This week in our Torah portion, Toldot, we return to the saga of Jacob and Esau once again – two brothers fighting over the affection of their parents and over their own gender identities as well. Last year, I shared the following about their plight as a way of delving into the evolving way gender is seen in our society: “On the surface, Esau seems to exemplify masculinity, and yet there are things within that societal construct he is clearly uncomfortable with. Jacob, on the other hand, looks and acts nothing like a typical male in that ancient society. He is artistic, and sensitive, a thinker and not a doer. Each brother seems imprisoned in an identity neither wants to embrace.”
I wrote those words just after taking a course on gender language taught by professor Dr. Andrea Jacobs out of Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. For a warm up activity she had us break up into two groups and make a list of qualities we associate with men and women in our society.
I was with the women’s group and we wrote things like: cooperative, self-effacing, and maternal. In the men’s group the list included: strong, stoic, broad shoulders and facial hair. After looking over both our lists, Dr. Jacobs pointed out the many things on each list that each of us would not identify with. Who we are expected to be is often different than who we actually are. Dr. Jacobs outlines the struggle many in our society face when their gender attribution (how others see them) and their gender identity (how they see themselves) do not align.
When I signed up for the convention where the class was offered, I was asked to indicate my pronoun preference – i.e. he/him, she/her, they/them. This was something new for me, and a little off putting, but after taking Dr. Jacobs class I could understand the reasons behind it. By introducing ourselves by our name and by our pronoun preference, we are indicating we want to meet people where they are. In the millennial world, listing pronoun preferences has become a normative activity. For the rest of us it was brand new. Dr. Jacobs encouraged us to experiment and to be willing to make a mistake. This is a small price to pay to ensure all of us, whether he, she or they, feel accepted in our society.