A Memoir of Gender Transition

by Joy Ladin
University of Wisconsin Press, 2012

 In Through the Door of Life, Stern College professor Joy Ladin offers this analysis of why her colleague Moshe Tendler reacted so negatively to her announcement that she is transsexual: “Rabbi Tendler isn’t only worried about what I am; he is worried about what I mean.”

This pithy line sums up why things transgender unsettle us so. It also hints at why this book is a worthwhile read for anyone. Ladin unfolds, in essay after essay, just what it took for her to figure out what she means and come to peace with it.

As a transgender person myself, I know this particular state of disorientation intimately. As I grew up I wondered, what did it mean that I, a biological female, could be so essentially male? What did it mean that I wanted to wear boys’ clothes from the time I was able to distinguish the difference between men’s and women’s garb? What did it mean that perfect strangers felt enough of a need to know my gender—when I was five years old—that they would unceremoniously ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” When I finally realized the answer to that question was, “No, I’m not,” I started to get a glimmer of what I meant.

My transition story is similar to Ladin’s in many ways—both of us are Jewish and transitioned in our forties while raising young children and in a committed relationship. However, the sociological backdrop for transmen and transwomen is very different, and Ladin lived through years of stuggle without the pressure relief systems that I enjoyed. Nevertheless, with a heap of pluck, the balm of love, and the promise of a new generation, she made her way through.

Relationships in Transition

Through her sometimes wrenching and sometimes funny memoir, Ladin discovers surprising strengths in her family of origin, even as she grasps the fragility of her thirty-year marriage.

Her mother proves to be a wonderful shopping date, and, after a few short days of reorienting her parenting, her mother is able to see that she now has a daughter rather than a son. Ladin recalls the following from their first retail outing: “‘Do you have shoes?’ my mother asked. These, she told me, would be comfortable and practical. ‘Naturalizer is a good name,’ she said, … ‘but here they are too expensive.’” The elder Ladin surprisingly doesn’t miss a beat, and the younger settles into her new daughterly role, noting that this boutique bonding was a rite of passage for them both.

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