If your mother has never seen your face — if you have never had a face to be seen — if, in a sense, you have never been born — do you have a mother? If your mother has always called you “son,” can you ever really become her daughter?
For most of my life, I couldn’t begin to ask such questions. My sister, three years my junior, was the only daughter in our family. And though I hated being a boy, I could be messy, dirty, ruthlessly self-centered, indifferent to my appearance, careless of others to the point of rudeness — behaviors my sister could never have gotten away with. I hated myself for deceiving my family and it broke my heart that they were so easy to deceive.
I felt utterly alone and, as so often when I was child, my estrangement from the world around me drove me to the Torah. There, I found someone I recognized as the direct ancestor of my own unbearable tangle of love and lies.
In a passage I read over and over, Jacob serves his blind, aged father Isaac his favorite dinner as a prelude to receiving his blessing. There’s only one problem with this scene of filial devotion: Jacob is impersonating his twin brother Esau, who older by a moment, is his father’s heir. Esau, a vigorous, hairy, hyper-masculine hunter, is his father’s favorite.
Jacob is a smooth-skinned, domestic, almost feminine farmer. Lest his blind father become suspicious, Jacob conceals his smooth forearms under hairy swatches of fresh-killed kid-skin that will make his arms feel as hairy as Esau’s. If his father recognizes that the manly Esau is really the feminine Jacob, Jacob will be cursed instead of blessed.
Like Jacob, I wasn’t the boy my parents meant to bless with food, shelter, clothing, love. Under the skins of masculinity — the pants and shirts I hated, the roles and games I forced myself to play — was something too smooth, too soft, too feminine to be loved like the male “twin” I pretended to be. Like Jacob, I found deception heartbreakingly easy. As long as I kept my hair short and wore pants and shirts, no one could see the girl cowering beneath.
But Jacob had something going for him that I didn’t have: a mother, Rebekah, who knew him for who he truly was. It was Rebekah’s idea that Jacob masquerade as Esau because she knew he was destined to transmit Abraham’s spiritual legacy to future generations. She sees that Jacob is a first-born trapped in a second-born’s body, and that only by flouting law and love can he become the person he was meant to be.
Not only didn’t my mother know who I truly was, I was sure that the moment she suspected, I wouldn’t have a mother at all.
But for four-and-a-half decades, my skins never slipped.
The first time my mother and I really talked, I was 46, sitting on a box in a dim, cool basement storage room, surrounded by old tax returns and broken computer equipment. An underground room for unwanted things was the perfect setting for the moment I’d been avoiding my whole life — the moment when I would finally tell my mother that I wasn’t her son. I had lived that moment in dreams and nightmares, fantasies and wishes. Now I was about to live it in the flesh.
I dialed her number and waited. Hundreds of miles away, my mother’s phone rang. Don’t answer, I whispered, as though if I couldn’t complete this call I would somehow avoid this conversation.
She answered. “Hello. Jay?”
“Yes,” I told her, “it’s Jay. I need to tell you something, Mom. Something hard. But first, you have to promise me that what I tell you won’t affect your relationship with the children. You’ll stay in touch with them, right?”
“Of course. I’m their grandmother — nothing is going to change that.”
“Good,” I said. “Because soon I’m — I’m moving out. This will be hard for the kids, and they need you to stay in their lives.”
“Of course,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
I wished she would ask me why I was moving out, but she didn’t, so I took a deep breath and recited the words — even I found them hard to believe — that I’d practiced.
“Mom, our family is breaking up because I’m a transsexual and I can’t live as a man anymore.”
The pause that followed my revelation — the most honest thing I had ever said to my mother — seemed to stretch for years, years we had lost, years we now might never have. I thought I was ready to lose her. But in that pause, when truly motherless years were only a breath away, I realized that I had never stopped clinging to the hope of her.
“I’ve heard about this,” she said at last. Her voice, rich and low, trained for a radio career she had never had, was thick with feeling. “I know that you have to be who you are, and no matter what that is, you will always be my child.”
The air above my head felt empty. The sword that had always dangled above me, the terror of what would happen if my mother discovered what I was, was gone.
My voice rose to the pitch I had made my own, and for the first time in my life, we really talked.
Joy Ladin is a professor at Yeshiva University. This article is excerpted from her new book, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders” and has been reprinted with permission from the University of Wisconsin Press.