I saw my grandnephew Sam for his COVID-era Zoom bar mitzvah in October, along with family and friends who’d signed on to watch him perform the ritual acknowledging the coming of age of a Jewish boy. Wearing a suit and tie, a blue and white tallis wrapped around his shoulders, black fuzz sprouted above his lip, noticeable even on the screen. Taking the Torah from the rabbi, he read the words confirming his evolution, emotionally and physically.
His voice had deepened since the last time we’d spoken. Addressing the Zoom attendees and the rabbi beside him, Sam read from the Torah without hesitation, his words easy to hear through the black mask he was wearing. When he’d finished, his parents and sister were there to congratulate him, and, finally unmuted, we all shared our mazel tovs.
Sam wasn’t always Sam. Sam was 11 or 12 when he decided that his assigned gender identity didn’t feel right and so he began the transition to a boy. An incessant talker, with open-hearted energy, and enthusiastic intelligence, I wondered if his out-there personality felt more socially acceptable coming from a boy.
I'm a psychologist who's worked with transgender and other LGBTQ individuals, but I knew I still had a lot to learn. Receiving the news about Sam in an email from his father maybe two years before his bar mitzvah, my initial reaction was to be worried, though I knew enough not to say, "Are you sure this is a good idea? Isn’t he too young to decide?"
As a left-leaning, politically correct person, I’ve always tried to support someone's sexuality and gender identity. Then, when my grandnephew transitioned I had to reckon with the difference between being PC, compared to how I felt in my gut. I could accept Sam’s decision with my head, yet it still felt jarring.
Transitioning isn’t a choice made casually, and I recognized the courage it took for him to face this reality and to share it with others. I can’t imagine that emotional struggle.
Back when I came of age during the 1960s while the boundaries of sexual behavior, especially for women, were becoming more fluid, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, treated by psychiatrists who tried to “correct” the behaviors and feelings. People were punished out of who they were. By the time I entered college, being gay was less threatened and less threatening. Still, I had no sense there were other factors to consider.
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Since Sam’s transition I’ve done a lot of thinking – and learning. His journey has made me do my homework. I’ve read articles, watched films and television programs with trans-related themes. I’ve talked to people. And listened.
A friend of mine is having her first child. When people ask her if she's having a girl or a boy, she told me she replies that the baby has a male anatomy. The statistical odds are that she's having a child who identifies as a boy. But if her child ends up identifying as girl or fluid or nonbinary it will be a joy to support them in that journey, and also to be part of an evolution that needs to happen in our society toward acceptance and openness.
There’s no disconnect between her head and her heart. As for me, Sam’s process has made me realize that my initial understanding of issues concerning sexual identity was superficial. And I’ve changed – where I think it counts most – in my heart.
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Bar mitzvahs always make me tear up. Sam’s bar mitzvah was no exception. Even more than usual, I was impacted by the significance of the ceremony. The recognition of his evolution from boyhood to manhood felt especially meaningful, not just as a religious welcoming, but as a public acceptance of who he’s chosen to be. Sam knew himself best. But then maybe, as I’ve come to understand, there was no alternative.
Nancy Jainchill is a feminist, clinical psychologist and a writer focusing on gender and sexual equity. Sam and his family gave permission for her to tell his story. Follow her on Twitter: @NancyJainchill
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coming of age while transgender: He knows his own mind