Originally published on SD Jewish News and World
I learned of Gavin through a comment he made on my Facebook page. He remarked there ought to be Birthright Trips for older people, especially Jews like him, ones who learn of their heritage later in life. Because I love stories of Jewish self-discovery, I reached out to Gavin to talk about his Jewish experience. As I spoke to Gavin, the simple story quickly become complex. The more complex the story became, the more interesting his story was to me. Interesting people are rarely simple, living simple lives. Gavin is no exception.
In his fifties, Gavin Wyer went through a process of freedom and liberation, in some ways, not unlike Pesach. Religious holidays like Hanukkah, Pesach, and the Muslims’ Ramadan are holidays that take a person on a journey that changes them each year in little ways. Pesach, for instance, takes a Jew through a figurative reliving of a transition from bondage to freedom. Through the multi-day process, the holiday makes people think and ponder their history, their people’s history and their connection to God and other people in their life. Gavin’s story was also a journey of liberation from the woman he thought he should be, to the Jewish man he really was and the work it would take to realize what was there all along.
But let us go back to how it all began: Gavin was born in San Jose to an American father and Canadian mother. Soon after, they moved to San Francisco where his parents divorced and Gavin at the age of three, moved with his mother to her native Canada. Growing up with a brother, two half-sisters and a half-brother, there were two things that Gavin wasn’t allowed to do: look into Judaism and question his gender identity. He lived with the mentality of avoidance for 52 years: he got married to a man, had children, and divorced, twice. At 31 Gavin made a step towards his true self, he came out as a lesbian. He moved to a remote part of Regina Saskatchewan at 35 where he worked in corrections. By fifty, most people seem like they have had things figured out. For Gavin, a life of never quite fitting in culminated at this point where he would face his greatest challenges and changes.
At 52, Gavin happened to see Chaz Bono on TV. Chaz is Sonny and Cher’s son who had gone through a female to male transition. For the first time, Gavin could see who he really was, something he knew since as far back he could remember but was forced to hide and pretend. Seeing Chaz, the door opened to self-realization to become who he truly is: “That’s me, this is who I am!” he said to himself. Because even though Gavin was divorced and living as a lesbian, he always felt that this identity didn’t fit him. All of his life Gavin felt that he failed as a woman. It never fit. In fact, when he was seven months pregnant, a maternity store clerk called him a “Sir”. “How many pregnant men do you have coming to this place?” he said to her. Even when he was a lesbian woman and men at his work asked him for advice with women, Gavin’s response was: “I have no idea.” He simply couldn’t relate or understand women even after years of living with them. However, seeing Chaz Bono gave him that final insight into who he really was, and with that insight and clarity, Gavin’s transformation began.
Although the physical change was not without its hardships and complications, the psychological transition was “by far more difficult” and not necessarily because of other people’s reactions. For instance, Even though a prison is a place of violence and macho aggression, Gavin felt immediate acceptance and respect from co-workers and prisoners when they learned of his choice to accept his male identity. The transition overall was difficult emotionally, not because Gavin had to learn to act like a man, but because difficulty lay in determining what kind of man he wanted to be, something that most men figure out over the course of their lives, but Gavin had to figure it out within a matter of months. He quickly realized that calm, quiet people are those whom he respected and that example he learned to follow.
In spite of those difficulties, what Gavin did not account for and which took a great emotional toll on him was that coming to terms with one truth about himself would require coming to terms with all truths. What Gavin did not foresee was that the most important challenge he would face was coming to terms with Judaism.
Gavin’s relationship with Judaism is similar to that of many modern Jews: complicated from an early age. One of his earliest Jewish memories was as a child. Somewhere in the house was a book with a Star of David. When his mother saw him with it she slapped him and threw the book in the fireplace and told him that he was to have nothing to do with Judaism. He doesn’t know why she acted this way, she was not antisemitic. He thinks perhaps a feud with his grandmother caused the reaction. Whatever the reason, the traumatic experience made him run from Judaism for the rest of his adult life. When a high school boyfriend invited him to a dinner with his parents and Gavin realized it was Shabbat from the candles and religious regalia around the house, he abruptly left and joined a Christian club the next day. He took a religious studies course in college and skipped the lecture on Judaism. He continued to run from Judaism until the day it all changed.
In Regina, Canada where Gavin lived during the time he began his transition, he had a mentor to help him with the process. One day his mentor said that he wouldn’t be available for a few days due to the High Holidays. Gavin realized that his mentor was Jewish and his first reaction was to run. However, for the first time, Gavin decided to not react and analyze his reaction. Gavin decided to explore this desire to run from Judaism. “What’s going on?” he asked himself. “Why am I running from this?” When he mentioned this to his mentor Joel (not a real name), Joel’s very Jewish response was: “I think you might be Jewish.” Gavin didn’t believe it. This idea seemed absurd. However, Gavin decided to go online and learn about Judaism. As Gavin learned about Judaism, he realized that he felt a kinship to morality, to people, to history and the religion.
Gavin’s next step was to call a rabbi for a talk. When they met, he told his story and the rabbi laughed and said: “Of course this makes sense, you’re Jewish!” This reaction was baffling to Gavin but he wasn’t persuaded, he decided to hire a genealogist. The genealogist mirrored the rabbi and without any prior sleuthing agreed with what everyone else said: “You’re Jewish.” The genealogist explained that in his experience, 100% of the time, a suspicion of being Jewish resulted in finding Jewish roots. With Gavin, however, the story was a bit more complicated. His father’s family came from Germany. It was thought that they changed the pronunciation of the name from German “Veyer” to Whyer in order to mask themselves as Swedes. However, the genealogist thought that this might be a false lead as they found that part of the family to be living in the US for five generations, making it impossible for them to be from Nazi-era Germany. On his mother’s side, things were even murkier.
Gavin’s grandmother who had passed long ago was Christian and vehemently denied being Jewish. She changed her name, refused to discuss family history and died before he could find out her past. No one knows why she did this, one theory is that this behavior is common in many survivors of large trauma. Heavy trauma sometimes caused people to close up about their past. One can understand this when taking into account that when his grandmother was growing up, America was a less inclusive place for Jews. At that time being Jewish could cost people jobs, exclude them from educational opportunities and make it difficult to find a place to live. Many people in the United States and Canada hid their Jewish past if they could.
They seemed to hit a dead end. However, as Gavin learned about Judaism, he realized that while Hebrew had no effect on him, Yiddish did; old memories resurfaced. He remembered a large gathering a little after his little brother’s birth, and his baby brother crying. He remembered old Yiddish words that his grandmother used to say and holidays where food was restricted and eating bread that they never cut but always ripped with their hands. Gavin reached out to his siblings with whom he lost touch and he was surprised to find out that they were battling the same issues: years earlier his half-sister also searched for her Jewish past and while she did not find anything, his brother embraced the Jewish life. These revelations, even in the absence of Jewish genealogy, told Gavin everything he needed to know and felt to be true. The new revelation about himself made Gavin angry. He was angry at God for doing this to him, especially at this time: “Are you kidding me? I’m in transition!” He said to himself when first facing the possibility of being Jewish. What made acceptance easier was a list Gavin wrote many years ago “25 Things About Me.” He remembered how when he read the list, he could not stop the tears from flowing because not one thing on that list was true anymore. He realized that everything he thought was permanent and core to who he was at the time, was in fact not unchanging and not ever-present. However, Judaism, whether he accepted it or not, was a core part of him. Gavin decided to accept it and go through the conversion process to make it official.
This return to Judaism coincided with Gavin’s move to Victoria, British Columbia, after the completion of a serious operation. His return to Judaism was physically easier but emotionally tougher than his gender return. Gavin had to learn everything about his people’s history and face the broad opinions that exist in Judaism. On the other hand, for the first time in his life, he felt he had a culture and a people, something that when he had asked his mother about, she always denied. Here was his birthright, something that he was born to and would finally have.
Accepting Judaism did not make things easier for Gavin; life’s roads are never smooth. After studying under a supervision of a rabbi, Gavin joined a Conservative synagogue in Victoria. While his synagogue seemed to be welcoming to him and his identity, Gavin was troubled when he noticed that other converts were sailing through the process while his conversion was continuously delayed. When he asked the rabbi, there was always a reason for a delay: the rabbi was busy, or it was a bad time, or he was traveling or it’s the holidays. Gavin began to feel a bit like the Shabbos Goy, helping synagogue setup the kiddush on the Sabbath but never accepted as a Jew. When he mentioned this to one of the community members, the member became uncomfortable and attempted to relax Gavin by saying: “There’s nothing bad about being a Shabbos Goy.” This sent Gavin over the edge. Gavin felt a frustration that many converts and half-Jews feel of not feeling acceptance by the world and the Jewish community. One quiet day at the synagogue, the feelings boiled over to the point where he ripped his kippah off and threw it at the bima in front of the ark. The kippah flew with the precision of a plastic bag and undramatically landed at his feet. He then threw his Magen-David necklace and yelled: “I’m not Jewish!!!” And walked out.
As days passed and there was time for reflection, Gavin realized that being Jewish is something that one is and is not something that one can cast off. No matter how hard it might be, regardless of the treatment from Jews or non-Jews, being Jewish is something that is within you because it is you. Gavin realized that no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t stop being Jewish just as he couldn’t stop being a man. Gavin said, “This is not something I can deny and believe me, I tried.” Gavin went back to the synagogue and found his Magen David, still on the floor, waiting for him.
Learning about Gavin, I realized how important it is to discern between Judaism as a religion and as an ethnicity. To some, both are important, to some they cannot see past religion while others stay away from religion. For Gavin, the religion was important and this slight from his synagogue was the final straw. Yet, instead of turning his back on his heritage and religion, he chose to approach a different rabbi: if some in the community were not ready for people like him, it was on him to find those who embraced him.
It was just Gavin’s luck that a rabbi he met in California when he first became Jewish- curious, had recently moved from Boston to Seattle. The rabbi had also gone through the gender reassignment process and she was happy to help. With her, Gavin went through the final conversion, with an all-trans Beit-Din, something the rabbi believed to be a historic first.
After conversion, Gavin felt no ill feelings towards his community in Victoria and returned to the synagogue where he was accepted as a Halachic Jew. However, for some time after, Gavin could not shake the feeling that he wasn’t always treated as fully equal. Then one day, one of the children at the synagogue came out as trans while preparing for Bar Mitzvah. Perhaps it is because the times are changing, or maybe it was because of Gavin having been at the Synagogue all those years, that her friends, rather than removing themselves from her, embraced their friend with their support through the transition. The girl completed her bat mitzvah and afterward, Gavin felt that members of the synagogue became more accepting of him as well.
Gavin also never blamed the rabbi. He understood that the rabbi did what he could at a time when society itself was different. He stayed at the synagogue and continued to be himself, and because of people like him who lived their truth, he helped the synagogue and in a small way, society change as well. In a sense, they all transitioned: Gavin, the synagogue, and even society transitioned over time from a prison of a body and a prison of a mind. Similarly to how the Jewish people transitioned from a prison in their own land during Hanukkah, during Yom Kippur, or Pesach. Freedom passed like the light from shamash to the rest of the candles, from Gavin to the synagogue.
At the beginning of the transition, he found that there were many small but important details that required thought and change. One of those details was what would his granddaughters call him. Grandmother? Grandfather? This discussion occurred about a week before Gavin’s Jewish discovery began, which made his Jewish discovery all the more poignant because one of the granddaughters resolved the issue with one word: “saba!” It made so much sense, but how did she know this word which meant grandfather in Hebrew, Gavin asked his daughter. “I don’t know why, but she really wants to learn Hebrew” Gavin’s daughter told him.
Sadly, the path to acceptance is not always direct or pleasant. It is common for people in the trans community to lose their families as a result of announcing their truth, and Gavin was no exception. Although his kids were accepting at first, once the physical changes began to take shape, they began to feel that they were losing their mother. In spite of being part of the LGBTQ movement, they could not face Gavin in his new form and became estranged from him for many years.
But all things heal with time: recently, Gavin’s daughter got in touch with him about their genealogy. As with Gavin’s children, not all people in our society and community accept people like Gavin, but with time, like the Jews who followed Moshe who also needed time to accept their freedom and break the bonds of slavery, they will embrace the freedom of acceptance, and accept all people into the human brotherhood.
Poem by Gavin Wyer
Is this my birthright
to stand with these men
whose sacred brotherhood
goes across time and space
to the very beginning of G-d
and whose unrelenting pain
scars the souls of all men?
Is their truth also mine
in a final deception cleared
and long awaited homecoming
beckoning from generations lost?
Is my final name revealed
to be known at last as one
and claim this heavy burden
of title drenched in blood
to join the endless chain
of unbroken family pride
that comes at such a cost
and gives no quarter?
Is this the secret knowledge
tattooed upon my soul
that my bone and blood and skin
remember still in quiet places
where G-d awaits discovery?
Does this thing lay claim to me
while I yet with hesitance
explore forbidden texts
only to find name unspoken
resides within the seeking?
(c) Gavin Wyer