This week, Joy Ladin, the author of Through the Door of Life: A Jew­ish Jour­ney Between Gen­ders blogs for The Post­script on an unan­swered ques­tion that many read­ers ask. The Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs dis­cus­sion and a read­er’s under­stand­ing of how the book came togeth­er. 

To host” Joy at your next book club meet­ing, request her through JBC Live Chat

Why did you mar­ry, when you knew you were trans­sex­u­al?” peo­ple who read my mem­oir often ask me. 

I mar­ried for love, and I mar­ried in fear, and I mar­ried so young, 21, I could­n’t tell the difference. 

I met my future wife dur­ing col­lege ori­en­ta­tion. We could­n’t stop argu­ing that semes­ter. I was flat­tered when she told me how dumb my opin­ions were. We were offi­cial­ly involved,” as we put it, by semes­ter’s end. 

Over spring break she met my fam­i­ly. A true New York­er, she expect­ed Rochester, NY, to be so small that she could get off the train and ask any­one where I lived. When my moth­er made her look at my boy­hood pho­tos, she burst out, Why does Jay” – I was Jay” then – look so miserable?” 

The fol­low­ing win­ter we were still togeth­er, so I told her.
I’m trans­sex­u­al,” I said. 

What does that mean?” she asked. 
I’ve always felt female,” I told her. 

How do you know what female feels like?” she asked. 

I did­n’t know, and she did­n’t care, as long as I seemed like a man. I had been con­scious­ly act­ing male since first grade, ter­ri­fied my secret would be dis­cov­ered. She was the first – for most of my life, the only – per­son who loved me even though she knew that I was­n’t man who, to her, I was. 

Why did she mar­ry you, when she knew you were trans­sex­u­al?” peo­ple at book talks ask me. She mar­ried for love, and she mar­ried in denial, and she mar­ried so young, 22, she could­n’t tell the difference. 

We lived togeth­er for two years dur­ing col­lege, in four apart­ments. Num­ber three was a ten­e­ment built for the waves of Euro­pean immi­gra­tion that had washed ashore six out of eight of our grand­par­ents. The real­tor insist­ed that we do the ren­o­va­tion – floor-sand­ing, wall-strip­ping, prim­ing and paint­ing. I’d agreed to act like a man, so I did most of the work myself. 

My attempt to play handy man when I nei­ther handy nor a man was dis­as­trous. Since ear­ly child­hood, I had had gen­der crises,” times when I was con­sumed with the need to become female – to become myself. But I’d nev­er expe­ri­enced cri­sis like this. I shaved my legs and could­n’t think of any­thing but what was then called sex change.” There was no inter­net, so I looked for a ther­a­pist in the Yel­low Pages. Only one ad men­tioned gen­der iden­ti­ty. My ther­a­py last­ed pre­cise­ly one hour, dur­ing which the ther­a­pist, a ful­ly cre­den­tialed trans­sex­u­al psy­chi­a­trist, offered to strip to show me how good a post-sur­gi­cal trans­sex­u­al body could look. 

Trau­ma­tized, I decid­ed to deal with my gen­der cri­sis the way I always had – by repress­ing my feel­ings and act­ing male. My girl­friend, relieved, made a cod­ed joke out of the encounter, call­ing the psy­chi­a­trist the Podi­a­trist.” For the next cou­ple of decades, we referred to my gen­der issues as the podi­a­try prob­lem.” It was con­sen­su­al denial at its best: wit­ty, kind, hon­est­ly dis­hon­est, as com­pan­ion­able as it was lonely. 

A gen­der cri­sis or two after my abortive podi­a­try” ses­sion, grad­u­a­tion, and adult life, loomed. Where would we live? How would we explain our rela­tion­ship to her tra­di­tion­al­ly reli­gious par­ents, who did­n’t know we’d been liv­ing togeth­er? We start­ed plan­ning a wed­ding, vis­it­ed restau­rants eager to host our recep­tion – and choked when we tal­lied the cost on our hand (no PCs yet) cal­cu­la­tor. Our fam­i­lies would­n’t pay, and we could­n’t afford what they would con­sid­er respectable. We came up with a bril­liant plan: bor­row mon­ey to go to Greece, where my best friend’s grand­fa­ther, a Greek Ortho­dox priest, could mar­ry us in a place our fam­i­lies could­n’t even find on a map. We would avoid their ques­tions by mov­ing to San Fran­cis­co instead of return­ing to New York. 

We bor­rowed, grad­u­at­ed, flew to Greece, and I called the num­ber my best friend gave me. Some­one answered – in Greek. I pan­icked and hung up. I was too embar­rassed to call again, so we dressed in our best clothes – I wore white linen pants and jack­et, resplen­dent­ly strange with my untrimmed beard and wild Jew­ish Afro – and went to the Greek equiv­a­lent of a Jus­tice of the Peace. When we got there, we real­ized that Greek phrase­book did­n’t include We want to get mar­ried.” We fled back to our hos­tel in what we’d thought would be our wed­ding clothes. 

We land­ed in San Fran­cis­co with no mon­ey, friends or mar­riage license, rent­ed a stu­dio in the Ten­der­loin and start­ed temp­ing full-time. We could­n’t afford fur­ni­ture so we slept, ate and did every­thing else on the floor. 

We came up with anoth­er bril­liant plan: if we got mar­ried, we would get mon­ey from our par­ents and gifts from their friends. 
We went to City Hall and wait­ed our turn in a bare-bones room filled with no-frills cou­ples. No white suit; it was almost­Thanks­giv­ing. The judge was what I thought of then as an old man. His eyes, kind but sharp, poked and prod­ded us. I won­dered if he knew I was­n’t ready to spend the rest of my life as a hus­band. As a man. But I loved, and she loved, and we need­ed the mon­ey, and I was afraid no one else would ever love me know­ing I was trans. 

This is seri­ous,” the judge said. I don’t want you back here to get divorced.” 

We’re ready, we nod­ded, lying in unison. 

We do,” we promised, one at a time. 

I now pro­nounce you man and wife,” the judge said. 

Our par­ents did­n’t send us mon­ey. But for the next twen­ty-five years, for bet­ter and worse, rich­er and poor­er, from gen­der cri­sis to gen­der cri­sis, man and wife we were.

Dr. Joy Ladin is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and holds the David and Ruth Gottes­man Chair in Eng­lish at Stern Col­lege. She received her PhD at Prince­ton, MFA in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts at Amherst, and BA from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege. A nation­al­ly rec­og­nized speak­er on gen­der and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty she has spo­ken around the coun­try and has been fea­tured on a num­ber of NPR pro­grams most notably, On Being with Krista Tippett.”