Intersection of Queer and Religious Identity — Emerson Cronheim-Strasser

Traditionally, queer and religious identities are seen as mutually exclusive – one cannot exist alongside the other as their values are in contradiction. As a Jewish trans man, I struggled to feel whole and authentic in both of these identities. There are two valued principles in Judaism that have allowed me to validate and uphold this existence.

B’tzelem Elohim [בצלמ אלוהים] translates to: “in the image of G-d”. We are all created b’tzelem Elohim regardless of our differences. If we are in G-d’s image, then in some way, G-d must also be in our image. They must reflect our diverse identities, abilities, imperfections, and flaws. Judaism carefully and concretely refrains from depicting G-d as human-like and or in any physical form. Consequently, b’tzelem Elohim must embody the soul rather than one’s physical presence. Gender mirrors this trajectory as it is an identity that resides within someone as opposed to just on the surface.

I have transitioned socially as well as medically which has included hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and top surgery. These medical technologies have allowed me to actualize my gender identity more fully and have enabled me to live in my body more comfortably. Because G-d’s image is immaterial and spiritual, physically altering my body to match my gender identity does not obstruct or negate this image. If anything, my medical transitions have enabled a closer connection with b’tzelem Elohim.

Traditionally, bodily alterations that are not commanded by Halakhic law, or that cause unnecessary bodily harm, are frowned upon and unwelcomed in Jewish faith. Aside from circumcision, one should leave the world as they come into it. Cosmetic surgeries or permanent markings such as tattoos defy this expectation. Although utterly necessary, I feared my HRT and top surgery would in some capacity push me away from the Jewish community and religion.

However, there is another idea in Judaism, Pikuach nefesh [פקוח נפש], which translates to “preservation of life”. Saving and or preserving someone’s life takes precedence over following Halakha, Jewish law. Any Halakhic law may be broken in the event that it would save a life.

The trans community has incredibly high suicide rates among other disparaging statistics. Equitable trans-healthcare and treatment options provide increased positive life experiences and opportunities to live truly, freely, and longer.

When seeking approval to receive medical trans healthcare, one must be evaluated by a multitude of professionals to determine whether not receiving treatment would have debilitating and substantial impacts on oneself. Furthermore, they determine whether such treatments would provide life changing benefits for the recipient.

I can assuredly say receiving HRT and undergoing top surgery has saved my life and provided me with pikuach nefesh.

A beautiful aspect of Judaism, and religion generally, is that it is open to interpretation. While this facet may present itself in hate speech or discrimination, it can also be used to validate individuals’ existence and lead to a greater appreciation of oneself. Values and aspects of Judaism have enabled me to feel complete in my trans and Jewish identity. There is not a singular or correct way to exist within a religion – religion can conform to fit anyone who wishes to be a part of it.

14 thoughts on “Intersection of Queer and Religious Identity — Emerson Cronheim-Strasser”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. I am truly glad you continue to see yourself as בצלמ אלוהים and have not lost your Jewish identity through your transition. I love Judaism for these reasons too; the celebration and preservation of life gives us perspective, purpose, and freedom.

  2. I find your words to be very compelling. As a straight man, I have always found it difficult to understand or relate to the struggles of the trans community. What you wrote, however, allowed for at least a small taste of the difficulties in self identification that must be felt among the transgendered, down to the abstract of divinity itself. I greatly appreciate it.

  3. Emerson,

    Thank you for sharing your story! I think any religion and sexuality/identity can be difficult or a bit contradicting. Nonetheless, I am glad you are still finding value and at home with your jewish identity and religion.
    I absolutely loved this quote, “If we are in G-d’s image, then in some way, G-d must also be in our image,” I like that you described it as the soul of the person mattering.

  4. Emerson,

    Thank you for sharing your story! This is very well written! I think any religion and sexuality/identity can be difficult or a bit contradicting. Nonetheless, I am glad you are still finding value and at home with your jewish identity and religion.
    I absolutely loved the quote about us being in God’s image meaning God is in our image as well. I like that you described it as the soul of the person mattering as well.

  5. Emerson, thank you for sharing! I’ve recently been more exposed to some Jewish beliefs, traditions and celebrations, but I still have a lot to learn. Your post was very insightful, and I especially liked learning about Pikuach nefesh, which was something I’d previously never heard of. I think the core of Pikuach nefesh is something that can really reveal a lot about the heart and intention of God. From your description, it seems that Pikuach nefesh supports the idea that life is worth more than religious rules, which I can agree with! Based on my limited understanding of God, I’d like to believe that He feels the same, that our lives and who we are are more valuable and important in His eyes than how well we can follow rules. In my own Christian faith, I’ve seen how people relentlessly tear themselves apart trying to follow the rules perfectly. Any misstep can cause extreme anxiety and guilt. I can appreciate how Pikuach nefesh and similar beliefs refocus our attention on life itself, and in a way take the pressure off of being a “perfect” religious person — something that’s impossible! Although we as religious people should strive to be the best we can, in whatever shape or form that takes, it’s important to circle back to humility and WHY we need our God(s) and our faiths: because we cannot do this alone, and definitely cannot be perfect by any means. Thanks again!

  6. Emerson, as a gay Jewish man I am delighted to hear that you have found peace and joy with both your Jewish and queer identities. I think that one of the most powerful aspects of the Jewish view of gender and sex for me is that when God created Adam, he did so in his image. And this original Adam was both male and female, only later to become fully male when God took his female side or “rib” to make Eve. So if you think about, Adam, the first person according to the Abrahamic faiths, was also the first person to receive gender reassignment surgery, and his surgeon was God. Also, if this original Adam was made in God’s image, then surely that would mean God is both male and female, or perhaps neither? I’d love to hear what you think.

    1. I love this. I’ve never thought about Adam initially being created as both male and female, or him being the first person to receive gender reassignment surgery and G-d being his surgeon.

  7. Emerson,
    I’m so glad that you’ve gotten to a place where you can reconcile both your gender identity and your religious beliefs, as I know that this can be challenging for people no matter what religion they follow. I really liked the concept of Pikuach Nafech and how the emphasis is on saving the life of the person, rather than forcing someone to live a life that they can’t fully thrive in. Some people think that fully practicing their religion means they have to suffer or can’t fully be who they are, and I think that can make it harder to trust God and practice religion joyfully. I’m glad you haven’t felt like you need to sacrifice one thing or the other and can hold both parts of your identity.

  8. Emerson,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective and story so bravely and eloquently. Religion is used to negate people’s identity and is weaponized against people far too often, but the way you resisted that and found an even deeper connection to your religion through being yourself is very powerful.

  9. Emerson, I really thought your inverse view relating to the image of God was insightful. I like your suggestion that being closer to what you consider the truthful version of yourself inevitably brings you closer to God in that it. I think as much as people may turn to religion in times of personal strife, I think your post raises a valid point that peace can show a path back to religion in some people’s lives if they feel they may have been excluded from it.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Emerson! I think it’s awesome that you’re able to find peace in the intersection of religion and queer identity. I’m super unfamiliar with Jewish beliefs, so I really appreciate you sharing your perspective and story. Looking forward to learning more from you this year!

  11. Hi Emerson,

    This topic is so special to my heart, thank you so much for reflecting on your experiences and how you’ve found a healthy relationship between your queer and religious identities. As a lesbian who was raised Catholic, this question of how to reconcile one’s queer identity with religious institutions has been on my mind for nearly a decade as I’ve moved through religious spaces of every standpoint. Some condemned me to hell, required celibacy, were against gay marriage, told me not to come out, etc. Yet others (like the church I attend now) are wholly affirming of identity exploration and don’t view my orientation as sinful. Christian churches really run the whole gamut in terms of affirmation.
    This year, I’m co-facilitating a group on campus called Queerly Beloved, a space for queer students of faith or spiritual traditions to connect with each other. If you’re interested in maybe dropping by let me know!

    1. I’m happy you have found a Church that validates your existence and accepts you. I would love to come by Queerly Beloved, that sounds incredible!

  12. Hi Emerson!

    Thank you so much for being willing to share your story. It is truly impressive to see you keeping the connection with your religion while embracing your identity. I think it is very brave of you to continue this challenging journey 🙂

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