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Telling the Truth

“So, did you go to an all-girl school?” the elegantly dressed woman asks me. In the past couple of years, I’ve been asked a lot of questions, but this is a new one. Not only did I not go to an all-girl school, I only recently started to use all-girl bathrooms.

We’re sitting at a small table crowded with cross-cultural vegetarian food, in the second hour of a Greenwich Village dinner. This is the third time I’ve met Alana, the best friend of one of the members of my little life-support network. I was sure that by now she saw me as transsexual.

Apparently, I was wrong.

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. In intimate visual and aural proximity with a perceptive woman who, as a New York lesbian, is certainly aware of the range of variation in the gender spectrum, I pass. The real me is being accepted as-the real me.

“No,” I say. “I never went to an all-girl school. I went to public school. I guess I romanticize the idea of female community.”

There, I’ve told her the truth-the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. She now knows both my educational background and my tendency to project utopian fantasies onto the female world I have longed for from afar for years.

So why do I feel so utterly phony?

Alana is the first friend I’ve made as a woman—not as a man, or as a transsexual, but as a woman—and as such, she seems to have the power to transform my female identity from wish and artifice into reality. But for her to authenticate me, I have to be authentic with her. I have to tell her the truth.

But—not that truth. Surely I can find other things to talk about.

“So how are things going at home?” Alana asks tactfully. She is giving me the very opportunity I am looking for, a chance to offer actual and even painful intimacies in return for her tales of a complicated African youth.

I start with the romance my wife and I began during our first year at Sarah Lawrence. By the time I reach the present, the contested divorce and the danger that I’ll be legally barred from seeing my children, I’m choking up.

“I’m sorry,” I sniff.

“Of course,” Alana says sympathetically. “You’re their mother.”

Suddenly I realize that by hewing strictly to the gender-free truth, I have told the biggest string of lies in my life. My companion not only thinks I’m a biological woman, she also thinks I’m a married gay mom struggling to assert my adoptive rights despite the opposition of my children’s birth mother.

Telling the truth—the failure of my attempt to tell the truth—the truth of my failure to find a non-gender-related truth—my failure to establish a true female identity—has shattered one of my lifelong dreams. No matter who I convince otherwise, I will never be the born-and-raised woman I want so much to be.

I never saw Alana again, but by swallowing my lies so faithfully, she had pushed me to take a teetering step toward the truth that would define my new life: to become the woman I was struggling so hard to be, I had to admit—no, affirm—the male identity I’d left behind. When I was involuntarily outed by a story in the New York Post, I was forced to go public. That dinner with Alana had prepared me for the interviews and presentations that followed.

While people are interested in the walking, talking example of transsexuality I provide, what moves them, they tell me, is not my transition from male to female, but the more difficult journey from a life of lies to a life of telling the truth.

Illustration by Otto Steininger

To become the woman I was struggling so hard to be, I had to admit—no, affirm—the male identity I'd left behind.

Joy Ladin is the David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University. She has published three books of poetry, Transmigration, Alternatives to History, and The Book of Anna. Her fourth book, Psalms, is forthcoming this year. She is also the author of an as-yet-unpublished collection of autobiographical reflections on transsexual transition, Inside Out: Confessions of a Woman Caught in the Act of Becoming. Her post-transition return to teaching made her the first openly transgendered employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution, an achievement which the New York Post chose to publicize on page 3.