Interview with Joy Ladin on Caitlyn Jenner, transgender Jews and more

Joy Ladin is a tenured professor of English at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, New York. She came out as transgender in 2007, making her the first openly transgender professor to be employed by an Orthodox institution. She made headlines in the Jewish press in 2009 when her book of poetry, “Transmigration” was released and her story became public. She spoke recently spoke to J. about Caitlyn Jenner, being a cover girl herself and the evolution of transgender understanding within the Jewish community.

J.: What was your reaction to the Vanity Fair cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner?

Joy Ladin: One thing that’s important to notice is that cover is pretty typical for Vanity Fair. They’re never going to ask me to be on the cover. They’re never going to ask most women who are born female to be on the cover, either. Caitlyn Jenner is breaking new ground by inserting a trans body into a highly conventionalized representation of female identity. It’s different for that to be a transsexual body. It complicates people’s response to those conventions.

Joy Ladin

But it didn’t read to anybody, including me, as challenging or subverting those conventions. Instead it kind of looked like Caitlyn was expressing a very outdated, 1950s wedding cake version of femininity. For people who want to see expressions of trans identity as revolutionary, that was disappointing. And for anybody who would like to see feminist resistance to conventional ideas of what women are and should look like, it’s also disappointing. It fits into a lot of anti-trans stereotypes. Many people, both radical feminists who are against trans women and also extremely conservative people, say trans women are men playing dress-up. Nobody thinks that when a woman wears jeans and a work shirt, that’s playing dress-up.

So if you take Caitlyn Jenner, and she’s the first trans woman that you’ve seen, and she’s your opportunity to learn about a trans woman, that seems to reinforce a lot of stereotypes about women and stereotypes about trans women. People assume trans women are trying to enforce these ideas of femininity rather than expand the notion of what it means to be a woman.

J.: Do you think the attention Caitlyn Jenner brings to transgender issues as a celebrity is valuable?

JL: I think it has some value. It’s a marker of a certain kind of cultural progress. When that kind of cultural progress is made, it’s made by people who are the least threatening cultural examples. [Senator] Harry Reid was criticized for commenting that if [President] Obama had darker skin and hadn’t talked in such a white way, he wouldn’t have gotten elected. Americans weren’t ready to elect a black man who looked and talked black. Vanity Fair is not going to put Kate Bornstein [a writer/performance artist who calls herself a “gender outlaw”] on their cover because she’s too threatening in the way she approaches identity. But is it good for people who have never seen a trans person before, to see a trans person, and see a trans person who’s [conventionally] beautiful? I do think that’s good. I think it’s good if it represents a beginning, but not if it represents an end. Not many women can look like Caitlyn Jenner.

And it doesn’t have anything to do with non-binary trans identity. We haven’t gotten anywhere near that. One of the things that’s disappointing about the Caitlyn Jenner cover, is it’s kind of a replay of the Christine Jorgensen moment [a former GI who became well-known in the 1950s for undergoing gender reassignment surgery]. In the ’50s, there was this one trans women, blonde and beautiful. She gained a lot of celebrity, and that had very limited effect on the social status of trans people.

J.: You were a “cover girl” before Caitlyn Jenner. What was your experience like being featured on the cover of the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith in 2009?

JL: Unlike Caitlyn Jenner, I was never a celebrity. “Celebrity” and “English professor” are contradictions in terms. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was at a place in my life where I just want to say yes as often as I could. Indeed, it was not like being on the cover of Vanity Fair. But when I did some appearances after that, or I would go into Jewish areas after that, some people would say, “I saw you on the cover,” and it was different, a little taste of what a celebrity lifestyle might be. They’re recognizing you.

It did have some effect in terms of the Jewish community’s awareness of trans women. Lilith was really on the frontier of trying to raise awareness of trans people in the Jewish community. Many feminists historically have opposed trans women. It was kind of a big deal: Lilith is a premier Jewish feminist publication taking this positive step in foregrounding a trans woman’s identity. I felt it represented a kind of welcoming and acceptance that I never expected. It was very meaningful to me personally.

J.: What repercussions did your transition have on your professional life?

JL: I was put on involuntary research leave. According to my lawyers, that’s just common; when employers deal with their first gender transition, they pretty much don’t know how to handle it. Now some companies are ahead of the curve, but at the time that I transitioned, the common response was, “Wow, we really need to get this person out of sight.” There are better and worse ways to do that. The worst way is they just fire you. And sometimes you get evicted by your landlord. A lot of trans people end up with no money and homeless because there are no legal protections.

I was transitioning in New York City, which has human rights legislation that includes gender identity. And I had tenure, so I had about as much legal protection as a trans person could have. My organization said, “Guess what? We’ll pay you to stay away.” As discrimination goes, it’s a pretty nice form of it. Many of my colleagues wish they would be discriminated against the same way. That’s when I did a lot of my book.

They had indicated it would last the rest of my life; instead, it lasted one academic year. They didn’t think it was possible that I would be accepted by students. While I was on leave, they heard from a lot of students who were pretty angry. There were some students who I think were and still are uncomfortable with having a trans professor, but a number felt that an Orthodox Jewish organization shouldn’t treat a human being this way, which I thought was pretty amazing.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.