidious ways assumptions about gender and our reactions to them do damage to us as a society and individually. I began to see the extent of the damage that had been done to me. I grew up in a home that was fairly liberal and in which, I thought, feminism was assumed to be the norm.

We belonged to an egalitarian synagogue, my sister and I attended a math and science school, my father made a point of supporting his female coworkers in an industry not particularly known for being woman-friendly, I had a grandmother with a Ph.D., and yet I had still fallen prey to the misogyny inherent in our societal gender paradigm. I had integrated the idea that that which was feminine was inferior, and that to be equal to men I had to eschew all things feminine and become as much like a man as I could. At the same time, I also learned that being too masculine made me somehow wrong, that I was supposed to be feminine and accept all the inferiority that came along with it in exchange for being, ironically, placed on a pedestal for admiration and fetishization by men. I could not reconcile myself to giving up playing Frisbee with the guys, but also felt ashamed when I saw that off the field they paid more attention to the girls who didn’t learn to play for fear of breaking a nail.

Every moment of every day I was being not asked, but ordered to choose: was I going to act the way a girl should act and give up being treated like I have a mind or physical capabilities, or was I going to act like a boy and accept the consequences, the never quite fitting in, never really being one of the guys, and yet also forfeiting any of the benefits of the girls club, be it “positive” male attention or female camaraderie. Further, regardless of what I chose, I was always, always, going to be vulnerable to overt misogyny, because regardless of what I did or acted like or dressed like, I was a woman and women are vulnerable.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because through these processes, I have become someone who sees. I see the hidden unconscious meanings inherent in coercive gendering. I see the nuances of our language that indicate an underlying assumption of female inferiority. I see the ways in which women are duped into accepting a second-class position in society in exchange for the pedestal, and are complicit in the punishing of other women for not falling in line. I see the ways in which girls and women are told subtly and not so subtly that their bodies are disgusting even as they are fetishized, and the ways in which boys and men are told that real men are animals with little control over their impulses, that masculinity means always wanting to rape, and to hit, and just barely holding back. So I see the gender paradigm of our society as something that must be undermined.

What upsets me about the reaction to your approach to Storm’s socialization as an infant being not gender-dependent, is the fact that it is so upsetting to so many people. What upsets me is that it highlights just how hung up we are on gender and coercive gender-role enforcement. It upsets me that anybody has the gall to insist that it is so vitally important that you let everyone know Storm’s sex so that they can properly indoctrinate Storm in proper gendering. What upsets me even more is that even those who understand the problems with our society’s gender hangups and the gender paradigm we have in place, even they insist that, because “everyone else” thinks it is important, that you, we, must all fall into line for fear of attack. The cowardice is mind-bogglingly upsetting to me as a sexual minority, as a feminist, as a Jew.

Choosing not to share Storm’s sex should not have to be an act of courage, nor of defiance. It should not be news. I should not know about it, I should not know about you, I should not be writing this letter. It’s like Joss Whedon constantly being asked why he creates all these strong female characters in his television shows, to which he eloquently and appropriately replies “Because you are still asking me that question.”

What bothers me the most though, perhaps, is the suggestions I have heard from many, that you should have your parental rights taken away. Accusations are made that you are perpetrating child-abuse by not falling in step with the prescriptive gendering that causes so much harm to so many of us. Meanwhile, there are actual perpetrators of child abuse in these people’s own communities, which never reach anyone’s attention. Setting aside the obvious and horrendous, the stories that do make the news, every day children and teenagers are subjected to gaslighting, emotional and physical abuse carried out by seemingly normal, nice, middle-class, well-educated people, and no one knows or cares. Even if they do it turns out, more often than not there is nothing to be done because the system is likely to be worse than the problem.

Far too often, this abuse in fact has everything to do with our society’s accepted gender dynamics, gendered assumptions, gendered messaging. That your family, your obviously loving, nurturing, supportive, beautiful family has become the target of such accusations makes me sick inside, and makes me sad for the world in which we live.

I believe that Storm the person will benefit from not being inundated with gendered assumptions and presumptions during infancy and early childhood. I believe that what you are doing is merely good parenting for Storm and for your two other children, Jazz and Kio. It shouldn’t be an act of courage. It shouldn’t be heroic. It shouldn’t warrant any attention whatsoever, but something happened when my eyes were opened and I began to see. I became one of those noisy radical feminists whom I’d always regarded as noble but somewhat ridiculous. I realized just how steep is the hill we have to climb, because a year and a half ago I wouldn’t have taken myself seriously either had I heard myself spouting about the patriarchy as I do now. Consequently, I have no choice but to see every move that undermines that system as heroic.

That you are doing so on such a basic and fundamental level as starting from the very beginning with your children, unfortunately, is courageous. So though I wish it were completely unnecessary, I do feel the need to thank you. Thank you for seeing. Thank you for having the integrity to act on what you see.


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5 Comments »

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