written by Eliana Rubin, 2018-2020 Theatre Arts Mentor

In the summer of 2018, I worked at the URJ 6 Points Creative Arts Academy (CAA) as their Theatre Arts Mentor. During staff prep week we had a session from Keshet, an organization to help educate Jewish folks on LGBTQ+ inclusion, information, and activism. At this session, I learned about the term cisgender (to identify with the gender you were assigned at birth). Less than 24 hours later, I realized I was not cisgender.

It was like something out of a movie. The following day, we were participating in another staff training session, where we all were given name tags and instructed to write our names and pronouns on them. At the time, I was still using my dead name (the birth name/an old name of a trans person) and “he/him” pronouns (pronouns are the words we use to refer to someone in the 3rd person). When I stuck my name tag onto my chest, though, something inside of me shifted. I had a very visceral reaction, a reaction that was changing my core identity, which is something I had not experienced in a very long time. I took my name tag off, looked at it, and underneath “he/him”, wrote (in smaller letters), “they/them”. When I put it back onto my body (over my heart), it didn’t feel right, necessarily; but it did feel less wrong.

Throughout that summer, I went through many little changes, and, as I tell my campers, the little things make up the big things. I started to use “they/them” pronouns. I came out as non-binary (someone who may not identify as either male or female). I played around with makeup. CAA was (and is) one of my safe spaces, a space where I can be myself 100% of the time.

I slip it on, and I go from handsome to beautiful / floral on white

During camp, I wrote a song called Boys in Dresses. As a songwriter, one of the ways I process my thoughts, feelings, and questions is through music. I wrote it in my favorite room at camp, a space with light pouring in through windows, getting to hear campers and staff members laughing through the halls. The first time I played the song for Jo-Ellen (CAA’s director) and Kara (CAA’s assistant director), I finished and turned around to find them crying. It took me a while to process why. Jo-Ellen and Kara have carefully crafted a place to be welcoming and encouraging of everyone who walks through their doors. This is one of CAA’s many strengths: it says to anyone who walks through the doors: “You have permission to be yourself. You will never be judged here. You are loved.

Look in the mirror and smile at what’s looking back at me / this feels right

One of the ways I explored my gender expression and identity was by wearing dresses to Shabbat. The first time I did this, I stood in my room and stared at myself in the mirror. One of my best friends had helped zip me up, and when she left to go get ready herself, I was terrified. What if people judged me? What if people spoke about me behind my back? What if I was a freak?

It was at that moment, I paused. I breathed. There was something that overcame my own fears: I wanted to show my campers that you could be whoever you wanted to be. I wanted to show them that self-expression comes in many forms. I wanted to be brave, for them. For me.

I don’t think that I want to be / what society wants from me
For the first time I think I’m free / all eyes on me

It was a moment of catharsis for me. When I entered the chadar ochel, there were some stares, sure, but there were also smiles from campers and staff members alike, shouts of “YES QUEEN” and “you look so GOOD!!”. I remember one camper in Bonim (our 2nd youngest age unit) coming up to me and saying, “Why are you wearing a dress?” with a confused look on their face. I looked at them and smiled, telling them it felt good to wear it. They camper shrugged their shoulders and said, “Okay,” before walking away to presumably get some more delicious challah. It was not the center of conversation. It just was what it was.

I look around and I see mini me’s everywhere I turn / shining so bright
I wish this I had this haven when I was young to tell me / it’d be alright

A few Shabbats after, one of my coworkers (a cisgender male) borrowed one of my dresses and wore it to Shabbat with me. The next week, two male campers also wore dresses. Shabbats following, heels and glitter and eyeshadow came out to play. It was glorious.

I wish I could show them / that it’s more than clothing
Don’t feel like you have to be anything but yourself
Try to see what I see / that your inner beauty
Is your greatest weapon, your mind is so full of wealth

I have heard countless staff and faculty members say that they wish CAA was around when they were kids. How it would have given them a space to thrive. I have said this too. What I realized is, CAA is a place for me to thrive now. It is a place where boys in dresses do belong, where self-expression is celebrated, and where magic is made. Thank you, CAA. Thank you.

Boys in dresses belong / don’t believe me, try mine on
I’ve never seen anyone as strong as a boy in dress / it’s the freaking best


Listen to Boys in Dresses on Spotify with this link.