Zahava Barwin, who grew up in Ottawa’s Jewish community and now lives in Toronto, discusses issues of awareness, acceptance and inclusion of transgendered people.
When I am asked how long I have known, a line I hear frequently rings true, “I have known that I am transgender for as long as you have known you are not.”
We queer kids rarely get to grow up as ourselves. We grow up performing a false version of the person we are expected to be. My childhood memories are a cloudy arrangement of self-discovery, of learning that my story would be different. Before, during, and after the age of b’nai mitzvah, becoming a ‘man’ never made sense to me. As a teenager, I hid my true identity in the crevasses of the internet. For hours at a time I stared at photos of girls on my laptop, girls like me. I was aware of the treatment available but I feared immense disapproval from my peers. I internalized this transphobia. It followed me. The worst kind of hate is self-inflicted. Until my transition, I could never see myself as any sort of adult. I could not imagine growing into my true self.
My gender dysphoria, the discomfort with my assigned sex, heightened in my early 20s. I came out to my family at 24 – only when I knew I could safely be myself. Ultimately my transition was not a choice. Transition was a drastic change for me: to align my outer physical and inner spiritual self. Over the past year, I have experienced a level of growth I could not ever have imagined. I must frequently remind myself that most problems are not exclusive to being trans, but a part of being oneself. My journey as a transgender woman is an undeniable part of who I am, though it is not the entirety. My passion as a cyclist, my sense of humour, and my values did not change through my transition. I am not a wholly different person, I am a more calm, content, and fulfilled version of myself. I am who I was always supposed to be.
In Judaism we teach acceptance: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” When I think back to my attending NFTY-NEL and URJ summer camp, the overwhelming theme was to be a caring and respectful person. To be an ally. Allyship means finding ways to understand and foster compassion for those who are different from you. Voicing support often takes bravery, and the Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities are more powerful and less endangered when we work together. Schools and organizations have a responsibility to both believe and protect transgender youth. No one in my trans community has false intent when seeking to use a washroom or play on a sports team that varies from the gender they were assigned at birth.
Society must find ways to be accessible for and accommodate transgender people. What can you do? Contact your employer’s human resources department and vocalize the need for inclusion or sensitivity training to be provided. Volunteer at or donate to organizations that offer drop-in services and crisis support. Listen and ask respectful questions, read books and articles published by trans authors, consider ways to use gender-neutral language, always check with people about their pronouns. Apologize and politely correct yourself if you make an honest mistake. Uplifting the LGBTQ+ community should not be complex and difficult, however we all must engage in this conversation.
My life in Toronto can be sheltered. It is most often free from the hardships and transphobia others must face. Research done by The Trevor Project shows that of transgender adults, 40 per cent have reported making a suicide attempt, 92 per cent of those before the age of 25. This feeling of hopelessness is escalated when a person’s family does not support them in their transition.
Internationally, the level of violence and hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community is intensifying. These attacks disproportionately affect trans women and non-binary people of colour. We should not have to argue for or justify our identity, our selves, or the need for acceptance. We should simply just be accepted and our reality supported. We have always existed regardless of public awareness. Political ignorance will never erase us. My trans community will always and forever be resilient, just as the Jewish community will be. It was the visibility of trans women that gave me a feeling of safety when I needed it most. I can name countless women, sisters, who have given me more strength and inspiration than I could ever thank them for.
My name is Zahava Barwin and I am a 25-year-old transgender woman. If you have questions about how to make your daily space more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community please do not hesitate to ask. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.