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Does the Self Have a Gender? Q&A with Joy Ladin

Joy Ladin
Joy Ladin, photo by Liz Denlinger

Joy Ladin is a poet and Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University. In 2007, after living as a man for 46 years, Ladin transitioned from male to female, changing her name from Jay to Joy. She and her wife of over twenty years divorced. Ladin’s memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, chronicles her life of gender dysphoria and eventual transition. She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Transmigration (2009) and Impersonation (2015). She talked to Martha Henry by phone in early May.

 In your article, I Am Not Me: Unmaking and Remaking the Language of the Self, you write: “Imagine identity as a sentence, a sentence that begins “I am…” Complete that sentence for yourself.

One of the themes for that essay is based in my own of experience of the difficulty saying, “I am” when you have a self that doesn’t fit cultural categories. I have experienced having an identity for which there is no generally culturally understood language. It was a developmental problem. I didn’t learn how to say, “I am.” I grew up accustomed to that as a condition of existence.

Let’s try to simplify this then. Say there’s a space on an application for two lines, how would you fill in those lines if you wanted to do it without anxiety?

I don’t know that I’ve achieved lack of anxiety, but I do feel like I am Joy Ladin. I feel like that’s my name and that I’m not someone else. That took a long time. I would no longer say, “I am a woman.” I understand that my identity doesn’t fit what most people mean by that, though it does fit what some people mean. But I was recently thinking, “Oh, yes, I am,” so that was progress. That doesn’t feel like a lie. But it’s peculiar that I still have difficulty just saying, “I am.” Just claiming to exist as a person feels risqué to me.

And in terms of the other lines of the application, I would give relational definitions. I am a parent. I am a teacher. I am a poet, which is quasi-relational, but that’s an identity that I’ve carried throughout my life. It doesn’t feel tentative. I got married in January, so I’m actually not used to saying, “I am so-and-so’s wife,” But I have reached the point where I feel like I’m really and honestly so-and-so’s girlfriend. So hopefully by the third or fourth anniversary, the wife thing will have kicked in.

For most people I think this would be the more difficult question, for you it may be the easier, what’s your definition of the self?

That is an easier question. My truest definition of the self is a religious one: the self is a place where God can happen. In secular terms, I agree with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who talks about the self as being generated by our need to organize reality into narrative: the self is the main character we need to focus the unfolding story of our perceptions and experiences.

In your poetry, you often use that word soul. Do you believe in the soul or are you using the word as a rhetorical convenience?

I would say both are true. I have experienced having a soul, something in me that was apart from my body and was not defined by or constrained by my body. That was the way that I understood myself when I was living as a man. I still feel that way.

Does gender matter when you’re alone?

Yes – which is ridiculous. When I’m alone, my gender is my basic way of saying, “I am.” I look in the mirror to see if I’m still there – if my female gender identity is still reflected in my face and body. In other words, I rely on gender to recognize myself.

I find it very hard to process or retain visual images, I can’t remember what things look like. You may have noticed a certain absence of precise description in my poetry. I just don’t know how to do it. So I don’t remember what my face looks like particularly, even now. But when I see my face, because I can now see it as a women’s face, or female face, I see it as mine.

Every morning you wake up shocked to find that parts of you have disappeared, that you are smothered in flesh you cannot recognize as yours. That you have lost the body you never had. This isn’t me, you say to yourself. This isn’t me, you say to anyone you trust. Of course it isn’t. There is no “me,” no body that fits the map, no identity that fits your sense of self, no way to orient yourself in a world in which you exist only as an hysterical rejection of what, to everyone around you is the simple obvious fact of your gender.

~Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, by Joy Ladin

Before you transitioned to female, you describe the feeling of dissociation from your male body, that your body wasn’t your body, that you didn’t exist. What does not existing feel like?

It feels awful. I was reading recently an article about people who feel that they’re dead while they’re alive. I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s probably a bunch of different neurological problems. What those people described is related to what I felt, but their feelings are more extreme. I didn’t feel like my body had parts that were rotting or weren’t there.

Ken's black shoesBut I wasn’t there in the way that I was supposed to be there. I was too there to not be there. I was so there that I should have been able to look in the mirror or feel my body sensations and say, “Yeah, this is me. I’m here.” But instead, when I would do those things, I would have the opposite response. “I have a sense of being here, but I can’t verify that what I’m feeling from my body or seeing of my body is actually the me that I feel is there.” It was disturbing, and sometimes excruciating, so I would try to dissociate enough not to feel the sensation of being there but not there. But it was hard to dissociate all the time. It was hard because the people around me were always treating me as though I was there.

 If you’re not there, but you’re in excruciating pain, doesn’t that pain make you feel excruciatingly alive.

I went through that exact same train of thought, and one of the people profiled in the article said something similar: “if I’m really dead the way I feel like I’m dead, then I shouldn’t be in such tremendous pain.” It’s a logical contradiction. But that was part of being too there to not be there.

I was in pain, I was lonely, I was sad, I was depressed—all things that I am truly hoping dead people don’t go through. It’s bad enough to be dead, but if you have to be chronically depressed while you’re dead, that would just be unfair.

Those feelings kept challenging me to find the self who was undergoing them. The best response that I came up with, and it was a terrible response, was being suicidal and self-hating. I think a lot of people get addicted to self-hatred because it makes us feel like we’re transcending the self that we hate. In my case, hating myself was a way of avoiding the feeling of not really being there.

I didn’t want to transgress gender boundaries; I wanted to be a girl.
~Through the Door of Life, Joy Ladin

Were there women who you used as role models for your femininity?

At first I tried to use everyone as a role model. I thought that every woman was what I was trying to become, so I tried to learn from every woman I encountered. Then I got more selective.

I wasn’t really looking for role models, I was looking for the ways that women spoke and gestures that they used and the way that they presented themselves in the world. At first I thought of that in terms of femininity. Then I realized I was interested in women who seem confident and self-assured. I wanted to see how to be a woman who has a place and a presence in the world.

 Since your transition, do you feel more like yourself?

Yes.

 Is there any easy way to summarize what changed?

Barbie's pink heelsI’ve mentioned some of the things that did change: a sense of really being here, of really being alive on the physical level and emotional level, also really being alive in the sense that my life matters, that I’m playing for keeps. I’m not just acting like a person who’s supposed to be alive; I’m actually the person who’s living this life.

Before transition, I had a sense that no matter what I did, I couldn’t define myself with my actions because I couldn’t do anything that would reveal my female gender identity. Now I feel like I am myself and therefore my actions define me all the time. The self that I am, this person that I am, is constantly being defined by what I do.

Now that you outwardly identify as a woman, do you see men as other?

I always have.

There is a lot of talk in the academic world about gender as a performance, something we do with and for and sometimes to each other, rather than as something we are… Though my female self is nothing if not a performance, for me, gender is more than performance. If it weren’t, then someone like me, raised as male, perceived as male, and consciously performing as male, would simply be male; my life long sense that there was a true female self behind my male mask would be a delusion.

~Through the Door of Life, Joy Ladin

Is being a woman something you get better at with practice?

In some ways, yes. I would say doing the things that signify female identity get way better with practice. Getting used to doing those things without nervousness or fear gets way better with practice. Eventually, I stopped practicing and settled into being myself.

Ken's black shoes and Barbie's pink heelsI say, “being myself,” not “being a woman.” I learned that being myself means much more to me than “being a woman.” Being myself means being true to my kids, for whom my transition was very difficult, and who still call me “Daddy” and refer to me as “he.” Being myself also means doing the work that I have been given, which includes talking with people about trans identity and deconstructing my gender identity in front of people so they can see how it works and where it comes from. That work makes it hard to have a sense of becoming a woman. It’s educationally appropriate and necessary, but it’s hell on the sense of self.

Was there anything about acting like a woman that you adopted for a while and then discarded?

Yes, [Laughs] bags of clothing. Heels. That was a real disappointment—the heels thing. I love walking, and I realized that there were no heels in which I could love walking, so I let that one go.

Becoming a woman, signifying that I was a woman, performing being a woman, has become less and less important than being myself. And being myself means doing things that feel true to me or that are good for me, even when those things don’t conform to other people’s ideas of what being a woman is.

But how can I do what real women do, when being a real woman means not having to think about acting like a woman.

~Through the Door of Life, Joy Ladin

What’s the difference between acting like a woman and feeling like one?

I don’t know that I’ve ever “felt like a woman,” though I have always had a sense of female gender identity. There was something my ex said that had great influence on my ideas about gender. When I came out to her when we were sophomores in college, I said something like, “I’m a woman inside and I feel like a woman.” She responded by saying, “What does that mean? I am a woman and I have no idea what it means to feel like a woman. How do you know that what you feel is feeling like a woman when even I, who am a woman, don’t know what that feels like?” Eventually I realized she was right. I have no idea whether my feelings of female gender identity are like the feelings of those who are born and raised and identify as female, any more than I know what other people mean when they say green.

Do you think the self needs a body in order to have a gender?

Yes.

Did transitioning from male to female provide you with the happiness that you sought? Did it give you what you were looking for?

I was not seeking happiness, which was a good thing, because if somebody says, “Do something which will wreck your marriage, prevent you from living with your children, cost you many of your most important relationships and maybe your livelihood, as a way of being happy,” you’d just laugh and move on.

But I wanted to exist. I wanted to be alive. And I am.

In one of your books you say, “Dreams are a lot less complicated before they come true.” In what ways is being a woman more complicated than you imagined?

My ideas of what it mean to be a woman – again this is common among trans women of my generation – were based on the heterosexual women I grew up with in my family and in TV and movies. That gave me the sense that being a women was defined by being in heterosexual relationships with men – and I think being in relation to men is one of the most complicated aspects of being a woman.

I’ve been in academic meetings where women who are senior and really know what they’re talking about are disregarded and talked over by men who are junior and don’t know what they’re talking about. What surprises me is that the women often go along with this, as though they have been trained to support men’s sense of superiority. Because I was raised as a boy, I didn’t get that training. I look at a guy acting superior to women and I think, oh, look, there’s a guy being an asshole. It doesn’t trigger any of my insecurities, or prompt me to make myself seem small so that he can feel large.

I didn’t find it complicated to have female friendships in which I was accepted as a woman. I had always felt homosocial – more interested in relationships with women than with men. But I was surprised when I fell in love with another woman (we were married this year). Because my ideas of womanhood were based on heterosexuality, this relationship shook up my engagement with femininity, and my whole sense of gender expression. My wife is not fem at all, and is not interested in all of the signifiers of femininity that I had grown up being so interested in. She helped me distinguish between my sense of my gender identity and norms of femininity: those norms don’t matter to the woman who loves me, so I am free to engage in them or not, as I please.

So a lot of the complications of living as a woman that I imagined—How do you get into a heterosexual relationship? How can you define yourself through this relationship to someone else? How do you deal with a man for that much of your life?—have turned out to be irrelevant to me.

Imagine a world where people are allowed to express their gender and sexuality in whatever ways they wish, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. If you had been born into that world, would you still have felt a disconnect between your body and your gender identity?

I’m going to guess that the answer is no, though of course it’s hard to tell. But this question, which focuses only on individual freedom, seems to me to overlook some things that have been crucial to my experience of gender and gender identity. For example, it leaves out the degree to which gender dysphoria is connected to the body. To the best of my knowledge, I would still not be comfortable in my body if my body looked male. Maybe in a different world that wouldn’t be true, but on the basis of my experience, I would have to say that it is.

The other thing is that freedom to express individuality is quite different from having an identity that is meaningful to others. It is wonderful and crucial to be free to be who we are, but individuality tends to be – well, individual – and if we are all expressing ourselves in idiosyncratic ways, the results are not identities. We just say, oh, there’s so-and-so being so-and-so. My gender identity is not just a way of me being free, of me being individual; it’s a way of relating myself to others, of being seen and known by others, of forming relationships and making commitments. I’m not sure you can have structured, defined genders – or any socially meaningful identities – without some constraint of individual freedom.

In the past few years, there’s been a huge shift in the media depiction of trans people, both in broadcast time and nuance. The most obvious examples are Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, Jeffrey Tambor’s depiction of a transitioning father in Transparent, and Bruce Jenner’s recent interview with Diane Sawyer. How has the shifting public conversation affected your sense of self?

It hasn’t had very much impact on my sense of self. The shift you’ve mentioned is quite recent, and, though important, I think our society is still just beginning to learn how to talk about, represent and understand trans identities. It’s important to remember that the examples you mentioned are all representations of people like me – male-to-female transsexuals – and that we are just a fraction of all what we call the “transgender community.” We have barely begun to see representations of female-to-male transsexuals, genderqueer people, and other transgender identities.

The recent representations of trans women haven’t affected me that much because they’re coming late in my process of becoming and living as myself. They would have had a huge impact on me five, six, or seven years ago. I think they might have changed the way the end of my marriage played out and made things easier for my kids.

Reading your memoir, Through the Door of Life, I was struck by just how much time you’ve spent thinking about gender. You’ve definitely logged your 10,000 hours. You’re an expert on the subject. What do you know about gender that an amateur doesn’t?

I think I know a lot about gender, but I’m not sure how much I know that amateurs don’t – or rather, I’m not sure how many people are amateurs. Most people haven’t played the violin for ten thousand hours, but every adult I know has spent thousands of hours living with and negotiating gender.

But they probably haven’t thought about gender for more than ten hours.

Yes – that is a real difference. What I’ve learned from thinking so much about gender is that the specifics of gender roles and gender expression are quite arbitrary; they vary widely from era to era, and culture to culture, even family to family. They are also surprisingly flexible in the contemporary U.S. Most people express their gender identities differently in different contexts and at different ages.

Shoes and legsThis means that the specifics of gender – what it means to live as a man or a woman – are not fixed. They aren’t hardwired into humanness or built into the bodies we are born with. But I’ve also learned that for most people, even though the specifics of gender are not hard-wired, the sense of gender identity seems to be. Most of us (not all of us) seem to have strong feelings of gender identity, regardless of how we express those feelings. And for most of us, gender identities are foundational to the way we understand ourselves and others.

So we need to recognize both that the specifics of gender aren’t fixed, but that gender is still a crucial and defining aspect of most people’s lives. In this way – in many ways – gender seems to me to be like language: it is hard not to express or even think about ourselves without it, though the words and meanings keep changing.

But like language, gender doesn’t control us. We don’t get away from it very much, but it’s also not something that we are stuck within. It’s a lot more flexible and fluid, even for the most normative people, than we tend to notice. And, like language, we each have power to use gender to express and define ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Does the Self Have a Gender? Q&A with Joy Ladin”

  1. Hey Boyce, thanks for your comments. I don’t have any answers to your questions, other than it seems to be a human need to differentiate, to categorize, to label. We could talk about the evolutionary reasons for this. On the sex/gender question, think about it in terms of genotypic sex (unchangeable), phenotypic sex (modifiable), and gender (fickle).

  2. Very interesting interview. But I still can’t grasp what “gender” means beyond which sex one belongs to.

    Also, what’s up with Ladin transitioning to womanhood and then marrying a woman? Does that make her a gay transsexual? Or does she retain some element of male attraction to women?

    Perhaps the best way to deal with this is simply to let people be whatever and whomever they are and to resist labeling.

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