For most of my life, when Pesach arrived, I would try, as the Hagaddah instructs, to think of myself as someone who had personally gone out of Egypt — and fail. My problem wasn't that I was a comfortable, middle-class American Jew rather than the beaten, starving, abject heir of 400 years of enslavement. No, the problem was that I was still in Egypt, my personal Egypt, a form of bondage as all-encompassing as it was invisible. My Egypt had no pyramids, no hieroglyphs, no Nile River. It was an Egypt made of skin — my skin — and within that miserable empire, I played both slave and Pharaoh.
To be fair, I wasn't solely responsible for my enslavement. It wasn't my fault that when my body was growing in my mother's womb, the sex of my body — male — diverged from the gender of my brain. It wasn't my fault that that mixed-up infant was born into a world in which gender is so important that the first words that echo above newborn ears are "It's a boy" or "It's a girl." It wasn't my fault that few people in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was growing up, realized that gender identity — our private sense of maleness or femaleness — could be at odds with the sex of our bodies.
I was born into the Egypt of gender dysphoria, the wrenching ache that people like me experience as our brains try to locate us in bodies that feel inescapably, inexplicably wrong. I inherited the Egypt of a culture that could only imagine two genders. I didn't blame myself for that. What made me flush with shame each Pesach was the knowledge that for as long I could remember, I had worked hard to stay in Egypt.
Some transkids and adults refuse to conform to the gender roles that are thrust upon them. They are teased, beaten, admitted to psychiatric hospitals, subjected to electric shocks and other abuse as part of "aversion therapy." But no matter what is done with or to them, they refuse to betray their sense of themselves and enslave themselves to the gender roles the world tries to force upon them.
I did what I was told, I met expectations, I hid the embarrassing truth that the good boy, then man, I presented to the world was a lie, a facade, a terrible degrading soul-breaking task, a brick I had to make without straw, an Egypt. And when Pesach came, and I raised my cup to freedom, I hid the fact that I was still a slave.
That was Pesach when I was a boy, and when I was a man, four-and-a-half decades of hypocritical celebrations that ended only three years ago, when, at about this season, I began my long journey out of the Egypt of living as a man to the freedom of living as the woman I knew myself to be.
Our ancestors knew what every transgender person learns: It is hard to leave Egypt. You have to be ready to lose everything: cucumbers and fish, friends and families, jobs and identities. When we lay down the back-breaking life of lying and hiding and claim the right — our birthright as Jews and human beings — to stand upright as who we are, the very fabric of life seems ripped away. And there we are — here we are — in the blank stony wilderness, with nothing but the voice within us — the voice of truth, the voice of freedom — leading us forward.
That was the voice that summoned our ancestors to splash their doorposts with blood, to rise in haste at midnight and bind their kneading-troughs on their shoulders with dough that hadn't had time to rise, to stumble through night and walls of water into the wilderness in which, for the first time, we could become the people, the free people, God created us to be.
That is the voice we celebrate every year at our seders — and that is the voice to which this year, and every year for the rest of my life, I will be able to say, without blush or hesitation: "This is because of what God did for me, when I walked out of Egypt."
Joy Ladin is a professor of English at the Stern College of Yeshiva University and the author of poetry books. She will be speaking at Penn Hillel this weekend.