A transgender woman who was formerly an ultra-Orthodox rabbi has opened up about her transition journey.
Abby Stein grew up in a strict Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn.
She was the eldest of 13 children, and for her first 18 years, she led the life expected of most males in the community.
By the time she turned 17 she was a rabbi, had an arranged marriage and had a baby with her wife.
However, since she was young, Stein had feelings of gender dysphoria and constantly asked her parents if she was a girl.
Having a child was the turning point for Stein, she realised that she had to face her true identity and come out.
Talking to CNN, Stein explained: “It felt like my gender was punching me in the face. Everyone had told me that I was a boy, but it didn’t feel right.”
“As a child, I remember saying, ‘I’m a girl, right?’ but no, everyone said something else. It was a hard experience growing up and not having any outlet. Not having any way to express myself.”
For Stein, her Hasidic upbringing meant that she had little access to culture that could have explained her gender identity.
She said: “Movies, TV, music, magazines, literature, it doesn’t exist there. There’s no access to the internet. They don’t speak English. Men and women don’t interact with each other at all. As far as I know, it’s the most gender segregated society in the United States.”
At age 12, Stein had decided that she understood her gender, but denied it because “LGBT people of any form just don’t exist in that community.”
At 20, she began to realise more about the transgender identity after she first had access to the internet and googled “a boy turning into a girl”.
She eventually stumbled onto an online community of others struggling with their gender identity where she learnt even more, and soon she began to realise that she may have to leave her closed community in order to be her true self.
“It was a slow process. It doesn’t happen overnight,” she explained.
“To some extent, leaving the community was even harder than transitioning. I had no idea what I was getting into.
“I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t speak the language and didn’t have an education. I didn’t know how to dress. I didn’t know how to talk.”
Since then, Stein has split with her wife, attended Columbia University and legally changed her name to Abby – reminiscent of a Bible character who is the “source of joy” and “one of the seven most beautiful women to have ever lived in the world”.
She still sees her son and some of her siblings, but her parents have not spoken to her since she announced her transition.
Now, she is working on a memoir and growing a network of trans people from strict religious backgrounds.
She explained: “I interacted last week with someone who grew up Amish, people who grew up Mormon, people who grow up fundamentalist Muslim in the Middle East, Jehova’s witnesses.
“We’re talking here not just about people or communities that have anti-LGBT sentiment, but communities where this is seen as evil or something that is rarely discussed,” she said.