NEA Literature Fellowships

Joy Ladin

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2016 - Prose)

from "Being a Man"

"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, stock brokers and auto mechanics, telephone repair men 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 flesh you cannot recognize as yours has grown on you and over you. 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 only exist 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?

"Being a Man" is from Through the Door of Life, published by University of Wisconsin Press

Joy Ladin's return to Yeshiva University as a woman after receiving tenure as a man made her the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution and made page-three news in the New York Post. Her memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, was a finalist for a 2012 National Jewish Book Award, and winner of a Forward Fives award, and she was named to the 2012 Forward 50 list of influential or courageous American Jews. She is also the author of seven books of poetry, including Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration and, most recently, Impersonation. She holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University; her previous honors include a Fulbright Scholarship and an American Council of Learned Societies research fellowship. She has spoken about gender identity issues around the country, and has been featured on NPR's On Being with Krista Tippett and other NPR programs. Her essays, poetry, and updates on professional activities are available through

Photo by Lisa Ross

Read "Art Talk with Literature Fellow Joy Ladin"

Author's Statement

When I was a child, I was sure that if I dared to express my transgender identity, I would be exiled from home and community, treated as an object of scorn no matter what else I did with my life.

For too many transgender people today, those fears are still realities. Though there are more and more places in this country where openly transgender people are tolerated, there are few where transgender identities are valued – where they are seen as contributing to the richness of our communities and culture, rather than as problems to accommodate, put up with, try to ignore.

To me, this fellowship represents more than an individual honor of which I will strive to be worthy, more than the overwhelming material support and encouragement every writer longs for. It shows that our culture is beginning to value the expression of transgender identities, to invest in the visions, insights and perspectives that trans experience makes possible.

This fellowship challenges and enables me to take the next step in my efforts to show how trans perspectives can illuminate age-old questions about what it means to be human. In the year ahead, that work will focus on I am What I Will Be: Meeting God at the Burning Bush of Becoming, a collection of essays intertwining personal experience and creative readings of the Hebrew Bible to explore the theological potential of reading traditional religious texts from trans perspectives.

I am deeply grateful to be able to embark on this work.