On June 20th, 2013 Krista Tippett spoke with Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in New York, an author of seven collections of poetry, and currently writing I Am What I Will Be: Reading God and the Torah from a Transgender Perspective. Six years ago, Joy transitioned from male to female identity. She became the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution.
In her conversation with Krista, Joy shared that throughout her life her body didn’t match her soul. As she spoke, I couldn’t help but be enlightened by how her story helps all of us reflect on how gender shapes the ongoing journey of being “at home” in ourselves.
I found it particularly poignant what Joy shared about the convergence of her Jewish identity with that of her gender identity and expression. For example, she connected gender identity with the Torah—specifically that God is portrayed as a genderless character [though male pronouns are often used], and God doesn’t have a body. As a child, Joy also had male pronouns and didn’t feel like she had a body. That profound spiritual connection was a comfort for her.
Further, Joy discussed the concept of covenant in Jewish spirituality and practice, and how some view her transition from male to female identity as a break in covenant. What particularly caught my attention was Joy’s wise conclusion that most people who call her transition “selfish” or “immoral” are not really referring to a breaking of covenant between God and humanity or a type of moral construct. Instead, they view Joy’s physical sex at birth (male) as a promise to them—that Joy was that gender, consistent with the visible body. And that gender covenant, Joy stated, was a promise she couldn’t keep because the man she was presenting herself as was not who she felt she truly was. She went on to share that she continues to break this “gender covenant” even after transition, because though she may now appear “female” to most people, she still has an X and a Y chromosome. So that covenant is still not fulfilled. In the end, Joy defines gender covenant as a promise about who you are. That is not bound to binaries or appearances.
Towards the end of the podcast, Joy expressed her gratitude for those people in her life who can see and embrace her humanness without the normality of gender. They respond to her with love, compassion, and honest questioning even without the outward binaries that we so often base our labeling of someone as “human.” This is one of the major insights and pieces of wisdom I glean from Joy’s journey, as well as the wisdom of my transitioning or recently transitioned transgender friends and colleagues. We don’t have to be binary or "normal" or “same” to be human. We can be seen, accepted, recognized, and loved without the labels and so-called norms.
And since “On Being” is a podcast about identity, it’s only fitting that Joy closed with these words: “Becoming is always going to be a greater proportion than being.”