U.K. Jews, Muslims and Christians Embrace God and Broad Gender Expression

The 'Twilight People' project explores the unique experiences of transgender and gender-variant individuals from a cross-section of faith communities.

Photographer Christa Holka at the opening of the "Twilight People" exhibition in Islington, North London on February 5, 2016.
Em Fitzgerald

Borrowing from Jewish tradition, the pioneering transgender rabbi Reuben Zellman offered a special prayer for Transgender Day of Remembrance. “We are many identifies and loves, many genders and none,” he wrote, adding the blurred space between day and night as a metaphor: “Blessed are You, God of all, who brings on the twilight.”

This new prayer, known as “Twilight People,” inspired the title of a project recently launched in the United Kingdom and comprising photographs, film, oral history and memorabilia that share the stories and experiences of transgender and gender-variant people from a cross-section of faith communities.

In a small community museum in Islington, a section of North London synonymous with liberalism, the exhibition “Twilight People: Stories of Gender and Faith Beyond the Binary,” supported by the National Lottery, introduces viewers to several individuals whose gender identity is in conversation, and sometimes in conflict, with their faith.

Depicted in photographs are Christina, an ordained priest in the Church of England who describes herself as “a woman with a transsexual history,” and Layla in a hijab, grasping a Koran, who identifies as a trans woman. Another woman named Umber identifies as a “Muslim, queer, Pakistani-British feminist,” and says of herself: “I’m like a series of identities that somehow come together” – which aptly expresses the sentiment of the entire project.

The driving force behind the exhibition is Surat-Shaan Knan, a longtime Jewish LGBTQ activist who appears in the exhibition with a blue, white and pink transgender flag wrapped across his shoulders like a tallit – “Exactly how I looked at Tel Aviv Pride last year,” he told Haaretz.

Knan, who identifies as trans masculine, is something of a pioneer in the field. He launched Rainbow Jews in 2012, a project which documented Jewish LGBT history in the United Kingdom from the 1950s to the present, and he also organized a photographic exhibition called “Through a Queer Lens,” featuring portraits of LGBTQ Jews; it is currently on display at the Jewish Museum in Camden, North London.

Surat-Shaan Knan, a longtime Jewish LGBTQ activist, at the "Twilight People" exhibition in Islington, North London, Feb. 5, 2016.
Mary Humphrey

'Trans tipping point'

Working with other LGBTQ people of faith and documenting the history of that intersection proved a source of support for Knan on his own journey. “To realize that I could be both trans and Jewish was completely revelatory and a breakthrough in my own journey,” he said. “I found a way to be my own authentic self.”

Times are changing rapidly, explained Knan, pointing to what he called a “trans tipping point,” marked by increased visibility for trans people in the media and popular culture, perhaps best illustrated by Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover last year.

“Whatever you think about Caitlyn Jenner, she opened up the discussion,” Knan said.

Film and television also seem preoccupied with the issue: The Oscar-nominated film “The Danish Girl” depicts the transition of an artist in the 1920s; the TV series “Transparent” has been hailed for its portrayal of a Jewish father-of-three coming out as a woman; the hit U.S. drama “Orange is the New Black” has made a star of the trans actress Laverne Cox, while featuring a number of gender-fluid characters; and the BBC joined in with its own trans-themed sitcom, “Boy Meets Girl.”

Despite the mainstream visibility, “Twilight People” highlights how people of faith sometimes feel marginalized not only in religious communities, but also in the LGBTQ community as well.

“I experience as much discrimination in the LGBTQI community because of my faith as I do in my faith organizations because of my sexuality and gender identity,” the exhibition quotes Sharon (Shanon) Ferguson, a minister in the Metropolitan Community Church.

That’s an experience that Knan can relate to as well. “I’ve been bullied online in Jewish networks as well as LGBTQ networks,” he said. “Faith and religion are still stigmatized in many LGBTQI communities. To come out as a person of faith is not always welcome – it’s seen as old-fashioned and weird.”

At the same time, religion can also prove a source of support. “Having something spiritual to turn to can really help,” said Abi, who identifies as an intersex member of the trans community, in the exhibition. “I like to go into synagogue, be a proud person, sit down and be happy to wave the flag for the trans community within the Jewish community.”

For many years, Knan has been involved with Liberal Judaism, a progressive movement in the United Kingdom that has long been supportive of LGBTQ issues. He is involved in on-going discussions about adapting rituals, such as a non-gendered “bart-mitzvah.”

“I’m going to have one” if they are instated, he said, adding that he envisions it as part of a panoply of “non-gendered or inclusive ceremonies and rituals open to everyone.”

As may be expected, attitudes toward gender expression shift drastically along generational lines. Young people in their teens and twenties seem increasingly unperturbed by concepts of gender fluidity. Knan notes that Liberal Judaism’s youth movement, LJY-Netzer, has not felt any need to include specific LGBTQ-inclusive language because the phenomenon is already so widely accepted.

At a recent summer camp of the movement, for example, two counselors who had recently come out as trans were easily accommodated in the dorms of the gender they identified with. There were some educational discussions on the subject but otherwise, nobody made a fuss.

“Everyone is included," said Knan. "This is the future of Judaism in our community.”