Spotlight on Ben Kohan: Being Who You Are Only Ever Helps the World

Ben is a Jewish, non-binary person who is read and was socialized as male.

This post is the third installment in the “Spotlight” series, where I’ll be publishing original content by or interviews with other TGNC folx as well as some allies. The purpose of this series is to incorporate perspectives other than my own, with the intent of heightening awareness about our community’s incredible diversity. I’m looking for writers and creators of all sorts — I’m happy to share photo essays, music, poetry, etc. as long as they are centered around some aspect of trans existence. If you’d like to feature your post on Trans and Caffeinated, please connect with me via the form at the bottom of this page!

This week, I chatted with Ben Kohan about their experience as a Jewish non-binary person who is read and was socialized as male. Rather than publishing a guest post, as I did with Rollie and Em, this post shines the Spotlight on Ben in the form of an interview. Ben is one of the most down-to-earth, articulate people I’ve ever met, full of powerfully thought-provoking insights and perspectives. Every time we talk, and especially when we spoke for this interview, I walk away thinking a little bit differently about the world. I hope you all enjoy hearing from them as much as I do. Without further ado, here is Ben Kohan.

When an elephant is young, trainers latch them with heavy chains to keep them in place. As they grow into adulthood, they come to accept that chains will forever bind them — so much the case that when trainers eventually replace these chains with strings, the elephant will remain in position, seemingly unaware of the change.

From a young age, Ben learned what others expected from them — to be a boy, to grow into a man, to do everything that men are “supposed to” do, act as men are “supposed” to act. Ben struggled to find comfort in these roles and in their body, though they did not yet have the words to describe why.

It didn’t click to me that when I wasn’t expressing myself in this way, that was the source of my horrible feeling of not fitting anywhere in society.

Ben also attended Carlbrook School.

When Ben was an adolescent, they began to experiment with wearing women’s clothing. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in my life,’” Ben begins, “but it didn’t click to me that when I wasn’t expressing myself in this way, that was the source of my horrible feeling of not fitting anywhere in society or feeling like I [don’t] belong.”

As Ben continued to struggle both socially and emotionally, they searched for a long-term treatment center to address their concerns. When Ben was 18 years old, they enrolled at Carlbrook, the very same gender-restrictive boarding school that I would attend just three years later.

Though Ben was enrolled during an even more strict era of the school’s existence than myself, their experience differed considerably, largely because they had yet to realize they were trans. “I was unable to recognize the tiny little string of the Carlbrook dress code as feeling the same way as the chains of cisnormativity,” Ben acknowledges.

At the time, Ben had come to the conclusion that they were a straight man who enjoyed cross-dressing. “I think the therapists had more context for that than they did for the idea of transgenderness,” Ben explains. “Even though I got a little bit of weirdness from people, I still was encouraged to accept who I was.”

Ben began to explore their non-binary identity.

After graduation, Ben slowly realized there was an important aspect to their identity they had yet to address. In session with their therapist, Ben finally began to unpack a complicated relationship with their assigned gender. Though Ben describes her as an otherwise helpful and supportive therapist, she admittedly had very little experience working with TGNC clients. When they asked for guidance, she quickly concluded that Ben “probably [wasn’t] trans” simply because they “didn’t hate [their] penis.”

Ben admits that this moment felt particularly discouraging. “I suspected that there was more to it than [that], but I didn’t know where to find that information.”

I remember just being on the cusp of awareness of how horrible being ashamed of who I am is.

Though Ben was not yet ready to dive fully into gender exploration, they refused to accept such a limiting, black-and-white perspective. Eventually, they heard a single word — one that at first felt at odds with everything they had come to understand about gender, but would later become the tool with which Ben could finally unpack 25 years of internal gender conflict. When Ben first heard the word “non-binary,” they experienced a moment of recognition and reflection which they now recognize as a pivotal turning point in their gender journey. 

“Finding out that there was a middleground” set Ben’s self-exploration into full swing. “That kind of feels like what I am,” Ben reflected, having finally found a word to describe their experience. 

non-binary, trans, jewish
Ben began to discuss details of their trans identity with their partner.

At this point, Ben was already in a committed relationship with their now wife, Hannah. After marrying in 2017, the newlywed couple headed to Israel to explore their cultural identity as Jewish people. “I remember just being on the cusp of awareness of how horrible being ashamed of who I am is,” Ben recalls. 

Though excited for this opportunity, Ben had a harrowing realization shortly after they arrived. “When exploring spirituality in the more traditional areas of Israel… it’s done through the context of orthodoxy,” Ben explains, “which means I [couldn’t] do it with Hannah… and I would have to do it as a man.”

Ben found themself at a crossroads. “I [realized] if I wanted to go to the core of my spiritual practice [in those areas]… and really dive into the depths of it, I would have to completely shove down and ignore and hide a core element of who I am to get the meat of my tradition.”

non-binary, trans, jewish

After returning home to the U.S, Ben became increasingly aware of the ways in which shame permeated their existence. About a year into their marriage, Ben’s “whole world shook” with the realization that they were “tired of hiding and being ashamed of who [they are].” However, they remained petrified by the implications of speaking their truth into existence.

“I mentioned it to [Hannah] a few years into dating, but never really fully addressed it,” Ben notes. They understood that confronting their identity head-on meant that they would finally have to process it, which felt less than enthralling. “I would rather accept myself without having to do the work to accept myself,” Ben chuckles, acknowledging the fallacy in this initial approach.

Though the beginning of Ben’s exploration was largely internal, they learned the hard way that keeping this information from their partner was a surefire way to harm their relationship. “It came out sideways a couple of times,” Ben admits. “One of the worst fights we ever had was over where the spinny part of the ice-cream maker was.” After reflecting with their NA sponsor, Ben realized the main reason a seemingly minor disagreement had gotten so out of hand was that they were actively struggling with their trans identity but had not yet put in the work to fully communicate that to their partner. 

“It is tough being in a relationship with a cis person when it’s also hard for me to do the work of living my [gender] expression,” Ben continues. “There is always the fear that any change I make to myself is going to challenge how they view our relationship.”

Ben admits, however, that “any time I’ve actually expressed steps that I’ve taken to accepting those parts of myself, she has been supportive of it, as long as I’m communicative.”

non-binary, trans, jewish
Ben is working to balance safety with their non-binary identity.

Ben has been out publicly as non-binary since 2016, but still struggles to fully express themself in a way that feels most true to who they are. “Presenting as a cis man, I receive a lot of benefit,” Ben acknowledges, “but those benefits come at the cost of being horribly, horribly ashamed of who I am.” 

For Ben, one of the biggest hurdles is overcoming years of being socialized as a Jewish male. “My dad was raised by someone who survived the holocaust… with the viewpoint that the [most] important thing in this world is safety,” Ben explains. “No matter what the context, my parents are willing to compromise almost anything for safety.”

Ben clarifies that the sole exception to this is Jewish identity. As a child, Ben’s loved ones frequently reminded them that being Jewish meant being inherently unsafe and urged the importance of offsetting this by creating safety in as many other aspects of their life as possible.

Safety is important, but safety for me comes at a cost.

“That’s a big part of why I’m scared to lose that privilege,” Ben continues. “[It’s] not just because I enjoy the benefits of it, but losing that privilege means that I lose that safety, and I’ve been told in my life that safety is more important than identity.”

Ben is actively working to push past this narrative while celebrating the meaning that Jewish identity brings to their life.

“Safety is important,” Ben agrees, “but safety for me comes at a cost.” 

For Ben, this is twofold; the personal and the societal. On a personal level, prioritizing safety means sacrificing free expression of their identity. On a societal level, neglecting to wholly express their gender means perpetuating a system that rewards people with safety in exchange for perceived conformity to stereotypical masculinity. 

Being who you are only ever helps the world.

Being who you are only ever helps the world.

Since returning from Israel, Ben has found incredibly inclusive and radical spaces to explore their Jewish spirituality within an LGBTQ+ context. Becoming part of this community has made all the difference In Ben’s journey.

Ben sees it as pressing and urgent to continue their work toward genuine self-expression, having witnessed firsthand how the profoundly positive impact of unapologetic individuality can ripple outward.

“Being who you are only ever helps the world,” Ben asserts, speaking power to a mantra they are working to internalize. “What has inspired me to work towards being more accepting and understanding of my own identity is the belief that I can only benefit society by being true to who I am.” 

Some days, the strings holding Ben in place still feel as heavy as chains. They are constantly reminded of the benefits of perceived maleness, which heightens their fear of unabashed self-expression.  Every day that Ben does feel empowered to celebrate their non-binary identity, however, they grow one day closer to breaking free once and for all, and one day closer to finding their truest self.

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