Excerpted from "Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders" by Joy Ladin [University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95]
What’s so bad about being a man?” my wife asks me. I’ve been living in the house for months since shaving off my beard and mustache and starting to wear androgynous but female-marketed clothing. At first, we talked compulsively, night after night, for hours at a stretch. Now, though we hardly ever discuss anything but household business, there are moments—the habits of a lifetime are hard to break—when we still find ourselves trying to talk our way across the chasm of gender.
“What’s so bad about being a man?” My wife has repeated this question for months. Sometimes her tone is joking, almost lighthearted. Those are the times that hurt the most, when it seems for a moment as though our marriage is still intact, as though we can laugh together through my transsexuality the way we have laughed through every other crisis. She waits for me to go along with the joke, to clap my forehead theatrically, as though the light has just gone on, and say, “Hey, you’re right—being a man isn’t that bad” so that we can fall into each others’ arms and reunite in the joy of renouncing the terrible mistake I’m making.
I hesitate, hoping she will realize that she is inviting me to laugh at my need to become what she has always been: a whole person. Then, trying to match her tone, I say, “There’s nothing so bad about being a man.” I try to sound like I’m joking when I add, “as long as you’re a man.”
In the silence that follows, I hear her heart breaking again.
It’s easier when she’s angry, when she hurls the question at me like a knife, when it isn’t a question but an attempt to gouge me into realizing that I have thrown our lives away to become a patchwork parody of a woman. “I hope you’ll be happy,” she says. “I hope you’ll be happy, knowing that you’ve destroyed four lives to walk around in a dress.”
“I hope you will be happy.” That’s what thrown-over wives are supposed to say—what better mirror to hold up to a husband’s faithlessness? To her, I am sacrificing our family for a panty-hosed version of a typical male midlife crisis, abdicating relationships and responsibilities to roar off on the Harley-Davidson of transsexuality (the metaphor is hers) toward a fluffy pink Shangri-la of self-centered gratification.
But I don’t see myself in her bitter mirror, because I’m not transitioning for the sake of happiness. I have no illusions that becoming a jobless, homeless approximation of a middle-aged woman is a recipe for bliss. This isn’t a typical male midlife crisis—it’s a typical transsexual midlife crisis.
That’s what’s so hard to explain. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a man—at least, I have nothing to add to the complaints women traditionally make about the opposite sex. What’s bad about being a man is that I’m not one.
“I don’t walk around smiling because I’m a woman,” my wife points out, meaning, if being a woman isn’t a big deal to someone who really is a woman, why should it be a big deal to me? In our culture, men and women have almost the same options in terms of behavior and life choices. What difference does it make whether I’m living as one or the other? The answer is there when she looks in the mirror.
In our small New England college town, it’s common to see middle-aged women of the housewife-and-mother variety in Levis, work shirts, sneakers or boots, and no-fuss shoulder-length hair. My wife isn’t one of them. Though she hates blow drying, she blows her long, dark hair dry no matter how hot it is. Though she doesn’t wear much makeup, she spends longer putting on hers than I ever have. When she dresses up, she almost always wears dresses or skirts. Even when she wears pants and a T-shirt, the fabric and cut of her clothes—not to mention her earrings—proclaim her gender. And, like many heterosexual women, my wife is strictly homosocial— her friends and acquaintances, no matter how casual, are women. My wife’s share of our household labor is similarly gendered. She plans the meals, maintains the social calendar, takes primary responsibility for the children’s schooling, activities, and clothes, decides all matters that require taste—and leaves yard work, car maintenance, household repairs, computer problems, vermin removal, and business arrangements to me.
In short, though my wife is an independent-minded, college-educated feminist, there are few aspects of her daily life that don’t reflect her gender—not because she has been forced into a narrow set of social conventions but because she freely locates herself, represents herself, expresses herself, and thinks of herself in terms of the feminine side of the gender spectrum.
Masculine behavior patterns, like masculine hairstyles, are simpler, cheaper, and lower maintenance than feminine behavior patterns, which is why so many heterosexual women in our area opt for them. Yet my wife never does.
My wife’s gender doesn’t define her; it enables her to define herself. Gender permeates her most intimate gestures, shaping the way she cries, laughs, suffers, rejoices, falls in love, rages, gets her heart broken. Even now, when my wife and I discuss the destruction of our life together, she’s the one who cries. If tears start in my eyes—and they often do—I automatically stifle them. When my wife and I are together, she’s the woman and I’m the man.
When we decided to start having children, I stopped complaining to her about being a man. I had decided, once and for all, to be one, whether I was or not. This seemed to me a supremely moral decision, a form of transcendence, a triumph of mind over matter. In the deepest sense, I was living my life for others, and isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Years of parenting turned this lie—I was as selfish and self-centered as anyone, despite the hollowness of the self I was centered on—into a semblance of truth. Like most parents, I had to ignore my own needs to care for my children’s.
After decades of practice, I had a well-prepared repertoire of male gestures, tones, even conversational topics that I could trot out as the occasion demanded; I had become expert at translating my smallest impulses into an acceptably male idiom. As a man, I was a father, a husband, a teacher, a writer. As a woman, I was nothing.
But, though I tried for decades, I never managed to die inside or to put my nascent self, the self that actually felt like me, into a permanent state of suspended animation. Against my will, beneath my awareness, life grew inside me, shower by despair-soaked shower. My life, the life that would include me. The life that would cost me all I knew of life.
The more I outwardly surrendered my life to those around me, the more I thought about gender. When I walked to the bathroom, I thought about gender; when I sang my daughters to sleep, I thought about gender; when I sat in my office, I thought about gender; when I stood in the classroom, I thought about gender. Finally, I realized I was thinking about gender every waking minute. There was no relief anymore, no moment when I was unaware of my estrangement from my skin.
Every now and then, over the fifteen years since we had made love to the sound of our dying friend’s breath, I would lose control and become consumed by the desire to be a woman. Sometimes it lasted hours; sometimes days; sometimes weeks. Nothing else mattered to me but fantasies of transformation. The realities of my life, my career, my family seemed like shadows on a distant wall.
After each gender breakdown—that’s what I called them—I restored my sense of self-control by imposing acts of penance on myself. After one breakdown, I ended a fifteen-cup-a-day coffee habit overnight; after another, I resolved to eat only when someone else offered me food. Being a man became a gulag of neurotic compulsions. I was the only guard, the only prisoner, the frozen ground and the barbed wire fence. Give up, I told myself. There is no escape. And besides, what’s so bad about being a man?
In the name of being a husband and father, I had turned gender dysphoria from a chronic discomfort and occasional crisis into a system of torture. For years, being a man had been a habit. Now, being a man was a matter of constant self-denial, a desperate failing effort to control the rage for transformation that seemed to be all that was left of me.
When the walls of my private concentration camp finally collapsed, in spring 2005, it was almost too late. I couldn’t eat— couldn’t feed “it,” as my body now seemed to me, couldn’t keep “it” alive when “it” was smothering me. Electricity seemed to be shooting through me, a current of transformative energy that ricocheted around my nervous system in frustrated circuits that had no outlet, no outcome. My absence of connection to life— that numbness where a feeling of physical presence and aliveness should have been—shattered into two overwhelming, contradictory imperatives: the need to become the true self I had never been and the need to die before that self ’s emergence fatally injured my family.
Being a man, for me, was a performance, and most people were not only willing but eager to take that performance for me. The person I had loved the deepest and the longest refused to take me any other way.
How can I blame her? To her mind, my insistence that I wasn’t really a man meant that I was erasing not only the future she had believed we would share and the present whose blessings we should have been enjoying but the entire life—thirty years—we had built with and around each other. It didn’t matter that I had told her I was trans when we were sophomores in college or that I had erased myself for decades for her sake. For me, that erasure was the ultimate testimony to my love, the greatest sacrifice I could make. I had done everything I could to turn myself into a facsimile of the man she needed me to be, to savagely suppress the budding of any other, more “real” self, to ensure that I was giving my wife the only self I had.
As our twenties turned into our thirties and forties, I burnished my male self, adjusted it to meet her needs. But I couldn’t infuse it with vitality, with joy. When my wife would enthuse about some plan or fantasy, taking a trip or buying a house, I would smile and nod and try to say the right things—but she always knew my heart wasn’t in it. Every couple divides the physical and emotional labor of their lives. In our couple, joy and excitement, desire and frustration and fulfillment, were a privilege and burden she bore alone.
My wife knew something was wrong with me, but she believed—she wanted to believe, and I worked hard to enable her to believe—that the problem wasn’t a threat to our life together, that it was a character flaw or a neurosis, a willful refusal to allow myself to be happy. Happiness was right there, all around me, like a fragrance, if only I would let myself breathe.
But, for me, being a man meant holding my breath. If I couldn’t breathe as myself, I wouldn’t breathe at all.
When my gender dysphoria became a crisis I could no longer keep to myself, my wife was faced with a terrible choice. Most literature on transsexuality implies that there is a moral obligation for others to recognize the supremacy of the transsexual’s needs, as though, like fetuses, the imperatives of our becoming take precedence over everyone else’s needs. All my wife had to do was heed the voices urging her to become a willing, supportive party to the destruction of the life and the man she loved, and she could hold on, probably, to whatever was left of them when I was done becoming.
But she had grown up with voices telling her to sacrifice her life for others’. For women, these voices never seem to fall silent. There is always someone becoming, someone needing, someone hurting, someone grieving, someone whispering and sometimes screaming the tenets of female self-sacrifice.
My wife had survived by shouting down those voices and insisting on her right to her own life. From the first, I had admired in her the courage I had never displayed.
So, rather than swallowing her pain and focusing on my mine, she decided to fight for her life. If I had been faithless, she would be faithful. If I denied the reality of the man she loved, she would mourn and defend him.
What’s so bad about being a man?” my wife asks me again. I’m in the kitchen, washing dishes she dries and puts away. The old teamwork is still there, the seamless dance of those whose lives have been entwined so long they can’t remember living any other way. For some reason, this is always where we are when she asks this question. She’s serious this time, neither joking nor raging, and, though I know it’s too late to salvage our marriage, I have a sudden, desperate intuition that if I could only answer, really answer, she would finally understand that I am not rejecting her, and we could begin to heal, to forgive.
But it’s hard to find words for feelings that she has never experienced. Before this last, now permanent crisis, even I hadn’t understood that gender dysphoria could make life unlivable. I’d read stories of middle-aged men, stockbrokers and auto mechanics, telephone repairmen and Marine corps sergeants, who would appear without appointments or prior transition at gender reassignment clinics demanding to be operated on immediately. I couldn’t imagine transsexuals behaving so badly. Where was their detachment, their dissociation, their discipline? What could be so bad about being a man?
She’s waiting for me to answer. There’s a blue plastic plate in one hand, a dish towel in another. Her makeup is off, her glasses are on; we are both in blue jeans and sneakers. There’s so little difference between us. Surely she can see through my dilapidated male façade to the soul whose suffering is causing hers. Any minute now—I’m suddenly sure of it—she will realize, without having to be told, what is so bad about being a man.
A body is there, but it’s not yours. A voice is coming out of your throat, but you don’t recognize it. The mirror contains another person’s face. When your children wrap their arms around you, they seem to be hugging someone else. 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.
You are a man. And what’s so bad about that?