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April 23, 2016

Through the Door of Life

by Anne Paddock

When Sam Harel Price, 21 and a junior at Oberlin College died on March 24th following a suicide attempt on her 21st birthday, I struggled to help my daughter cope with the death of a friend she loved. Loss leads to grief but asking why a smart, compassionate, and beautiful person would take her life when she had so much to look forward to, help us understand the importance of compassion and acceptance in this world.

Sam was born a male but identified as a female. Last year she came out as transgender to her family which they fully embraced and supported. At Oberlin College – one of the most liberal college environments – Sam was accepted and yet she struggled because as her brother, Jonah said at her eulogy:  “Our society made her feel ugly and unwanted; when in reality she was a beautiful soul who was so important to so many people.”  Sam gave her money to the homeless, wanted to spread the power of love in this world, and fiercely supported social justice…but she didn’t want to do this as a he; she felt she was a female trapped in the body of a male, and couldn’t pretend any longer to be someone she wasn’t…and, so she suffered.

Through-the_Door-of_lifeA friend told me about a book called Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders written by Joy Ladin, a tenured professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. Ladin was born a male and struggled with gender identity for more than 40 years before transitioning to a female.

Educated at Sarah Lawrence, Amherst, and Princeton, Ladin obtained a BA, MFA, and PhD, wrote several books, became an English professor, married and had three children. Devoted to Judaism – just as Sam Harel Price was (majoring in Jewish Studies and hoping to become a rabbi) – Ladin played the role of a male until she could no longer pretend to be someone she wasn’t.

In her mid-40’s in a two decade long marriage with three small children (aged 10, 6, and 2) Ladin made the choice to transition to female which cost her her marriage, estrangement from her children, friendships, and rejection from society. Her story – Through the Door of Life – is the story of a person who flouted convention, laws, and family ties to be herself because if she couldn’t be herself, she didn’t want to go on living. Ironically, becoming who she was meant to be also brought her to the brink of suicide – not because of what she was doing, but because of what the world was doing to her.

We are all humans on a spectrum who need to be respected and treated with compassion, empathy, and acceptance. Ladin by all accounts was and is a gifted poet, writer, author, professor, and devoted parent but was being judged by her gender identity. She could have been a remote father and the most self-centered man in the world and she would have been accepted (and been given more access to her children) as long as she looked and presented herself as male. But, in a skirt with makeup and earrings, she was made to feel deviant, sick, and a danger to her children, her students, and the outside world.  That she eventually chose life and walked “through the door of life” gives hope and reinforces the importance to support and embrace transgender human beings for who they are as human beings.

The story of Sam Harel Price and Joy Ladin are very different but they both shared a deep faith in Judaism and a commitment to be true to themselves that led to a painful journey where suicide was the outcome for one and an option for the other.  With an estimated 40% of trans people attempting suicide, we have to ask ourselves:  what we are doing that we could do differently?

After Sam’s death, her parents began a foundation (Sam & Devorah Foundation for Trans Youth) to establish a safe haven for transgender youth and gender non-conforming young adults to feel welcome, safe, and supported in an environment with like-minded peers. To read more about Sam Harel Price and the foundation created by her family – the Sam & Devorah Foundation for Trans Youth – click here and here.

Through the Door of Life is available on and at bookstores nationwide.

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