This body is the home of both a female and a male self, and I am not yet sure how to help it accommodate all of me best.
In pop culture, trans folks often offer the Wrong-Body Account: They were trapped in the wrong body, knew it all along, grew up, got free. My narrative is nothing like that. Instead, I have the Repulsed-Body Account. Whatever trace of maleness I detected in myself disgusted me. I wanted nothing to do with it. Who would want to be a boy? I didn’t want a man to take a knife to my private parts while an entire room looked on. I didn’t want to give up my thick, wavy hair. I didn’t want to forgo my holiday dresses. I didn’t want to lose the freedom to read fairy-tale anthologies and to waste hours with my dollhouse. I didn’t want to have to master Aramaic.
I saw what was taken from my brothers. I didn’t know how to see what was taken from me. I thought girls had it easier. I didn’t want my life to be more miserable than it already was.
Of course, ultra-Orthodox Jewish girls do not have it easier. Particularly those, like me, who have been sexually assaulted. I was molested twice as a child, though it took years to understand it for what it was. I felt guilty for the immodest things that had been done to me. I did not make the connection between my violated body and my sense of alienation from other children, which left me lonely and ashamed, always.
Pundits of a certain stripe love to hear that a trans person has been molested. They like to understand transness as a wound that might be healed, restoring a person to cisdom. They’d prefer not to address why the percentage of people who are trans is so much lower than the shockingly high percentage of children who are molested, or why so many trans folks weren’t molested, or whether perpetrators may have been drawn to gender cues present in the child before the assault.
And yet, in my own life, trauma and gender do intersect.
At twelve years old, I was sent to an ultra-Orthodox sleepaway camp in the Catskills. Over the course of that nightmarish summer, an awful knowing crept up on me, like a fog thickening. One morning, as I was trotting down the hill from prayers, it became impossible to deny: Beneath my shirt, new balls of fat bounced like basketballs atop my bony ribs. I slowed to a shuffle. Still they bobbled.
Later that morning, I was trudging at the back of a herd of girls on the way to the cafeteria when we passed the camp owner’s son. He was eighteen, nineteen. Close to marriage. A shiver of nervous energy rippled through our group. When he walked by me, his gaze whipped out across my chest, sending a spasm of horrified shame down my spine.
Body dysmorphic disorder is the clinical term for the disgust that took root in me that day. We have no more specific term for the experience of molested girls who endure a puberty which pops their insides out, splaying their plundered sexuality across their chests, open to the greedy gaze of every passing man. A diagnosis of body dysmorphic disorder requires that the patient must be preoccupied with one or more nonexistent or slight defects or flaws in their physical appearance. But what I was repulsed by was no slight defect or flaw. I had been buried alive in a foreign body, entombed in quivering breasts and swelling hips that shrieked SEXSEXSEX.
I wanted to be loved by my parents, by God, and eventually by my husband. To be loved, I had to be devout. To be devout, I had to be a good girl. Still, I longed for a needle to pop first my left breast and then my right. Even now, I mourn my flat chest, two nipples like pebbles on the surface of the moon.
When I waste whole afternoons idling through before-and-after top surgery photographs on the Internet, am I longing for a body untouched by femininity—a male body? Or am I longing for a body untouched by trauma?
Maybe gender and trauma are not so distinct as we think. After all, could you enact a passing womanhood that isn’t shaped by the trauma of an obsession with thinness and the trauma of rape culture and the trauma-response of supportive sisterhoods and body positivity and female rage? And could you enact a passing manhood that isn’t shaped by the trauma of war and the trauma of machismo and the trauma-response of male wokeness?
Maybe my genderqueer identity isn’t invalidated if I trace lines from it back to the trauma of molestation. Maybe that’s exactly the most precise way to define gender: as an expression of trauma and trauma-response, wound and scab both.
I didn’t come out to myself until I was thirty-four years old. Until then, I was female. And this gender, too, was a product of trauma. At seventeen, after being pushed out of my family for my rebellions against their religious rules, I was raped by my boyfriend. A little while later, I was raped by my best friend. The third person I had sex with was a married man nearly double my age, and the fourth was, again, someone who raped me.
I had transitioned from Yeshivish girl to secular girl, a costly shift in clothing, mannerisms, and worldview, but both species of girl were, for me, products of trauma, and long after the men who raped me had removed themselves from my body, I remained trapped beneath them, all sex, all helpless, all female. On one night after another, I lay with my tits up, legs spread, hoping that whichever new guy hovered above me might be powerful enough to rescue me from my life. It did not occur to me that the man I was looking for all along might be me.
If you don’t become the ocean, Leonard Cohen warns, you’ll be seasick every day.
But let’s complicate the story further. Yes, I was female in those years of my late teens and early twenties. But at eighteen, I enrolled in Brooklyn College. I studied texts, I spoke knowledge, I wrote ideas, and I even, for the first time, put on pants. In the eyes of my younger self and the culture I came from, I was shattering the boundaries of ultra-Orthodox femininity to do as men did. In those eyes, I was already genderqueer. But I didn’t have the word genderqueer to understand the way, in those lonely years, that I was breaking open the categories of my being. I only had the words uncomfortable, discordant, at war with myself.
At the age of twenty-two, I found love. Not with a man, but in a Sufi mosque. There, I learned to whirl with a pebble between my toes, one arm thrown up, offering my pain to heaven as chants of All-ah, All-ah spun me around.
As a child, I had pressed my face to the wooden mechitzah in the synagogue to watch the men dance round and round with the Torah clutched in their arms, but now I was the one dancing round and round with my spiritual brothers and sisters, Al-lah, Al-lah flicking off my tongue like a kiss. It was no small thing to pray with my body in the way that I had once watched my father pray. At home, I sliced my long hair into the bathroom sink. I began to wear baggy jeans and boxy T-shirts.
One evening, I was leaving the mosque when I heard the sheikha say my name from the other side of the sanctuary partition.
Laila must be a very wise woman, she said in a teasing voice. She’s growing a mustache.
Mustache! I grabbed my shoes and fled. The word chased me down the subway stairs, through the tunnels under the East River, across the dark streets of Brooklyn. Back at home, I tore open the bathroom cabinet, grabbed my tweezers, and ripped the hairs from my upper lip until the skin burned red. Something about Sufism had allowed me to pause my assaults on those awful hairs, but it had been a fragile truce that I could only permit as long as it remained unnamed, a kind of secret that I was keeping from myself.
I never again returned to the mosque.
A decade passed. I married a good man who was all wrong for me. I had a child. I collected designer stilettos. I wore very red lipstick and blow-dried my hair into silky, Real Housewife waves. At the age of thirty-one, I published a memoir about my journey out of ultra-Orthodoxy. When one of my rapists found me on Facebook and sent a friendly note, I fell into a crushing depression.
Depression can knock down the truth of you, but it can also knock down the lies. Within six months, I had left my husband. Lying in bed in my new apartment, I began filling a secret Pinterest board with photos of men who had my big nose and wild dark hair: Adrien Brody, D. H. Lawrence, Bob Dylan, Mark Twain.
When I looked at pictures of these men, I found myself possessed by the electric sensation of inhabiting their bodies and looking back out at myself with their eyes. It was a strange magic trick. It confused me. I did not understand it. This is not an attractive kink, I reprimanded myself. This is embarrassing.
One of the pictures was a selfie I’d taken in my twenties, wearing a white shirt and a yarmulke on hair cut short, a cigarette dangling from my lips like a sullen yeshiva boy.
At thirty-three, I met Ash. He was the last in a long series of Tinder flings, the one that marked a turn to something else. As a child, he had been a math prodigy. Despite never having practiced religion, he had an innate spirituality. His jokes undid me.
One evening some months in, after we’d fallen in love and shared all we knew how to share of our hearts, Ash and I were naked in bed when he suddenly paused his attentions. A wondering look came over his face, as if he had just glimpsed the answer to a difficult puzzle.
What if some part of you is male? he asked.
I felt a powerful clicking sensation in my head, as if all of the pieces of myself that had been deemed male in childhood and cut away were now snapping back into place. And perhaps because I felt loved so totally by Ash, perhaps because the idea offered immediate opportunities for new physical pleasures, there was no bite to it. It was simply true. I was male. I was also female. Both were within me.
A few days later, without saying anything to Ash, I went out to buy my dick. When I got home, I had the apartment to myself. I brought the dick into my bedroom. It had a curious weight, a dick without a man. It looked to me like the remains of a botched circumcision.
I shed my clothing and put on a pair of tzitzis, the tunic that Orthodox men wear beneath their shirts. I had bought these tzitzis after my divorce for the pleasure of low-stakes gender-fuckery. Usually I paired them with necklaces and tight jeans. Now I wore them with a pair of Ash’s boxers. I positioned my new dick inside at the crotch and sat down in front of my mirror.
There I was. There he was. The man from my Pinterest board.
He sprawled in my chair, knees wide, underwear bulging, like a baron of some make-believe court. The strings of his tzitzis draped over his thighs. His hair fell below his shoulders. He had coal eyes and a big nose. I put my hand to my crotch and felt the reassuring mass that had so many times, over so many years, swelled to congratulate me on my female sexual power. For sixty-eight dollars, it was now mine. Sixty-eight dollars! If only I had known that freedom came so cheap! But of course, it had taken more than money. I leaned forward and looked the man in the mirror in the eye. There he was. I’d been looking for him all my life.
By the time Ash came home, I’d changed back into my regular clothing. Later, after my daughter was asleep, I slipped into the bedroom and arranged the dick in my boxers.
I claim my maleness by doing Adam’s work. I identify and I name myself.
Hey, love, I called. What to say? I chose a casual line that we often used, my voice only a little shaky. Will you come lie with me?
Ash came in and lay down with me on the bed. I pushed my crotch into him until he registered surprise and pulled back. A moment passed. An hour. A year. Every cell of my body grew its own set of ears as I looked at the man I loved and waited to see what he would say.
May I, was what he said.
When his fingers made contact with the silicone, it sang with the buzzy sensation of skin, like some kind of neuro-wired prosthesis. Ash looked up at my face.
Your dick, he said gently, is upside down.
He showed me the ridge that was supposed to appear on the underside. I had been disoriented. I knew dicks best from below. I adjusted myself. Ash took my hand and pressed it to his matching bulge.
Four years have passed since I came out to myself. Four years of living as a genderqueer person with my family. Recently, I came out publicly. I changed my name from Leah to the unisex Jericho (the biblical city whose walls come tumbling down). I have not (yet) taken testosterone. I have not (yet) removed my breasts. I have not (yet) grown a beard. This body is the home of both a female and a male self, and I am not yet sure how to help it accommodate all of me best.
Breasts? No beard? What could it possibly mean when you say you are male? I can hear voices from my childhood shouting. I find myself wondering (worrying) that there is some physical sacrifice that I must make in order to prove my seriousness as a genderqueer person, to make the point that my maleness is not some kind of game or an intellectual exercise, but an embodied, sacred truth.
But I know that my maleness is true and real the same way that I know it is true and real when I am nauseous or when I am sad or when I am in love. When I am female I feel the sensitivity in my breasts, the hunger in my pussy; I feel my vulnerability in this world and the camaraderie with other women that pulses right beneath it. As a woman I am soft, and I am broken, and I am ragged, and I am strong. These are not womanly qualities. They simply are how I, this one product of these cultures and these traumas, express as woman. And when I am male, with a startling proprioceptional shift, my chest feels flat; my orgasms are concentrated and pulse outward into space. I feel more self-contained, somehow, drier in how I think, more humorous. I feel connected to my father and the rabbis that he comes from. I am their (apostate) son.
You walk differently when you’re male,Ash tells me. He’s my husband now. His eyes twinkle when I ask him how he knows what gender I am. As a man,youget this little smirk on your face.
Ash can always tell. But few others can. I carry big breasts and wide hips on a petite frame, and my face is small. I’ll never remotely pass for male.
Judith Butler taught us that gender is a social construction. She speaks of the act of interpellation, a process of creating gender in which others hail us as boy or girl and we respond. I would like to be recognized by you as male when I’m male, but to be frank, it’s more essential to me to be my own primary hailer.
Maybe that’s because my trauma has warped my connections to other people, or maybe it’s because gender is precisely, as Butler explains, a social thing. Every society cuts the divisions between men and women differently. In the culture I was raised in, it was a man, Adam, who identified and named the beings in the world, and so now I claim my maleness by doing Adam’s work. I identify and I name myself.
I am Jericho. I am genderqueer. I am sewing back into this one single body the totality of who I am.
Jericho Vincent is a genderqueer post-ultra-Orthodox writer and lecturer. They are the author of the memoir CUT ME LOOSE (Doubleday, 2014). Their work has appeared in the The New York Times, Salon, The Cut, The Daily Beast, Mask Magazine, The Forward, and The Rumpus. They are currently studying for the rabbinate while working on a book about healing from trauma. More at jerichovincent.com.