A nighttime epiphany leads to a major change
I met Laura Jacobs a few years ago when she was my writing student at Sarah Lawrence. I knew right away that she’d be great in class. She was funny, a straightforward yet sensitive speaker, and possessed the kind of flexible and empathic instincts that help a workshop run smoothly. One thing puzzled me: In our private biweekly conferences, she’d sometimes refer to what a crazy year she’d had, or say that she was feeling overwhelmed by all the changes in her life. Finally I just had to ask, and she explained what she’d assumed I already knew: that she’d recently completed the transition from being male to being female. Not that long before, she had been Lawrence.
While this surprised me for a moment, it didn’t affect my impression of Laura at all: it was just one more aspect of a very unusual person. Over time, I came to know another aspect; the way in which her dark and ironic sense of humor was coupled with a completely uncynical approach to spirituality. True to form, she had worked out her own way to pray.
Laura grew up in Rockland County, New York, one of four sons of a furrier father and teacher mother. She has been a musician and composer and an exhibiting art photographer, and is now a graduate student in social work at NYU.
I’ve long wondered how Laura’s thoughts on gender connect to her thoughts on faith. Also, as someone who once wrote a gentle satire of transgender narratives, I’ve wondered how someone with a nuanced and flexible view of spirituality came to make such a literal and irreversible decision to alter her body. Recently I had a chance to ask when I visited Laura at her home on a winding road outside of Nyack.
You’ve mentioned to me that your mother thought you might turn out to be a rabbi.
She always thought I had this teacherly quality. And when I was in my middle teens, post-bar mitzvah, I went on to get a confirmation—something most of my peers didn’t do. I think I was turning to religion because I had so much angst inside me, and it seemed like a path to meaning. I became active in the synagogue. I was involved in the Jewish youth group, I was volunteering to do various things. There were times when, for instance, the rabbi might be away for a week, and I would be the one who led the service in his place.
As a teenager?
Yeah, he would call me and say, “I’m going to be away for this weekend, and here’s the service,” and he would leave me some latitude within the traditional structure of Jewish worship. I was dating a girl who was a singer, and she used to sometimes be the cantor at the service. It was sort of sweet.
I think a lot of why I did all of that was because I was struggling with my coming of age—and issues like my gender, my sexuality, my relationship to other people, my feeling like there was something more to life than a lot of the paths that I saw.
What was your family like when you were growing up?
My parents are very traditional Jewish people—not in a deeply religious way, but in the guilt-and-Chinese-food kind of way. My mother is the only child of parents who made it out of Europe in the early part of the Holocaust. They were never in the camps, but the rest of my grandparents’ family was. My name came from a great aunt, Lore, who didn’t make it out; she was taken away and probably died in Auschwitz. Following Jewish custom my parents called me Lawrence after her.
As you grew up you didn’t remain as observant as when you were a teenager. What changed?
I think part of what ultimately soured me from organized religion is having gone to synagogue a lot, and seeing people say the prayers and know the prayers, but it didn’t seem like it was touching them in their heart. None of them understood Hebrew, and I never learned Hebrew. And yet I knew prayers in Hebrew. I felt like I was being more spiritual when I was sitting playing the piano than when I was in a synagogue saying words that I didn’t understand.
What do you think motivates people to recite prayers they don’t understand? Do you think that the thinking is: Well, if there is a God, and he is as scary and big and strong as he seems to be, I’d better say this prayer?
I think some of it is that whole paternal thing: We’re afraid that God, the Father, is going to punish us for not doing the chores, not taking out the trash. I think some of it is that—especially in Judaism, especially with Reform Jews, especially in the Northeast of the United States—there’s this fear of letting the traditions die, especially after the Holocaust. How can we go through something so traumatic to our people and then let the traditions die?
I would hope people would be able to be introspective and sort of find their own inner peace. But that’s not really encouraged in our culture. And I think that’s kind of sad.
How did you arrive at your personal inner peace?
I was working at a corporate job that I couldn’t stand, doing market research. On the day of the winter solstice in 1998 I came home from work late. I was standing in the backyard, and I was desperate and miserable and depressed. And there was this huge full moon. So I just thought, “What the hell, might as well pray to the moon.” I did, I started calling to it for some kind of sign or some kind of message. Of course nothing happened. I mean, nothing was written in fire across the sky. So then I went to bed. I got up during the night, and on the way back from the bathroom I remember feeling all of the energy drain from my body. I passed out. I think of it as a near-death experience. I remember having a sort of vision and seeing the moon and the earth as if they were on a string, a continuum between the two. And between the moon and the earth were my physical body and my spiritual body, for lack of a better way to put it. And I really felt like I was seeing who I was.
For the couple months leading up to my surgery, I used to go outside, and I would light a candle, and I would sit there and I would just pray to the moon. I would meditate, and ask for good luck and protection and guidance, hoping that this was the right thing for me. Because this was surgery, this was the big shit-or-get-off-the-pot moment. Sometimes I’d say a Jewish prayer, sometimes I’d say a nonverbal prayer. The surgery happened in Montreal; the place where I stayed leading up to it and during recovery was this little island in the middle of the river. And on the island there were two houses and then some woods. I used to do walking meditation on the grounds. Also afterwards, although I wasn’t walking quite so well. Trust me, after that surgery it takes a while before you start walking comfortably.
I’m sure. Ow. Do you see a relationship between your teenage yearnings for meaning through Judaism and your decision to change your gender?
There was this Hindu mystic named Ramakrishna who lived in the mid-1800s. For a time he put aside his Hinduism totally and lived in each of the other major religions. His ultimate realization was that no matter what tradition he followed, he came to the same place of enlightenment; he felt he contacted the same spirit, the same God, the same whatever, regardless of what path he was following. Since no matter which path he followed they all led to the same enlightenment, he said that it didn’t really matter what path you followed. We tend to follow what path we’re born into. I had this epiphany one day where I sort of applied that to gender, and it’s like—living as a man or living as a woman, neither one has any more right or ability to find happiness. They’re just different ways of living.
Another thing that Ramakrishna says is that if you feel drawn to a different path, if it sort of suits your temperament, then why not change, because all the paths are heading in the same place anyway? Then I started thinking about that part of it in the context of gender, and for whatever reason I felt drawn to changing. There was no meant-to-be-ness about it. I saw a lot of different alternatives for my future, and this just seemed to be the one that fit the most.
“Why not change” is a very strong statement when it comes to having surgery to change your sex. I feel that gender is a spectrum, and sometimes I wonder why someone would do something as literal as take hormones and have surgery.
Laura Jacobs in 2004
I never know quite how to say this; I always struggle to find the words. You know, I was born male, I lived as a boy and then a man for most of my life, and in my late 20s I started to explore outside of just living as a man. Over the course of a couple years (or who knows how long, because where do you mark the beginning, and where do you mark the end?), I changed. Now I live as a woman, I am a woman; I’ve gone through the process of changing my gender.
I don’t so much like the words transgender and transsexual. And I don’t like the standard way people think about those words. I think a lot of people who use those words, and the way most people understand those who change their gender is, “I was always meant to be the other, I was born in the wrong body, some sort of mistake happened along the way, and I need to be fixed to make myself right.” In some ways my story fits that. I had questions about my gender going back to being five years old. I can remember even praying to God that I would wake up one day having been magically changed into a girl overnight. But in some ways my story doesn’t fit that. I made a choice about where to live on the spectrum. Even today I feel connected to both my masculinity and femininity, and that’s heresy to some trans people. I still feel I am both, as we all are.
How did your very traditional parents deal with the change you made?
Initially they really struggled. They didn’t understand. It was a shock to them. But one of the things that they said on the day that I told them was that they didn’t want to lose me as their child, that I was still their child. That impressed me. I brought them to my therapist a few times, and that helped a little bit, but didn’t really. Then I referred them to another therapist who specializes in LGBT stuff, and they sort of clicked with her a little bit, but then sort of didn’t. And so I turned to their rabbi, who I hadn’t had contact with in a million years—the same rabbi I used to sub for when I was a teenager. I said to him, here’s some of what I’m going through, and can you help us? He was kind of shocked, but he said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
My parents were more comfortable talking to their rabbi. After one of the conversations we all had, he got on to some Reform rabbi Internet news group, Rabbi-Net or something, and sent an email around saying, “I have this person in my congregation who’s going through this change, and is there anybody out there who can help me?” A female rabbi from San Francisco responded. She had a trans son, meaning a daughter who became a man. The child was around my age, and went from Laura to Larry. Our rabbi put my mother in touch with her. Here was a woman who was a rabbi, so it was an authority figure, and was about my mother’s age, had a child who was about my age, who went from Laura to Larry, and it was a little too much for my mother to turn away from. The woman rabbi said, I had a daughter, now I have a son, and I love my son. Yeah, it was hard losing my daughter, but I’ve gained this wonderful son, and we’re closer than ever. After that it all just shifted.
You told me in an email you’d been hesitant to have this conversation because you’d recently been in the throes of an existential crisis. You said you were wondering what the meaning of it all was.
All the hopes and the dreams that I had when I was young, so many of them didn’t come true. Some of them did. I just kept coming back to the futility of life. It’s kind of ironic: Here I am working as a therapist trying to help people find meaning in life, and I still struggle with finding meaning in my own. What I’ve been thinking lately is that sometimes what it comes down to is that maybe the meaning is what we make of life. Maybe life is about the exploration of life.
Do you think that’s why you’ve wound up becoming a therapist and not a rabbi? The two are related, but when you’re a therapist and you’re confronted with these existential questions all the time, you’re not really expected to provide theological answers.
I’m more of a guide, which I think was what clergy used to be. In spite of the fact that my mother thought I might become one, part of the reason I never wanted to be a rabbi is that I find a lot of organized religions to be very limiting. I think it’s also that in some ways living in the angst is kind of a healthy place to be, as much as it’s not always the easiest place to be.
What happens when an agnostic follows all the rules in the Bible? A.J. Jacobs finds out.