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Transgender Author: Why I Decided To Become A Woman

Transgender Woman

First Posted: 03/ 5/2012 12:52 pm Updated: 03/ 5/2012 12:53 pm

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.

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Filed by Madeleine Crum  |