NEVO ZISIN: Community care is just as important as self-care
Nevo Zisin’s calm exterior could easily be mistaken for the type of confidence and peace we all hope to achieve, but Nevo is the first person to tell you that they are still figuring things out.
In high school, and with the encouragement of peers, Nevo began to take steps toward transitioning and now identifies as non-binary. This continuing journey has lead to the publication of Nevo’s gender memoir Finding Nevo, and has made them a point of contact in the Jewish community for other people confronting issues of gender and sexuality in their own lives.
In between writing and advocating on transgender rights, Nevo runs workshops, is a public speaker, and most recently featured in Gender Euphoria - a trans/non-binary cabaret show.
THE PIN. Is Naarm/Melbourne where you grew up?
NEVO ZISIN. I grew up in Caulfield and have always lived in Melbourne.
Something you talk about, or at least people talk about in reference to you, is Judaism and growing up within that community. Can you tell me about it?
NZ. I think people come to conversations about faith based communities with a lot of presumptions and expectations. Judaism is such a broad experience and for me, and the community I was in, it was a culture first and foremost. Religiosity didn’t necessarily come into it as much as cultural expectations, music, food, art, and language. All of those things were a much bigger part of my Jewish identity.
I grew up in a pretty progressive family and it was more just cultural expectations that held me back, or were projected onto me, rather than faith. The usual things like getting married to a Jewish person and heteronormativity.
For my early life I went to a private Jewish school where I was bullied pretty severely and I ended up changing to a public school. Later I returned to the private school environment for high school and the school I attended was actually really progressive. It was the first faith based school to be part of the Safe Schools Coalition before it became a national project. That experience had a significant impact on my coming out and journey as a teenager.
What kind of the things were happening in that school that made you comfortable enough to express that part of yourself?
NZ. Well, any pioneering that the school did was not because of the school itself but the students. Particularly the year above me, which was full of a lot of queer people and people who were really committed to making change. The school had a gay-straight alliance that met once every two weeks and created a safe space for queer students to be able to talk about their experiences in school. I started attending as a straight supporter, which is what I told my mum, and then I felt like the school was behind me and I wasn’t the only one. There were people who understood, and also administration to help if I needed anything. I think that, and positive signage around the school, made me feel like I would be okay.
Since then you’ve written a memoir about your gender transition, Finding Nevo. I can imagine you’ve had many conversations just about having ‘the conversation’ of gender transition. What is it like going from having the experience and your own conversations, to then writing about it and getting to the point where you can almost reflect objectively?
NZ. It was certainly a process. Just the other night I did a speech and afterwards someone asked me how I am so articulate about my journey. I said, ‘it’s because I’ve done it a million times!’. To begin with I wasn’t particularly articulate about my trans identity - it isn’t something people just have - it’s something you really have to work at. Writing a memoir that is specifically placed around the subjectivity of memory is complex, how can you hold any sort of objective position regarding your own experience when people remember things completely differently? It was really hard for me to validate my own experience and convince myself that my recount of events was real, as someone with a history of being gaslit. I did a lot of research, which involved trying to go back into the headspace I was in at the point I was writing from.
I really wanted to insert myself back into that space so that I wasn’t writing as a twenty year-old reflecting on my 12 year-old self, but rather writing from the headspace of that 12 year-old.
It was a deeply cathartic but re-traumatising experience.
You now run workshops, talk at events, and have recently been involved in Gender Euphoria the cabaret. Does it still feel really raw to get onto a stage and talk about this kind of stuff?
NZ. It really depends. There are some workshops where I essentially feel like I’m picking a scab. Not really a fresh wound, but it’s there, the scar tissue is there and I can feel it.
It also depends on the frequency and amount of public engagements. If I’m giving a lot of speeches in one week I then tap into something I refer to as performative vulnerability. It’s not that it isn’t authentic, but I do create a little barrier between my presenting self and my deep personal self so as to not be too emotional or for it to be too raw. There are definitely gigs where I feel a certain energy from the audience though, and that hits me in a different space and opens me up.
Something we discuss quite a bit through this website are the ‘stupid questions’ people sometimes ask. The ‘where are you from’ questions and ‘you’re going to have beautiful mixed race baby’ comments...how do you navigate through those situations?
NZ. Oh god! It comes down to whether it’s work or personal life. In my personal life I am far less patient and I usually shut down those conversations pretty quickly. In my professional life I never really back down. I address that it’s an inappropriate question but I carry myself in a much more calm and controlled way. I think if you make the choice to be an educator and you’re getting paid to be an educator, then those questions and providing people with an education is part of your job.
You’re there to be Google for people, and if someone asks a question and you say, ‘go Google it’ then that’s not really helpful.
If I’ve had a really bad day I may sometimes suggest articles and explain why it isn’t an appropriate question, but for the most part I’ll tell people my birth name, or what surgeries I’ve had….
...are those questions common? I find that quite staggering…
NZ. Yeah, definitely though it depends on the demographic. It is shifting. Early on in my career I received way more questions like, ‘How do you have sex? How are you going to find someone to love you? What does your naked body look like, and what about your genitals? What surgeries have you had?’. I’ve even had people ask my mum those questions.
I think with the more representation we’re getting in the media, and the more trans identity is being spoken about, the less those questions are asked. But it really does depend on the demographic.
Getting back into the community aspect of things, I guess you could say your experience and life is very intersectional. When you started to find your life was becoming even more intersectional, who did you look to and reach to, to find a comfortable space outside of your school?
NZ. There were two iterations of that. The first was realising I was lesbian and the next was realising I was trans.
When I first realised I was a lesbian I reached out to other gay people in the Jewish community. At that point in time the majority of queer people I reached out to had come out after school. It wasn’t common to come out at school or to come out when your grandparents were still alive. It was something people avoided.
When I came out as trans I didn’t know who to look to. I couldn’t talk to gay men or lesbian women because it’s a completely different experience. Eventually someone I was in high school with told me about a friends brother who was trans and I got in touch with him...a complete stranger.
Have you seen networks grow since?
NZ. Yeah, definitely. The language is spreading and social media is a huge resource for people. There are a lot more books and materials in schools now where people can see themselves reflected. The validity of seeing yourself represented on television is confidence building.
We talked briefly about the questions we wish people didn’t ask, are there questions you wish people asked more often?
NZ. The first thing that came to mind when you said that was that I wish people asked me if I am okay a bit more. At the same time I think if they did ask I would cry. So I also don’t want them to.
The work I do is deeply emotional and really challenging. It’s particularly challenging from a community standpoint in that I don’t think people in my own community are all that kind to each other sometimes. I have had people accuse me of having a platform because of privilege and not using it in the right ways. Some people have very set ideas about how my activism should or shouldn’t look. That weighs heaviest on me. I don’t care what transphobes think of me, I care what my community thinks.
We talk a lot about self-care, but I don’t think we talk enough about community care and what responsibilities we have to each other. I think self-care is really important, but it’s very much influenced and manipulated by capitalism. Without talking about community care we’re missing a huge part of the equation.
Something I also wish was asked and communicated more is how non-linear the trans journey and every journey is. I guess it’s a very white colonial mentality of lineality but I find that I’m expected to be this sort of ‘before and after’ picture and I’m just not. Some days I feel more dysphoric than I ever have, and other days I feel incredible. I’d love to be able to stand in front of people and say I have it all figured out and I’m that example of the other side, but I have no idea! I’m just trying to steer my way through this.
You were recently part of Gender Euphoria, a trans/non-binary cabaret co-created by Mama Alto and Maude Davey, do you see that as a form of activism?
NZ. I definitely see it as a form of activism. It’s interesting, I don’t think activism should be distilled into everything we do, but it’s really hard not to!
As a trans person getting up on a stage, being resilient and strong, celebrating my life, abilities, and my body - it’s subversive and does change things. It just depends on what your definition of activism is though. I always feel a bit apprehensive to call myself an activist even though I do think I am.
Gender Euphoria was historic, it was momentous, and it will have a huge impact. It already has. I think the more trans art and the more trans people we have on stages, the more change will come. And when things make change, that’s activism.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
NEVO ZISIN. Ooph. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my younger self, I think my whole book was that.
I guess I would say, you’re the boss. You’re your own boss. No one else gets to dictate what you do with your body, and how you live your truth, and you have all of those answers inside you.
Published February 20, 2019
Header photo credit: Alexis Desaulniers-Lea
Second image: Jacinta Oaten
Third image: provided by interviewee
Find Nevo on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or email Nevo about workshops or bookings for this year at firstname.lastname@example.org.