The Week I Ruled the World

What a strange and wonderful week!  I had something of a media quinella these last seven days, and while the usual internet boast-o-rama makes me cringe more than a little, it’s all stuff I’m proud of, so I wanted to put up some links and shine a spotlight on some of this work in case you, as my very loyal readers, might be interested.

On Thursday, July 17, I was a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The occasion was the publication of the new TRANS BODIES TRANS SELVES, and I shared the microphone with editor Laura Erickson-Schroth and contributor Aidan Key. You can hear the interview here, or purchase the book here, for which I wrote a very charming introduction that talks about, among other things, my adventures at a ventriloquist convention.

I spent a lot of last week at the wonderful Maine International Film Festival. I saw a dozen movies in six days.  The festival’s over for the year, but if you’re in Maine in mid-July, you should mark your calendars now.  It’s breathtaking.

That brings us to Monday July 21st.  The day began with the New York Times running an op/ed I’d written about some of the films at the film festival, and two in particular– Linklater’s “Boyhood,” and Malick’s “Better Angels” got me thinking about summer days when I was a child.  Linklater’s film shows 12 years in the life of a real young man, and Better Angels is about 8 year old Abe Lincoln.  It made me think about my own strange boyhood– and that of my son, Sean, who, as I wrote the essay, was outside in the July sunshine riding a unicycle while listening to headphones.  You can read my op/ed here.

On the same day, Huffington Post ran a story I’d written for them entitled “Five Things Not to Say to a Transgender Person (and 3 Things You Should).  I wrote this a little begrudgingly at first, restless about the form of the “listicle”.  And yet, I’m happy with the result.  Judging from my Twitter account, the HuffPo piece got to more readers than the NYT opinion piece, which says something I guess.  You can read the HuffPo piece here.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, July 21, 2014. East Room, White House

Finally, and most importantly, I got a phone call over the weekend asking me if I’d like to be on hand in the East Room of the White House as the President signed into law the executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT employees in the federal government, and specifically extending those protections, for the first time, to transgender people.  It was breathtaking.  I had to go through many security checks, including a special author-sniffin’ dog, before finally finding my seat dead center, three aisles back from the podium.  And then President Obama entered the room, and we all stood up and cheered. You can read the  text of his entire speech here. It was an amazing day, and an incredible end to an amazing week.

Not every week of my life is like this, thank goodness, but I’m grateful for this one.

Best of all, by sunset I was back in my house in Maine with my wife and son and dogs, and we put our feet up and talked about all our adventures, including the ones to come.

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An excerpt from JFB’s new novella, I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT.

Announcing a new short novel from me entitled I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT, my first fiction for adult readers with a trans character.  It’s an ebook only, from the new enterprise called SHEBOOKS, which offers short works by women, for women.  I’m thrilled about the project. Here’s a link where you can purchase access to Shebooks– the subscriptions about $4, and my book is an additional $2.95.

And here is the way the thing begins:

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About

© 2014 Jennifer Finney Boylan

They were headed south in a beat-up minivan.  Riley was behind the wheel.  The Doors were on the radio.  The killer awoke before dawn.  He put his boots on. Riley’s mother in law, sitting in the passenger seat, rolled her eyes.

“What is this,” said Alex, his daughter. Formerly she had been his son.  “The music you’d listen to before swallowing Windex?”

“It’s a classic,” said Riley, quietly.  “This Is The End.”

“I don’t like classics,” said six-year old Otis, from the way back.  He had the sheet music for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” in his lap.

“Fine,” said Riley, and switched off the music.   His duffle bag contained a copy of Heritage Trail:  100 Sites of American Freedom, East Coast and a canister of Celexa, which was an anti-depressant also helpful in anger management.  There was a doctor’s order for the chemo, which he had not yet filled.

In her purse, Mrs. Leary–known as Gammie–carried photographs of her daughter and grandchildren, none of them taken more recently than five years ago.  The handbag also held her health-care card from Blue Cross, fifty dollars, all in fives, and two different lipsticks-one red, one rose.  There was a canister of Lopressor, a type of beta-blocker used to reduce high blood pressure.   Mrs. Leary did not have a driver’s license, or a debit card, or a cell phone, or a photograph of her late husband, Finbar.

Otis’s backpack contained t-shirts and shorts and a LEGO Bionicles figure named Mata Nui.  Flung out of his own universe, Mata Nui finds himself on the desert world of Bara Magna. He had also packed two of Mata Nui’s weapons, the Thomax Launcher and the Nynrah Ghost Blaster.  There was a pair of well-worn Harry Potter pajamas, by now a size too small and with holes in the knees, but with which he was not yet ready to part. The pajamas were wrapped around a soft plush toy called Hello Kitty!  In a side pocket was a book entitled Ten Boys Who Used Their Talents. In a translucent amber canister was a supply of an anti-anxiety medication called fluvoxamine, or Luvox.   Next to the Luvox was a stuffed Pokemon named Pikachu. I choose you, Pikachu!

In Alex’s suitcase were fishnet stockings, two different pairs of black stilettos,  a black pencil skirt, a shimmering blue Spandex halter top, gold hoop earrings, a pair of size six Gap jeans,  and a miniskirt from Banana Republic.  There was a bottle of Spironolactone, a diuretic that also acted as an anti-androgen, and another one of Premarin, a form of conjugated estrogen.  Alex’s journal, a small leather book with crisp white pages,  lay atop her lingerie, along with a Schaeffer cartridge fountain pen filled with ink of peacock blue.

They passed a large brick building, in front of which a dozen men and women in cook’s uniforms were smoking cigarettes.  It was odd to see so many chefs gathered in one spot.

“What happened?”  the grandmother muttered.  “Somebody spoiled the broth?”

Riley turned the mini van down High Street and drove through the heart of Wesleyan University. Son of a bitch, Riley thought.  Same as it ever was, except for the absence of students, which wasn’t a surprise, since it was June. Beyond a row of brownstone buildings to their right was a baseball diamond and a rolling green hill with an observatory at the crest.  The campus had the clean, Hollywood-perfect look of a New England college in early summer

The Sienna was equipped with a talking GPS device nicknamed Captain Kirk.  “Prepare to arrive at your destination,” said the Captain…

[to read the full novella, exclusively available from Shebooks, click right here.]

[N.B. Heavy demand has made the app a little slow and balky at times this last week-- hang in there; it really will work if you're patient.  Hope you enjoy! --JFB]

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So I have a new story out, now available exclusively from Shebooks, the new e-book service promoting work for women, by women.


It’s about a family from Maine–the Rileys– taking a road trip to Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, DC, where they hope to see their young son play the violin on stage, as part of a “Young Prodigies” series. Also in the car– and possibly of more interest to my longtime readers– the Riley’s trans daughter, who is on the verge of stepping out into the world as a woman.

It’s the first time I’ve written a work of fiction for adults with a trans character, and with a trans theme. But my readers will recognize this family, and the work’s central themes– family, gender, and the quest for authenticity. I hope you’ll download the book, which you can do by clicking this link. You’ll have to subscribe to Shebooks, which is a really minimal cost, less than the cost of a hardcover book, and which will give you access to SHEBOOKS’ whole corral of amazing women writers.

Here’s an interview I did in May about the book:

What prompted you to write this piece?
I actually wrote this specifically for Shebooks. My sons had both gone on what they call the “Heritage Tour” in Maine, a rite of passage for middle schoolers, who travel around the east coast seeing things like the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Statue of Liberty. I thought a road trip of a troubled but loving family, bound together by stops at those “sites of American Freedom,” as they’re called, would be interesting. And of course lead to complete bedlam.

Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?
Well, I’m know for writing about gender—men and women, and the choices of transgender people in particular. There’s a trans teenager girl in this family, formerly their son, whose journey I think provides a good measure of where we are, as a country, on acceptance of gender variant young people.

That said, “Alex” is not me—she is much more courageous, sarcastic, and adventurous than I was, or would have been, I had been in her shoes when I was sixteen.

Which gives me the opportunity to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you walk around in his heels.”

How do you think your gender/racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

Well, gender informs all of my writing. When I was a man, I wrote fiction. As a woman, I write non-fiction. I am hopeful that some grad student is already at work analyzing the mind-numbing profundity of that.

Is there such a thing as “women’s writing?” Do you hate the term “chicklit” or think we should embrace it, like the term “gay”?
I think there is such a thing as feminine writing, and by this I mean less a particular style than a focus on women’s lives in narrative. But women aren’t the only ones writing it.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?
I’ve certainly faced lots of struggle as a trans writer. There’s a particular skepticism some critics bring to trans writer’s lives and work; we have to defend and explain our gender a lot of the time. I think this is changing, but it’s been hard. I wonder sometimes if people will ever read my work for the story, rather than for the fact that a trans woman wrote it. But then, if I wanted that, I could try to keep my mouth shut for once. Like that’s going to happen.

When did you first decide you were a writer?
It was a very early dream. As early as fifth grade I remember amazing and disgusting my peers with the story of a car race through my teacher’s body: These were really tiny, almost microscopic cars, of course. The race began in my teacher’s mouth. You can imagine where we came out. Her name was Mrs. Fineli. She was not an early fan of my oeuvre.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?
Like a lot of writers, I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?
Well, writing about changing genders was almost as scary as doing it. I can say, however, that nothing taught me so much about a woman’s life as writing. It’s through telling our stories that our lives begin to make sense.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
Write every day, including Christmas and New Years. When you’re just staring, quantity is a lot more important than quality. Then go back and revise. What’s that Hemingway advice—“Fail. Then fail better.”

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
As a memoirist, upsetting people is what Tiggers do best. I don’t like to upset people of course, but I’m pretty fearless in terms of what I write about—as a trans woman I have to be. I think it was Annie Lamott who said something like, “I’m sorry if you didn’t like what I wrote, but maybe you should have been nicer to me.”

Is there anything that you consider *too* personal to write about? How do you find that edge?
I’ll write about anything, if there’s a good story in it. I think writers have to be fearless. The story is what matters.

How do you define “truth” in memoir?
I believe that the “hybrid” form of memoir is its strength, not its weakness. I say this with the caveat that the writer has to include an author’s note explaining her method. You can’t just make up any damned thing you like; but you have to shape the narrative, and that can mean compressing the timeline, disguising people to avoid hurting them as well as to prevent yourself form getting sued; shaping the narrative so it works as “story.” And you admit to your reader exactly what you’ve done so no one feels bamboozled. Memoirists ought to get out of the habit of apologizing for all this—it’s what we’re supposed to do. As Frank McCourt said, “If you want realism, read the phone book.”

How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?
These are all real places—the Liberty Bell pavilion; the Gettysburg battlefield; Fords Theatre. If you live on the east coast and have middle school age children or teenagers, you’ve probably been there. And wished you were elsewhere.

Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?
If you know your characters, you have to follow them where they take you. And if they take you to a place you don’t know, you do the research—you go there and take notes. When you get home, you throw the notes away and just make the whole thing up.

What motivated you personally to do the reporting for this piece?
I have worked as a journalist, but recently the only reporting I do is for the op/eds of mine that appear in the New York Times. When I was young, I used to just make up quotes for magainze stories and attribute them “according to someone that would know.” Needless to say, my stories were always very entertaining.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?
Starting this summer, I leave my job as Professor of English at Colby College, where I’ve been for 25 years, and take up a new position as Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University in Manhattan.
When I was young, I worked in a bookstore in New York City. I sat at a desk beneath a sign that said, ASK ME ANYTHING. People would ask me all sorts of things. Usually I didn’t know the answer, so I’d make something up. Good training for a fiction writer. One time someone walked up to me and just asked, apropos of nothing, “Excuse me, where are all the santa claus suits?”

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
I play the autoharp, Appalachian style. I’m pretty damned great at it. I also know a whole lot about the Gemini Project, which was the one before the Apollo program.

What is your favorite word right now?
Muslin. Just saying it gives me shivers. Flibbertigibbet is a very useful word also. I use it to describe my three most defining characteristics as a writer: A flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown.

What or who inspires you most?
I always loved the work of James Thurber. If you want to go back further, I’m haunted by the poems of John Keats. Whose heart ached, and a drowsy numbness pained his sense.

Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?
I was a member of a club, but it quickly became a once a week drunk fest for the local moms that I knew. As I understand, this is not an unusual failure mode for book clubs. There was a whole lot of tequila, and not much Oprah.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?
Yes, I have an iPad, on which I use both the iBooks function as well as the Kindle app. I just finished Charles Baxters The Soul Thief. I read on my device after dinner each night, for several hours before bed. It’s the best time to read, when you are already halfway into the realm of the unconscious.

Who are some of your favorite authors?
My two current favorites are also fairly predictable:, the stories of George Saunders, and the novels of Jennifer Egan. I’m also influenced by some of the 20th century metafictionists—Borges, Calvino, Barth, Vonnegut.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’ve started a new novel, I have a new nonfiction book about the differences between men and women, and for young adults I’m working on Falcon Quinn three.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?
I play piano in a crappy rock ‘n roll band. We are called The Stragglers, and the name is accurate. All of us have been thrown out of other bands. The fundamental rule about The Stragglers is that you can’t be thrown out of it. This should give you some sense of our talent.

Do you have a quote, mantra or thought that you’d like to end with?
From Huck Finn: “Blamed if she wasn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see. Then the duke took and wrote out on a shingle so: ‘Sick Arab. But harmless when not out of her head.’”


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“When Music Was Strange”: JFB column in NYT


Jennifer Finney Boylan

In the age of the Internet, where do new ideas come from?

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — IN 1975 it was my friend Daryl — one of the very few African-American students in my mostly white prep school — who was the champion of the new. “Boylan,” he said one day after school. “You have to check this out.” Then he put Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” on the turntable.

The album had been out for a few years and was already big — though not in the strait-laced neighborhood I grew up in. I wrinkled my nose as the crazy jazz fusion filled the room. It wasn’t exactly “On Green Dolphin Street” or “Milestones.” It sounded strange, a little atonal. I said as much.

“People don’t know what they like,” Daryl noted. “They only like what they know.”

I recently had occasion to remember this exchange when I picked my 18-year-old son up at the airport and we drove home listening to songs on his iPod, wired up through the Honda’s sound system. He played music by artists like Sufjan Stevens, Streetlight Manifesto and Murder by Death.

As we listened to this music, we talked about it. My son and I got into a particularly rigorous discussion of Mr. Stevens’s song “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders,” which sounded, to our ears, like it consisted of sections written in 11/4 (or 11 beats per measure) that then alternate with sections written in 5/4. I compared this to the Grateful Dead’s “The Eleven,” in which a section in sixes gives way to 11/4. My son gave me a patient, long-suffering look as I spoke all excitedly about the “Live Dead” album, recorded 27 years before he was born.

I was grateful to him for introducing me to songs that shocked me with their unconventionality and thoughtfulness. It made me wonder why

(read the rest of the piece at the NY Times site)

You can see all of Jenny’s New York Times op/ed columns at their JFB Contributing Opinion Writer page

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JFB live, reading “In The Early Morning Rain,” a story from SHE’S NOT THERE

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On “Lost Loves”

Obsession: Jennifer Boylan on Lost Loves
Thursday, May 1 at 9 PM
At Chez Andre in the Standard Hotel (5th St at Bowery)

It must be awkward for renowned memoirist Jennifer Boylan to talk about memories she doesn’t mean to summon. Memories of lost loves – girls from her youth – that invade her thoughts and wake her in the night. But that’s exactly what the bestselling author and LGBT activist and will be doing at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. Tomorrow night, in the cool and casual bar below The Standard Hotel, Boylan will take the stage to address her obsession – with a series of new writing (and songs?!) – about the two specific girls, who she dated, back when she was not only young, but still a young man. Handpicked by sex-advice guru Dan Savage to participate in this year’s Obsession series, Boylan, who rocketed to literary stardom in 2003 with her autobiography She’s Not There: A Life In Two Genders, sat down, recently, to discuss the upcoming event with Brightest Young Things’ Ian Allen

Q: Tell me about your Obsession? Why did you choose it?

A: So, there are two people that I went out with in my teens and twenties who I frequently dream about. And they are not necessarily the people who I necessarily had the longest relationships with. They’re not the people who I had the most profound relationships with. Neither of them are people who I’ve seen in – oh over twenty years, I think – and yet here are these two women, whom I adored when I was a man. And I often wonder – I’ll wake up from a dream – and wonder, Why am I thinking about her? Why is she still… – it’s like she’s stalking me. … So the piece that I’m doing – there are monologues, about these two women. There are songs that I’m singing. I think I’ll be playing the autoharp. (laughs) Because I clear the room if I can. It’s kind of a writer’s attempt at a philosophical inquiry into lost love and why we hang on to the memories of a relationship. Even when the relationship itself is, at this point, an historical artifact.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about them? I assume you’ll be giving out their names and numbers at the event…

A: (laughs) Yeah, I’m giving them both pseudonyms. One of them is a girl I went out with in high school – one of the first great crushes that I had. I call her Willow in the piece. I’m calling the other girl Donna. We dated when I was about 20. I met her in London when I was a student there – and I continued to see her when we came back to the states – into my senior year. … There is a tension between the universal nature of thinking nostalgically about some of the people we loved when we were young – and also a very specific aspect of that inquiry when you’re a transgendered woman like me. So, that part of it is not universal. But there is something about young love that is very specific.  When you’re young, you’re in the process of becoming whoever you are. So I think we look to people we are in love with when we are young – as part of the process of becoming ourselves. If you’re in your 50s, like I am – if I began a new relationship with somebody, I think I would essentially continue to be myself. I would be recognizably myself. Whereas if you’re 17 or 25, there is a sense that the relationships you have are formative, are part of the process of inventing yourself. So I think that maybe that is the thing that haunts me – that these young relationships were wonderful, not only because of the goofy moon-eyed state you get into when you’re a young person in love, but that part of the mystery of who you are is being revealed through that process. And so, as a transgendered woman, back then, when I was a boy, I was really struggling with, well with everything in a way, and I think my theory was that if I were only loved deeply enough, or if I were able to love someone else deeply enough, it would make me content to stay a boy. It would make me someone better. It would get me out of myself. And I think that is a fairly universal hope. Even though it turns out not to be true. We all have, at times in our lives, the false hope that falling in love with someone will make us into someone better. (laughs) At least it did for me. But in the end, I think people are who they are. And no one is transformed by love. At least, not in that way. For me, what finally did happen is that when I did fall in love and get married, falling in love was not the thing that made it possible for me to stay a man. Falling in love was the thing that made me have faith enough that I finally could come out and become a woman. So love did save me. But not in the way I expected.

Q: There’s an old joke that any story you tell more than three times becomes a fiction. If that’s true, how do you reconcile those kinds of fictions?

A: I don’t necessarily agree with that. As a writer of both memoir and of fiction, I’m aware that there is a line you cross. I don’t think it’s as clear as anyone would like it to be. But I think I’m perfectly capable of telling a true story more than three times. (laughs) There’s that old John Ford thing from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – When the myth becomes a legend, print the legend. But, one of the ways people make sense of their lives is by telling stories. The stuff of life is a complete cacophony – baby diapers, the Russian army, a Gatorade, and the poetry of John Keats. Things happen to us every day that don’t seem connected. The way we make sense of our lives is by seeing the narrative of our lives. And telling stories of our lives is a way of imposing order in our lives. The facts of a story are true no matter how many times you tell them. But the narrative changes depending on how you remember things.

Q: It sounds like the memories of these two women are sticking around without, you know, asking your permission.

A: In some ways it’s very embarrassing for me. I’m 55 years old. I’ve been a woman for at least 12 years. I’m very happily married. I have two nearly grown sons. I wake up from a dream and I’m thinking about a girl that I went out with when I was 20. I don’t think I’ve seen her since I was 21. So, it’s more than half a lifetime ago. So, what do they want from me? Or, what do I want from them? I googled Willow the other day and found a photograph of her, nearly unrecognizable from the girl I went out with when we were 17, but there she was. … I think part of it is about the permanence or impermanence of identity. If you think about who you were when you were 17, or when you were 5, obviously you are not the same person that you were then, you are transformed in nearly every way. Except that you are still the same person. You have those memories. There’s an old joke about the New England farmer who says, This is a great shovel I have, it’s going to last forever, I’ve replaced the blade three times and the handle four times. So, on one level you think, It’s a great shovel. On the other hand, we’re all like that. Our bodies change as we get older. Telling stories is how we make sense of it.

Q: Do you think bad experiences stick with us longer?

A: (laughs) Oh I’m sure. I think stories that are unsettling stay with us longer than stories that make perfect sense. You can only read a Sherlock Holmes story a second time, for pleasure, if you have no memory. Because you alreay know the solution. So, unless you are the type of person who just forgets how mysteries work out, you lose the pleasure in those stories. Not to sound too pretentious, but, life is like a mystery that we are solving. And it’s the mysteries that we can’t quite solve – those are the ones we want to keep reading again and again. Maybe that’s why, in my dreams, I keep coming back to these women – maybe there are clues that I’ve missed.

Q: So what do you think is the purpose of these stories?

A: Maybe it’s like your younger self is passing a torch to your older self. Reminding you that, Yes, when you were 20, you stayed up all night long with a girl, walking through the streets of London, as the fog rose up around your ankles from the cobblestones, and the bells of a church chimed and it was like you were some mythical angelic being. That’s a pretty cool experience to have had. And, maybe my young self wants to remind my older self that life is capable of exactly that kind of fire.

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Thirty Seconds over Manhattan

Greetings, culture Lovers (as Mr. Know-it-All used to say).  Three separate events for me in NYC in the next two weeks, and an opportunity for you to hear new work from me, take in a reading, and/or if you’re adventurous, join me for dinner.

Event the First: At Chez Andre, in the Standard Hotel, at 9 PM May 1, you can hear me perform a new piece, Lost Loves. This piece consists of a couple of intertwined stories, along with some songs I’ll sing and play.  It’s part of PEN’s World Voices Festival, and is in the “Obsession” Series.  If you’re interested in attending, you can buy a ticket here.

Two nights later, you can join me and author Richard Russo at the GLAAD Media Awards gala at the Waldorf-Astoria.   This is GLAAD’s 25th anniversary, and the night will be full of celebrities and surprises, including a tribute to my own nerd-god, George Takei.   You can buy a ticket and sit at our table right here– make sure you select “Jenny Boylan” as your table host.  It’s not a cheap date, but it’s a good cause.

Finally, on Thursday May 8, join me at the Strand Bookstore at 828 Broadway, at 7 PM, for a reading with me and my friend Augusten Burroughs.  We will each give short readings and then have a conversation– about memoir, about writing, about parents and children.  This reading celebrates the publication in paperback of my memoir STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU, which concerns the differences between motherhood and fatherhood.  ”Having a father who became a woman,” I write, “helped my two remarkable sons, in turn, to become better men.”

You can own a paperback copy of Stuck by purchasing it at any bookstore; if you want to, you can buy it right here from Indiebound, or Amazon.

So:  LOTS going on!  I hope you’ll join me May 1, May 3, or May 8, in Gotham City.  I hope to be stuck in the middle– with you.

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JFB reading with Augusten Burroughs at STRAND Bookshop, NYC, May 8.

Here’s a quick note announcing a reading with me and Augusten Burroughs at the Strand Bookshop in Manhattan on May 8.  I hope if you’re in the city you’ll be willing to join us.  Afterward, there will be arm-wrestling.

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What a Drag: A Few Words About RuPaul and Trans Representation in Media

I wanted to write a few words about RuPaul’s Drag Race, and GLAAD’s pushback against the defamatory language used on that program last week.

I write here not in my official capacity as GLAAD’s co-chair of the board, but as an individual.

First off, I want to thank all of you for the support you have shown me as this story has developed.  The encouragement you showed me made a big difference.

Looking at the statement released by the show’s production company today, as well as the one from the LOGO network, I feel there are reasons to celebrate, as well as things that disappoint me.  In any case, there is plenty of work still lying ahead.

I can say that I see today’s statements as a beginning of what I hope is a long process. Quite frankly, it had better be.

That RuPaul and company say that they are “newly sensitized” to the complexity of trans peoples’ lives is pleasant.  I am hoping we’ll see more evidence of this as we move forward.

But this statement  did seem to me to be something of a non-apology, and that leaves me dispirited.  “Newly sensitized” is great— but you had to not be listening very hard to trans women in the first place to have produced a segment like this and been blind to the way it would be received.

The discourse around trans lives has, in many ways, moved on past RuPaul and this show.  I can say this even while celebrating the energy in drag that so many of us applaud.

But trans women’s noble, complex, difficult, joyous lives should not be confused with the lives of drag performers, and this simple fact seems to elude many of the folks behind this program.  This gruesome episode represented a real tipping point for lots of trans people,  who have grown weary of their lives being reduced to a cartoon.

A stronger statement was what I had hoped for, and, given the very long time it seemed to take to deliver this statement, seemed rather anemic to me.

A thing that’s very positive, though, is that trans people’s voices were at least heard here, even if the results were not as dramatic as we had wished.  It was the pressure that trans people exerted since that execrable segment aired that got LOGO’s attention, not to mention the pressure that GLAAD kept on them.

GLAAD’s work began the day after the show first aired.  We chose to conduct this work out of the public eye, in hopes of producing results.  We do that all the time; being quiet while we allow our staff to do the work has been very successful for us in the past.

I’m cheered by the statement LOGO made that they will be airing stories, in the future, that shows the complexities of all kinds of trans peoples’ lives.  I look forward to seeing those shows.

More important to me is a commitment LOGO made that is not reflected in their public statement—- that they are not going to using the word “t——“ on any of their programming again, going forward.  It will be GLAAD’s responsibility to hold them to their word.

They’ve also committed to putting an end to other anti-trans language on thier network.

So those things feel like wins to me.  The wan official statements are discouraging;  I am hoping that what we’ll see from here on out shows that LOGO did hear trans peoples voices, as amplified by GLAAD, this last week.

This is, to coin a phrase, not your father’s GLAAD, and this is not the work that was being done a decade ago.  One reason why I think we’ve been able to make a little progress is that GLAAD is now largely run by trans people.  We occupy positions from staff to volunteers to the board of directors, including its national co-chair, which is me.  These are our lives we are talking about; the people demeaned by incidents like this one are the men and women who work here.  And other cis staff members have been working for trans rights for years and years now.  I am proud of the board and staff for their passion.

You can learn about just some of the highlights of GLAAD’s work on trans media representations here , and on our blog here .

So like I said, it’s a mixed bag for me, especially after all the many, many hours of work— but in the end the most important thing is this:  This marks a beginning, not an end.

Thanks to everyone.  I promise to keep the pressure on, and to keep working for the goals we all share.   For me, this is personal.


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Save us from the SAT!

My New York Times column for 3/7/14.

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — I WAS in trouble. The first few analogies were pretty straightforward — along the lines of “leopard is to spotted as zebra is to striped” — but now I was in the tall weeds of nuance. Kangaroo is to marsupial as the giant squid is to — I don’t know, maybe D) cephalopod? I looked up for a second at the back of the head of the girl in front of me. She had done this amazing thing with her hair, sort of like a French braid. I wondered if I could do that with my hair.

I daydreamed for a while, thinking about the architecture of braids. When I remembered that I was wasting precious time deep in the heart of the SAT, I swore quietly to myself. French braids weren’t going to get me into Wesleyan. Although, in the years since I took the test in the mid-’70s, I’ve sometimes wondered if knowing how to braid hair was actually of more practical use to me as an English major than the quadratic equation. But enough of that. Back to the analogies. Loquacious is to mordant as lachrymose is to … uh …

This was the moment I saw the terrible thing I had done, the SAT equivalent of the Hindenburg disaster. I’d accidentally…(click here to read the full piece on the NYT site).

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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

  • 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 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


    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."