Sunday 5 January 2014

Interview with Joy Ladin

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Joy Ladin, an inspirational American woman, a writer, poet, Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, lecturer at many universities and colleges, including Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, Tel Aviv University, Reed College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Hello Joy!
Joy: Hi Monika, and thank you! It's wonderful to talk with you.
Monika: In your memoir titled “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders” (2012) you touch upon many intimate and personal issues of your transition, including the relationship between your religion and transgenderism. What is the attitude of Judaism towards transgender women?
Joy: It depends on what you mean by “Judaism.” The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements in Judaism have all adopted policies welcoming transgender people, but there is a lot of work to do when it comes to translating abstract policy statements into concrete action in communities.
Orthodox Jewish communities are just beginning to recognize the existence of people whose gender is more complicated than “male” or “female,” though the sages of the Talmud recognized the existence of what we would now call intersex people, and they interpreted Jewish law in ways that enabled people whose bodies weren't simply male or female to participate in Jewish ritual and community.
"Through the Door of Life: A Jewish
Journey Between Genders" (2012),
But traditional Judaism doesn't recognize what we would now call “gender identity,” and doesn't consider the possibility that some people who are physically male or female might have gender identities that don't fit the sex of their bodies. That makes it hard for Orthodox Jews, who shape their lives in relation to Jewish tradition, to accept or even think about transgender Jews.
But there are signs that even the Orthodox world is changing. Since my transition, I have continued teaching at my Orthodox Jewish university as an openly transgender woman, and through that role, I have met many individual Orthodox Jews who accept transgender people. There is also a growing organization of LGBT Orthodox Jews called Eshel which is working to educate Orthodox rabbis about transgender issues.
Monika: And why is God so merciless towards transgender people, placing their minds in the opposite gender bodies?
Joy: I don't know – I missed the memo in which God explains that policy! Seriously, though, I'm not sure that what transgender people suffer due to their mismatched bodies is greater than what many non-trans people suffer as a result of having human bodies.
Human bodies are prone to all sorts of conditions, illnesses, and disabilities that make it hard for people to live full lives and to be seen and accepted by others. I have met many younger trans people who have grown up in families that accept them and love them as they are; for many of them, the acceptance and love they have known seem to ease the pain that I and many other trans people experience. This leads me to suspect that much of the pain of being transgender is social, that the mercilessness we need to focus on is that of human beings rather than God.
But I have more personal reasons for not feeling that God is merciless toward transgender people. I know many non-trans people who feel estranged from their lives and bodies – people who envy me that I actually have been able to become and live as myself. They have helped me see that becoming myself is a miracle – and throughout the transition, I kept experiencing God's mercy in helping me through overwhelming hardship and pain.
I don't know who I would have been, had I been born with a gender identity that fit my body, but I know I wouldn't be the person I am today, I wouldn't have learned what I have learned about being human, and I wouldn't have been able to do the writing and teaching I've done. All of this is a result of being transgender, just as the pain of living as a man I knew I wasn't and the agony of transition were results of being transgender. For me, it is hard to distinguish God's mercilessness from God's mercy – but since I am alive and living as myself, it's God's mercy that defines my life.

Monika: In addition, you are the author of six books of poetry: The Definition of Joy; Coming to Life; Transmigration; Psalms; The Book of Anna; Alternatives to History. In one of your interviews, I read that while creating poems you loved revealing the hidden likeness of apparently unlike words because that act “rhymed” with your sense of being trapped in a wrong body…
Joy: Yes, that is the way I remember my engagement with poetry as a child when it felt like I was doing something magical and transformative every time I wrote. I didn't think of rhyme in the terms I use now when I look back, so I might be making this up, but it's a story that feels true to me. I do remember consciously feeling that poetry was a way of being alive without a body, that I was only fully alive when I was writing because the world of words had nothing to do with my male body.
During the early stages of my transition from living as a man to living as a woman, I became very aware that the syntax of my poems reflected my sense of shape, or lack of shape, as a person. For example, the poems in Transmigration, the book I wrote during the hardest phases of transition, often have little punctuation; phrases cascade into one another in ways that never resolve into the whole, stable sentences, just as I kept shifting from one version of myself to another without a sense of whole, stable identity.
Monika: Is there anything like transgender literature?
Joy: Just last year, TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson published the first anthology of trans and genderqueer poetry, Troubling the Line, and there are now several presses that focus on publishing trans writers and trans-oriented writing. The Lambda Literary Awards are slowly developing categories for trans literature too, and some universities, like the University of Arizona at Tucson, are offering courses in trans literature. But as a recognized, self-aware genre, trans literature is in its infancy. That makes it an exciting time to be a trans writer.

Monika: What does it mean to be a transgender writer, poet, or artist?
Joy: I don't think there's any generally recognized definition; actually, I'm not sure there's a generally recognized definition of “transgender,” either. It's clear that some writers and artists see being transgender as a crucial aspect of their identities and work, and many who are transgender sometimes create works that are directly or indirectly about the experience of being trans.
But it's also clear that many writers and artists who are transgender don't see their gender identities as crucial to their creative work, and even those who do (I would include myself among them) create work that is not about being trans. These days, for example, few of my poems address transgender experience, but in Coming to Life and Transmigration, I write both directly and indirectly about my experience of transition. 
Monika: What is your view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films or books so far?
Joy: The films I've seen that portray trans characters seem to me to have a well-meaning but limited understanding of trans experience, and no sense at all that trans identity might just be one aspect of a person's life. Of course, trans writers have long been creating complex trans characters.

With fellow trans poet Samuel Ace.

Monika: Some critics say that contemporary art does not provide too many opportunities for women to show their talents and stories that are more interesting for the female audience. Would you agree?
Joy: That sounds right to me, but I don't think I know enough about contemporary art to make any definitive statements. Misogyny – or, more commonly these days, unconscious male-centrism – is alive and well in most institutions I know, VIDA's annual census of American publications documents the lopsided number of men as opposed to women who are published and reviewed in them.
Monika: Are you working on any new book or project?
Joy: I'm working on a new book of poetry, which is tentatively called Anything But Human, and I'm thinking about either collecting my essays on trans identity or trying to write a book based on those essays. I'm also thinking about a book on trans theology. But I'm doing a lot more thinking about books than writing them at the moment.
Monika: There are more and more talented transgender and prolific writers, just to mention: Jan Morris from the United Kingdom, Josephine Emery from Australia, and Aleshia Brevard from the USA as well as the new wave of such writers as Julia Serano, Ryka Aoki, Red Durkin or Imogen Binnie. Do you think that there is a chance for the more prominent status of transgender writers?
Joy: I think that trans writers have become much more prominent in the last decade or two, and I expect that trend to continue. Trans people are a small minority, so the general recognition of trans literature will depend on the brilliance, luck, and persistence of trans writers. I expect it will continue to be an uphill battle.
Monika: In general what do you think about the situation of transgender women in American society?
Joy: The situation of most Americans is strongly affected by race, class, and gender, and transgender women are no exception. American trans women seem to have a much harder time than trans men. American trans women who are poor are overwhelmingly likely to stay that way – to struggle to find jobs, and even to find housing.
American trans women of color are by far the most likely among American trans women to be murdered or seriously injured in transphobic attacks. Though most trans women have experienced harassment and discrimination, those of us who are white, educated, and at least middle class tend to have much easier lives than other American trans women.

Signing copies of her memoir during
a visit to a Washington DC synagogue.

Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Joy: There are a lot of trans activists in the US. I'm not sure any one of them has the prominence or influence Harvey Milk had.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Joy: I'm not active in politics, but it's clear that transgender women, like my friend Dana Beyer, can make a difference in politics. Our numbers are so small and our community so impoverished that we will continue to have limited direct political influence, but trans lobbyists have won and continue to win legislative victories.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Joy: I began the physical part of the transition to living as a woman when I was 45; I consider myself still in transition in terms of growing into myself as a person. Transition is the hardest, most painful thing that I have ever done. I was supported by some friends and accepted by some family members, but I lost my marriage, my home, my right to live with my children, and my best friend, among other things. For a time I lost my job. But compared to what many trans women go through, I have been extremely blessed throughout.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Joy: No, I really didn't. I was in conversation with some more experienced trans women through the internet, but to a great extent, I had to figure things out on my own.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Joy: The hardest thing about coming out was the fear of losing my children's and my mother's love. I'm happy to say that didn't happen. But there were many hard things about coming out. I did lose relationships with people I loved, and it was hard to be myself, to be visible, to be exposed, after years of hiding behind a male persona. Even now, there are times when it's hard – but there is never a moment, not one when I have considered going back to the living death of living as a man.

Monika: What was your reaction to “Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender and Moving On” (2012), a book written by your wife Christine Benvenuto, in which she elaborated on your transition and break-up of the twenty-year marriage with three children?
Joy: Chris's book is an honest portrayal of her feelings of rage, betrayal, and disgust at my transition and transgender identity; it is not an honest portrayal of me or of the way I handled my transition or responded to her feelings. She omits many of the facts of our relationship – such as the fact that I came out to her when we were sophomores in college and talked with her many times about my struggles with my gender identity before we were married, many years before we had children, and decades before the moment she marks as the beginning of my transition. She leaves out the fact that I impoverished myself throughout the transition to support her and my children, and that I was always a present and loving parent.
Some things she writes are just not true – I never threatened to throw my family out in the street, and, as I think my memoir makes abundantly clear, I thought all the time about her and our children’s feelings and pain. The husband in Sex Changes not only has a different name; the character isn't me, but a transphobic stereotype that people are all too ready to believe: the trans woman who cares about nothing but her transition and no one but herself. There may be trans women who fit that stereotype, but I'm not one of them.
Most people know that an embittered ex-spouse is not an objective source of information about an ex. It's disturbing that so many people, including transgender women, believe my ex's description of me without question, and attest to the book's “honesty” without any attempt at verification.

Monika: Do you still keep in touch with your former wife?
Joy: I have never stopped seeing my children, and since they live with her, she and I are regularly in touch regarding scheduling and handoffs. We have little contact beyond that.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Joy: I don't have much money for fashion. Even now, much of my money – almost $600 per week – goes to support my ex and children. I teach in New York, but my children live 300 miles away, in western Massachusetts, so I live there too and commute to teaching. In terms of what I wear, I've never felt comfortable in pants since my transition, and I rarely wear dresses, so most days I wear a longish skirt and some kind of top.
Monika: Having transitioned yourself, what would you recommend to all transgender women struggling with gender dysphoria?
Joy: We need to keep reminding ourselves that we have a right to exist, we have a right to be true to ourselves, we have a right to become whole human beings – and that those whose lives touch ours have the same rights that we do. Our feelings are neither more important nor less important than those of any other human being. When we live that way, our journey toward wholeness can enrich the lives of those around us.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Joy: I am so happy and so grateful that I am finally living as my true self.
Monika: Joy, thank you for the interview!
Joy: Thank you so much, Monika!

All the photos: courtesy of Joy Ladin.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

No comments:

Post a Comment

Search This Blog