I haven’t been so excited about alternating narrators since first reading Faulkner as an undergraduate. I am counting the days till Boxing Day, when I can repair to my aerie high atop Copley Square and settle in with Christine Benvenuto’s Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On and Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders side-by-side on my nightstand.
Each of these books tells the same story: the dissolution of the Benvenuto-Ladin marriage in the wake of Joy (then Jay) altering a male’s body and appearance to his (then her) internally perceived identity. In addition to shedding her body hair during this transition, Joy shed his wife and three kids, leaving them behind in Collegetown, USA, to find feminine fame and fortune in New York City.
Hence the dueling memoirs. I can hardly contain myself, having read excerpts from each and thus knowing that these books are well-written and juicy, juicy, juicy. I expect to learn a lot, but reserve final critical judgment until I have read them both.
That is, if Collegetown’s censors will let me. Here in New England we have a long and shameful history of bluestockings telling us what we can and cannot read, and what we should and should not say. As Ms. Benvenuto found out the hard way a few weeks ago when she attempted to give a talk about her perspective on events chronicled by her ex-husband Joy Ladin. The censors stepped in and put a quick end to Ms. Benvenuto’s free expression. You see, Sex Changes has sparked
a local protest which included Margaret Cerullo, a Hampshire College professor of sociology, who admits she hasn’t read the book, but nevertheless calls it hurtful, containing negative stereotypes about transgender people based on excerpts she read online. “These kind of portrayals are very damaging, especially for young trans people, who are already struggling with self-image … it seemed unnecessarily cruel,” she said in a phone interview.
Last month Cerullo, a group of Hampshire students and others — including friends of Benvenuto’s ex-husband — showed up at Benvenuto’s reading at Amherst Books to voice their objections, an episode that ended with police being called. Cerullo said the group was attempting to have “a dialogue” with Benvenuto. Benvenuto, however, said the protesters shouted obscenities, even though children were present at the bookstore, and seemed to be seeking “a violent encounter.”
The Hampshire College referenced in the above excerpt from the Amherst Bulletin is the same institution whose fourth president, Gregory S. Prince, Jr., promulgated principles of discourse to help members of the campus community conduct their debates with respect if not restraint. Alas, these worthy principles no longer appear on Hampshire’s website, and it appears they have no currency beyond the campus’s lush landscape. Nor, does it appear, does Hampshire’s mission statement’s lofty promise to prepare
students to understand and participate responsibly in a complex world. Through its actions and policies, the college sets an example of the responsible and creative behavior it expects of its students.
hold sway when professors set the fine, fine example of not reading the very texts for which they instigate protests. I’m hoping this kind of uncritical thinking is not the rule at Hampshire, because I think it is a pretty good school.
I commend the Bulletin‘s article to you, if for no other reason than the mostly thoughtful examinations of the issues raised in the story you’ll find in the comments. But you also do not want to miss the hilarity that ensues when Joy Ladin herself enters the fray, daring any and all to put up their dukes and fight like a man.
In a follow-up letter to the editor, Professor Cerullo reaches deep into her lexicon and pulls out the old chestnut “the personal is political,” an insight feminists in the fabulous 1960’s and ’70’s used as a shorthand to explain that a sister’s personal problems (lousy homelife, crappy boss) were inevitable consequences of systemic sexism and therefore “political.” (You really had to have been there.)
Ms. Benvenuto’s confessional memoir, says the Professor, is an exercise in “hate speech”:
We [Cerullo and her co-authors] do not question the rights of individuals to tell their painful personal narratives about what happens when a family member is transgender. But as feminists taught us since the 1960s, often, the personal is political. Personal hate, when made so public, is hate speech.
So let’s get this straight. According to Professor Cerullo, when Benvenuto’s husband rejected the relationship the couple had built over decades, leaving Benvenuto without a husband and their kids without a father, in order to fulfill his own personal (but apparently not “political”) needs, the personal misery she–Benvenuto–experienced cannot be shared with readers because the words that describe her genuine thoughts and emotions constitute “hate speech.” In other words, it’s OK for Jay Ladin the man to act upon his inner need to become Joy Ladin the woman, but it’s not OK for Christine Benvenuto to express the inner turmoil she experienced during and after a cataclysmic change in her and her children’s life. Yeah, that makes sense.
Professor Cerullo’s letter helpfully points out that
If trans women like [Joy Ladin] cannot “pass” by wearing “women’s clothing” (found creepy and sad by the author) they are at risk of becoming a target of verbal, physical and sexual assault.
I have no idea how Joy Ladin dresses, or whether her attire makes her a target of unwanted comments. I can certainly understand, however, the discomfiture an ex-wife, accustomed as she was to a very different sartorial style on the very different body of Jay Ladin, would feel sad and creeped out. Sad that the man she loved no longer exists. Creeped out that in fact he still does but in a different skin.
What I don’t understand is Professor Cerullo’s deafening cognitive dissonance. The professor is sympathetic to Joy Ladin’s difficulty finding clothes that will enable her to “‘pass,'” but cannot resist the impulse to belittle those choices as “‘women’s clothing'”–quotation marks speak volumes–in much the same way those sexist brutes back in the ’70’s made the personal political when they dismissed housekeeping, nursing, and stenography as “women’s work.”
Its appears to be the same kind of flawed reasoning that allows one to condemn the expression of deep feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and anger yet applaud the expression of a female persona longing to escape the confines of a male body. I wonder what puts a transgendered person in more peril: a society that encourages us to keep our private thoughts and feelings to ourselves, or one that permits free and full expression, no matter how painful it might be or how many ruined lives it leaves in its wake.