X-Men, Giant Rabbits, and Heartache: JFB tells stories

Here’s the workshop I gave the morning after the GLAD awards, 10/17/15.  I tell my well-known story, “Early Morning Rain,” try out a new one, “The Catastrophic Restoration,” and answer a LOT of questions.  When the deaf woman in the front row gets up to show us all how to sign “transgender,” my heart exploded.

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Doubles and X-Men: A Few Words Upon Receiving the “Spirit of Justice” award from GLAD

On October 16, 2015, I received the “Spirit of Justice” award from the Boston-based LGBT legal advocacy group, GLAD (not to be confused with GLAAD, the media advocacy group which I serve as a Board member).  While the actual speech I delivered upon this occasion, at the Copley Place Marriott, involved much more ad-libbing and improvisation, the text below gives you the basic idea.  

Thank you GLAD. I am so grateful to you for this honor, which is surely one of the nicest things anybody has ever done for me.

CLLLuh6WEAIKSTRA big shout out to the many friends of mine who have come to be on hand tonight— my colleagues from Barnard College; from Colby College;  my cousin MJ, my friends Rick and Kenny, and of course, my family at GLAAD with two A’s, or as we say in the movement, GLA-AD, or, if you prefer, ‘Dutch GLAAD.’”

It’s a particular honor to receive this award from GLAD with one A, which since 1978 has been committed to full equality under the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and people living with HIV/AIDS.   I may be your honoree tonight, but you are the ones who have helped bring honor, and dignity to my life through th work you do.  It was GLAD, in particular, that pushed back against the legislation in my home state of Maine in 2007 that would have removed transgender people from the category of individuals protected under Maine’s Human Rights Act.  Thanks to the work of Jennifer Levi, and all of you at GLAD, the Maine Legislature, after some consideration, decided that, as it turns out, people like me were human after all.

Boy, talk about a relief.

Given that I’m the co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD with two A’s, and that I’m receiving this amazing honor from GLAD with one A, there have been no shortage of opportunities recently to make light of the fact that our two LGBT nonprofits are often mistaken for one another.  Which, in some way is frustrating, I know: One-A GLAD’s legal work is a very different route to full equality than Two-A GLAAD’s focus on accellerating acceptance through the media.  And yet we are, each in our different ways, involved in the same work,  trying to bring about a world in which all of us are free to live the lives we love, in a world in which our stories are told with dignity and accuracy, and in which we all enjoy equal protection under the law. 12079200_10206772559888662_5004735595408748632_n

There are a lot of ways to try to make this dream a reality, and I’m grateful, in fact, to all of the nonprofits engaged in the work.  But GLAD (with one A) and GLAAD (with two A’s) find each other particularly linked, and not least because we are so often mistaken for each other.  We are, if you’ll forgive the phrase, nonprofit doppelgangers, the LGBT version of twins separated at birth.  Sometimes this is a little awkward, like last year when one of my potential donors happily told me that he’d sent off a huge check to support GLA-AD, and then noted, “Funny thing— I never knew you all were headquartered in Boston!”   Yeah, funny thing.

But most of the time, I don’t mind GLA-AD being mistaken for GLAD, in the same way that I don’t mind being mistaken, now and again, for a celebrity who is much more attractive than I am.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a doppelganger, or someone whom everyone thinks is you, but I have.  And I can tell you that the experience is very different depending on whether the person everyone thinks you look like is someone whom you admire.  Or the opposite.  When  double-A GLAAD had a board meeting in London two weeks ago, there was one night when I had to give a speech, and someone in the audience later said to me, I was so excited when you walked out! I thought you were Meryl Streep.

And of course, I got home that night and looked into the mirror and thought,  well, hello Meryl. 

On the other hand, my mother used to always say, You know who you look like now, Jenny? Ann Coulter?  She used that, in fact, as her last ditch attempt to get me to cut my hair.  “I don’t mind you being a woman,” she used to say. “But I do mind you being a hippie.” Her theory was, t if she told me I looked like Ann Coulter, that would goad me into getting a perky little hairdo.  But she was mistaken.  I used to say, Mom, I don’t look like Ann Coulter.  Ann Coulter looks like me.

The topic of doppelgangers, or doubles, is one with a great tradition in American and English literature, of course. The poet Shelley allegedly saw his own double the day before he died;  a stranger who looked just like him came up to him while Shelly was in his garden, and said, “How much longer do you intend to remain content?”  In literature,  some of the greatest stories, particularly in the horror genre, are about individuals who swap identities, or, alternatively,  about a single individual torn in two. Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde is probably the most famous version of that particular kind of story, but there are plenty of others— the portrait of Dorian Grey, or even Frankenstein. In most versions of the story, things don’t turn out well.

For transgender people, the story of the doppelganger, or double, takes on a unique twist.  For many of us, the story of our lives is often the story of a person trying to let go of one identity, and embracing another; it’s our hope that this transformation, unlike that in the Jeckyl/Hyde swap-up, is one that leads from a false self towards a true one.  We sometimes face the additional struggle that we’re often surrounded by people, including some of the the ones that love us most in the world, who at least initially seem to prefer the Mr. Hyde side of our selves.  Jeckyll? they say to us. Why on earth would you go to all this trouble just to become Jeckyll. When you could be Mr. Hyde!  Oh my god, we LOVE Mr. Hyde. Don’t take away Mr. Hyde and leave me with this Jeckyll.  Who is this Jeckyll, anyhow? And so on.

Afterwards, if we are lucky enough to survive our transitions intact,  we’re sometimes faced with an additional quandry.  What does it mean to be Dr. Jeckyl, if you’ve grown up as as Hyde?  Or, more specifically, what does it mean to be an adult woman if you’ve had what looks to everyone else, like a boyhood?

You don’t have to be trans to struggle with the dilemma of “before” and “after” in this life.  As years go by, I think it’s only natural to look over your shoulder at the person you have been, and then into the mirror at the person you have become, and to ask, as David Byrne once put it, “Well.  How did I get here?”

Or, as Andre Gregory poses the question in the film,  My Dinner with Andre:   “A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly, there’s this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he’s gone. Where’s that son?  Where is that father?”

The world is full of people who in fact think of themselves as a former this, or an ex-that.  Former Marines.  Ex-nuns.  Ex-husbands.  X-men.  In some ways, I am an X-man, and I can tell you that being an X-man is sometimes not all that different from being one of the X-men, except without any of the superpowers.

Actually, I do have a super-power: super gender.

But it can be very hard to live a life that is defined only by what you have been, rather than what you have become, or who you are.  This is not the particular struggle of the transgender man, or woman. It’s all of us.

So how do we make peace with all these selves? How do we wind up living one life, instead of two?

In my case, the answer comes from the telling of story.  You look at your life as one continuous narrative, rather than as before and after.  It’s story that connects us to our past;  it’s story that helps us, quite literally, understand the narrative of our own lives.

I have written my books for lots of reasons, and not least because writing can be just about the most enjoyable way that I know of passing the time— but ultimately, most storytellers that I know are engaged in the craft because they are trying to make sense of their lives, to join the before with the after, to join the Jeckyll with the Hyde, to join our GLAD with our GLA-AD.  I went through a lot of rituals on my way to womanhood, from hormones to electrolysis and a trip to the large-size shoe store.  But nothing, truly nothing, taught me as much about being a woman as telling my story.

And it’s this that I wish for all of you, tonight, and through all the days of your lives:  I hope that over the course of a long life, you will find the words to tell your story, in all its, joyful, scary, contradictory wonder.  It’s a great gift, one that has saved my life, and the lives of many other people I know, and I’m grateful for it. Just as I am grateful for my wonderful wife Deirdre, our sons Zach and Sean, my cousin MJ, my friends Kenny and Rick and my colleages from Colby and Barnard and GLA-AD; and for the amazing gift of this strange and wonderful life.  Just as I am grateful to all of you at GLAD for this Spirit of Justice award, and for which I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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There is a Reason: a little song.

Okay, boys n’ berries. I wanted to share a song with you.  (You can click the play button below to hear the tune.)

I wrote this in 1982, when I figured I was in the closet forever.  I almost never played this song for 25 years, then I started singing it again.

Maybe this tune will speak to a familiar place to some of you.  It’s about feeling a little bit like you’re in a bad place, but trying to find hope and joy in spite of all the darkness.  In this tune, it seems like the odds are against me.  But here I am.  Anyway, the title of the song is “There is a Reason,” and it’s a little time capsule.  New York City, Spanish Harlem, 24 years old.  Hungry, frightened, hopeful.

“There is a Reason” by James Boylan © 1982 Mean Streak Music.

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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."


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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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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  • 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."