Joy Ladin, the first trans professor at Yeshiva, discusses her transition, her travails, and her new memoir
Because it involves such a profound transformation, because it involves seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and because it seems to move toward a happy ending, there’s a temptation to begin a story about writer, professor, and poet Joy Ladin with “Once upon a time.”
The story of this transformation is chronicled in Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, Ladin’s recently published memoir, which chronicles her midlife transition, in 2007, from male to female, documents the reactions of her family, including her three children, and seeks to correct the record of how she became the first openly transperson to teach at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution.
This story does not begin with “Once upon a time,” nor does it end with a conventional “happily ever after.” For the story of Joy Ladin, as any real story of change, is not finally a fairy tale, but something more complicated and involved and intricate and altogether more beautiful.
Ladin met me at the Murray Hill Diner to discuss the memoir and the events it chronicles. She was wearing a pewter blouse and a distinctive but delicate black bead necklace, and she looked radiant, her face no longer “huge with secrets,” as a line from a poem included in her 2009 collection Transmigration (her first to be published as “Joy”) memorably characterizes the appearance of one who lives a lie.
“Coffee,” the waitress said almost as soon as Ladin sat down, less inquiry than apparent reiteration of frequent fact.
Out the window, Stern’s main building, where Ladin teaches English and directs the Writing Center, was clearly visible. Students congregated in small clusters, enjoying the unseasonably pleasant weather. (I taught composition at Stern in 2007, but Ladin and I never crossed paths at the time.)
Ladin agreed to the coffee, declined an accompaniment of milk, and told me a bit about the class (Early American Poetry) she had just taught. It was clear that she loves teaching; in her way of talking about the poets on the syllabus, about the process of writing and the work of analysis, and, most of all, about the young women who take her class, there was a genuine enthusiasm, a palpable commitment to her work.
This work, for a while, threatened to become a sacrifice to Ladin’s transition. The memoir begins with her return to Stern after an “involuntary research leave.”
As the book explains, shortly after receiving tenure in 2007, Ladin informed the dean at Stern she would be transitioning, and was, in turn, informed that, though she would remain on the college’s payroll, she would not be permitted to return to campus, neither to teach nor interact with students in any way.
But a letter from Ladin’s lawyers, as well as a show of support from students past and present, eventually changed Stern’s initially intractable position, and Ladin came back to campus in the fall of 2008.
Her return was gleefully covered by the New York Post in typically Post-ian fashion.
“Everybody was really into the idea that Yeshiva was upset,” Ladin said.
The Post reported that Ladin’s presence had “rattled” the school, and the copycat articles that followed similarly presented the situation as profoundly disturbing (and an occasion for puns offensive to Jews and transgendered people alike).
But the truth, Ladin said, was far less sensational: her colleagues and her students welcomed her, by and large, and those few who felt any misgiving were careful not to confront her with them.
Through the Door of Life gave Ladin a chance to tell her own story about her relationship to Stern: Yeshiva University, which provided a grant in support of the memoir’s writing, is thanked in Ladin’s acknowledgements.
She had tried this in other ways, but none of the new organizations, print and TV alike, that she contacted in order to pitch her story—a story, as far as she was concerned, about acceptance and the act of tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world—were remotely interested. “‘Yeah, we don’t really see a story there,’” she said they responded.
Ladin believed there was a story there, and she saw its importance again when she recently read on the first trans-poetry panel in AWP [the Association of Writers and Writing Programs] history.
“The room was packed, people were standing in every available space,” she said, “and I read some poems from different points in the transition, and then I said, ‘I thought I would never be loved, but then I met someone I fell in love with and who fell in love with me,’ and then I read a love poem, and several people came up to me afterward and said they felt that way. This is one of those universal fears that is particularly acute with transpeople. ‘If I am really revealed as I am, will I been seen as a monster or will I be loved?’”
Her experience—with her girlfriend, a writer she met at the Nehirim Queer Jewish Women’s retreat in 2010, but also with the receptivity she found at Stern—could be used to show that love was possible. “It’s a miracle,” Ladin confessed. “It’s a story I really want to tell.”
Another such miraculous moment occurs in the memoir when Ladin confesses to her mother that she intends to transition to living fulltime as a woman, a revelation over which Ladin agonizes, only to find that her mother readily accepts her.
“[She] still refers to me as ‘Jay’ and as ‘he,’” Ladin told me as “I Want to Know What Love Is” rather uncannily came on the diner stereo. “She’s never really wanted to talk very much about this, she has asked almost no questions. There are a lot of things she might have said, because in essence I’m rewriting the entire history of our relationship, and she has not really wanted to go there, but for her the primary aspect of my identity is as her child, and I don’t think she gets the gender identity part of it, her understanding of me as her child is ‘Jay’ and ‘he,’ but most important is that I’m her child and that’s not going to change.”
Ladin also recognized her privilege and its attendant responsibility: “I have tenure, I can’t be fired. Actually, my institution is supportive of this book, which is amazing. I know that in the Orthodox world, even though I’m not Orthodox, I am this beacon of hope for transpeople and queer people in general. It’s like, ‘Wow, if Joy Ladin can be tolerated, maybe we can be tolerated too.’ I’m not doing anything but showing up to work and collecting a paycheck, but just that people can tolerate me doing that and sit in my class and on committees with me, for people struggling with intense isolation and pain, I am a glimmer of hope, of the future.”
Not that she sees herself as a spokeswoman or an expert. She told me about a recent reading she did at a conference at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives in Chicago (“a private, queer library”), sitting in front of a small audience, say five or six people, three of them transsexual, and having a moment of profound insecurity.
“I actually didn’t know if other transsexual people would see this as representing their experience. So that was nice to me, that they didn’t say, ‘What are you talking about?’ or ‘Yeah, don’t try on dresses that are too small for you, that’s stupid.’” She laughed at that last bit, referencing a moment in the memoir when, early in her transition, she tries on a beautiful yellow dress, a dress she knows will not fit but a dress so beautiful, so completely akin to her fantasies of what dresses ought to be that she determinedly struggles into it, only to find herself trapped, unable to take the garment off and equally unable to ask for help.
Ladin considered the incident of the dress and the dressing room as an emblem of the realization that “there are some battles that a transsexual has to fight alone,” and she returned to the scene several times during our conversation. In that dressing room, she came face-to-face with her own physicality as a transsexual, with the idea that, for many people, that physicality “is something irreducibly strange and disturbing and obscene and boundary-blurring and crossing in ways that are upsetting and dangerous.”
“The scientist who coined the term transsexual,” she said with a wry smile, “was trying to do us a favor by saying, ‘It’s not just you and you and you. There’s a whole group of people, a persistent human condition.’ But having the word sexual in there was a big mistake. For one thing, if you are transsexual, the odds of having sex are really decreased.” She laughed. “The transsexual experience, for all kinds of reasons, including the hormones I take, is castrating. It’s testosterone that is the ‘lets have sex’ hormone, and estrogen that is the ‘lets cuddle’ hormone. So in very literal ways, being a male-to-female transsexual can really reduce your sexuality.” And yet that sexuality can produce harsh reactions in others: the trope of the “man in a dress,” Ladin said, sighing, persists as shorthand for the ludicrous, even as the transsexual is also variously understood as predatory or indecent.
She spoke quietly, like someone used to listening and reflecting, and her responses to questions are at once economical and generous, neither wasting words nor evading. Like the best kind of poetry, like her own best poems, Ladin’s conversation offered no more and no less than what suited the occasion, all the while inviting further engagement in the soft cadences and authoritative rhythms of her words. I was reminded, especially when she laughed—a soft giggle, equal parts self-consciousness and genuine delight—of the oft-reiterated sense, in the memoir, that transitioning between genders is not unlike adolescence, a temporality marked by the life-and-death negotiation of a world demanding mastery, and the sort of unrehearsed, revealing honesty that is often the result.
Still, “it’s weird to have just met you and you know all this stuff,” she said. “You know I was stuck half-naked in a dressing room.” Considering how much I knew about her life, considering how much of her life would now be known, she was contemplating the decision to publish the book, which had begun as a form of therapy.
“I’ve always lived more in writing than in any other way, and so it was a natural thing for me to [write the memoir], and I realized it was good for me,” she said. But, though Ladin had already published several collections of poetry and a great many academic articles, the idea of making public a work so immediately, undeniably personal still occasionally gives her pause: “’Wow, do people really want to hear all that stuff about me?’” she remembered thinking during a reading she had done earlier this year to launch the book.
Some details are of course less revelatory than others. The memoir focuses on a brief span of time—roughly 2006 (when Ladin’s “gender crisis” comes to conflict, leaving her unable to eat or sleep) to the spring of 2010, with most of the attention given to the events of 2007, the year Ladin fully transitioned to living as a woman full-time, saw the dissolution of her marriage, confessed to her mother, and lost her long-estranged father—but, in its emphasis on relationships, it has occasion to travel back further in time. Ladin touches on her upbringing in a secular household in Massachusetts, her attraction to the practice of Judaism—she called herself a “feral Jew,” but reiterated, as she does in the memoir, the importance of her connection and commitment to God—her time at Sarah Lawrence, where she met her now-ex-wife. But the memoir most often returns to Ladin’s three children.
“[They] still call me ‘Daddy,’” Ladin said of her two daughters (nearly twelve and eight) and son (seventeen). “The way we know people in terms of gender is pretty fundamental and intimate. Some people actually don’t care, it’s not hard for them, and I find that stranger than I do the people for whom it’s hard.”
When I asked her whether her older daughter and son have read the book, she doubted their interest. “I think, like most kids they are just not that interested in their parents,” she said. “The really exciting thing is their growth and their change, and, sure, unfortunately, parents have to grow and change also, but the less we think about that the better, because it distracts from the main attraction.” She paused.
“And the other thing is, my transition is the visible representation of really the defining tragedy of their lives. The divorce has been over for while, we’ve really worked through a lot of the issues, but the bottom line is, as my youngest is still young enough to say, ‘Why can’t we all live together? … So, seeing my smiling face on the cover of a book about the disaster, it’s like, you know, if Jews were presented with Adolf Eichmann’s smiling face on The Holocaust and How I Caused It. You’re not really going to grab it and read it avidly.”
But the story of Joy (what an enduringly optimistic name) Ladin is not a tragedy any more than it is a fairy tale or any other conveniently fictive trope. It is perhaps the nature of good, of enduring, stories, to be messy and to blur boundaries.
But Ladin well knows that the easiest choice—whether the choice involves how to live or how to write—is not necessarily best or, finally, really easiest. (The memoir’s title comes from Ladin’s vision of an angel who visits her as she contemplates suicide and points out “the door of death” to her, only to note that “the door of life” is also there, and that she has not yet opened it. Choosing to live, the moment suggests, is hardly the natural, the given, choice.)
Discussing her familial relations, Ladin summoned an anecdote: “My daughter,” she said, “has become very into "The Biggest Loser" … ‘Oh, when I lose weight, everything will change.’” Making the analogy literal, she imitated her own pre-transition idealization of transitioning: “‘When I transition, everything will change.’” And does everything change? “A lot of things do change, and then you find out, ‘Oh, actually, not everything changes,’” Ladin said, “but you can’t know what’s going to change and what doesn’t, and there’s a major obstacle in realizing your own identity until you transition. And so part of it, it seems, is about wish-fulfillment, but it’s also when wishing turns into the reality of living that you see life is richer but sadder—‘Oh, OK, so these are real choices.’ And sometimes there are limitations, and they are permanent … my relationships with my family members are not miraculously healed. But they also didn’t just go up in smoke.”
Earlier, when she was explaining her mother’s acceptance, Ladin had described her mother’s staunch resistance to learning more about her transition, which was also part and parcel of her unconditional embrace of her child, “profound and wonderful, and in some ways, it’s infuriating and blinkered.” That sense of something immensely complicated, something simultaneously soft and thorny, small and glorious, seemed like a fitting way of thinking about experience and how best to represent it in all of its mundane and wondrous splendor. That, anyway, was Ladin’s sense.
“That black-and-white thinking I had before transition—which is the realm of wish and childhood—all of it is more complicated and less happily-ever-after than I thought of.”