I named my Facebook group for transgender men “All transmen know each other” because I’m kind of a smart ass.
After I came out as trans, in 1999, one of my first acts as a man was to convert to Judaism. Like knowing my own gender, I’d always known my image of G-d, so in that year when so many people were acting like the world might end, I followed certain impulses, the way someone might do when faced with their own impending mortality. I would enter the next millennium as myself, whatever that was.
I began attending a lay-led LGBT synagogue in the retirement community of St. Petersburg, Florida, where I lived in my early twenties, a couple years out of college. Beth Rachamim was a small congregation, and everyone took turns leading services: going up to the bimah to say the blessings, and a few words about the weekly Torah portion, called a “drash.” Drashes are often linked to social justice issues of the present day, a way to keep the ancient text close to us and relevant in our daily lives. This, as well as being able to chant the Torah verse for that week, is how a new adult in Judaism becomes bar or bat mitzvah, a son or daughter of the commandments. For Jews who had grown up in traditions that did not welcome LGBT Jews fully into religious life, leading services, delivering a drash – even one that was explicitly accepting of our queer lives – was a healing process. And I’d been doing it every few weeks for months by the time I was made formally bar mitzvah.
I had my Jewish “mishpocheh” – and oh, how we loved playing on the double meaning of “family” in Yiddish – but was still the only trans person I knew. The Internet was nearly my only source of information on what it meant to be FTM, as well as my sole source of the community of other transmen. The dozen or so other guys with a presence online… well, we kind of did all know each other, or at least of one another. Eight years later, when I created a group for us on Facebook, that was no longer possible. Today, “All transmen” has 17,000 members, and while it’s one of the biggest groups for FTMs on Facebook, it’s one among hundreds of groups, on dozens of social media platforms, with new ones being created all the time.
Those of us on who are marginalized within mainstream culture, we tend to coalesce, form our own subcultures, to defend against what is toxic: the messages that we’re deviant, crazy, selfish, or evil. Living under these conditions, to find people who believe as you do, that your life is worth protecting and nurturing, is an act of self-preservation. In Chelsea, the celebrated gay district of New York City, the LGBT synagogue’s bimah bears the message from Psalm 118, “The stone the builders had rejected has become the cornerstone.” So it was at tiny Beth Rachamim in St. Pete. Online, transgender community serves to repeat the essential message, at every possible juncture, that our lives matter. This is a message that none of us can live without, but it’s one that is not consistently available to everyone.
People who have never told anyone, “This is who I really am,” come out in places like my Facebook group. And yes, there is the anonymity of the Internet, but this is also real life, where and how we live today. It’s an act of faith and courage, to be so vulnerable and wholly present, even in a virtual space. People coming out online want to be seen for who they really are, not to hide. They’re hoping they’ll find acceptance and encouragement to be themselves in other parts of their lives.
I’m working on a faulty belief of mine that tells me Facebook is no more than a guilty pleasure: a game, a waste of time. I spend more time on Facebook than I think I should. But why do I feel this way? Because it’s not real, somehow? Because I could be doing something better with my time? Sometimes, maybe that’s true. But there are lots of times when it gets very real online, and the best thing I could be doing in that moment is to be there, in that virtual space, and to participate: extend a greeting, share an opinion, or offer some advice.
Think of how happy it makes you when people “like” your posts on Facebook. It’s not hard to give one another these digital “atta boys,” these warm fuzzies. And the difference between how we show it today and how our grandparents showed it when they were our ages is cultural, not quantitative. We still need social acceptance from one another, just as much as ever.
To find community online, among the .015% of the population who share my FTM identity, is a blessing. The group that started as a joke has become so much more.
If you come to “All transmen know each other” and scroll through the feed (and you can – it’s a public group), you’ll see lots of support in the comments. You might also notice that many posts express concerns with what might appear to be the physical and the quotidian. We’re not (usually) asking each other about the meaning of life in there, although it does occasionally get deep. Year after year, “Do I pass?” remains a constant question for new members. “Help me choose a name” is another common type of post. Some variation of, “Is it okay that I’m x and I like y?” or, “I did my shot and it hurts. Is that normal?” show up again and again.
The transition that trans people go through when we accept and affirm our identities often feels like puberty all over again, and not just in the hormonal ways, but in the concern with how we look, the changes we’re experiencing. I think that anxiety is, at its root, something we all share: a concern that we’re “doing this right” when it comes to walking our paths, and in addition, that the paths we’re on are important to follow.
And it is important, for each of us, to know about ourselves, even if you think your life choices are too… whatever it is that stings when people criticize you. We know more now than we did when I was a kid, about how traumatizing it is to be bullied. It’s not easy being different. Forty percent of transgender people have considered suicide. We’ll never know everyone we’ve lost, what beautiful lives are gone forever, because they couldn’t bear that pain, the terrible fear that no one would ever love them. Imagine believing that not even the Creator has a place for you in this world. That’s what the mainstream so often tells us. So for people like me, having an online community is a true life saver. It’s a beacon to those who don’t even know the name of their struggle yet and a refuge for those of us who do.
One lesson I consider often is our commandment to repair the world: in Judaism we call this “tikkun olam.” Teaching children, planting olive trees, working for justice, feeding the hungry… all of this is tikkun olam. The work of repairing the world will not be done in our lifetimes, but we still must do it. When I see that the people I care about are tired and sick and shaming themselves for not doing more to make the world better, I remind them that they are part of Creation, and to heal yourself is to do tikkun olam. Being fully yourself – in a world that wants to rob you of that – is tikkun olam.
Justin Cascio writes about health, identity, and the family. His work has appeared at The Good Men Project, Role/Reboot, xoJane, and elsewhere. His latest obsession is Mafia Genealogy (wordpress.mafiagenealogy.com). Follow him on Facebook @justincascio and on Twitter @likethewatch.