What A Holiday of Masks Teaches Us About Visibility
by Hannah Simpson
What does a holiday of masks teach us about visibility? In a modern era of opaque government, sneaky decrees and increasing incitement threatening both my Jewish and transgender identities, the 2,500-year old Purim story of revelation and redemption feels more relevant than ever.
In the Purim story, Esther was chosen by the Persian king to be his wife. As kids, we are taught she was the prettiest in the realm, but that may have been a euphemism for best in bed. Not only was she Jewish but some commentaries say she may have already been married to her cousin Mordechai. She kept this secret well into her new life as queen.
I face a similar predicament when weighing what and when my own potential partners need to know about me being transgender. To me, this label says something profound about how I came to my present state, but equally puts me at risk of rejection or violence from those who think they are being deceived. Being Jewish once carried a similar stigma; it may still.
Esther’s story sets a precedent that disclosures of any kind must be handled delicately. It is not always safe or practical to be open about ourselves, for fear of others’ biases. Uncovering my femininity was not the deception; it was dating as a male that felt like living and spreading a lie.
The best analogy to gender transition is conversion, which, while rarely discussed in Jewish texts, is directly mentioned by one obscure line in the Megillah. “And in every province and city to which the king’s edict and law reached, there was happiness and joy for the Jews, a celebration and a holiday. Many of the gentiles converted to Judaism, for fear of the Jews had fallen upon them” (Esther 8:17)
A wise rabbi once asked me, “Let’s say my son tells me he wants to be a girl; do I just make him a girl?” This is a common concern when I introduce trans issues to people who have not previously given it much thought. Fortunately, Judaism challenges us to question everything. Look at what happens when someone tells you they wish to become Jewish.
Tradition says we turn prospective Jews away three times. The most sincere will keep returning. Then we discuss logistics. Converting is neither quick nor simple, but entirely possible. Exploring gender is similar. Not everyone who slips on a dress—or refuses to—on any given day (especially as a Purim costume) is necessarily transgender. We must tune ourselves to detect consistency and persistence.
Conversion starts with education, but is largely about practical immersion. For those of us born into Judaism—or assigned it at birth—it is our obligation to respect these individuals, to welcome them into synagogues and to help as they might add keeping kosher, Shabbat and other rituals into their daily routines. In many of these cases, the student soon looks and acts more stereotypically Jewish than the teachers.
At some point, the convert gets a physical certificate. Much like updating my name and gender on my driver’s license, this is a mere formality. Sheets of paper do not make you anything, but having them reflects and amplifies the new reality. Most beautifully, we teach that Jews who are converts were actually Jews all along, having awakened a dormant holy element already present within their souls.
Not every Jew starts out one from birth, nor do all people develop into a body that immediately matches their innate being. This does not diminish the experience of most of the world that does. Medical professionals can help determine if someone is destined to become a new gender the same way a rabbi can suss out (and assist) when someone is destined to become a new Jew.
The comparison breaks down because becoming Jewish does not involve any irreversible genital surgery—oh, wait… Circumcision belongs in modern Judaism about as much as animal sacrifice, but that is another rant. Every medical procedure has risks and contraindications, so in both cases, whether or not someone actually goes under the knife should be nobody’s business but their own.
Conversion back in ancient Persia may have looked different from conversion today, but there is little doubt it was complex and bureaucratic in its own right. We are talking about Jews, after all. But since when is fear a sufficient motivator to convert, and why would anyone embrace, not flee, that which is scary? If they really were Jews—on the inside—from the start, then what these people were really afraid of was themselves.
As Jews, we do not yield to misconceptions that paint us as lesser, or legislation that restricts our freedoms or marks us for extermination. In every generation there are those who have tried and failed, yet we live on. We talk of heroes like Esther, who by revealing themselves, saved their people in the short term, but more broadly normalized our existence. Spaces were created for others that could never have existed before.
Bathroom bills like North Carolina’s HB2, which was passed over Purim last year, aim to paint trans people as perverts and predators. Like in times past, blind hatred may make us feel forced to wear masks or hide ourselves. But this does not diminish the authenticity or the dignity our existence deserves.
Esther took a risk with her revelation, not unlike I might today. In doing so she helped others to discover themselves, to become whomever they were destined to be. Face-to-face, I am slightly cuter and way less threatening than whatever our modern kings or governments might feel a transgender person, or a Jew, actually is.
Esther inspires me to stay visible. Not hiding my past may help others to stop hiding their futures.
Hannah Simpson is a transgender advocate and educator. Hannah served as the statewide LGBTQ Organizer for the North Carolina Democratic Party in last year’s elections. She has helped to lead LGBTQ delegations of Birthright Israel for three seasons so far.