Transgender Amid Orthodoxy: I Am Who I Will Be
Joy Ladin is Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in New York. Her memoir is called Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders. She’s also the author of seven collections of poetry, and is currently the recipient of an NEA fellowship to write I am What I Will Be: Reading God and the Torah from a Transgender Perspective.
March 23, 2017
Krista Tippett, host: For as far back as she can remember, Joy Ladin says her body didn’t match her soul. Her story sheds unusual light on how gender shapes the lifelong work of being at home in ourselves.
Six years ago, in her mid-40s, Joy Ladin transitioned from male to female identity. She became the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution. Joy Ladin unsparingly admits the pain this caused for people and institutions she loved. And it was an incremental, imperfect process. Hormones transformed her appearance, though not her mid-life vocal cords. Still, she knows what it is to move through the world with the assumed authority of a man, and the assumed vulnerability of a woman. We take in what she’s learned about gender and the very syntax of being.
Ms. Joy Ladin: In a very literal sense, my deepest self was something that could only be manifested superficially, in the most superficial way, literally putting on makeup. I needed to see myself, first of all, just to be visible at all. I had no idea what I looked like. So the external was my gateway into a whole bunch of self-defining things that normally we’d think of as proceeding from the inside and working their way out.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: I spoke with Joy Ladin in 2013. She is Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. She was born Jay Ladin in upstate New York. Jay married his college love, fathered three beloved children, and became a tenured professor. In 2007, after announcing his gender transition, he was placed on a leave of absence from Stern. But Jay was allowed to return 15 months later as Joy.
Ms. Tippett: From what I’ve been reading about you, I think you’ve described your family as Jewish but not religious. But you, yourself, it sounds like, from a young age, were very drawn to the rituals and to Jewish tradition.
Ms. Ladin: I had a very strange relation to Judaism. One of my friends, Rabbi Jill Hammer, I was talking with her about it, and she said, “Oh, you were a feral Jew.” [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I’ve never heard that term before.
Ms. Ladin: I was kind of like — in terms of — because I was religious and no one in my world was religious, it was almost like I was a Jew raised by wolves in that regard. I hope my mother isn’t going to listen to this. She wasn’t a wolf in any respect. But what really drew me to Judaism was that, like many trans kids, I had an intense sense of God as a real, living, constant presence. And Judaism — not Jewishness as in ethnicity, but Judaism in general and the Torah in particular was really the only place in my world that there was any talk about God, representation of God, sense of God.
Ms. Tippett: How would you — this is obviously an enormous — now we’re stepping onto this huge territory, but how would you begin to talk about your sense of gender, of your gender and the gender of others, in your earliest life?
Ms. Ladin: Actually, that connects to the Torah. Traditional Judaism is extremely gender divided. However, the Torah includes one really genderless character, and that’s God. Because despite the male pronouns, God doesn’t have a body. And when I was a kid, that was a very powerful, not really articulated sense of connection that I had because I had male pronouns, but I didn’t feel like I had a body.
Ms. Tippett: You’ve written in this way about that you had a body that felt like a cross between a mask and a tomb. I mean, I think that’s how it came to feel as you became older and could articulate something like that, but it’s a very stunning and disturbing image of your relationship with your own body.
Ms. Ladin: Yeah, my body and I weren’t best friends. When my children were small, they would often ask me for stories from my childhood, and I knew enough about parenting to know you don’t talk about self-harming and suicide attempts. They want happy stories. I almost don’t remember — I have very few memories, and they’re very scattered from my childhood because I didn’t experience things very physically, so memories weren’t anchored in physical experience.
But I had this one story that I told them over and over again until they realized that it was so boring they should stop asking the question, about being like 8 years old and making my own Pop-Tart, putting it in the toaster and wrapping it up in a paper towel and taking it outside on a cold November day into a clearing in the little woods behind the house and eating it. And that was like one of the very few stories that I had to tell the kids because it’s one of the few times that I was connected enough to my body to have really pleasurable memories from it.
Ms. Tippett: You said something about gender and your wife, who is this woman you were living with, sharing your life with, for a long time. I thought it was an interesting observation that her gender did not define her, but it enabled her to define herself. Gender is something that is often so unreflected at its core. I mean, there are many aspects of it that we pay a lot of attention to. But then it seems like because this was denied you, this given — it did then become this absolutely huge obstacle in and of itself.
Ms. Ladin: It did, and I sort of did a lifelong involuntary course in gender studies. It was sort of the opposite of the Marshall McLuhan saying, “Whoever discovered water, you can bet it wasn’t a fish.” And to me, gender was like a fish trying to breathe air. It was the binary gender system that was really all that was available in the mid-20th century world that I was living in. I couldn’t thrive or survive in it, and so I had no choice but to be excruciatingly aware of it.
Ms. Tippett: I think one thing I appreciate in your writing and reflection is that you understand how natural it is, I mean, how we’re wired to want order. It’s natural for our minds to put these kinds of binaries as the cornerstone of worldviews to cling to and defend what we know over against what feels chaotic and frightening and new.
Ms. Ladin: Yes. And I know that, I guess, because I’m deeply uncool in some sort of way. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Explain.
Ms. Ladin: Being a mid-20th century gender binary-bound transsexual is pretty old hat. Being gender-fluid or gender-queer are much more interesting to people. But the truth is that I want stuff that most people want. I want to be a parent to my children. I want to have a job that I feel both remunerates me and enables me to live. But also I feel like I’m contributing meaningful work to my world.
And I know, because I lived in this sort of wilderness outside a coherent world looking in, I know the human longing to live in that coherent world, and I know how terrifying it is when I confront things that challenge my ability to put the world together.
Ms. Tippett: I would love to dig around a little bit in what you’ve learned about gender in, as you said, your lifelong experiment with gender, whether you would have chosen that or not. I found it, as a woman, as somebody who’s born female and always fit into the traditional binary category, it’s really interesting to read about your journey into becoming a woman. A lot of things that were so new to you that are so basic and how — the delight that you took in them.
I wonder, like, what did you — this is always fraught territory, the transgender piece of this aside, talking about gender identity and what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman. But we’re all aware that gender means so much, so I want to wade into this dangerous territory. I mean, what did you start learning about being a woman that surprised you?
Ms. Ladin: That’s a really great question. I want to back up to it because when I — most of my life, even though I didn’t fit in the “you’re either a man or woman” system, that was still the only system that I had access to. So when I thought about gender transition, I did articulate that to myself as becoming a woman, but through a lot of kind of agonizing reflection and experience and really crucially through discussions with my now ex-wife.
While we were still married, she pointed out things that are very true, which is that you can’t have a male body and live for 40-plus years as a man and be socialized male and ever become a woman in the sense that somebody who’s born and socialized and lives as a woman, as a female, is. And that’s just — that may sadden me. Whatever, it doesn’t matter how I feel about it; it really is true. And when I started publishing about this, some of the comments — I know we’re never supposed to read comments online — but some of the really hurtful comments also really taught me a lot. They taught me women across the political spectrum, from deeply conservative to kind of radical feminists, were saying the same thing.
What they were saying in their comments was, “Listen, to me, woman means the whole package. It’s not just biology; it’s socialization. It’s everything together, and I’ve suffered for that identity. It’s taken on meaning for me through a lifetime in a world that really is inimical to women, and yet I’ve made that an identity that I’m proud of. And you can’t waltz in at 45 years old and take that word and that identity away from me.”
And I’m not speaking for anybody other than myself, but I felt that they were right and that I can’t cut myself open and show that I have some sort of ineffable woman essence that’s the same as other people’s. I don’t even believe in such a thing. But what I can say that’s factually true is, I lived most of my life as a man or a male. I felt that I wasn’t. And now I live as a woman that I know that I am. And that doesn’t mean I am a woman, but I do live as a woman. I’ve been cheated by an auto mechanic as a woman. [laughs] I’ve been, you know, “sweetied” by people who are younger than I am. So I get all that wonderful stuff.
Ms. Tippett: When you write about your transition and having to learn to walk and speak as a woman and some of this was helped along by hormones, but it was also learning a way of being in the world, a way of moving through the world. You did learn things about authority that is given when you speak as a man and how that’s different when you speak as a woman, or from a sense of safety that’s there when you walk down the street as a man. I remember you had a friend who said — do you remember — “Joy, now you walk as a woman.” And that’s very striking, that experience you’ve had.
Ms. Ladin: It’s different to become yourself in any respect in middle age as opposed to when you’re a child, partly because you tend to be the only one around who’s going through those developmental stages, but also because you do it with adult consciousness for better and for worse. So I could see myself trying to learn to walk in a different way and silly stages that I actually couldn’t have avoided.
Like I read online if you — anybody can go online and find out — get trans guides to how to — what men and women do if you want to be — that’s a social part of gender. Among other things, gender is a way that we recognize one another and interpret one another. So those guides say, “Look, if you want to be interpreted as a woman, here are some things you want to do.” And one of them was women speak with their hands much more than men do.
Obviously, all of this is culture specific. So I thought, “OK, speak with my hands. What do you do? Can we be more specific?” So at a certain point, I would be talking at great length, as I am now, and I’d think, “Wait, I haven’t moved my hands.” And I would just sort of flutter them, and then I’d forget about them again. [laughs] So, yeah, I mean, it was ridiculous. And I would say that one of the luxuries of my relation — there are a lot of downsides to spending your life feeling you should be something you’re not allowed to be.
But one of the great things about coming to living as a woman as late as I did is that, for me, femininity is not associated with oppression or self-negation or anything. So when men condescend to me, I smell blood in the water, and I just go for it. There’s nothing in me that says, “Yes. Yes, make sure he feels good about himself.”
Ms. Tippett: Or just has lived with those kinds of messages for such a long time that you start to block them out, right? That you just decide not to react?
Ms. Ladin: Yes, that’s right. For me, femininity is actually about liberation and empowerment. It’s the bravest thing that I do. And I actually think that’s the birthright of every woman, but I know that even my own daughters, because of the world they’re growing up in, they’ll have to fight to claim that for themselves.
[music: “A Walk” by Tycho]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today, exploring the meaning of gender. Joy Ladin is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She’s the author of several books of poetry and a memoir, Through the Door of Life.
[music: “A Walk” by Tycho]
Ms. Tippett: What happens with language? I know you’ve written a bit about this — how you had to — the transition from male to female and living with the language and certain words and constructions in the whole different way. Talk about that.
Ms. Ladin: For me, I often forget this when I talk about the conversations I have about gender identity tend to be separate from my conversations as a poet, and I’m really grateful to you for putting those pieces of me together. But most of my life was about saying I’m not whatever I was doing, and writing was the exception.
When I was writing, particularly when I was writing poetry, that’s when I felt I actually was alive. And I felt that I was alive in a way that had nothing to do with my body. And there was something in rhyme, which was not something that an American poet growing up in poetry workshops in the ‘70s and ‘80s was supposed to be enamored of particularly. But for me, rhyme was almost like a magic ritual of revealing identity in unlikeness.
I may be making this up retrospectively, but it seems to me that rhyme was — the way I felt that there was a fundamental female identity within me that rhymed with that of other born girls and women, that when I created a rhyme between dissimilar words, I was revealing something like that hidden essence. I was making it ring true. That’s what rhyme usually feels to me, like the ringing of truth.
Ms. Tippett: I remember reading that there were words that you didn’t allow yourself to use when you were living that dance of being a man and not feeling like yourself and then words that you did consciously use. Was that just a feeling you had about which words were male and which words were female?
Ms. Ladin: Well, it clearly was, and I didn’t know how strange and twisted I really was until I started to transition and needed to be a person that I felt like I was and a writer who really existed. So I couldn’t afford to just lose large chunks of the English language, and that’s when I realized I had. Because I had this tremendous fear that I would be discovered, that people would see me and it still seizes me. I still feel like people will look at me and think, “Oh, you’re not a person. You’re a cardboard cutout like an ad for a movie.” [laughs] You know, “We can see you and we can walk around you and there’s nothing back there.”
But that’s what I felt that people would discover about my male identity, and I now realize that that fear was actually a deep wish. I really wished somebody would actually see me because I’d never been seen. Nobody had ever, including — I’d never even seen myself. So I had this fear and this wish that’s translated into a fear. And because the fear wasn’t real, you have to do quite a bit to make people think you’re not actually the sex of your body.
But to me, it seemed I was always on the verge of discovery. So I created this really obsessive-compulsive system of self-monitoring and I would just keep adding things to it. And this is actually sort of analogous to what rabbinic law does with laws of the Torah. It keeps adding extra provisions to make sure nobody violates the fundamental rules.
So I made myself look away from dolls when I was a child, and I shouldn’t move my body in a way that a girl moves her body. But I shouldn’t actually look at girls, because that would betray my interest. But how do I know how not to move my body? And I could see them, my mother and my father, use language differently and used different language.
Ms. Tippett: So you think that maybe without knowing, you were studying how men did things and how it contrasted with how women did things?
Ms. Ladin: Well, every child does that.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, you’re right, yeah.
Ms. Ladin: Some things were like I think it’s a common association, because we associate pink with girls in our culture. So it’s not surprising that I would avoid the color pink, but I avoided color. To me, color was something that my mother was concerned about, but not my father. And therefore, it was gendered feminine. And it wasn’t only avoiding color; I didn’t actually pay very much attention to what I was wearing. I paid no attention.
To me, it felt like my body was sort of a billboard that people rented out to project your idea of me here. But, so what I avoided was the vocabulary of color. Women talked about their feelings, so I avoided the vocabulary of feeling. It’s really, really hard to be much of a poet if you — to me, being female meant really being alive, so I avoided language that, to me, connoted really being alive.
Ms. Tippett: I know somewhere, I think — the word “marvelous.” There were things like that, like a word like “marvelous” you wouldn’t use as a man. Do you use the word “marvelous” much these days?
Ms. Ladin: I’m afraid I don’t. [laughs] Should I? Would I be more real?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I have to say that one of the things to read, when I was reading about your transition, that was kind of painful as a woman and so familiar was how important it becomes how you look. Now, look, I have a 14-year-old son, and it’s really important for him how he looks, so I’m seeing that from another side now too. But it’s different, right? And how some of these most wonderful moments that you really needed and that I got them is when somebody told you you looked beautiful.
I think your mother told you, you looked beautiful, maybe your dean. And just recognizing and, again, it makes me a little sad how we need that. But for you, those were just radiant moments of acknowledgement. And for me, it was like, oh, this difficult dailiness of being female — it was very interesting.
Ms. Ladin: I think that that’s one of the terrible things that we do to girls and women in this culture is that we stare at them. It’s also terrible to not be seen. The artifact of femininity, of attractiveness, of what we judge when we judge girls and women beautiful, often, I think, don’t feel to girls and women like they’re being seen as who they are. I was just starved, though, to be visible to anybody.
I felt that if I ever saw the light of day, if who I really was ever — literally, if the sun ever shone on me, the real me, that it would be unspeakably ugly. And I didn’t think that it would be like Medusa; I didn’t think people would turn to stone, but I thought that they would run away or that they would chase me away because they couldn’t bear to look at me, that I would be monstrous. So there was kind of a deeper question that I had that those moments responded to. “Wow, you’re seeing me, the real me.”
And in early transition, it feels like you have no skin at all. There’s nothing between you and the world. There is no sense of identity. I don’t care what people think. There is none of that. You are who you are seen as being, which is pretty hard to live through. But at those moments, I thought, “Oh, my God, you’re saying me, I’m not monstrous.” I never really believed the beautiful stuff, but to me, what they were saying is, “You know what? You’re not a monster.”
My son got it about right when — it was a long time after I was living as myself before my children saw me as myself. I would dress as a guy and act like a guy to whatever extent. And when I started to acclimate them, my therapist suggested that I show them pictures of me — snapshots. So I did, and my son’s reaction was, “Huh, not as bad as I thought.” And that was the way I understood beautiful. “Huh, not as bad as I thought. I don’t have to run away screaming.”
[music: “In A Station Of The Metro” by Wes Swing]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Joy Ladin through our website, onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “In A Station Of The Metro” by Wes Swing]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, an exploration of the meaning of gender. Joy Ladin’s life is a revelatory lens on the subject. She is a professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. That is, she is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish Institution. Born male, Joy Ladin transitioned to living as a woman in her mid-40s.
Ms. Tippett: I want to talk about the morality question, the morality of being transgender and of this transition you made which — I don’t know — when the subject comes up culturally or politically or religiously, it’s a big issue. But it’s really pretty simply framed, right? Is this a sin? Is it an abomination? Is it contrary to Scripture or tradition?
The morality of what you lived through and of your identity and the shift in your identity is something you’ve given a huge amount of thought to, and it’s very complicated. There are layers and layers of ways to think about morality. I’d like to get into that. I mean, you — well, let me just ask you that. If you think of the morality of what you’ve been through, where do you begin to talk about that thicket?
Ms. Ladin: I’d like to add another term to the list. The secular world also provides moralizing terms for transgender people. The one that is most frequently heard is “selfish.” You’re selfish. Your gender — unlike everybody else’s gender, your gender is hurting people. You don’t have to, you know, everybody else, I’m guessing, some people do.
There are gender fluid people who wake up in the morning and say, hmm, what gender identity shall I present this morning? But for most of us, we get up and we decide about gender expression. How will I express being a man or how will I express being a woman? But we don’t think, hmm, should I be a man or a woman? It’s far too central to our identities for that thought even to occur to us.
And it’s really the same for me. I don’t have any other gender to be. But because I lived so long as a man, and because everybody was perfectly happy with that guy, it looks to people like a choice. And it’s clearly a choice that was terrible for my family. It was terrible for my wife. It broke up my marriage, broke up my children’s home. It created at the very least confusion and social complications that continue to this day.
It really wasn’t good for anybody particularly, except for me. So if I chose to do something that was bad for everybody but me, that’s an act of radical, even like sociopathic selfishness. But to me, as I say, there was no one else that I could be. It wasn’t a selfish choice. There was the choice between living and dying. And I did — I’d romanticize suicide. I thought that clearly was the selfless choice because it’s the choice to kill myself for the sake of others.
But therapists kept arguing that children with parents who’ve committed suicide are messed up in ways that go far beyond what happens to children when their parent transitions from one gender to another, but is still there. As one therapist put it, you have to stay alive so your children can reject you. [laughs] “Wow, this is the way you’re talking me out of killing myself? This is tough love.” [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right. But it’s a tough — I mean, it’s this moral position you found yourself in as you experienced it was tough all around, right? I mean, you’re describing that. You said somewhere when you were a good man, you were a bad person. You felt you were a liar and a coward.
Ms. Ladin: I was.
Ms. Tippett: But there was this cost that you were profoundly aware of and continued to live with on the other side of that.
Ms. Ladin: I recently, this Jewish journal, Sh’ma, was doing an issue on covenant that came out recently, and they asked me to write about being a breaker of covenants, which I decided not to take as an insult. [laughs] “Hmm, we need somebody who’s really messed up here.” But what I ended up learning from that was that the covenant that I’d broken was the covenant of gender, and it’s a covenant in a way that I continue to break.
So my gender as a man was a promise to people that the way that I was acting was who I really was. That gender was real. It was my real gender identity and it was consonant with my body. And that was a covenant that I couldn’t keep because I never felt that I was the man that I was presenting myself as, so I was sort of built-in breaking that covenant.
Now that I’ve transitioned, people feel that I’m breaking the covenant of gender in another way, and I think that this is true. So if I present myself convincingly as female, which is something I fear that I’m not able to do on the radio — your voice actually is the voice that I aspire to, but hormones don’t change male to female transsexual voices, so I couldn’t get there.
But when people take me as authentically female, then that covenant is not being fulfilled because I have an X and a Y chromosome. My body’s still in some ways the body that goes along with that. And my life — I had a life as a man. So I think that that’s a lot of why there’s a moral freight built into gender transition is because people feel like it’s a promise about who you are.
And some of my students at Stern College wrote to me, and they said that they were angry at me, not because they saw me as an abomination, although I think some students there probably do, but because they felt that I was presenting myself as a man that I knew that I wasn’t. I was lying to them and, like me, they saw our teacher-student interactions as kind of sacred. They’re about truth, so how could I have done that with them if I knew that I wasn’t being true to them?
[music: “Powder Pills Truth” by Max Richter]
Ms. Tippett: It’s such an interesting interaction with students. I mean, there’s ascension, which you have your story and you also become kind of a symbol because you are the first trans — what’s the trans woman or the first…
Ms. Ladin: I’m the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. But actually I think I’m probably the first openly transgender person living at all in the Orthodox Jewish world. That might not be true. There might be some people scattered around the world or in history, but as far as I know…
Ms. Tippett: I sense in your writing that obviously there are a range of reactions and some of them have been incredibly painful and challenging and others full of compassion and kindness. And I sense that, through all of that, you value the communal kind of power of that tradition as a virtue even in kind of difficult waters like these.
Ms. Ladin: Yes. It was something that I really — that I was taught by my students. So when I was hired to teach at Stern, I had never known Orthodox people, and I’d always felt uncomfortable with them because of this strange thing about Jewish identity. So Orthodox people would be more real Jews than I was, so I would be angry about that and feel ashamed. But also, I was contemptuous of them because look at all the silly things they do, which I as a non-Orthodox Jew don’t do.
So there’s this weird mix of truly feelings that really don’t reflect well on me, but I think are common. So I came in with that prejudice and I was going to be this role model from the modern world and a kind of a Jew where I’m really religious, but I’m not Orthodox. And what I ended up finding in my students were truly extraordinary women and human beings.
Orthodox Jewish culture has a lot of misogyny built into it, and I am not trying to romanticize that away and my students do suffer from it. But they also, this is what I hadn’t — I’d known that stuff, but what I didn’t realize was that, in Orthodox Judaism, everything that you do matters. It matters to God. It matters in the absolute sense. So whether or not you light Shabbat candles at the right time, that really matters.
My students knew that their lives mattered in a way that the students I had taught in more secular institutions were really wondering does my life have significance? Does it have meaning? So my students, though they’d grown up in this misogynist system, often had a wholeness and a vitality and a seriousness about the trajectory of their lives that astonished me.
And I thought a culture that produces young women like this obviously has a lot of great things going for it, but it’s still a human culture. And then I started thinking about it. Yeah, actually I don’t know of any human cultures that aren’t messed up, so they’re human. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yes, absolutely. So something — you were talking about your therapist said to you when you were going through your divorce, which was very painful — well, you were going through the transition, I think. What other people think of you is none of your business. That’s such a perfectly right, logical statement, but that’s impossible for any of us to take in starting in kindergarten.
Ms. Ladin: [laughs] That’s right. People who really live by that are often not people you want to hang out with.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That’s right.
Ms. Ladin: You know what? I’d like to come back to that because what you said about my therapist’s quote, I’m realizing that there is something very traditionally Jewish about that, which is Judaism mostly doesn’t regulate thoughts and feelings.
The glaring exception is the “thou shalt not covet,” which is a psychological prohibition. But almost all of the Torah is governing action, like that part about Moses that doesn’t say you shall not want to wear the clothing of the opposite sex or thou shalt not be transgender. It says don’t do these things.
So Judaism is a religion that creates a lot of regulation in the public space of action — externalized action and a lot of freedom in internal space. Not every religion works that way. And what my therapist was saying to me is, if you want to survive as a trans person, you need to give other people that internal freedom.
You need to say, if they’re treating me with basic respect, even if they’re just avoiding me, then I need to not worry about what they think about me, because, number one, I’ll go crazy and I will internalize all of these sort of fantasies of rejection, so psychologically will be unhealthy. But also, there’s something kind of fundamentally violating of other people’s psychological integrity. If I say you’re not allowed to have your feelings because your feelings do violence to me.
That’s in essence what I was told my whole life. I shouldn’t feel like I was female because those feelings I felt were doing violence to the people that I loved. They were wrong. So I need to accord to other people the space to have their own authentic feelings, no matter how much I might be unhappy with them, as long as they’re actions are in accord with basic human respect. And it is easier to say than to do.
[music: “Herons” by Balmorhea]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today, exploring the deepest meaning of gender. My guest, Joy Ladin, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution.
[music: “Herons” by Balmorhea]
Ms. Tippett: Do you feel as you progress through this journey — how long has it been since your transition to a woman? How long have you been a woman? I mean, is that a real question? How long have you been a woman? That’s not the way you would ask the question, is it? What would you say? How long have you lived as a woman? Lived openly as a woman?
Ms. Ladin: No, it isn’t. I feel like you as a woman can accord me that, but I can’t claim it for myself is where I am at the moment. I’ve been living as a woman for, wow, later this month, it will be exactly six years. So I’m six years old.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right. [laughs] Do you feel — you know, really, that’s not a long time. So I don’t know if this question is fair, but I wonder if — obviously, gender became the focal point of your life when it was disordered. Does gender move into a different perspective as you experience yourself to be more whole and healthy and who you are in the world?
Ms. Ladin: It’s a really, really great question, and I think people who transition later in life — I don’t know how it is for kids who are transitioning now, but I think we actually have an accelerated developmental time frame. So those six chronological years, psychologically have been more. I don’t have a lifetime living as a woman, but I have enough time where my relationship to gender, as your question gets to, really has shifted.
So when I started to transition, I was somebody who had never seen somebody who looked like me in the mirror. I remember the night when I first looked in a mirror and saw someone who looked like me. And it was, well, I don’t think I can describe the experience because I’ll start crying, but it was really something. And then I had to change back, so I disappeared. And for a long time, that was my experience.
So what happened, in a very literal sense, my deepest self was something that could only be manifested superficially, in the most superficial way, literally putting on makeup and taking it off because I had to be able to remove any trace of female identity in order to continue my life. But I think that that tremendously superficial mode of identity reflects something pretty profound about the development of a transgender person’s self after transition, which is that it grows from the outside in.
I needed to see myself first of all just to be visible at all. I had no idea what I looked like. I couldn’t even make choices about, well, what colors look good on me or not? What do I like? What don’t I like? Because I’d never seen myself. So the external was my gateway into a whole bunch of self-defining preferences, decisions, choices, experiments. I’m going to wear that because I love that.
The love is what’s the real self and the expression of it is more superficial. But for me, I needed to create a functional, visible — not even functional. I needed a visible female self first and then that self had to go out in the world and start developing history and relationships with people.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, to be able to discover that love — that what you loved.
Ms. Ladin: Exactly. Who was I? Was I ethical? Was I brave? Was I a coward? Was I shy? Was I loud? All of these things I’d not discovered and had great misgivings about. So that’s why a lot of transsexuals in early transition, our selves are kind of like vortices that are consuming the gazes of people around us. Who do I look like to you now?
I would call up friends. I’d feel constantly like I was disappearing because I had to keep living as a man. I’d call up my friends who lived far away, and I would say, “Do I sound like myself? I feel like I don’t remember what I sound like. Is this me? Do I seem real to you? Do I exist?” I can’t believe the saintly patience of handling those phone calls. What they should have said is, “I’m changing my number.” [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] So, Joy, if I ask you this large question, what it means to be human, like how your particular life experience, which you continue to discover these things that some of us take for granted, how does your sense of what it means to be human change? What have you learned to put to that question?
Ms. Ladin: That’s a really wonderful question. I have a sense of humanity as a very young species. I think we’re really a work in progress. I would say developmentally as species go, we’re probably in late adolescence, kind of obsessed with the miracle of us. I grew up having as dim a view of humanity as you can, because, when you live in hiding, when you live convinced that you’re surrounded by hatred and rejection, that’s a pretty lousy species.
And what I discovered as I transitioned was that there were so many people who were able to see my humanness even without the normal — gender is something that enables us to recognize one another as human. I was astonished that people could see me as a human being even when I really didn’t have gender that would enable them to do that and that they would respond with love, with compassion, with honest questioning, with what I saw as great courage. And I thought, you know what? This is a great, great species.
And I think that one of the blessings and burdens of being trans is that I think all human beings actually are ratios of being and becoming, and that for most of us after childhood, we think of ourselves as mostly being with some becoming. And when becoming takes over, becomes a greater proportion, we think of that as a crisis. It’s a midlife crisis with some kind of religious conversion. Then we’ll settle down again, and we’ll have lives that coalesce.
But I think, for trans people, I think that, for me, and I think for many of us, becoming is always going to be a greater proportion than being. I’ll never have enough experience of life as myself, to have that settled, fixed sense.
I do have some things that are much more settled than they were, but I think I’m always going to have this sense of being as something that constantly involves becoming. And I think that that’s really the glory of the human race. I don’t think anybody should write us off. We’re not done yet.
Ms. Tippett: So tell me. When we started, you talked about that conversation with God, which was so important with you even though you were so disconnected with so many really concrete aspects of your life. How is your sense, not just your sense of what it means to be human, but your sense of who God is? How has that evolved through all these experiences?
Ms. Ladin: For most of my life, my male life, my version of Descartes’ dictum would have been “I kvetch, therefore I am.” I was a walking complaint about existence. And because it all felt wrong to me and I felt that it wasn’t my fault and that was actually not true. I still was a responsible human being, but I felt like, basically I can’t be who I am, so I’m really suffering existence rather than being given a gift and an opportunity and a challenge and a responsibility and all those actually mature attitudes.
In Judaism, I would say the two most important things about being a Jew are living in gratitude and living in joy, and I wasn’t able to do either. And I would say to God, you know, that’s your fault. Now that I live as myself and I’ve been given this incredible miracle, now unfortunately I don’t have that out. [laughs]
So when I’m talking to God, I am obligated to be grateful and joyful and really I should, even while flossing, I should be grateful and joyful, but I’m often not. But now I see that that does reflect ways that I need to grow as a person and not some existential raw deal that I was given, and that’s pretty extraordinary. I feel that only recently have I begun to be able to really serve God. Voluntarily to feel like, “You know what? You’ve given me so much. What can I do for you?”
[music: “Nevergreen” by Emancipator]
Ms. Tippett: Joy Ladin is Gottesman Professor of English at the Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in New York. Her memoir is called Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders. She’s also the author of seven collections of poetry and is currently the recipient of an NEA fellowship to write I Am What I Will Be: Reading God and the Torah from a Transgender Perspective.
[music: “Nevergreen” by Emancipator]
Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, and Rigsar Wangchuck.
[music: “Great Russell” by Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra]
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The John Templeton Foundation.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.