Jenny Boylan on Caitlyn Jenner: The Big Dress Theory

Caitlyn Jenner and Jennifer Finney Boylan

Belgrade Lakes, Maine
August 14, 2015

I’ve avoided commenting on Caitlyn Jenner in a public way thus far, in part because I’m a consultant on her series I AM CAIT, not to mention an occasional member of the cast. More importantly, though, I see Caitlyn, like lots of trans-people in early transition,  as a work in progress. What most trans people need, especially in the early days, is time to figure out how they want to live in the world. Caitlyn Jenner deserves the benefit of the doubt no less than anyone else.

That said, I suppose there are a few things I would like to share. So here are a few thoughts. They represent my own feelings, not that of the show’s producers; not that of GLAAD or Kinsey or any of the other institutions I’m involved with.

• I too was skeptical about the prospect of her show at first, and her clear plan for world media domination. The transgender community has had many people in it who have arrived on the scene determined to be famous, and it’s almost always been a mess, not least because so many of us don’t know the full community before we start talking into microphones. Many of us barely know how to talk about ourselves, let alone others. I can tell you that there are things I said in 2003, when I first published my memoir, “She’s Not There,” that I wish I had phrased differently. It takes a long time to understand the many, many ways of being trans–other than our own–and to recognize that other people’s take on being trans is as valid as our own.  If you find yourself telling someone, “You’re doing it wrong,” you’re probably doing it wrong.

She was crying, so I said, "Everybody on Jenner." And soon enough, everybody was.

So from the beginning, I feared the worst. But in short order, to my surprise, Caitlyn Jenner won me over. There are a lot of things I can say about her, but I can say this above all: she is a good soul, with an earnest, heartfelt desire to help the world. She is doing this by using her own celebrity to shine a light on the experiences of transgender people, including plenty of people whose stories are very different from her own.   So far in her show (as of mid-August), we’ve seen her visit the parents of a young trans boy who committed suicide; spent some time at HRC talking to a trans man and woman about that organization’s work; spent a couple of days hanging out with a diverse gang of trans women (including me) that includes a Latina woman, several women of color, other women who’ve done sex work; a woman who was stabbed in an all-too-typical case of violence for our community, and others as well.

She will visit other parts of our community in the future, I am sure.

To those who suggest that she is too privileged, or too white, or too wealthy, to be typical, I say, you are right. She has lived in a world that I can barely comprehend. But here’s the bargain: her family’s fame brings visibility to the lives of all our people, and CJ is dedicated to using that visibility for good. And by “fame,” I mean that, for instance, her daughter Kim has the largest number of Twitter followers in the world, period. You can argue all you like about whether this fame is deserved, or just plain weird, or what.   But CJ’s transition was going to be world news, whether we like it or not. The Kardashian show is watched by people in 125 countries in 24 different languages. It’s ridiculous. And onto this stage walks Catilyn Jenner, whom I believe truly wants to use that fame to help educate people. I think it’s done immeasurable good so far. It’s amazing.

A group of trans people at HRC in San Francisco. I love how Cait, front row left, is reaching out for me (third from right.)

Meanwhile: there are more important issues facing transgender men and women in the world than what happens on Caitlyn Jenner’s docu-series. We have had at least twelve or thirteen murders this year of trans women, almost all of them trans women of color and/or Latinas. It’s important to keep focus, and remember that the fight for trans equality takes place on many fronts: legal, social, and political. I know that the Jenner program has brought trans issues a visibility and a publicity they have never had before. But our success as a community will be measured by lives saved, and jobs created, and not by ratings.  The same might be said of the other shows that have aired over the last few years, including I AM JAZZ, and BECOMING US, and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and TRANSPARENT, and all the other many shows that have highlighted transgender experience in many different ways.  I am grateful for all these shows.  But I am even more grateful if one person decides not to take his or her life; if one more law is passed guaranteeing freedom from violence, or homelessness, or any of the other indignities reserved for our people.

• There’s been some criticism of CJ for being too feminine, that she defines her womanhood in terms of hair and makeup, and look, let’s face it: she is a little glamorpuss. There was a particularly idiotic column in the New York Times early this summer by a TERFy writer who felt that Caitlyn Jenner isn’t “really” a woman because she’s too girly, because she hasn’t suffered enough, because she doesn’t have a woman’s history, and so on. To this I can only say, poppycock. The world is full of women a thousand times girlier than Caitlyn Jenner whose womanhood no one doubts; full of women like, for instance, my aunt Gertrude who never got a period and who never had a baby; full of women whose experience exists along a broad, broad spectrum. The world contains Janet Reno and Dolly Parton; Mother Teresa and Lady Gaga, and newborn baby girls who have been “women” less than a couple of hours. Surely, if there is room in this world for all these different ways of being female, there is room enough for Caitlyn; room enough for you, and room enough for me.

Anyway, anyone who feels that somehow Caitlyn Jenner–or any transgender person– doesn’t fit into their special “theory” of the world might want to spend a little less time working on their special theory and instead ask, How can I ease other people’s suffering?  How can I make the world a little more of a loving place? If your special theory of gender–or anything for that matter– doesn’t reduce suffering or create a world more full of love, it might be worth asking whether what you really need is a new theory.

And if you’re still all angry about the fact that CJ likes to spend the morning wearing hot rollers, you also ought to also note that so far, in her show, we’ve seen her riding a motocross dirt bike, pumping her own gas, and flying a radio-controlled helicopter. Surely THAT’S feminine enough for you?

• I think there is a fair amount of exhaustion in the trans community about the attention paid to Caitlyn, and quite properly so: many of the things Cait is saying are things that the rest of us have been saying for decades now, and it is more than a little weird that it is only when a member of the Kardashian family says them that mainstream media pays any attention. But I also suspect that that trans community is really not the target audience for I AM CAIT. I think is a cis audience, especially of people who have never given our humanity a second thought, that is the primary audience. And I can tell you, based on what I have seen, that hearts are opening.

Cait Jenner and her transformative action squad.

I do suspect that sometimes our community has more than a little amount of what the Irish call “begrudgement,” regarding trans people who wind up in the media spotlight. Many of us feel like, well god dammit, WE are the ones who deserve to have our own show; WE are the ones whose stories ought to be told; WE are the ones who ought to have purty pictures of ourselves taken by Annie Leibowitz. And of course, we are right. We do deserve all these things, and many of us might well be more articulate than Cait has been able to be so far– although I think she deserves a tremendous amount of credit for her speech at the ESPYs, which was generous, thoughtful, and humble.

Caitlyn Jenner has been able to reach people the rest of us might not have been able to reach. She is not the perfect “spokesperson,” assuming that such a person could ever exist– given the contentiousness of our community, and its vast diversity. I am not sure she wants to be a “spokesperson” at all. What she wants is to try to do good in the world, and I think she is succeeding. In the meantime, all the rest of us continue to do our own work, in whatever way we can.  There is a lot to do.

This dress is big enough for all of us.

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About “Transgendered”: Some History & Grammar

Here’s a piece Helen Boyd wrote for her blog; she asked me to add a postscript, which of course rapidly swelled to a thing larger than Helen’s original.  Submitted for your consideration.

By Helen Boyd and Jennifer Finney Boylan.

My traveling companion, Helen Boyd, author of "My Husband Betty" and "She's Not the Man I Married."

Helen:

I’m well aware that the term “transgendered” is objected to by some for a variety of reasons. Most of us who did use it once upon a time have dropped it; Jenny Boylan, for instance, changed all of the instances of “transgendered” in her 10th anniversary edition of She’s Not There to “transgender” instead. I haven’t used it on my blog or in my writing for years.

But here’s the thing: interpreting any use of it as some kind of bad faith politics is also a mistake, because it was an acceptable form for many years. The reason some of us chose it – and again, I’ll cite Boylan and me, along with theorists like McKenna and Kessler – was for grammatical reasons.

Adding an “ed” to a verb is a common way to come up with a past participle in English, and past participles then function as adjectives. If you ice your tea, for instance, afterwards you’ve iced your tea, and so wound up with “iced tea”. It’s not complicated. You can do it with a lot of verbs – different verbs become adjectives/past participles in different ways – when you break a toy, it becomes a broken toy, because broke is, for whatever reasons, the past tense of “break”.

Some of these uses have become problematic, but the one I see cited most is “colored” of course, which was used to talk about African Americans and others marginalized by the color of their skin. It’s no longer acceptable because it implied that white people, for instance, have no color – but of course we do. That said, there are neutral ways you can use colored: you could, of course, color a picture in a coloring book, and so wind up with a colored picture.

It was the same idea. Gender is a verb. You can gender an infant (“it’s a girl!”) or degender a pronoun (My pronoun is “they” because I identify as genderqueer.) The logic then was that you could transgender something; you can find it used as a verb (“transgendering”) in the work of McKenna & Kessler, who did some of the first, best work on degendering and on trans issues – work that influences the likes of Kate Bornstein, for instance. And while it strikes an odd note now, for the people who were first writing about these issues, no one knew what the grammar was; we were making it up as we went along. So, if “gender” could be a verb, and made into a past participle (Most children are gendered by others when they’re born”) and so into an adjective: transgendered.

That’s all. It was a grammatical choice. It was neutral. That it’s now seen as implying more than that – the same way colored came to – is how this community has chosen to interpret it. As I said before, most of us who did use it don’t anymore because of the way its interpretation changed. “Transgendering” in McKenna & Kessler struck me as odd, too, when I first read them, but there is no doubt their work is trans affirming and trans inclusive.

So, if you would, don’t automatically judge the author of a work that uses this term. It has fallen out of fashion but it’s still in an awful lot of literature by people who were (1) trans themselves, and (2) trans positive. When people use it now it’s often because they’ve seen it elsewhere; it takes time for bad usages to work their way out of the lexicon, just as it takes a long time for some words to work their way in.

Postscript by Jennifer Finney Boylan:


I agreed to write a few words on this topic for my old friend Helen Boyd, whom I would also like to say, has been doing work to support the loved ones of trans people longer than anyone else I know about. Our books— her “My Husband Betty,” and my “She’s Not There” were published within a few months of each other in 2003, and since then as authors we have kind of been like a pair of babies born in the same hospital. It has been an honor to me to share a bookshelf with her for these many years.

Neither of us, I think, could have predicted how much progress would have been made on behalf of trans people (and their loved ones) when we first started writing our books. It has been amazing and heartening, and I am sure that, while downplaying our own individual roles in this movement, we would both still agree that one of the galvanizing forces in this progress has been the courage of individuals who stepped forward and told their stories, at a time when there was no public language for talking about trans issues.

I used “transgendered” back in the day because because—as Helen notes, “gender” is a verb, unlike “gay” for instance. (A bicycle, for instance, is gendered; but a bicycle cannot be “gayed,” at least not unless you start singing it show tunes.) Plus, it’s the word my own therapist used; I did not know when I began that I could challenge the discourse. I was very polite back then.

I did begin to hear about trans peoples restlessness with the term within a few years after my own book (which I abbreviate as SNoT) was published. I pushed back for a while against the criticism (being a professor of English), but finally came to accept that “transgender” or “trans” really had become the acceptable parlance by the middle of the last decade. I did indeed change the words in the 10th anniversary edition of SNoT, even when many other things about that book that I wish I’d said differently remained unaltered.

In thinking about language, and the way it morphs, I sometimes think about the new landscaping that was put in at the school where I used to teach. They put the new lawn in after a period of construction, but didn’t put the paths in until the following year. The reason? The architects wanted to see where people would walk, before they made the sidewalks. And so, after a year of seeing the natural paths formed by the shoes of people using the space, the paths were put in along those lines. I think language is like this too— it can take a while to figure out where the paths go, especially when we are finding a new route across uncharted territory.

I’d also note that no one is harder on the trans community than the trans community itself. We are relentless in our desire to tell others that They Are Doing It Wrong; that being trans is not That but This; that living in our world demands constant vigilance and apology and fury. As someone involved in this work for fifteen years now, I understand the urgency of being seen (and spoken of) in the terms which we define. But I also feel that we would all benefit from a little more love, starting with the love we might show each other. There is no one right way of being trans, and there is no one right path to tread. This is true not only in our language, but in our hearts as well— the place where that language finds its source.

In the new prologue to SNoT, I also recalled the story of the author James Thurber, who was told at a party in Paris how much funnier his stories were in French than English. “Yes, I know,” said Thurber. “They do tend to lose something in the original.”

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Beyond Caitlyn Jenner: Micro-documentary on Trans Civil Rights History.

This “Op-doc” appeared in the New York Times on June 15, 2015. Featuring Lordes Ashley Hunter, Nick Adams, Susan Stryker, Sylvia Rivera, and me. Anybody who thinks they have an opinion about trans people might want to watch this for perspective.

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The Pirate Maiden

This is a piece I wrote on New Years Day as a gift for Wesleyan’s newspaper, the Argus, of which I was the editor in chief thirty-five years ago.

The Pirate Maiden

by Jennifer Finney Boylan

We put the Argus to bed about 4 AM, and then the editor said, “Chinatown,”  and off we went. A little later I was eating hot and sour soup in New York City.  The editor was happy because he was quitting.  Almost everyone was quitting, leaving me in charge of the paper.  That would have been fine, except for the one hitch which of course was that I didn’t know the first thing about anything.

I’d come to the Argus late— fall of my senior year, September 1979.  I couldn’t have found an inverted pyramid if I’d been standing on my head in the deserts of Egypt.   I wrote a clever column that autumn though, full of riffs on whatever was going on around campus, packed with sweet little heartbroken jokes.  After a while I tried my hand at news stories, too.  It was harder than it looked.

In the end I tricked a bunch of my friends, mostly Hermes writers, into working on the Argus with me.  It was a heavy trip, man.  Bluegrass and Irish bands played, more or less at random, in the editors office as we assembled the paper— an endless, physical process in those days before computers.  The managing editor, whom I loved, emitted farts as the result of his all-soy-sauce diet that could knock out a large dog.  We drew with markers all over the walls of the office— which then was on the corner of High Street, across from Alpha Delt.  A guy named John Moynihan used to jump through the windows now and again wearing full pirate gear, pressing a cutlass to our throats and saying, “Arg.”

In some ways, that experience at the Argus was like my Wesleyan experience in a nutshell.  In addition to my own fledgling scholarship as an English major—which wasn’t much—the main thing I took away from campus was a sense that having an imagination could almost save me in the years ahead.  There were times, as the Irish band played and the air filled with farts and John Moynihan made the Sports editor “walk the plank,” that I thought the world beyond Middletown would be just like this:  that somehow I would, in years to come, be part of a community of creative, sarcastic souls,  that our pizzazz and stink would somehow change the culture and make America itself a slightly less terrible place.

But of course, there would never be a place exactly like that again, just as there would never be a place like Wesleyan 1980, either.  Whatever piss and vinegar we managed to create was the result of a small group of souls at that time, in that place.  This is probably just as it should be— each generation of Wesleyan students reinvents the place according to its own lights, and anyone who spends her time lamenting the past is probably missing the opportunity to celebrate the future.

Even then it was not unusual to hear people lament that the golden days had passed, that things had been so much cooler in some earlier Wesleyan era.  Usually people who said such things were referring to spring of 1970, when the Grateful Dead had played a free concert on Foss Hill— but I knew a few administrators who clearly felt that the college had peaked in the late fifties and had gone all to hell since then.  Years later, when I returned to campus to teach a course, my students, upon learning that I’d graduated in 1980, lamented that they hadn’t been around when things were really hopping’.  What could I do, except try to remind them that the golden age always lies ahead?

Now, thirty-five years later, I still often think of those young writers with whom I decamped for Chinatown that night. One of us became a guiding force behind the San Francisco Bay Guardian; another worked for the Wall Street Journal.  A third wrote a bestselling memoir.  John Moynihan joined the merchant marines, sailed around the world, made films, and died young.

As for me, I came out as transgender and somehow, in spite of that complex unveiling, managed to survive. There were a lot of things that contributed to my being able at last to give voice to the things I had long felt in my heart, but one of the most important was having been part of Wesleyan, a place where, on a good day, you could almost believe that creativity, and love, and sheer cussedness itself, could help a person prevail.

When we got back from Chinatown that morning, I sat down on the front steps of Eclectic with a cup of coffee and watched the campus come to life. Someone was ringing bells in South College. I could not then imagine the world that was to come, but I felt as if something good was coming, that I had, at long last, become part of something larger than myself.

John Moynihan walked past me, wearing his hat with the skull and crossbones.

“Arg,” he said.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, 1980, is Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.  She is the national co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, a trustee of the Kinsey Institute, and a Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times.  In 1980 she was editor-in-chief of the Wesleyan Argus.

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JFB in NYT: A Mind is a Terrible Thing Not to Waste

This essay appeared in the New York Times on Saturday, June 6, 2015.

Lenny's Hot Dogs, Atlantic City NJ., left. Lucy the Elephant, right.

THERE I was, at the height of the great Disco Summer, selling hot dogs in the shadow of a six-story, elephant-shaped building on the shores of Margate, N.J. Most nights, my shift started at midnight. It was June 1977, just after my freshman year at Wesleyan, and I was hard at work at Lenny’s Hot Dogs.

The big rush came just after 3 a.m., when the disco across the street, The Music Box, unplugged its rotating mirror ball and its denizens spilled out in search of hot dogs, frozen yogurt cones and Lenny’s pepper hash. At that late hour the lines stretched from Lenny’s across the parking lot, past Lucy the Elephant, and toward the rumbling Atlantic beyond.

Lucy the Elephant is now a National Historic Landmark, but Lenny’s, sadly, has been gone for decades. Still, plenty of freshmen will spend this summer selling hot dogs, waiting tables, tending bar or supervising the archery range at clam shacks, taverns and summer camps from Maine to California.

One question, of course, is what kind of work is best for college students?

For many, summer employment means… (read the rest of the piece at the NYT site here.)

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Distinguished

Happy memories of Wesleyan University. This weekend marks my 35th reunion.

It’s off to Middletown, CT for me this weekend, to Wesleyan University, where I’m receiving the Distinguished Alumna award from my alma mater, an award that clearly indicates just how far the market value of Distinguishment has fallen.

Wesleyan, where I studied from 1976-80 remains, after all this time,  a place rife with mythology and memory for me.  It’s where I met the love of my life, Deirdre (whom readers know as “Grace.”) It’s also the place where, for a little while, I most felt that I could succeed as a boy, if only I were smart and funny and fast enough.  I was all of those at Wesleyan, which in the late 70s was a place of invention and weirdness and scholarship.  It was the place where I first felt truly encouraged to be a writer.  For all of that I’m so grateful, even if, in the end, being smart and funny and fast was– instead of the thing that enabled me to stay male– made it possible at last to find the courage to make my transition.

In a bit of irony surely not lost upon me, I’m being driven to Wesleyan by my sons, themselves now college students.  Zach (Vassar College, drama major) and Sean (University of Rochester, probably Astrophysics and Mechanical Engineering double major) will throw me out the door of the Honda at Wesleyan, and they will then drive on to Maine and home, while I spend the weekend sleeping in my old freshman dorm and play (on Friday night) in the band for the all-college dance.

I am hoping we play “Terrapin Station,” an unlikely turn of events, but then stranger things have happened, especially on that campus.  If so, I’ll sing these lines:

Let my inspiration flow in token rhyme, suggesting rhythm,
That will not forsake you, till my tale is told and done.
While the firelight’s aglow, strange shadows from the flames will grow,
Till things we’ve never seen will seem familiar.

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Greetings Culture Lovers

Greetings culture lovers, as Bullwinkle the Moose’s “Mr-Know-It-All” used to say.

I apologize for letting this site languish.  As some of you know, I moved to New York to begin a spring semester as Barnard’s new Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence this spring, and between the business of my schedule (and kinda like, forgetting my password for this site) I haven’t updated a thing.

It’s been a dramatic few months for transgender Americans, as well as for me personally, and I vow to stay in better touch in months to come.

The biggest turn of events was Bruce Jenner’s coming out as trans on an ABC Special with Diane Sawyer.  I was interviewed for, and participated in, this project.   Like many trans people, I was uncertain how it would all turn out.  I admit I was a skeptic, right up until air time.  The show reached over 20 million people, however, and the reaction was overwhelmingly, amazingly positive, to my delight.  It’s true that many trans folks felt like, WE’VE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR DECADES NOW. And yet, maybe it took someone of Jenner’s celebrity and standing to get it through the heads of many people.  As GLAAD’s Sarah Kate Ellis noted, “on Saturday morning, millions of people woke up and finally KNEW someone who was trans.”

NBC announced that Jenner will have a documentary (i.e., NOT a reality show) this summer about the transition.  I am a consultant on that show.  I have promised not to reveal its contents (or any of the other stuff I know about this story-in-progress), but I can tell you that, once again, I have approached this project as a skeptic and have been won over by what appear to me like the earnestness and good intentions of all involved.   I hope that people will see whether, just like the ABC show, the summer series does indeed open hearts.

There will all sorts of other news on this front which I will comment upon as it breaks; I hope you’ll all forgive me for biting my tongue in the meantime, but I made a promise, and I intend to keep it.

Other news?  Well let’s see.  I published two op/eds in the New York Times this spring.  The first, appearing in February, regarded the question of whether the new Pope can  bring Catholics (and others) back to the church. The second tells the story of a night in a bar with a friend and some Rock’em Sock’em Robots, and the way we think about the things we have lost in life.

It was a busy spring on the lecture circuit.  I spoke at Cal State East bay on February 26; at Arkansas State on March 13; at the University of Vermont on March 27; at my new home in Barnard on April 2; provided the Keynote for the American Society of Journalist and Authors on May 1; spoke from the stage at the GLAAD media awards gala in Neew York on May 9, and was honored by the Women’s Therapy Center Institute on May 15.   The links to the ASJA speech and the GLAAD speech above take you to videos where you can actually hear and see my sad little jokes.

Brevity magazine has a gender issue up featuring work by me and Kate Bornstein and others, and you can read my piece from that right here.

That’s probably everything for now, but I promise to be better at updating this site.  I’m scheduled to continue my life of travel for another few weeks:  off to my 35th college reunion on May 22 and 23rd;  from there to my hometown of Devon, PA, right after that; back to NYC for the night of May 27, where I’m being feted along with Anna Quindlen in a tribute for Barnard College; and from there back to California for GLAAD’s May board meeting.  I’m doing a road trip in CA after that before finally arriving back in Maine about June 9 or 10, where I hope to spend a large part of this summer sitting on a fishing boat staring at the still, quiet waters.

Sending love to everyone, and with sincere thanks for your ongoing support!

Jenny B.

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READ WRITE SCREAM: How to Save Your Life

Here’s a column I wrote for the New York Times, published January 7, 2014.

THEY placed an unlit candle in my hands. Hundreds of people sat quietly in chairs. This was at the L.G.B.T. Community Center in Greenwich Village in November, at an event called the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

It happens every year, people coming together to mourn trans individuals lost to murder or suicide. As a trans woman, I wish that the one day on the calendar that recognizes transgender experience was about celebrating the successes of our diverse community, rather than counting the lives we’ve lost. But the losses go on, year after year. And so I lit that candle.

The weekend after Christmas, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn left her house in Kings Mills, Ohio, in the middle of the night. She made her way to Interstate 71, where she stepped in front of a tractor-trailer. A note she left behind on Tumblr read, in part, “Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living … because I’m transgender.”

Leelah’s conservative Christian parents were not supportive of her urgent pleas to live her life openly. “I told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids.” She added: “That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

Leelah was no mistake. The world abounds with all sorts of ways of being human, one of which is being trans. It is a tragedy that Leelah was never given the chance to be proud of who she was, and that she thought the only way to change the world was through her death.

Suicide is a constant among transgender people; we are one of the most at-risk groups in the country. One study suggests that over 40 percent of us attempt it during the course of our lives.

I was among that number. In 1986 I stood at the edge of a cliff in Nova Scotia, looking down at the Atlantic, considering the plunge into the sea below.

Then I turned back. Somehow, here I am.

Early transition is usually best for trans people. But for many of us it’s impossible, because of unsupportive families, because of a lack of resources, because we do not yet have the courage to embark upon what seems like a frightening path. In that scenario, the best strategy may simply be having faith in the future, and finding a way to survive until you’re able to control your own destiny. I don’t know if the things that helped me are of any use to someone born, as Leelah was, in 1997. But the last week has given me occasion to think back on how it was I got this far.

My own life was saved in part by books. When I found Jan Morris’s 1974 memoir, “Conundrum,” it was as if I’d found a wormhole to another universe, a galaxy where people like me could thrive. I wish I could have also given Leelah two more recent works: Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” and Kate Bornstein’s “Hello Cruel World.” They might have made a difference.

If reading provided me with solace, so did writing. Keeping a journal, telling stories, inventing worlds gave me comfort until the time came when I had the agency to make my own choices. Narrative helped me find a through-line in the chaos of my life.

There were other times, quite frankly, when simply making a lot of noise saved me, too. I pounded my family’s piano until the strings broke; I played in a band that played two songs, one of which was “Turn on Your Love Light,” and one of which was not. Making noise helped me know I existed, helped me in some inarticulate way express the pain I felt inside. There were winter nights when I shouted at the sky. Sometimes my own voice echoed back at me.

Read, Write, Scream is not exactly “Eat, Pray, Love,” but it worked for me. And there are lots of other resources available now that I did not have in the 1970s, including the hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult that leads to many stories of people who survived and thrived.

It may still be possible to fulfill at least one of Leelah’s wishes. In her note, she wrote: “My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say, ‘that’s [expletive] up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of “Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.”

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9 Ways to Save Your Life if You’re Young and Trans

Hope is the thing with feathers.

What does it say about us that a 17 year old transgender person like Leelah Alcorn would choose to jump in front of a truck rather than live her life?

Here is my list of Nine Things You Can Do if You’re Young and Trans. Maybe you have some of your own. Let’s pay this forward.  I hope we can save some lives.

1. Read. Kate Bornstein is a good place to begin. Gender Outlaw. And the anti-suicide Hello Cruel World

2. Write. Keep a journal, tell your story. Write fantasy. Narrative helps you make sense of the chaos.

3. Talk. Find people you can trust. If someone wants to “convert” you, find someone else. We exist.

4. Play a long game.Worst thing is not having your ACTUAL LIFE NOW. But you can find your way in time.

5. Make noise. Play in a band. Scream. Don’t keep it inside. Express yourself any way you can.

6. If you can stand it, your homework. Education can be your get out of jail card.

7. Know you are not alone.There are tens of thousands of us & we’re a rising force. You have family.

8. Have faith if you want faith.  Not every denomination is hostile.  If you are Christian, know that UCC, Universalist/Unitarians, Quakers, and many others are open and affirming.  Find your people.

9. If you are in crisis, call this number: a Trans suicide hotline. (877-565-8860)

These are my suggestions.  What are yours?

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2014: The Year in Boylan

You'd want some coffee too if you did all this junk

This was kind of an exhausting year.  Good shit, though.   I know that a lot of people wonder what it is I actually do, besides teaching college.  Here’s a list for the last 12 months.  Get out yr hankies.

Links to all the short pieces can be found here.

Nonfiction books: Random House & Oxford University Press

Trans Bodies/Trans Selves. Laura Erickson-Schroth, ed. (introduction by Jennifer Finney Boylan)   (June 2014).  Oxford University Press.

Stuck in the Middle with You: Parenthood in Two Genders. May 2013. Crown/Broadway, division of Random House, Inc. (memoir, plus interviews on parenthood and childhood with Richard Russo, Augusten Burroughs, Edward Albee, Anne Beattie, Susan Minot, Trey Ellis and others.) Paperback April 2014.

She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders, May 2013. Revised and expanded 10th anniversary edition of 2003 memoir, with new epilogue by Deirdre Boylan and new foreword and afterword by Jennifer Boylan. Afterward by Richard Russo. 2013 Crown/Broadway, division of Random House, Inc.

Fiction, novella:

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About. A novella. June 2014.  She-books, Inc.

Anthologized work in Hardcover:

Brief Encounters: Norton Anthology of Short Nonfiction. W.W, Norton, Inc. (forthcoming 2015). (contains essay by JB, “Why the Long Face?”)

You are You (forthcoming 2015) Photo-documentary on camp for gender nonconforming youth. Wrote introduction, “Earning My Feathers.”

Come Here Often: 51 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar. Black Balloon Publishing.  September 2014 (contains story/essay by JB, “The Beagle.”)

Spent: Exposing our Complicated Relationship with Shopping, SEAL Press. September 2014.  (contains JB essay, “The One That Got Away.” )

Letters to My Sisters, Transgress Press.  May 2014. Contains one JB “letter” to young transgender women.

Greenwich Village Stories, Universe Press, April 2014.  Contains JFB tale of arriving in New York, November 2, 1980.

Essays and Op/eds for the New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Huffington Post.

“My Christmas Visitors,” December 24, 2014  op/ed, New York Times.

Mystery Train,” December 17, 2014.  Salon

Knitting Backward,” October 18, 2014.  New York Times.

Having a Transgender Parent Helped My Sons Become Better Men.” September 25, 2014.  The Advocate.

Sturm und Drang,”  September 14, 2014.  Washington Post

“Pizza and Parenthood,” op/ed, New York Times, August 27, 2014

“My Life in Bicycles,” op/ed, New York Times, Aug. 17, 2014.

“Trans Community Can Change Minds by Changing Discourse,” op/ed, Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2014.

“Five Things Not to Say to a Transgender Person (and Three Things You Should)” Huffington Post, July 21, 2014.

I Had a Boyhood, Once,” op/ed, New York Times, July 20, 2014.

Home is Where the Horses Are,” op/ed, New York Times, May 28, 2014.

When Music Was Strange,” op/ed, New York Times, May 10, 2014

A Common Core for All of Us,” op/ed, New York Times, March 22, 2014.

“Save us from the SAT,” op/ed, New York Times, March 7, 2014

“Transgender, Schlumpy, & Human,” op/ed, New York Times Feb. 16, 2014.

“The Beatles, JFK, Even Julia Child. HELP!”  feature, Washington Post, Feb. 7. 2014

Broadcast Media:

Television:

“Transgender Civil Rights,” piece for CBS News’ anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Advisor, Transparent, Amazon series episodes 101-109, January 2014.

Radio:

Fresh Air, with Terry Gross, NPR. interview with JFB and others about book, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.  7/17/14

The Takeaway, NPR, interview with JFB about trans advocacy and progress, 4/23/14

Miscellaneous

Invited Guest: East Room, White House, as President Obama signed Executive Order Expanding Protections to LGBT Employees of the Federal Government.

Amtrak Writer-in-Residence. Travelled 8000+ miles, from Maine to Boston to San Francisco; from SF to Seattle; from Seattle to Chicago and home to Maine. Wrote about it for SALON.

Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence, Barnard College of Columbia University.  Left Colby College after 25 years and began this new appointment in Barnard English.

Keynotes and Plenary Sessions:

Commencement Address, Kents Hill School, Kents Hill, ME 5/24/14

Address to New York District Attorney’s Office, 11/20/14

Address to Barnard College Trustees, New York, NY 12/10/14

Readings and Lectures:

Reading, First Year Experience (FYE) Conference, San Diego, CA 2/15-17/14.

Reading, Bowdoin College, Brunswick ME 2/24/14

Reading, Muhlenberg College, Allentown PA 3/24/14

Reading, Indiana University East, Richmond IN  3/26/14

Reading, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY 4/3/14

Guest professor, Sexuality Class, University of Maine, 4/24/14

Reading, World Voices Festival, PEN, New York, NY 5/2/14

Reading with Augusten Burroughs, Strand Bookstore, New York, NY, 5/8/14

Reading, Edith Wharton House, “The Mount,” Lenox, MA 8/29/14

Panel, Canyon Ranch, Lenox MA 8/30/14

Reading, Poly Prep, Brooklyn, NY  9/9/14

Reading, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie NY  9/18/14

Reading, Milton Academy, Milton, MA 10/1/14

Reading, Mt. Holyoke, South Hadley, MA 10/2/14

Reading, SUNY Canton, NY 10/16/14

Reading, Boston Book Festival, Boston MA  10/25-14

GLAAD and the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, & Reproduction

Board of Directors Meeting, GLAAD, New York, February 7 & 8, 2014.

Media Awards Gala, GLAAD, Los Angeles, April 12, 2014.

Media Awards Gala, GLAAD, New York, NY  May 3, 2014

Board of Directors Meeting, GLAAD, Los Angeles, May 30 & 31, 2014

Game Changers Gala, GLAAD, San Francisco, September 13, 2014

Board of Directors Meeting, GLAAD, Atlanta, GA October 10 & 11, 2014.

Board of Trustees Meeting, Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, IN November 2 & 3, 2014

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  • The Boylan Family, summer 2010

    DSC_0063 "You hang around our family, you learn all kinds of stuff."
  • Will Forte as Jennifer Finney Boylan on “Saturday Night Live”

    WiFo-Jennifer Finney Boylan-1
  • Jenny with Barbara Walters, December, 2008

    wawa
  • Jenny atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin

    2036947979_34bfbec240 August, 2002.
  • Surrounded

    boylanWith President Clinton and Maine's Governor John Baldacci, fall 2006.
  • JFB and Edward Albee

    edward_albee_by_fred_j_field-150x150

    Edward had been my teacher at Johns Hopkins in the winter of 1986. He visited Colby in fall, 2007. As we took our leave of each other, he kissed me on both cheeks and said, "We have done well. You and I."

  • Jenny and her teacher, the great John Barth

    Boylan_Barth

    Jack was my professor at JHU when I did my thesis, back in the day. After many years, I can now confidently say I finally understand his definition of plot. Which is, of course, "the perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium."