A Jewish Take on Caitlyn Jenner
by Amara McLaughlin
The first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox institution (Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University), Ladin, 54, is a well-known trans advocate who has left her mark on the Jewish community, lobbying for the inclusion of transgender Jews in synagogues and other facets of Jewish communal life.
After receiving tenure in 2007, Ladin left for the summer as a man and returned as a woman. Her 2009 poetry collection, Transmigration, was the first time the English professor published under her new name, Joy.
The book’s publication—and Ladin’s story—gleaned attention from the Jewish media, and Ladin found herself writing in Moment and appearing on the cover of Lilith’s 2009-2010 winter edition discussing her gender transition.
Now, the onslaught of attention surrounding Caitlyn Jenner’s debut means that the experience of transgender people is back in the media’s spotlight. After her last interview as Bruce with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in April, the world anxiously awaited Jenner’s transformation.
When she reappeared this month on the July cover of Vanity Fair, the media wasted no time focusing on her physical appearance and gathering intimate details about her genitalia. Clad in a pearl-colored bustier, Caitlyn went on newsstand display for the world to see. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz and with a headline declaring, “Call Me Caitlyn,” Jenner made mainstream media history.
But the media’s focus on her appearance may not be a positive development for trans people. “Jenner’s unveiling has had a lot of stages to it,” says Ladin. “But I would say the Vanity Fair moment has been the least productive culturally. I hope it was productive for her personally, but in terms of promoting trans identity, I don’t think that was her finest moment to date.”
Ladin believes Jenner’s two-hour special with Diane Sawyer did more to break down assumptions about the trans community and what it means to be transgender than her cover did.
In this cultural moment of Jenner’s public transformation, the mainstream media has one way to understand her gender identity as a transgender woman.
“The formulation of trans identity that everybody knows is, I’m an ‘X’ trapped in a ‘Y’s’ body,” says Ladin.
When she reflects on her initial perceptions of her gender identity, she recalls the changes she’s gone through since fall 2005, when she first Googled the word “transsexual.”
Ladin refers to the fluidity of her gender identity as an education. She says it was as much a journey of self-discovery, as it was a learning process for others watching as she explored herself. “In the world of transsexuals we are still struggling to find language for what we are,” says Ladin. “We’re stuck with this binary language that continues to be problematic.”
“The trans thing is just breaking down a bundle of assumptions in ways that most people aren’t ready for yet,” says Ladin. “Distinguishing between gender identity and sexual orientation is too complicated for people who are not accustomed to thinking this way. It’s also not helpful for people who aren’t in this world that they often encounter these terms all mushed together. It’s the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community.”
“Everything is bundled together — body, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality,” says Ladin. “They are so closely aligned in the way people think of them that they’re not thought of as separate characteristics.”
This is what non-mainstream activist groups such as trans, feminist and queer theorists are trying to tackle. Their strides in challenging a hetero-normative binary connected to one’s gender have impacted the visibility of minority communities and attracted media attention.
These discourses are what Ladin says have changed since she first stepped into the public eye as an openly transgender Jew five years ago.
She recalls the transformation of her true self since she first walked into Lilith’s office in New York City for the photo shoot that later appeared on the cover of the magazine. “This was early on in my experience of living as myself,” says Ladin. “I hadn’t seen many versions of myself before then.”
Even though she says the cover didn’t represent her true self or the way she perceives herself, it did reflect a possibility of a self she hadn’t yet imagined. She also describes this experience to be a defining moment in her transformation as Joy. “I had no idea what the picture would look like, and I had no idea how many people would end up seeing it, but when I walked out of there I was in a completely different frame of mind,” says Ladin.
The media attention created a new role for Ladin, who hadn’t viewed herself as a role model for Jewish transgender identity. By stepping into the public eye, Ladin learned what it was like to be seen as a woman, and in turn offered the Jewish community a real and identifiable person who represented Jewish and trans identities.
“I experienced in a way I hadn’t experienced before the possibility of being held and valued as a trans woman by people I didn’t even know. This was the first time I had walked into a strange part of the Jewish world and had been received that way.”