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 club’s discussion and a reader’s understanding of how the book came together.
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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.