Changing gender perceptions one word at a time

Nevo Zisin was assigned female at birth.

A girl, a boy, a lesbian, now a transgender person, in just 21 years Nevo Zisin has had quite a journey. Having just published a new memoir, the young Jewish author discusses issues of gender identity, gender fluidity and gender in the Jewish community with Daniel Shandler.

NEVO Zisin was “assigned female at birth”.

“I say ‘assigned female’,” the 21-year-old tells The AJN, “Because I didn’t have the choice.”

From the age of four until nine, however, the author of Finding Nevo: How I Confused Everyone did make a choice. 

They decided to present as a boy. [Some members of the transgender community like Zisin choose to use the terms “they” and “their” rather than “he” and “his” or “she and “her” as “they” and “their” are gender neutral terms].

To say the decision wasn’t easy is putting it lightly.

“My parents were freaked out,” Zisin recalls. “I went to counsellors, I was severely bullied for being a tomboy. That created a dissonance in my body.”

Things started changing for the better with a move to a public school, before Zisin then went to The King David School and came out as a lesbian at the age of 14.

However, the journey was far from over. “After I came out, it was hard because I felt backed into a corner,” Zisin explains, “like I was lesbian, but if I fall in love with a man, I don’t want people to think it’s a phase.”

Nevertheless, Zisin came to learn everything in life was a phase, concluding if you weren’t in a phase, you weren’t learning.

Fast forward to Zisin’s VCE year and their entire life changed. Zisin came out at the start of year 12 as a trans man, beginning their social transition.

“There was a lot of pressure,” Zisin said. “Coupled with anxiety, depression and other stuff, that was a time I was really grateful to Habo [Habonim Dror].

“I had been involved for 13 years and so the movement saw me through every part of my journey.

“I never felt as though I was seen as a gender. If it wasn’t for Habo, I would have abandoned my Judaism a long time ago.”

Today, Zisin identifies as gender fluid, which in simple terms means identifying as neither male nor female, and being pansexual i.e. not specifically attracted solely to males or females but to a person of any sex and gender.

Zisin remains as passionate about the Jewish community, noting the pros and the cons of “the Jewish bubble”.

“I exist in a really progressive, culturally Jewish world. It doesn’t matter what my politics are – no matter what I am, at the end of the day, the community has always been there.

“I admire and appreciate that about the Jewish community. We might not agree with who you are or what you do, but we will have your back at the end of the day.”

While Zisin knows they are part of a minority group within the community, they say perceptions are being changed as both the Jewish and wider communities become more accepting.

“There is no way the Jewish demographic has less queers. Most people in our community, I’d say upwards of 90 per cent came out after school. Why do we come out after school?

“School is the hardest time of your life. To be dealing with that on top of it, is so full on.”

Zisin’s Judaism and journey are inextricably intertwined – they exist within each other, although they realise that connection won’t be to everyone’s understanding.

Trans-ness and gender diversity, Zisin says, “have existed across all of human history and different cultures including Judaism.

“There are actually six different genders referred to in the Talmud and Mishnah over 100 times.”

The people who disagree, according to Zisin, are doing themselves and Judaism a disservice.

“Those people are trying to make us on the outer when we are actually on the inner and you just don’t want to realise that.

“Who are you to tell me who is and isn’t Jewish? Judaism is all about diversity, difference and community. If anyone understands that, it’s Jews.”

The King David graduate and Aboriginal Studies student appreciates not everyone can understand their journey – hence writing a tell-all memoir to help everyone open their mind just that little bit more.

Nevo Zisin as a teenager.

Constantly being asked questions can take a heavy emotional and psychological toll. But all of that is changing.

“Now being an author, I can say, you’ve got some really great questions, you should read the book.”

As for the people who will plainly reject, who don’t even want to learn, Zisin feels sorry for them.

“I think they are way more trapped and repressed than I ever will be. If you think that: cool. You are entitled your opinion. I am going to keep living my life over here. And my life is really awesome.”

Nevo Zisin has been on one hell of a journey to “find Nevo”, but the most exciting part is, it’s only just the beginning.

Finding Nevo: How I Confused Everyone, published by Walker Books Australia, is out now.

Transgender etiquette

Do

• Use terms like ‘transgender’, ‘trans’ or ‘trans  and gender diverse’

Ask for a person’s pronoun (e.g. she/her)

• Be aware some people have gender neutral pronouns (their/they/them)

Respect a person’s pronoun

Listen to people’s experiences

Ask questions respectfully

• Remember sexual orientation and gender diversity are different

Acknowledge diversity of male, female and non-binary gender identities

All people are people first

Research basic information

Keep an open mind

Don’t

• Use terms like ‘tranny’, ‘transgendered’ or ‘transgenderism’

Assume a person’s pronoun

Question or correct a person’s pronoun

Use a former name 

Ignore people’s experiences

Ask about genitals or surgery

• Assume every transgender person thinks and  feels the same

• Treat trans and gender diverse people as objects or curiosities

  Expect people to act as teachers or to answer every question you have

Judge