Gender Through a Jewish Lens
New memoirs by transgender authors Kate Bornstein and Joy Ladin illustrate the power of religion to shape how people construct their identities
This contrast extends to the authors’ spiritual lives, too. The mythic distance from the physical that Bornstein journeyed outside to discover in Scientology, Ladin had all along in the Bible. Ladin was drawn to God as an alien; God was estranged from the world, somehow bound to it but unable to take part. She finds the television show Smallville’s Clark Kent similarly compelling, since his otherness and yet entanglement in—and responsibility for—the world trigger guilt, confusion, and alienation. This religion lacks the easy freedom Bornstein found (for a time) in Scientology, but both allowed gender misfits to retreat from their bodies into a world of spirit.
And, like Bornstein, Ladin found her myth unsustainable: There is no better refutation of the Platonic idea that minds, not bodies, matter than the lives of transsexuals. Ladin frames that discovery as a new, deeper insight into Judaism. “In Judaism you’re really not where you need to be,” Ladin told me, “if you’re out of your body.” Judaism’s goal, as she sees it, is not a paradise of souls, but something earthier and more physical: each man under her fig tree. As a child, she valorized the Moses who “didn’t much like people” and preferred the mystical top of Mount Sinai to the mixed multitude below; later, she realized that Judaism is built on human relationships.
If Judaism meant such contrary things to Ladin, what use was it? The answer is that Ladin and Bornstein use religious myths not as firm laws for life, but as language: flexible vehicles to express experience. And Ladin and Bornstein face two difficult, conflicting imperatives, which required two opposing mythic languages. First, as children, they needed to make sense of a gender disassociation for which mainstream culture gave them no models, to forge myths of idiosyncratic difference and resist social norms according to which they didn’t exist. But second, as adults, they found they needed recognition and the language to explain who they were to an outside audience. They needed to reject the judgments of others; then they needed to change them.
For each writer, the second demand is crystallized in her fraught relationships with her children. Ladin meticulously tracks her children’s confusions at their parents’ divorce, as well as their father’s becoming a woman. At one point, her son offers her fashion advice, triggering a fight when Ladin’s ex-wife hears about it. Her son won’t talk about it, but, Ladin senses, “there would be a time in the very near future when talking about my betrayal of him would be exactly what he wanted to do.”
Ladin’s attentiveness to the pain she caused is striking. It would be easier—and perfectly legitimate—for her to claim sex-transition as a sacred right. But her children introduce social expectations in a particularly wrenching way. Born into a heterosexual marriage, they have rights, too. For the children, the social norms aren’t just narrow prejudice; they are the relationships on which they have depended. The analogical work of explaining being transgender to them is particularly urgent.
In Bornstein’s case, that urgency comes from being a 68-year-old woman with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. She frames her book as a letter to her estranged daughter, Jessica, who remained in the church with her biological mother, Molly, and who is now nearly 40. Scientologists, according to Bornstein, are hostile to ex-Scientologists. Bornstein has not seen her daughter for many years. In the epilogue, she writes directly to Jessica. Though she cautions Jessica against accepting Scientology without questions, Bornstein can still use the church’s language to communicate. For instance, even after she has rejected the idea that bodies don’t matter, Bornstein can still invoke the phrase “thetans have no gender” to prove that “you get to fall in love with any thetan or thetans, no matter the gender of their body.”
Ultimately, it seems, it doesn’t matter much what the myths—whether Scientology’s or Judaism’s—are supposed to mean; what matters is what they let you say.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Jewish food festivals across the South offer a regional twist on traditional recipes—and the best place to find corned beef in barbecue country