Gay and God-Fearing

Guest blogger Talia bat Pessi is a teenage Femidox (feminist Orthodox) pro-Israel Jew. Her work has appeared in over 40 publications, including the Jewish Week, Ms. Magazine blog, Jerusalem Post, Girl w/ Pen!, Jewish Press, and FBomb. She’s not quite sure how she manages to find spare time, but when she does, she enjoys going to rock concerts, fuzzying with her rescue dog, eating (a lot), messing around in Photoshop, and procrastinating on the Internet.

As well as being a feminist, I am an Orthodox Jew. While I had always been active in gay rights advocacy through my feminism, I never really thought about how Orthodox individuals who are LGBT+ grapple with their sexuality. I recently did some research into this. Considering that the religious right, including the mainstream Orthodox Jewish community, is known for its anti-gay stance, it may seem surprising that there are observant Jews who also identify as LGBT+. However, they do exist.

Over the past two decades, observant LGBT+ Jews have organized in order to petition for increased recognition and inclusion within the Orthodox Jewish community. In 1994, the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association (GLYDSA) was established as a social group for Orthodox gay and lesbian Jews. Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) was created in 2001 by observant Jewish undergraduates who “were looking for other people in similar ­situations that could understand and relate to each other’s struggles” about sexuality, according to the JQY website.

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De-Queering the Fetus

recent article by Alice Dreger, Ellen K. Feder, and Anne Tamar-Mattis documents the controversial application of prenatal dexamethasone in pregnant women. The impetus for this pharmacological therapy is to stop virilization in female fetuses that may be affected by a form of congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) called 21-hydroxylase deficiency or 21-OHC CAH.

Don’t allow the medical jargon to turn you away from what’s taking place here: the steroid is administered to pregnant women with the goal of stamping out intersexed bodies while ultimately minimizing the likelihood that a female will grow to be butch, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender. Yes, you read that right. This is an ongoing medical project that is motivated by homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and cissexist ideals. Let’s back up a bit and unpack some of the medical jargon that complicates our understanding of systemic hate.

CAH is a disease of the endocrine system (the hormone regulating mainframe of the body). There are variations of CAH and the one of interest here is 21-OHC CAH. 21-OHC CAH leads to an over production of androgens, which could lead to a genetic female fetus “developing along a more masculine pathway neurologically and genitally” (5). The term for this masculinization is virilization, which manifests in many ways but can lead to masculinized female genitalia, of which is a surface motivation (e.g. justification on grant applications) for the use of prenatal dexamethasone. CAH is a serious disease and as such, every U.S. state requires that newborns be screened for it. However, at case here are fetuses that may be affected by CAH, not newborns that are affected by it. The authors expose that 87.5% of those fetuses that are exposed to prenatal dexamethasone stood no chance to benefit from the therapy at all.

Prenatal dexamethasone is a steroid that is theoretically used to stop the effects of 21-OHC CAH. However, the drug is experimental and there is no substantial support for its use. In the U.S. it is categorized as “off-label,” which means that it is not FDA approved. As it stands, there is very little known about the impact of the therapy but it may alter “fetal programming,” which can result in serious metabolic problems that may not be apparent until adulthood. For 30 years, the steroid has been used to combat virilization in female fetuses and yet, little is known of its impact because there are few long-term studies that explore its impact—of those, the populations are not representative and the protocol does not meet national or international scientific standards. In fact, the Endocrine Society set up a task force to look at the effectiveness of the pharmacological therapy. The task force found very little support for the use of the steroid and “could not even say with confidence whether prenatal dexamethasone works to reduce genital virilization” (2).

Nonetheless, it has been administered to pregnant women on false pretenses. The pregnant women were/are not informed that the “off-label” steroid is experimental, that benefits and risks have not been established due to lack of adequate testing and scientific protocol, and that exposed fetuses are studied retrospectively effectively rendering moot any correlation between the drug and the fetus born one way and/or raised another.

The “most prominent promoter” of this therapy is Maria New, a pediatric endocrinologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. By 2003, New has “treated” more than 600 pregnant women with dexamethasone in order to prevent virilization in CAH-affected female fetuses. That number is as high as 2,144 fetuses. This is where the story turns sour and scary—or more sour and scarier.

Despite a lack of support for prenatal dexamethasone Maria New insists that it “has been found safe for mother and child” (15-16). The authors of the article do some bold investigative work and turn to New’s grant applications discovering some interesting motivations for the continued use of the steroid.

Those few studies that do exist show that girls affected with 21-OHD CAH exhibit “behavioral masculinization.” These girls are on average “more interested in boy-typical play, hobbies, and subjects that non-affected females, less interested in becoming mothers, and more likely to grow up to be lesbian or bisexual” (6). Some clinicians find that of those females with 21-OHD CAH, 5% may ultimately identify as male. “Behavioral masculinization” is a euphemism for non-traditional gender performance or expression in women, females, and/or girls. It seems that the underlying motivation has less to do with ambiguous genitalia (which is problematic itself) and more to do with minimizing “tomboyism,” non-heterosexuality, and trans* embodiment.

Interestingly, the U.S. National Institutes of Health have funded Maria New’s work in figuring whether or not prenatal dexamethasone works to stop “behavioral masculinization.” Said another way, the U.S. government funds New’s work in stopping queerness and/or trans*ness in those potentially affected with 21-OHD CAH. Please, read that again for the sake of letting it sink in.

One justification for using prenatal dexamethasone is to minimize the chances of having a child that is intersex so that “corrective” surgeries will not be necessary. However, such “corrective” surgeries are elective and yet this reason is used as grounds to administer this potentially dangerous drug.

The unknown effects of prenatal dexamethasone are as potentially damaging and traumatic to intersex bodies as invasive “corrective” surgeries that claim to “fix” a problem when the problem isn’t the fetus at all. The inspiration for this pharmacological therapy is stigma and anxieties surrounding intersexed and/or queer bodies. It is a medical intervention that works to ensure the production of relatively normative bodies no matter the cost to those that are at risk of teetering between cissex and intersex embodiment. The anxiety/fear-inspired application of prenatal dexamethasone points us to the intersection of sex, gender, and sexuality and those systems that work to keep them aligned more nicely.

Speaking to parents of children with CAH, Maria New “showed a picture of a girl with ambiguous genitalia and said: The challenge here is to see what could be done to restore this baby to the normal female appearance which would be compatible with her parents presenting her as a girl, with her eventually becoming somebody’s wife, and having normal sexual development, and becoming a mother. And she has all the machinery for motherhood, and therefore nothing should stop that, if we can repair her surgically and help her psychologically to continue to grow and develop as a girl” (italics mine 6).

For New, the prominent cheerleader in prenatal dexamethasone therapy, girl/female/woman are one and the same and are heterosexual desiring motherhood and marriage. For New, queer variation is inconceivable. For New, prenatal dexamethasone is the ultimate in conversion therapy because it gets at the “problem” before it is a problem. It does so even though the long-term impact is unknown and potentially fatal. New, and her supporters, will do whatever it takes to ensure that queerness is squashed at every chance. For the record, you can contact Maria New at

A Faithful Feminist

Inspired by Merle Hoffman’s new book Intimate Wars, we’re sharing some of our own most memorable pro-choice/social justice personal actions this month. If you’d like to contribute, let us know!

I am a believer. If I had to name my religion, it would be “Judaism-Islam.” As the believers of both religions believe in One God, my heart stays indivisible. It is a paradox. I cannot choose between these two religions, the two principals of my family (in which there are also devout but very tolerant Catholics). In recent months I have attended evangelical churches in France, not to convert myself, but to study the Gospel and Scriptures that I know very little about. I accompany my best friend, who is an evangelist.

Hold a Dialogue With Believers
Thus, in recent months my feminist “action” has taken place with people I meet in evangelical churches. I have learned a lot from them; they are very warm people. I listen and ask them what they think about the low status of women. Women find it normal: “woman is a help for man,” “with gentleness and patience, a woman can get everything from her husband.” But I cannot talk openly about feminism – if I do, my friend may be removed. So I ask questions, I ask them their opinions. And that makes us think together. [Read more...]

U.S. Catholic Bishops Announce Plans to Expand Spiritual Post-Abortion Counseling

At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday, officials announced plans to expand Project Rachel, the post-abortion “healing” ministry of the Catholic Church. Despite a comprehensive study by the American Psychological Association in 2008 providing evidence to the contrary, Project Rachel asserts that women suffer psychological implications post-abortion. Reuters reports:

The move came a day after the bishops said religious freedom had been whittled away by same-sex marriage, abortion and healthcare legislation, and vowed to ramp up efforts to protect it.

Officials at the annual meeting said two new pilot projects based in Boston and Washington would train priests in building more Project Rachel ministries around the country.

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Vatican Family Values

As my people like to say, there is chutzpah, and then there is chutzpah. And if you are Michele Bachmann there is even chitzpah. 

But this needs a bigger word. Probably in Italian. With an issimo on the end.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my Vatican predictable. So I wasn’t surprised when the Catholic Church came out to condemn the new mandatory sex ed classes in New York City. That’s what the Church does. Like the sun rises each morning and sets each night, the Church condemns.

Likewise, I’m not surprised that the Church didn’t pass up the opportunity to kick the condemnation up a notch. New York is only the biggest city in the world. Why not needle “the State” and “public institutions in the West” for their “magical trust in the effectiveness of sex education?” [Read more...]

People of Faith are Pro-Choice

Editor’s Note: Feminist Conversations is a regular column, where we talk to pro-choice activists from across the interwebs to find out what folks are up to in their neck of the woods.

Today we’re talking to Meghan Smith, the Domestic Program Associate for Catholics for Choice, which was founded in 1973 to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health. Meghan integrates CFC’s US policy activities and advocacy throughout the country by fostering relationships with collegial organizations and compiling legislative and policy analyses. Meghan also develops educational materials outlining CFC’s unique perspective on issues of reproductive health and rights and engages in other efforts supporting CFC’s mission at the state level. She holds a bachelor’s of arts degree in English and Creative Writing from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

When did you get involved with Catholics for Choice, and what was your motivation for working with them?
When I began working for Catholics for Choice several years ago, I knew that it was an organization that perfectly complemented my upbringing and my theological and political inclinations. I grew up in rural New England, where the interplays between Catholicism and public life were as obvious as the photos of the my mother’s big Irish clan, the Pope, and the Kennedys hanging side by side on my grandparents’ walls. From union organizing to initiating an elementary school penny drive to make sure that everyone had mittens, I saw my family members living out their faith, one centered in sisterhood, compassion and social justice.
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Merging the Pro-Choice and Faith Communities

I attended a workshop at the 2011 National Network of Abortion Funds organizing summit that addressed how to reach out to faith communities. The workshop focused specifically on Christian traditions, since there is strong support for reproductive justice within Judaism. Although Islamic beliefs were briefly discussed in the Q&A period, it was not the main focus of the discussion. As a person of faith myself, I got a lot out of the workshop and was so glad to hear different Christian perspectives on the topic of reproductive rights.

The Catholic Point of View
Meghan Smith of Catholics for Choice gave a summary of Catholic beliefs surrounding birth control and abortion. As Smith pointed out, it is important to understand the Catholic point of view because there are currently more than 68 million Catholics in the United States, and more than 1 billion Catholics globally. Although the Catholic hierarchy has stated its opposition to birth control and abortion, the majority of Catholic parishioners generally disagree with the hierarchy on reproductive rights issues. For example, a recent survey of active Catholics found that 98% of Catholic women use some form of birth control. Additionally, only 14% of Catholics believe that abortion should be illegal. Consequently, we should not confuse the voices of those who are in power as being representative of the Catholic community itself.

For Catholics, an individuals’ conscience is the ultimate arbiter on the morality of all decisions. If a woman contemplates the decision to obtain an abortion and feels that it is right for her, that is the most important thing to consider. Since Catholicism has an emphasis on improving the lives of the poor, discussions of faith and reproductive justice must include discussions of economic equality.  [Read more...]

Poll Reveals Catholics Support Sister McBride

Last fall, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona and Sister Margaret Mary McBride made international news after the Catholic Church severed its ties with the hospital and excommunicated Sister McBride after they performed a life-saving abortion for a patient. A new poll reveals that 72% of Catholics in the Phoenix area believe that Sister McBride made the right decision in choosing to save the woman’s life.

The new poll doesn’t surprise me, considering that another recent poll revealed that approximately 98% of Catholic women use some form of birth control, despite the Vatican’s opposition. It just goes to show that you can’t paint pictures with broad brushes, and that a nuanced discussion of religion and reproductive rights is necessary if you want to truly understand someone’s point of view. (For more discussion of the intersection of faith and feminism, check out this interview with Marissa Valeri from Catholics for Choice.)

What’s your opinion? Did Sister McBride make the right decision? Should St. Joseph’s Hospital appeal their removal from the national Catholic health care association? I’d love to hear your point of view.

Why Last Night Was Different

My family’s been fractured for years now, and the youngest of us still on speaking terms have been grown-ups for even longer, so like many empty-nested Jewish families, our holiday gatherings of late have had a certain post-observant, Diasporic ennui about them. We did our time in temple, in Hebrew School, and reclined our way through interminable Seders with gasbag uncles and diva sisters who couldn’t let the “Four Questions” solo gig go to the rightful singer without a fight. (Full disclosure: the diva sister was me, but mine was not the hogging that triggered the infamous inter-familial Seder fist-fight.)

Then our family had kids. Okay, my brother and sister-in-law had them, technically, but they’re ours in the all-important spoiling and non-diaper-changing senses. Suddenly, holiday dinners felt different. Someone was looking. An impressionable someone. And we started wondering what kind of crazy mispachah we looked like.

For my parents, the focus was on the Judaism. Their grandchildren wouldn’t be getting a formal religious education of any kind, just whatever stereo in-house Chanukah/Christmas, Passover/Easter celebrations their parents and their parents’ respective families of origin could cobble together. I was interested in the Judaism, too, but my Judaism has been inseparable from my feminism since the day I learned my temple didn’t let Bat Mitzvah girls face the ark like the boys did.

So last week when my mother said she was studying up on ways to make the Seder more accessible and child-friendly, I was supportive. [Read more...]

Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Reproductive Rights

Editor’s Note: Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists for Choice, where we talk to feminists from across the interwebs to find out what type of activism they’re engaged in, and what feminism means to them. Today we’re spotlight Marissa Valeri from Catholics for Choice. Catholics for Choice was founded in 1973 to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health.

1. What was your motivation for working with Catholics for Choice?
It sounds clichéd, but this is the organization I was always meant to work for. From an early age, I knew that I was a prochoice Catholic and have constantly worked to resolve my faith with my belief in the ability of women and men to make the decisions that are best for them and their families. I was even sent to the principal’s office back in grade school for asking questions about abortion in cases of rape or incest so I knew even back then that there truly was no space for Catholics to engage in even the slightest bit of conversation on the topic of abortion and I knew that was wrong.

I started off my volunteering and marching and protesting before I dedicated myself to finding a job within the progressive community so that I could work on issues close to my heart. I enjoy the ability to help others to feel comfortable being both prochoice and Catholic and I enjoy sharing resources on our faith tradition and the support for a prochoice position within church teachings.

2. When did you first call yourself a feminist? And what inspired that decision?
I remember being a young girl and talking to my dad a lot about feminism. He was a high school teacher, and we would have these great long conversations about movements and important issues of the day since he loves to talk politics and I do as well. We had one such conversation about Geraldine Ferraro and her bid to become the first female vice president. I remembered watching her speak at the Democratic National Convention and being in awe – not quite understanding everything she said since I was just 7 years old at the time but just seeing her on the stage was a powerful visual for me. It was only afterward that the enormity of the moment hit me: not only was she a woman but Catholic and prochoice as well. It was in talking about that moment and what it meant to me personally that I realized that I truly was a feminist.
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