Five Questions With… Joy Ladin

I had the chance recently to ask Joy Ladin, the author of Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, a few questions. What followed was a conversation about transition, marriage, separation, spirituality and religion.

1)      I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more about theology, and specifically Judaism, in your story. Is there a reason you shied away from addressing the issue of transness & religion head on?

I don’t feel I shied away from talking about transness and religion; I talk quite directly about how Judaism, particularly the Torah, and Jewish communal norms, affected my sense of my gender identity when I was growing up, and the course of my transition after. But my intention in the book was to talk about trans identity and its consequences in very personal terms, rather than to reflect about general issues. As I say in the book, I grew up in a family that barely practiced Judaism; being Jewish was an ethnicity, not a religion, for us. I was religious, but I more or less invented the Judaism I practiced, based on my reading of the Torah and scattershot study of Judaism. I wasn’t interested in theology; I was interested in God, with whom I have had an intense relationship from early childhood to the present. Since the book was finished, I written a number of pieces that are part of the fledgling but growing discourse of trans Jewish theology, but I hadn’t done any of that when I wrote the book. What issues did you want me to address that weren’t in the book? I’d be happy to address them now.

** Fair enough. I guess because your employment was at an Orthodox school, and so many people seem desperate to disprove some of the Torah’s verdicts on gender and sexuality, I expected a specific take. I’d be curious to know what the themes are of the pieces you’re writing now about trans Jewish theology.

Traditional Judaism doesn’t directly address transgender identity. There is the prohibition against cross-dressing in Deuteronomy, which I discuss in my memoir, rabbinic prohibitions against doing anything that would impair male fertility that are taken by many Orthodox rabbis as prohibiting male-to-female transition, and a brief discussion in the Talmud about how to integrate intersex Jews into Jewish law and community. Strikingly, the rabbis WANT to include intersex Jews, and reinterpret the law to make that possible. Yeshiva University made Orthodox Jewish history when it allowed me to return to teaching after transition, but that was clearly in response to secular law rather than a desire to be a trend-setter in terms of Orthodox Judaism. However, there are many trans Jews living in the Orthodox Jews. Most are in hiding, but many are “out” to their rabbis, who are privately empathetic. I have recently heard of one Orthodox community whose rabbi has explicitly welcomed a trans member, and the Orthodox world is in the midst of an intense discussion of how to respond to LGBTQ Jews in their midst who can no longer be quietly ignored or exiled. There are now several organizations, including Eshel and Keshet, of which I am a board member, working toward full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in the Jewish world.  I think it’s a time of difficult but positive change. My work on trans Jewish theology is still preliminary, but you can hear some of my thinking in this podcast of my talk to rabbinical students and their teachers at the Jewish Theological Society, and read some in this essay, written for the first Jewish Trans Gathering last fall in Berkeley, CA. I discuss the intersection of trans and Jewish identity more generally in this podcast of my conversation with Lilith editor Susan Weidman Schneider at last fall’s  DC JCC Jewish Book Festival.

Also, there is this conversation with Rev. Shay Kearns which took place at the Encountering Sacred Texts panel at the 2012 Philadelphia Trans Health Conference – in conversation with Rev. Shay Kearns: Part 1 and Part 2.

2)      Betty has commented that she thinks she wound up an actor in order to find some kind of man she might be able to be (but didn’t). I’m wondering if the conservative gender roles assigned by religion now seem like a bulwark against your own sense of gender incongruence.

As I discuss in the book, I found in teaching literature as a profession – a vocation – in which I could feel close to people in a way that seemed to me to temporarily transcend gender. As I said in the book, I’m not and have never been an Orthodox Jew, or a practitioner of any conservative or traditional form of Judaism. I commute to the Orthodox world, because I teach at an Orthodox Jewish university, but I don’t live the way my students live, and my gender identity and expression have nothing to do with theirs, or with Orthodox Judaism’s gender roles. I’ve never looked to Judaism for guidance about my gender identity or expression either when living as a man or now that I’m living as myself.

** Then let me ask: do you think the school’s or the Orthodox community’s response would have been very different if you had been Orthodox yourself?

I suspect the response would have been different, and though I’m not sure exactly how it would have played out, I suspect that it would have been much harder for the school to allow me to return, because then they would have been seen as implicitly endorsing the idea that trans identity is compatible with Orthodox Judaism. As it was, I could be tolerated because I don’t observe most of the laws and norms of Orthodox Judaism anyway. But even if they had allowed me to return, I would have found it much more difficult, because I wouldn’t have been able to ignore rabbinic voices declaring me an abomination and so on, and I would have been keenly aware that though allowed in the classroom, I wasn’t welcome in any Orthodox Jewish synagogue or community.

3)      Your ex has since also written a memoir of her experience of your transition. Call me pomo, but despite the disagreements between you, I find both tellings to be true and valid. That is, taken together they give people a real sense of what a transition is like both for the trans person and a more traditional spouse.

I don’t think you have to be post-modernist to feel that my ex is telling the truth about the way she saw me and my transition. But it is an emotional truth, rather than a factual, historical, or, in her portrayal of me, biographical truth. For example, both the promotional materials for her book and the opening of the book make it sound like I first talked to her about my gender identity issues when we were in our forties, with three children. Actually, as I say in my book, I came out to her when we were sophomores in college, and we discussed my gender identity issues sporadically for the next several decades. For example, I had tried to talk with my ex about my intensifying gender crisis several months before the conversation she highlights as the beginning of her story. So in terms of fact and history, my ex’s portrayal is at best misleading. But there’s an emotional truth to it. As I wrote, we were living and collaborating in denial about my gender identity; both of us tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, that it wasn’t something that I or we had to deal with in our relationship. When we build a relationship on denial, we are always shocked, and often angry, when the thing we are denying is brought up in a form we can’t deny. The shock and anger my ex portrays is absolutely true to her experience of that conversation and its aftermath – but it doesn’t reflect the historical facts about our relationship. Similarly, though we talked for hours and hours, night after night, about my gender identity and what it meant to each of us and to our family, my ex leaves out most of what I said. I was very concerned about her feelings; in fact, I gave her a link to a discussion group of mostly angry women whose husbands were trans, so that she could have some support other than me. But my empathy, listening, and attempts at support didn’t make what for her was the nightmare of my transition any easier; emotionally, they didn’t register, and so in leaving them out, her memoir is true to her experience, which was that no matter what she said, no matter how much pain she was in, or what dire consequences she portrayed, I continued to transition.

** That strikes me as heartbreakingly true.

But though her memoir is true to her own feelings, these omissions do me a great disservice; no one who knows me, or who knew me during transition, recognizes the husband my ex portrays in the book. For me, the most hurtful thing about her portrayal is the implication that I didn’t care about how she or our children felt. As my emails of the time (I still have them!) show, I agonized about their suffering, and made many decisions in relation to their needs rather than mine. For example, I never dressed as myself when I was home with my ex or the children, and for many months after I moved out to live as myself, I kept dressing and presenting as a man when I was with my children. I never suggested that they should move out; in fact, I entered a period of semi-homelessness, because I wanted to support the same standard of living for my ex and children even though it meant that I was living as a penniless student rather than a tenured professor. Even though I know that my ex didn’t feel supported, cared about or taken care of, I was supporting, caring about and taking care of her and the children throughout my transition.

4)      Do you think your writing style has changed since transition? You are a poet, after all, and that’s apparent in your prose. Do you feel more permission to write in more flowery language now that you’ve transitioned? I realize this is a somewhat loaded question to ask a literature professor, but I’d still love to hear your thoughts.

I think my writing has changed a lot since I’ve been writing as myself, but I don’t think floweriness has much to do with it. “Flowery” isn’t something I consider a virtue in writing. The changes have been much more profound. For example, when living as a man, I tried to avoid writing in the first person, because I knew that others would take “I” as referring to a man I knew I wasn’t. When I started to transition, I realized I still didn’t know how to say “I” in my poetry, because I hadn’t yet become enough of myself, so my first book published under my true name is mostly in the second person. I didn’t really learn to be comfortable saying “I” in my poetry until I wrote my book of psalms, direct addresses to God. I had always said “I” to God, and so the pronoun felt true to me in that context. When I lived as a man, I avoided vast areas of human experience and vocabulary that I feared might, even distantly, have a betraying taint of femininity or female identification. When I started writing as myself, I started writing about feelings, tastes, colors, relationships, and I found myself writing with much more depth, confidence, authority and power, because I wasn’t hiding any more. I had always lived in my writing, but now I was living in plain sight, living in truth, writing toward wholeness as a human being instead of trying to hide behind my words.

** I certainly didn’t mean “flowery” as a criticism – maybe I’m looking more for a word like poetic, or lyrical. Of course this is all coming from a writer who gets called out for being blunt and abrupt, too! But your comments bring to mind Woolf’s ideas about how writers have to be androgynous, and to some degree, a trans person who is trying to squelch a feminine side can’t allow androgyny exactly because of what it might represent. Someday a few of us memoirs in the trans community should have a conversation about truth, the nature of what constitutes truth in memoir, that sort of thing. I’m sure Boylan would have some interesting things to say, as might James Green or Matt Kailey.

I love the idea of having that conversation! I am sure Trans Studies Quarterly would be happy to host it – and I suspect we could find a conference to hold it at in person. I think your comment about Woolf is right on target. I was completely taken with her argument when I read it in my twenties, and it still rings true to me. Some of my writing has become more lyrical since transition, but that is part of a general expansion of stylistic possibilities. Some poems are more lyrical, some more conversational, some more general. All, I think, are much more directly and clearly connected to me, but the best aren’t about me: they use me as a jumping-off point to get to language that, I hope, speaks broadly to human experience rather than simply describing or expressing mine.

5)      How are your kids now?

My kids suffered tremendously from the bitterness of the divorce, and still suffer from the gulf between my ex and me – and the gulf between her portrayal of me, and the parent they experience when they are with me. I think those problems are common with bad divorces, but gender transition makes them harder and more confusing. Despite that, we have talked openly about my transition since I came out to them; I still talk often with my youngest about it. Throughout, I have tried to tell and show the kids that I accept and respect all their feelings about me and my transition, including the fact that, as my youngest puts it, “Daddy, you know I will always be angry with you.” I want them to know that their anger is part of our relationship, part of our love, and that no matter how close or far they are or need to be, I will always be there for them. As the quote suggests, they still call me “Daddy,” even – loudly – when we are in  public. That’s hard for me, but I accept it as part of being their parent. They need to call me the name that is true for them, the name that reflects our relationship as they feel it. They are all different ages – 9, 13 and 19 – and have very different personalities and lives, but despite the craziness of my gender transition and having parents who have both published memoirs of the worst time in their lives, they are growing into the splendid, complicated, sometimes maddening people they were born to be. I love to be with them, and when I’m not (my ex won physical custody), it feels like parts of me are missing. Not because I see them as extensions of myself – they would laugh at the very idea – but because I still have that physical feeling of love and connection I had when I held and carried them as babies.

** “I will always be angry with you.” I really couldn’t have said that better myself: that is very much a part of our relationship, and so many years after her transition, it seems like it will always be so.

 Thank you for writing your book, Joy, and for this conversation.