Joy Ladin's extraordinary memoir Through the Door of LIfe: A Jewish Journey Between Genders begins with a short chapter I wish I could excerpt in full. Instead, I will link you to it; it was published in Zeek, as the essay A Blessing Over Progesterone. Here is how it begins:
Every day I say a blessing in Hebrew over my medication: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who has kept us, preserved us, and brought us to this time.” That blessing is traditionally said at the beginnings of holidays, on the eating of new kinds of fruit, and at any joyous occasion at which Jews want to heighten their sense of gratitude by becoming mindful of the singularity of the moment and the precariousness of the lives that have brought us to it. It is not said on the taking of medication; it is specifically not to be said over daily events, for which there are different blessings; and it is never said over a disease.
The medications I take — progesterone tablets, which I swallow whole, and sweet circles of estrogen that I dissolve under my tongue — are synthetic versions of the powerful hormones that naturally define and regulate many of the physiological characteristics of normal female bodies. I don’t have a normal female body. Born without the capacity to produce more than trace amounts of female hormones, for decades my body instead has produced testosterone, masculinizing my face, bones, muscle, hair, and skin. Though there are few aspects of my physical form unravaged by testosterone’s effects, thanks to my medication, those effects are diminishing. For the first time in my life, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who has begun to resemble — me.
Every trans person has a coming-out story. Most of these stories involve struggle for acceptance -- from oneself and from others -- and often these stories are heartbreaking. Joy's struggle takes a very particular form: she dealt with the impact of her transition while teaching at the women's college of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy. She writes:
Orthodox Judaism, like most traditional forms of religion, considers the things transsexuals do to fit our bodies to our souls to be sins. In my case, those sins included wearing women's clothing and taking hormones that destroyed my fertility. I was also violating customs and conceptions of gender that, while not mandated by Jewish law, are held to with religious conviction by many Orthodox Jews[.]
That conviction is so strong that Joy feared that even receiving tenure at Stern would not be enough to keep her in her job once she transitioned. And transition was necessary. "My gender identity crisis had destroyed my marriage, shattered my family, and turned me into an unwelcome stranger in my own home," she writes. Upon receiving tenure, she moved out of the home she had shared with her wife. "My children were grief stricken, angry, and baffled by the double blow of losing their happy family and the strange transformation of the father they loved."
When she explained to her dean that she was beginning the process of transition, she was forbidden from setting foot on campus. But she was allowed to return to teaching in 2008. After much negotiation (including which bathrooms she would be permitted to use), she returned to her life as an academic.
Finally, September arrived, and with it, my first happy day in a long time. After years of hiding and pretending, I was finally going to stand before my students and colleagues as the person -- the woman -- I knew myself to be. More important, after centuries of intolerance, an institution representing Orthodox Judaism was about to welcome an openly transgender employee...
My office was heaped with the same stacks of papers, the same teaching anthologies, but the name beside the door said "Dr. Joy Ladin." It was a miracle. I -- the real me -- was here, in plain sight. I walked through the halls, waiting for my transition to matter to someone. It didn't. Teachers rushed to and fro, students talked on cell phones or swayed back and forth in prayer. People had more important things to do than think about my gender.