Trans Learning Begins With Conversations
NewsJoy Ladin Is Speaking in Atlanta

Trans Learning Begins With Conversations

Trans people are individuals, so solutions within a Jewish community for one might not work for all.

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

In a digital world driven by a binary system of 1s and 0s, it seems natural that discussions about the developing nonbinary system of genders are strictly analog.

One analogy used by Joy Ladin, a Yeshiva University literature professor who is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution, is that of a person who is blind. Synagogues and other institutions of course want to be inclusive and welcoming to people who can’t see, but it’s easier said than done for that first member who is blind.

“They don’t know what to do or what to say. They’re not anti-blind. But for one person, they have to overturn everything, and they don’t know how to do it,” Ladin said.

Although there are no reliable estimates on the number of trans people, she said, they are a small group, rare enough that a congregation might not have any, or might not know of any, even with a sizable group of lesbians and gay men. When the desire to be inclusive shifts from theory to reality, it’s not easy.

Joy Ladin says it’s encouraging that all the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have adopted trans inclusion policies.

And trans people are individuals, so solutions within a Jewish community for one might not work for all.

That issue brings up another analogy: the Jewish community itself, which isn’t some monolithic entity, but a mix of organizations, institutions and individuals with different views and goals. Similarly, it’s misleading to talk about a trans community, let alone the LGBTQ community.

“I was kind of disappointed when I realized I couldn’t find the LGBTQ community or the trans community,” said Ladin, who took a leave of absence from Yeshiva in 2007 as Jay Ladin and returned 15 months later in 2008 after the transition to Joy Ladin. She said she never got the handbook on becoming a woman.

“The analogy with the Jewish community is perfect,” she said, because “for political purposes, you kind of need one word.” Speaking on behalf of the Jewish community gets you attention that speaking for secular Jews would not, just as being a representative of the LGBTQ community is more powerful than just being one trans person.

“We can’t reach a critical mass to create a coherent identity,” Ladin said of trans people, who, unlike lesbians and gay men, don’t have a tendency or a need to live in the same neighborhoods. Political diversity makes sense, she said, because transgender isn’t a political thing; it’s a biological thing.

Now, despite the awkwardness of being seen as the representative of a diverse group, Ladin travels to speak about trans issues when she isn’t writing or teaching.

Who: Joy Ladin, poet, literary scholar and transgender speaker

What: Discussion on different faiths’ approaches to gender diversity

Where: Congregation Bet Haverim, 1074 LaVista Road, Toco Hills

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 15

Tickets: All events are free;

SOJOURN and Jewish Family & Career Services are bringing her on a three-day Southern tour that adds Birmingham to three Atlanta-area appearances. It’s her first time speaking here since she addressed what she called “an intimate audience” at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center in November 2012.

She said she’s usually invited by communities that don’t know much about people and want to get the conversation going. In light of the election of Donald Trump as president, she’s also hoping to learn more about people and parts of the country she doesn’t know well.

“When I first came out … I thought I was the only person like me,” Ladin said. “I felt like every conversation I had about it was the first time for everybody, and that was true to a great extent.”

But even though she had lived in fear her whole life that people would see her as monstrous if they knew who she really was, that hasn’t been her experience, even in the Orthodox world.

“Lots of people welcomed me to humanity,” she said. “I never imagined that was possible. It made me so proud to be a human being.”

Ladin, who attends a Reconstructionist synagogue, said she is very religious and is working on a book about reading Torah from a trans perspective. Not being Orthodox, she said, has helped Yeshiva accept her, although it was only last semester that she first was able to speak about being trans at an event on campus.

Jay Ladin had a wife and three children; the transition to Joy ended that marriage. Now she is remarried to another woman, but “I have no idea if I count as a lesbian” or what that means.

“Gay people and trans people don’t actually have a whole lot in common,” she said. “Being trans didn’t teach me how to be a lesbian. There’s nothing about being gay or lesbian that teaches you how to deal with trans people.”

Her discussion at Congregation Bet Haverim on Aug. 15 will deal in part with how gay men and lesbians understand trans people. The next morning, she’ll speak with clinicians at JF&CS about how to speak to their trans clients. Ladin said she has found that clinicians lack training on the topic and feel the same fears as the general population about saying the wrong things.

After speaking to the Birmingham Jewish and LGBTQ communities the night of Aug. 16, she’ll discuss how trans and Jewish American identities are alike the night of Aug. 17 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Where: JF&CS, 4549 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road, Dunwoody

When: 11 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16

What: Jewish community discussion on inclusion

Where: Federation, 1440 Spring St., Midtown

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17

Tickets: All events are free;

read more: