In order to make the transition from a lifetime of living as a male to living as a woman, I had to relearn many of the basics of being. In my mid-40’s, I had to learn once again how to walk, how to talk, how to hold my body, how to pick my clothes. My life depended on it. Trans women who “read” as male are constant targets of harassment, abuse, and violence (this year, one or two American trans women seem to be murdered every week). In most parts of the country, including my home state, it’s legal to discriminate against transgender people in employment, housing, treatment in public accommodations. If I couldn’t learn to present myself as a woman, I risked a lifetime of unemployment, assault, and homelessness.
Since I had a home, a good job and secure social position while living as a middle-class heterosexual white man, people often ask why I took on the terrors of gender transition—why, when I could live as a man, I “chose” to live as a woman. But the choice I made wasn’t between living as a man and living as a woman: it was between living as a man I knew I wasn’t, in a body that felt like a cross between a mask and a tomb, in a life that had always felt like a lie, and living as myself, in a body and identity that felt like mine. I had wasted decades on pretending to be a man. My choice was between suicide or gender transition.
But as I worked my way through the usual mid-life gender transition anxieties about self-presentation—a combination of the angsts of middle school and middle age—I soon realized that I wasn’t learning to live as “a woman”; I was learning to be me. After a lifetime of hiding and repressing my identity, I was finally free to express my sense of who I was—and thus to realize that in many ways, I didn’t know. From the daily minutiae of self-expression through clothing—what colors did I live? What styles? What sizes did I wear?—to the larger questions like sexual orientation, I had to discover who I was through experimentation, trial and error, the fires of choice and regret.
But while most aspects of my identity seemed open to question, in one regard, I knew who I was: whether living as a man or as a woman, I was a poet.
Though most of my male existence felt lifeless and inauthentic, as I discovered when I started writing rhymes at the age of six, when I wrote poetry, I felt truly alive. I wrote constantly, joyously, seeking in the disembodied alchemy of language a release from the lies I lived through my body. Unfortunately, as I grew into a social identity as a poet via workshops, writing conferences and publications, my life as a poet was also warped and cramped by masculinity. I grew up in the midst of the 1970s workshop culture of “I”-centric authenticity. Poems, we were assured, should be rooted in personal perception, experience, memory, feeling. But writing like that wasn’t “authentic” for me. My life was devoted to dissociating myself from the male body and persona to which my first-person pronouns seemed to refer. I couldn’t write authentically as myself without revealing that I was a transsexual—and so I learned to do in poetry what I had always done in life, to convincingly pretend to be someone I wasn’t.
Under such circumstances, it was hard to gauge my poetic talents, but in terms of hiding who I was, I was a world-class virtuoso. Since first grade, I’d consciously trained myself to avoid any activity, object, interest, or response that might be seen as feminine. Terrified that I would be rejected and exiled if family or friends suspected my transsexuality, I developed a hysterical block against using words that seemed feminine to me. I couldn’t remember the names of flowers other than roses and my favorites, the lilacs that grew beside my house, whose scent I would guiltily inhale for a few weeks each spring. I loved the fabulous specificity of the names printed on Crayola crayons, but those names and the colors they represented vanished from my mind as soon as I put my crayons away. My clothing vocabulary barely extended beyond “pants,” “shirt,” “jeans,” “dress,” “tops” and “bottoms”—until transition loomed in my forties, I was never quite sure what my wife meant when she referred to “blouses.”
While there are well-documented, culture-specific differences, like most gendered behaviors, there is wide variation and overlap in the way gender-normative men and women tend to use language. I’ve never met anyone who approaches the hysterical linguistic blindness I practiced in my life and poetry. It’s not uncommon for hetero-normative men, literary and otherwise, to shy away from displaying too-intimate familiarity with femininity, but even Mitt Romney occasionally essays a feminine-flavored adjective like “marvelous” (at least when describing regressive social policy proposals). I would never say “marvelous” when I was living as a man, but my avoidance was unconscious, automatic. I had no idea what words I was avoiding. To know the words I deemed feminine would have required me to say them to myself—and thus to undermine the barriers I needed to keep my male persona safe and separate from my volcanic longing to become myself.
When I began the gender transition process, I realized that I had no idea how to write as a woman. The women whose poetry I admired, studied and taught (I had made a small name for myself as an Emily Dickinson scholar) weren’t much help as models. For them, “writing as a woman” meant writing as themselves. No matter what or how they write, poets born, raised and identifying themselves as female are seen as writing as women. Indeed, the more they challenge, subvert or stretch gender definition, the more they are hailed for enriching and extending women’s poetry.
After two decades of writing and publishing as a man, “Jay Ladin,” I was pretty sure that no one would hail my post-transition poems as enriching women’s poetry. But that was the least of my problems. I didn’t know what it meant for me to write poetry as a woman. I had spent my poetic career writing in ways that wouldn’t call my male persona into question. I knew how “Jay” wrote, what “he” wrote about, what kinds of words “he” choose, what subjects and syntax “he” favored—but I knew nothing about how to writing as my new, true self, Joy.
My quest to learn to write poetry as a woman seemed fraught with double-binds. If I wrote “as a woman,” wouldn’t I just be creating another persona, as artificial as when I taught myself to write “as a man”? Unlike born-and-raised-female (“cisgender,” as we say these days) women poets, I couldn’t write about first-hand experiences specific to women. I would never menstruate, give birth, nurse babies, survive girlhood and adolescence, go to a gynecologist, or, despite having three children, be a mother—to this day, my kids call me “Daddy”—though I do have a shot at getting breast cancer and being raped, and have already tasted sexism. I wasn’t inculcated with misogynist stereotypes when I was a child or burdened with misogynist expectations when I reached adulthood. I had grown up and lived as a male, and it was hard to see how I could write about my social and physical rites of passage—bar mitzvah? Losing my virginity? My first erection?—as a woman.
But did writing as a woman come down to addressing a few well-worn subjects? Most of the feminist literary criticism I read didn’t see it that way. When women poets address experiences specific to female bodies and social subject positions, they are praised for extending the range of largely male-defined poetic subject matter; when they don’t, they are praised for throwing off the shackles of gendered expectation and expanding the boundaries of women’s poetry. And whatever the subjects of poems written by women, feminist critics find important expressions of their authors’ gender in their word choice, imagery, syntax, values, concerns, perspectives.
Did that mean that adopting words, images, syntax, values, concerns and perspectives I found in cisgender women’s poems would enable me to write as a woman? I was doubtful. It sounded like the poetic equivalent of doing drag—the kind of dress-up that Randall Jarrell and other male poets tend to engage in when they write in the female personae. I didn’t want to write in ways that would make me seem like a woman. I had had enough of seeming like someone else, in poetry and in life. I was hungry to be.
As I explain in an essay in American Poetry Review accompanying a poem from Transmigration, the first book I published as Joy, I began exploring what it might mean to write as a woman by giving myself a writing assignment: I would take a magazine written by and for women, and write poetry that only used words found in that magazine. That would force me to use words to which my hysterical avoidance of femininity had blinded me—and to find out if “women’s” language could become, for me, a medium for authentic poetic expression.
I didn’t generally read the articles in the magazines I used—Redbook, Seventeen, Woman, and Cosmo Girl, among others. From headlines to contest rules, anti-depressant ads, photo captions, how-to articles and first-person testimonials, I scoured them (as well as headlines, contest rules, anti-depressant ads, photo captions, and every other bit of text) for verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs that triggered my imagination.
For a long time, I didn’t know or care what I was saying when I put these words together. I wasn’t trying to express myself—I was looking to this language to help me discover the self I had worked so hard not to express. As the unfamiliar words accumulated into unfamiliar images, phrases, rhythms, tones and sentence, I discovered whole vocabularies of perceptions I hadn’t experienced, feelings I hadn’t acknowledged, distinctions I’d never made, psychological and social dynamics I never have dreamed of trying to name.
I also found a powerful rhetoric—the rightly-reviled how-to women’s magazine rhetoric that presumes that every woman needs to be taught, every month or so, how to shop, dress, find love and so on. Unlike the abstracted oratory in which I had written poetry as a man, this how-to rhetoric enacts a vital, intimate relationship between writer and reader, between the authoritative “I” of the advice-giver and the vulnerable but game and growing “you” to whom the advice is addressed. Even as that advice-giving “I” denigrates women’s authority by assuming its readers’ ignorance of the basics of their lives (since I was in fact ignorant of those basics, I didn’t feel personally insulted), it simultaneously asserts its own confidence, mastery, and judgment.
The how-to rhetoric of women’s magazines expressed both aspects of my emerging self: the born-yesterday neophyte who really didn’t know how dress, talk, shop or meet people, and the voice of the future, my future, the future I’d thought I would never had, a future which urged and argued, cajoled and critiqued me into embracing the self into which I was growing, a self flush with the beauty and mastery of self-creation.
You can hear the voice of that future in this poem, composed of words found in a single issue of Seventeen when I was literally trembling between the end of living as a man and the beginning of life as a woman:
Ready to Know
Ready to know which girl you are?
Find out while you shave your face
and try to convince yourself
you can look great, hide tummy, enhance bust,
find the best dress for your shape,
exfoliate your past so gently
you won’t even feel
the ambivalence that rocks your body,
fleshing out your future, adding curves to your shame.
If you prefer the privacy of your bathroom,
practice becoming in the mirror.
Say yes to the girl you see,
witty, pretty and brimming with caffeine,
glowing with passions you try to keep hidden,
the vaginal freedom evolving under your clothes
as Venus sweeps through the house of your body,
a sun-kissed goddess kissing your contours,
filling them in with love.
See what’s in store for you
in the opposite direction of the hair
creeping out of your bathing suit? Real life
curling gratefully around your navel, winter fading
as the quintessential girl moves into your chest,
creating opportunities, offering you up
to the goddess moving through
the guy you’ve been for years.
Which girl will you turn out to be?
Are you ready to know?
Indigo impulse, aqua flash,
say yes by letting go.
(from “Transit of Venus,” from the unpublished collection Impersonation)