Trans Woman (and Former Hasidic Jew): Atheists Should Support the LGBTQ Movement

We are still in the midst of the Kickstarter campaign for our book Queer Disbelief, written by Camille Beredjick, about why atheists should be advocates for LGBTQ rights. We’re two-thirds of the way toward our goal, and anyone who would like to pre-order the book should do it now!

Until the campaign ends, we’ll be running a few excerpts from the book for anyone who’d like a better sense of what’s in it.

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In the excerpt below, Camille shares an interview with a transgender woman from an Orthodox Jewish family.

I first interviewed Abby Stein back in 2015, about a month after she came out to her Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community as a transgender woman. Abby’s story is especially interesting because she’s the descendant of a founder of Hasidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (also known as the Baal Shem Tov). Hasidic Judaism maintains strict roles for how men and women “should” behave, and being transgender definitely doesn’t fit into them. Abby told me that she didn’t know different gender identities existed until she was 19. She thought she was crazy for feeling the way she did.

Abby left the Jewish faith formally a few years ago for what she called “philosophical and ideological reasons,” but she’s still maintained cultural ties to the community. She also writes about her experiences with gender, religion, philosophy, and atheism on her blog, The Second Transition. Her family hadn’t taken the news of her coming-out well when we first spoke, and she told me they weren’t doing much better when we talked more recently. We discussed her experience of coming out twice and her take on why atheists are natural allies to LGBTQ people.

Can you tell me how you identify on both the religious spectrum and the LGBTQ spectrum?

I identify as a woman of transgender experience. Religious-wise, I usually say I’m philosophically atheist and spiritually or culturally involved with [Judaism].

Can you talk more about the relationship between those two? Did being an atheist help you figure out you were trans, or vice versa, or neither?

For me, it was definitely interrelated. I lived in a community without trans people, and I got to a point where I knew there’s this part of my identity, mainly gender, which everyone disagrees with. To me, atheism was an outlet to explore my identity. I ended up learning about trans people, learning about transition, and so on. I feel like they were very strongly intertwined. There are a lot of overlaps between coming out as an atheist in a community that is very cult-like and coming out as trans. From people saying, “What the hell are you talking about, this doesn’t make any sense,” to people saying, “You’re evil, you’re the devil,” and so on. The backlash I have gotten for being trans is somewhat amplified back from what people get for being atheist.

Did people really tell you that you were the devil?

Yeah, I get that all the time. I was Satan, and the devil, and all the words they used for it.

Were any of the people who said that close to you?

One of my brothers actually reached out to me once after coming out. He used an Aramaic term for Satan. And I replied, “Thanks for the compliment.”

That’s heavy.

Yeah. But I don’t take it as an insult at all. It’s whatever. It’s a joke. It’s like when religious people, especially Christians, start claiming that atheists worship Satan. I’m like, what the fuck. I don’t worship Satan, that’s not the point.

Should atheists support the LGBTQ rights movement because of their atheism?

Definitely. I think we’re all people that have been discriminated against. Atheists are one of the most discriminated-against groups today. There still hasn’t been a single member of Congress that was openly an atheist. It’s considered political suicide to be an atheist. There’s definite discrimination on a broader spectrum. The validity of it is being questioned, just like a lot of other minority identities. And we can really gain a lot by working with each other. For an atheist who is also queer, that ends up making it a lot harder for them in every form. [For example,] if they grow up in a conservative family, they’ll have enough on their plate for being queer, and if they’re also atheist they get all this other baggage of discrimination. So there’s a lot of overlap.

Do you think that if you had been only trans or only an atheist, but not both, that your family and your community would have reacted better?

Only an atheist, definitely. I mean, they reacted negatively, but the fact is that it wasn’t as big of a [deal] as being trans. If I would have been just trans, in my community specifically, it’s a lot more cult-y. You have to fit in more. They don’t have an understanding of trans people. I’m visibly trans. I think it might be a bit different than being just an atheist. For me, to some extent, being an atheist while leaving the community and transitioning was too much.

How can an atheist who is straight and cisgender be an ally to you?

Just by putting themselves out there and saying, “We are allies.” Not just being a cis, straight ally, [but] being an ally because they are atheist, saying, “We know what it’s like to be a minority. We know what it’s like to get hate for our identity.” In addition, it would be really good to have more support groups for LGBTQ people that are run by specific nonreligious organizations. In general, I even find that a lot of queer people end up being really spiritual. So for people who don’t believe in God, they don’t feel comfortable in a lot of these spaces. It’s important to have a humanistic LGBTQ support group, or specifically atheist. I think it’s also important to be aware that trans people come in all different forms, which includes all different forms of religious communities. Know that people who are not just atheist but have an additional minority identity really struggle. They need more support.

Please consider contributing to the Kickstarter here! We can’t do this without you.

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