Category Archives: book reading

Dying Real: Honoring Queer Relationships and the Gender Variant Body at the End of Life

In the Oscar-winning movie “Departures,” Yojiro Takita shows traditional Japanese customs for preparing bodies for casketing prior to cremation. The art is beautiful, precise and utterly respectful of the deceased. From the very first scene, however, the movie-going audience’s expectations of the “traditional” are ruffled. First, the film shows a contemporary Japanese society in which rather than family members, professionals hired by the funeral parlor prepare the body. Second, the lovely young woman being prepared for burial is revealed to have elements of male anatomy.


After a discreet moment of surprise, the “casketers” offer the family a choice: Which way shall we make up the deceased, as a man or as a woman? The family honors the life of the deceased by choosing to prepare her as a woman. After the service, the father bows before the casketers in gratitude for restoring the memory of his child’s smile, lost during many years of family estrangement. Restoration of the smile allowed the father to recognize that happiness was found through her life’s choices.

Traditional Jewish tahara (ritual preparation of a body for burial) does not offer a gender choice; the sex of a body is determined by the appearance of the genitals, and gender is assumed to map directly to sex. Men prepare males for burial; women prepare females. While tachrichim (shrouds) are simple garments, there are minor gender differences. Male bodies are buried in shrouds designed for men. If the scenario from “Departures” had taken place in a Jewish funeral home, with a Jewish woman revealed in death to have male genitals, tradition dictates that the woman would be prepared by men and dressed in a male shroud.

If a person who lived a female life is buried as a man, no one will see, since only the burial society and the next of kin see the body from the time of death until the time of interment. Nevertheless, tradition seems to point in the wrong direction: Disavowing a female role dishonors the life of the deceased. The highest ethic of the burial society is kavod ha-meit/meitah (honor the male or female deceased), but in the scenario I have proposed, tradition would trump honor.

Death may come suddenly. What if a person has no time to set the expectations of the community for the unique requirements of a body? Can a family that rejected a person’s choices during life dictate the burial and funeral rituals undertaken at the time of death? Since in many states, sex-changed partners are allowed to marry heterosexually, it is also possible that the legal wife of a transsexual man might lose any right to communally mourn a lifelong partnership once the deceased is revealed to be transgender. What if a religious family undertook the burial of a not-so-religious child? Whose wishes take priority?

One of the goals possible for a transgender life is to be viewed as “real” — to be seen as a “real boy,” like Pinocchio. What will it take for transgender individuals to die real — recognized as the gender they lived?

Tradition can be kinder than it appears. Burial societies operate with a surprising amount of autonomy. While rabbinic authorities are often consulted to guide the tahara team onsite during difficult decisions, the rabbi most intimate with the family is often engaged with the surviving family members. Because of a history of condemnation rooted in the biblical prohibitions against cross-dressing and inducing sterility, the rabbi will likely not be privy to the gender status of the deceased. So when the time arrives for a decision about how to handle such a body, the team must make its own decision, while holding fast to the ethic of kavod ha meit. Given the autonomy of the burial society and the ethic of kavod ha meit, it is unlikely that a person who lives an entire life in a gender other than the one he or she was assigned at birth will have the accomplishments of that life dishonored at death. While the official position of tradition suggests intolerance, local custom and the relative autonomy of the burial society can provide opportunities for humane, appropriate treatment of gender-variant bodies.

Earlier this year, at Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”), the annual conference for burial societies, I met Lynn Greenhough, one of the organization’s founding members and the wife of a transgender man. Greenhough has a dozen years of experience as a member of a burial society; she’s seen many faces of death, and she has seen the principle of kavod ha-meit operating in many challenging situations. Greenhough assured me that while each Hevra Kadisha (“burial society”) operates according to tradition and is guided by a community’s customs, all bodies are treated with respect. Even so, education, living wills and other legal documentation help prepare members of burial societies for unique bodies. For burial societies, education about transgender bodies might have ramifications for the living as well as for the deceased: Education about compassion for human differences at the end of life might help transgender Jews be more accepted during their lives.

Gay Grief

On August 1, two Israelis were shot and killed at a drop-in center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. The press carried stories about the Tel Aviv center being a safe space for teenagers who had not yet found the spiritual strength to disclose their G,L,B or T identity to their parents.

Memorial services were held for Nir Katz, 26, and Liz Trubeshi, 16, in communities across the globe, but I found myself wondering about Liz’s funeral. About Nir’s. Were their bodies reverenced as other Jewish children’s bodies would have been? I thought about the grief of family members, but I also wondered if either one of the deceased had friends who were excluded. I wondered if the identities of the deceased were commemorated at their funerals — in Nir’s case, as a gay man who counseled others in the coming-out process, and in Liz’s, as an ally to the GLBT community, with many queer friends. I read with sorrow the report stating that after hearing where the attack had taken place, the parents of one young man would not visit him at the hospital where he lay injured.

As members of GLBT communities live Jewish lives across the spectrum of Jewish practice, we build compassion by focusing on similarities between our lives and the lives of other Jews. We, too, get married and raise children and work at our jobs. Throughout our lives, we support our communities. We age; our spouses die. We grieve.

Here is where the similarities end. While all deaths and family mourning are unique, transgender bodies and gay grieving tell a more complicated story, a story that cannot be covered over by efforts to assimilate our lives in heterosexual, gender-normative communities. While normative expectations may paper over some differences during our lifetime, our death and our mourning sing of our differences. Let that song not be solely a lamentation, but a Kaddish exulting in the diversity of lives our God created.

Noach Dzmura edited “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community”(North Atlantic Books), now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Article can be found at:

Bear Bergman – The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

Multiple award-winning writer, performer, gender-jammer and instigator S Bear Bergman returns to Columbus after a two year hiatus with hir new book, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You.
Alternately unsettling and affirming, devastating and delicious, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You is a new collection of essays on gender and identity that’s irrevocably honest and endlessly illuminating. With humour and grace, Bergman spins stories from women’s spaces to the old boys’ network, from gay male bathhouses to lesbian potlucks, from being a child to preparing to have one; and throughout shows just what kind of things you learn when you’re visibly queer to the naked eye.

As usual, expect digressions, jokes, off-label stories, time for questions and reckless flirting.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

7:30pm, doors open at 7pm

Club Diversity, 863 S High St Columbus, OH

Pay What You Can, suggested donation $10. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Can I Bring My…?
Dog: No.
Kid: No.
Folks: Yes.

Columbus Dispatch: The son also surprises – Memoir recounts troubled bond between Ernest and Gregory Hemingway

Note: John Hemingway will discuss his memoir and “all things Ernest” at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the film/video theater of the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. The free event will be followed by a book-signing. Call 614-292-0330.
Columbus Dispatch, OH, USA

The son also surprises – Memoir recounts troubled bond between Ernest and Gregory Hemingway

Sunday, February 15, 2009 7:30 AM
By Bill Eichenberger

Throughout his life and in the nearly half century since he shot himself in the head with a shotgun in 1961, Ernest Hemingway has symbolized machismo for many Americans.

His grandson, John Hemingway, son of Gregory Hemingway, sees things differently.

“You think Nobel Prize winner. You think hunting. You think fishing. You think Cuba. You think drinking. You think women. You think four wives,” he said recently by phone. (The author of the memoir Strange Tribe will appear Tuesday at the Wexner Center for the Arts.)

“But there was another side to him, a feminine side, what Ernest called ‘the other half of the sky,’ that is equally important.”

Like his famous father, Gregory Hemingway (1931-2001) was bipolar and suffered from depression.

Ernest was fascinated by human sexuality and, especially, by androgyny. Gregory was a cross-dresser who, at 64, had a sex-change operation.

Grandson John — who was born a year before Ernest died — takes his memoir’s title from an encounter recalled by his father. Walking in on his son as Gregory was putting on his mother’s nylons, Ernest empathized, “We are from a strange tribe, you and I.”

In Strange Tribe, John argues that far from being polar opposites, and despite frequently having violent disagreements, Gregory and Ernest were more alike than not and were in touch with each other all their lives.

John Hemingway spoke further with The Dispatch.

Q: Your father was a troubled man. Your mother, Alice, was troubled as well, wasn’t she?

A: Yes, she suffered from schizophrenia. That was one of the hardest parts about writing Strange Tribe — being forced to remember the voices she heard inside her head. Her wanting to give us up to the Catholic Church so she could become a nun. Reliving that was all very painful.

Q: Is yours a book of blame?

A: No. I think Ernest and Greg were both flawed fathers. But name a father who isn’t flawed. The book is about understanding their flaws and knowing that they did the best they could for their sons given the limitations imposed on them by the difficulties they had with their mental health.

At the end of writing the memoir, it was as if I were looking at one of those old black-and-white photos, and I wanted so much to go back in time and to help them. But, of course, . . . you can’t.

Q: More than a half dozen Hemingways have written memoirs about Papa. Was it daunting to follow them?

A: Not really, because I was trying to do something none of them had done before. I was at the annual Hemingway conference in 2006, and the scholars on one panel were talking about my father, who had always contended that he and Ernest had a falling-out and that the two hadn’t
spoken at all during the last 10 years of Ernest’s life.

I was the last to speak, and I said — and it was sort of a funny moment — “Well, I have all these letters from my father to Ernest, and so it is very clear that, yes, indeed, they did maintain a
relationship until near the very end.”

Q: But that relationship was fraught with anger, wasn’t it? In one letter, Gregory says he’d like to smash Ernest’s head on the pavement until he was dead.

A: Yes, that’s true. Those letters just come right at you. But there’s another side: when my father was in hospital in Miami (from one of his bouts with mental illness) in ’57 and Ernest came up from Cuba to get him out to see if he was OK and to take him to the house in Key West. What more could a father do?

For as long as he could and to the best of his abilities, he was there for his son.

Q: You’ve said that you couldn’t have written your memoir until after your first child, Michael, was born. Why?

A: Psychologically, you are still a son until you become a father. I think women are more prepared for this than are men. Your child is born and it’s “My God, what’s this?”

It’s a strong psychological thing. At that point, something changes, and if you’re smart enough or lucky enough, the experience allows you to look beyond your navel and finally to free yourself from that father-son relationship that, for me, began back in the 1960s.

After my son, and then my daughter, Jackie, were born, it gave me a better sense of what my dad went through and what Ernest went through before him.

Q: What’s the most poignant thing about that experience?

A: The feeling that Ernest had of understanding his son, Gregory, but not being able to do anything to help him. It must have been a feeling of utter helplessness.

• John Hemingway will discuss his memoir and “all things Ernest” at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the film/video theater of the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. The free event will be followed by a book-signing. Call 614-292-0330 or visit.

(c)2009, The Columbus Dispatch