Singular They: On Judaism, Tumtum, and Inhabiting a Genderqueer Identity

Those that know me in almost any capacity nowadays know and understand that my gender is a confusing topic full of twists and turns and quite a lot of anger at cisgender people. I was raised male, using he, him, his pronouns, and I consider that upbringing to be unintentionally coercive. It’s not that my parents tried to raise me as something other than what I was, that was just the effect of their childrearing. Intent vs. Impact is a helluvah drug.

I didn’t know that there was anything other than male or female. From a young age I’ve known that I didn’t fit into either which caused a lot of distress and unease. I developed dysphoria around my body hair, my lack of an estrogen-bodied shape (especially breasts), and my voice. I’m lucky in that my dysphoria does not spread to my genitals beyond what I do with them.

Despite all that, my tendencies toward either male or female wax and wane on their own, detached from each other.

It’s not like having a single scale that balances male on one side, female on the other, but rather two individual scales that represent the weight of that gender. This is, quite simply, the best and clearest analogy that I have to explain my gender. The male and female parts of me don’t exist or shift in opposition, but rather in tandem. Generally I get into a rhythm and this makes it relatively simple for me to interact with my own gender and the world around me. Occasionally I’m all outta whack and it changes moment to moment, or I inhabit multiple genders or none.

In essence, the concept of genderfluidity really resonates with me because that’s what my experience is like. Please, no corny “I’ll show you some gender fluids…” jokes, I can promise you’ve I’ve heard (almost) all of them. They’re really only funny from other genderfluid folks, anyway.

As a Jew (Ashkenazi by ethnic background as well as Jewish in religious practice again), I’ve struggled with the rigid gender binary inherent (or so I thought) in Judaism. Even Hebrew, the sacred language of my people, has no construct or understanding for genders outside of masculine and feminine. Inanimate objects are given gender, too, and conjugation of verbs is heavily dependant on the gender of the noun(s) they are describing.

Still in the part of my own identity formation that requires me to reconcile my gender with every other aspect of me, I hungered for something that would fix what I saw as an irrevocable divide between my spirituality and who I am. A lot of this I took care of on my own, rationalizing using what basic Jewish-middle-school and interested-college-kid theology I possessed to create a brilliant argument.

And then I came across the concepts of tumtum and androgynos, saris and ay’lonit. These are four (of the six) recognized genders in Judaism, according to the mishnah. Oh yes. Six. Nekevah, Zachar, Saris, Ay’lonit, Tumtum and Androgynos. To put it crudely and without adequate explanation, Nekevah and Zachar are cisgender women and men, respectively, while Saris and Ay’lonit are transgender women and men, respectively.

Tumtum and Androgynos are non-binary (or rather, gender-ambiguous) identities. Androgynos was a familiar concept, actually, harkening back to the days where I identified as an androgyne in my own world so sealed off that not even my boyfriend at the time knew. Indeed, in Judaism the concept of androgynos is one of a person whose genitalia are ambiguous or mixed (e.g. a person with a penis and ovaries).

But this tumtum concept? This was life-changing for me. Absolutely life-changing. Tumtum is a gender identity where a person’s sex characteristics are indeterminate or obscured (pdf).

Indeterminate or obscured. Hell. Checking with my dysphoria and what my body would be like and how I would interact with the world, with sex, with other people and with myself were it to be fixed?

Yes. The only word is yes.

The halacha around tumtum identities are, of course, quite complex. Indeed, the law doesn’t view them as either male or female, but potentially male and female. That is: tumtum is to the outside observer a state of unknowing, of unsurety around the person’s sex and/or gender. Because of this tumtum individuals are held to the strictest laws for both nekevah and zachar. Where a law is stricter on men than women, a tumtum follows those dictates and where a law is stricter on women than men, a tumtum follows those dictates.

I’m probably explaining it poorly for anyone that’s not suitably Jewish or up on their understanding of halacha in general. Likewise I’m probably explaining it poorly for anyone who has a more in-depth understanding of halacha and Jewish law/theology in general. I’m an imperfect being and I suggest studying more if it interests you.

For the past few months I’ve been “living as tumtum.” What does that mean? How is that different? Well. In reality it’s not remarkably different at all. What it has meant is a greater sense of comfort in myself and who I am. It’s created this tremendous ease with which I navigate my gender, this mixture of ambivalence and playfulness that I’d lost and have been trying to get back for… geeze, almost years now.

Most of all that one line has reinforced what’s always felt right. My gender is my own and fuck those that assume it. They can’t know. They don’t need to know. I know.

Hi, I’m Fluffy. My pronouns are they, them, theirs. It’s wonderful to meet you.


About Michael Robinson

An eclectic person living in a world rife with binaries, opposition, anger and pain and trying to find the spectra, love, happiness and catharsis within.
This entry was posted in Creative Non-Fiction, Creative Writing, Disclosure/Coming Out, Educational, Essay, Gender, Orientation, queer, QUILTBAG, Religion, Sex and Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Singular They: On Judaism, Tumtum, and Inhabiting a Genderqueer Identity

  1. Pheonix says:

    I’m so glad you found a way to live comfortably with this new sense of self! Putting a name to something isn’t everything, but in this case I imagine it would help a great deal.

  2. Pingback: Not all who claim manhood are men. Not all who are men claim manhood. | Eclectic Discourse

  3. Pingback: Bereshit – בראשית | Eclectic Discourse

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