What would my mother say?
A devoutly Orthodox Jew from David Ben-Gurion’s Plonsk in Poland, then in the Russian Empire, her inherent open-mindedness made her try her best to make sense of gay sexuality during the AIDS epidemic.
I tried to picture her as if she were still alive recently when my granddaughter Chloe, 16, came down the stairs one fine New England morning, breasts bound against bounce, brown hair chopped short, to announce, “Call me Jordan!” Mom’s mouth would have hung open for a while. When it closed, how would she have reacted? Or more to the point, how did I react hearing about it?
I initially had to contend with an unruly mixture of humour, horror and outright non-comprehension. Given the ruthless complexities of biology, I balked at slotting gender change in the same cubicle as a change of clothes that no longer fit. The prospect of steroids and breast amputation seemed to me as perilous as a leap across rooftops without the mediating cushion of a ravine to absorb the shocks.
Having long ago jettisoned the biblical and rabbinical edicts on improper sexuality drilled into me by my rabbis at the Bronx yeshiva I attended, I was totally supportive when Chloe, then 14, told me she was gay and a champion of gay rights in the Bible Belt state of Virginia. I could see nothing wrong with any of that. A gay Emma Goldman-type granddaughter seeking love with a same sex partner. Maybe even marriage down the road.
Our conversations in those days were mainly about syntax and plot lines, as she’d been writing a novel at the time. I recall her once writing that she believed in “imagination and mystery.” Perhaps that was a clue. For Jordan, who only recently began experiencing herself as a boy in a girl’s body, a large dollop of imagination had to have been factored in together with an equally large sense of mystery.
Your classic bookworm (she’d lug heavy encyclopedias around with her the way others in her part of the world toted the New Testament), she never exactly radiated femininity. She wore her hair carelessly shoulder length, but in time she became an avid explorer of the complicated map of girlhood. (Did she find in it a hidden strain of masculinity?)
It helps to be able to talk to my daughter Maura. She does her best to adjust, hard as it is for her to see her child throw to the wind name and gender, both of which came from her.
Given the ruthless complexities of biology, I balked at slotting gender change in the same cubicle as a change of clothes that no longer fit.
Insecure, with a tendency to back away from dispute, Maura tends to be accommodating. She calls her daughter by her new name. She tries to use “he” instead of “she” when speaking about her. (“He” is a bridge I haven’t yet crossed, Jordan being in full possession of female body parts.) But it is not something she likes doing.
“Transgender is the new teenage fad,” she grouses. “Like the gluten-free fad that’s going around.”
Maura is a chef. Married for many years to an abusive husband, her dark eyes with their punished shadows, are more Jewish than mine. They remind me always of Jewish suffering and uprootedness. She has had to uproot herself more than once from her man, but has always chosen to go back to him. I am forced to wonder, as others have, whether subconsciously Jordan is trying to flee the gender of the weaker parent for the gender of the stronger.
It bothers me, the difficulty I have accepting that she may actually feel more herself as a male than a female. My concerns about health issues involving steroids and surgery, valid as they may be, point outward not inward. They don’t address the fragility of an old man’s emotional needs. As a writer, I approached my writer-granddaughter with the desire to impart transmission, partake of the particular communion of word-spinners. I approached her on my terms.
Now, she no longer writes, and barely speaks at all to adults. (If I were an iPhone, we’d be intimate.) Her obsession with gender transformation has left behind everything else, everyone else, including her grandfather, who believes he deserves better, who is resentful of what has taken her from him. Were it not transgender of course, it would almost certainly be the no less obsessive heaven-storming that accompanies a first boyfriend. Or even a second.
Since you, the boy, still have a vagina, and she, the girl, still has a penis, don’t you think she should use a condom if you plan to have sex?
Jordan and I both find ourselves in different kinds of galut. But exile, as Jewish history teaches us, is not the enemy of humour, but rather its weird companion.
Once Jordan mentioned to a family friend that she’d be dating a transitioning boy. The friend, a social work-lifer, newly retired, thought that over.
“Since you, the boy, still have a vagina, and she, the girl, still has a penis, don’t you think she should use a condom if you plan to have sex?”
“Ooh, that’s disgusting!” my granddaughter cried out. “And at the dinner table!”
The steps up the trans ladder leave big gaps. Bigger than she is. Bigger than we both are.
Robert Hirschfield is a writer living in New York.