Abby Stein is a transgender blogger, speaker and activist who was raised in a Hasidic community in New York. She was ordained as a rabbi soon before deciding to leave the Hasidic community due to her skepticism of her religious stance. Stein, after going “off the derech,” came out as transgender in a 2015 blog post that received immediate media attention and thrust her into the public eye.
Stein has used her personal experiences to create a platform from which she engages in activist pursuits that benefit both members of the LGBTQ community and people leaving fundamentalist religious communities. Stein established the first support group nationwide for LGBTQ people from Orthodox backgrounds. She is currently participating in speaking events across the country in an attempt to foster support for LGBTQ persons in religious communities and studying at Columbia University.
Q: So, some religious leaders like to explain their motivation to spread religious doctrine as a “call.” Do you think this could be paralleled to your experiences? Was there a “call” to activism?
A: I don’t like the wording, specifically coming from a very religious community, and the community I grew up in is very much a cult. I usually say it’s a culture, but it fits every dictionary definition of a cult. They have very large similarities, and, so, I feel as if there’s a lot attached to saying, “Well, this is my religious calling.” And I don’t want to use it a lot, but definitely, to some extent, I feel a bit obligated to go around and continue to talk about it because I know I have an opportunity to tell two stories that people want to know a lot about.
I’ve spoken with every major media network, and I know that the media is overly exoticizing [my story]. There have been a lot of reality shows focusing on cultish communities, and there are a lot focused on the transgender community, and they’re both exoticizing the communities and not in a good way. It took me a while to be able to learn that, but after a while, I figured out how to use that — not necessarily to my advantage, but to the trans communities’ advantage.
I started a support group for transgender people who come from Ultra-Orthodox Jewish backgrounds. We had our first meeting in December of 2015 in New York City, and we had 12 people show up in person. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without constantly talking about my experience. At the same time, I’m planting the seeds to expand into an international organization for transgender people who come from fundamentalist backgrounds. I was just in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago and met with a group called Mama Dragons, a group of moms of LGBT kids in the LDS church, and I try to work with them; I try to work with [people from] fundamentalist Muslim communities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and so on. At this distinct time, it’s important to spread this message to everyone else as well. There has been a lot of progress, but it feels like we go one step forward, and there are people trying to push back.
I’ve given over 100 speeches in the last two years. Every time — you’d think I would get bored, but I don’t — because every time I see the reactions of people. A personal story humanizes people, every time a story like this happens, every time. This is random, but a few weeks ago, this model whom I’d never heard of before came out as trans. She transitioned in her teens, became a model, and no one even knew. After the trans ban in the military, she decided to come out. You’d think, “Oh OK, that’s just another story,” but it isn’t. Every time another story is being told, it becomes more and more the norm; people are becoming more and more open. That’s really important.
Q Definitely. Do you feel like going through the media was the best way for you to foster trans visibility, even though in many cases, there was — and is — a clear exoticism of personal experience?
A: Yes, because I didn’t go through the media. The media came to me. I started my blog in August of 2015. It was before I came out, before I even started transition. I started writing anonymously — it was anonymous until November of that year. During that time frame, the blog got about 2,000 views — so, not a lot. It made a bit of a dent in people from formerly Orthodox communities; I had a few people reach out for support, which is how I realized that there was demand for it.
Both of my parents come from Urbanic dynasties. So, the Hasidic community runs like a monarchy, where there are a few families that are in control, and they all marry each other. My parents come from families like these. My family status played in, the fact that I was a rabbi myself within that community — it was on people’s radar.
How do you say no to the New York Post or “Fox News”? “Fox News” made a small video. You can look it up. It was just terrible. There was this one guy in the video, talking about how gender dysphoria is a mental disorder, blah-blah-blah. Now, I would say no; I wouldn’t have even talked to them.
But I think we live in a culture where it’s not only the media that exoticizes me, but we exoticize the media — with celebrity culture, etc. People say: “Oh my gosh, you’re gonna be on TV; that’s such a big deal!” And, as much as I wasn’t ready for it, I still wasn’t able to say no. I still have problems saying no, but now I have my agent to do that. Since the story was already out there, anyway, I could try to control it. I would say, at the beginning, the media exploited me; then I decided to exploit the media. Not in a bad way — just by being able to speak on my own terms and control the narrative, use this with laser focus to try to help people, start a support group, raise awareness. It was an opportunity that was really important to me.
The work that I’ve been doing — which is so important to me — I wouldn’t have been able to do without that initial exposure. Yesterday, I got a message from a trans woman from India. I couldn’t have made contact without the coverage. People always ask me what I would tell my youngest self. I’d tell my 12-year-old self that I’m not alone. That’s the strongest message that we can give anyone. I sometimes say that if there’s one 12-year-old kid that I can make feel no longer alone, then it’s all worth it. I’ve, lately, been using the motto: “I’m refusing to shut up.” A lot of people would have wanted me to, just, shut up. But now, I want to make a T-shirt that says: “Refusing to Shut Up.”
Q: As a follow-up, what do you think is the best way to improve visibility, particularly in religious communities?
A: It depends on the community. In most communities in the U.S., by now, we can talk within that community and raise awareness in that community. In some religious communities, like the community I come from, that is legitimately impossible. It’s not that you’re going to be ostracized; it’s impossible. The best thing we can do is give people resources. For many trans people — and I can’t speak for everyone — it’s important to have support from other trans people and also their own families. The most important thing, though, is to be in touch with other people going through the same thing. Also, access to health care — access to medical care, access to physical ways of being able to be who you are. For me and for tens and tens of other people I’ve worked with, that has been the most important part.
Q: I’m gonna backtrack just a second — so I know you said something about how you were a rabbi for a short period of time. Do you feel like that affected the way in which you articulate your ideas or relate to other people?
A: I’m doing a session with this traditional Jewish text, which has the main message that gender is not black and white. Gender is much more complex than that, and you find this in texts going back hundreds and thousands of years. I use the knowledge that I learned as a rabbi, knowledge in dissecting texts, to help spread that message. When it comes to other people — for example, at the tea I’ll go to later at the Women’s Center — it’s a different message, and I don’t know how much those skills will affect that session. I mean, obviously, it’s my background; just in general, that makes the story more interesting and gives me all of these opportunities, but I don’t necessarily see me being a rabbi having a direct effect. Some parts, yes. Not all.
Q: While I was reading, I caught a quote — I think it was in the New York Times — that said something about how you don’t believe in God, but you believe in Judaism. I don’t come from a religious community, so I’m just breathing ignorance, and there’s a chance that was taken a bit out of context. Could you contextualize that for me?
A: I am, philosophically, an atheist. But, if you want to move past that and talk about God — which is even something in the Hasidic community’s original teachings — as a concept, something that unifies everything, God as science, God as energy, then yeah. There’s this one rabbi, who is the founder of a nondenominational rabbinical school in Boston, who wrote a book called “Radical Judaism.” It’s very interesting, but one of the things it approaches is God, and his understanding of it. He claims that Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, alludes to the fact that God is simply being. Being with a capital B.
The thing about Judaism is that there are lots of messages within Judaism as a culture that I really relate to. For example, I like that from Friday, you have a day of rest. I like that, I use that day as a shortstop. I love the holidays, I think a lot of the rituals are really great, like singing and dancing. I relate to Judaism a lot more as a culture and as a practice than Judaism as a religion. So yeah, the quote is true, but the context is important.
RT: I saw that the Human Rights Campaign has referred to you as a faith leader. Because of your relationship to religion, how do you feel about being referred to as a faith leader?
AS: I don’t mind it. Again, define “faith.” If faith is a religious practice, if faith is based in community, then yeah. A faith leader doesn’t have to be someone who’s trying to bring people to the faith, as much as just someone who’s using faith and community to spread their message.
People have told me that I’m abusing Judaism for my own agenda, my trans agenda. One article in a British newspaper’s headline was: “Sex change rabbi: my trans agenda.” And, I don’t know if they were supposed to be insulting or tabloid-y, but I was like, yeah, I have an agenda. And I’m here to confirm my agenda. I have no problem with that.
RT: So, could religious and spiritual expression be explained on a spectrum, just as gender identity and expression can be?
AS: Oh, definitely. It’s important to consider that religion and spirituality are not on the same spectrum. You can use a sample of gender and sexuality, which I can be informed by each other, like, my sexuality isn’t necessarily informed by my gender, but with some people they inform each other more. Some people feel like religion and spirituality go together. But, they’re two separate things that might inform each other, just like gender and sexuality. I say sometimes that, when it comes to gender identity, I’m kind of privileged, because I never struggled with my gender identity. I always knew, I’m a girl, I’m female, I never questioned that part. I think other people that are other places on the binary — I mean, everyone is somewhere on the spectrum, I don’t think there’s a single person that fits every description of femininity or masculinity — sometimes struggle a lot more. With religion, it’s the same thing.
Rianna Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org .