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.

JFB

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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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JFK, The Beatles, and Julia Child. HELP!

JFB column in Washington Post, February 7, 2014.

Here we are, still devastated from the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination (Nov. 22, 2013), when along comes the 50th anniversary of the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan” (Feb. 9, 2014) to lift our spirits. It’s not as sobering an occasion as the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech this past Aug. 28, or as chilling as the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis (Oct. 14 to 28) the year before, but for my money it’s at least as inspiring as the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight in Friendship 7 (on Feb. 20, 2012), and surely as satisfying, for a liberal, anyhow, as the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater, coming up this fall. ¶ I am sure that, many years from now, we will turn to our grandchildren and tell them the stories of where we were on the 50th anniversaries of all these historic events. Yes, Jenny Junior, I still remember where I was on the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Julia Child’s “The French Chef” (Feb. 11). I was standing in my kitchen, making a soufflé and tearing the pages off of a calendar.

The decade of the 1960s, currently celebrating its golden jubilee, provides us with a seemingly endless series of moments upon which we can look back with misty-eyed wisdom. As Nietzsche said, “History repeats itself — first time as tragedy; the second time as a listicle on Buzzfeed.”

Readers who find such features wearying are in for a rough time in the years ahead. Between now and Aug. 9, 2024 (the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, and the cultural finale of “the 1960s”), we should expect a column about the 50th anniversary of some damned thing pretty much every other week. In the next few months alone, we can anticipate 50th anniversary retrospectives, complete with never-before-seen-photos and now-it-can-be-told revelations, on everything from the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the introduction of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe.

Given that, after 50 years, there’s so little new one can say about most of these events, our insatiable hunger to keep reading about them suggests that the thing we’re actually interested in is….(read the rest of the column at the Washington Post site).

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Transgender, Schlumpy & Human: JFB column in NYT 2/16/14

Jeffrey Tambor in a scene from "Transparent"

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — THERE’S a scene in the new Amazon show “Transparent” when the family patriarch, Mort, walks in on his oldest daughter in flagrante with her lesbian lover. The character, who’s been struggling throughout the pilot with how to come out as trans, stands there in drag with a bemused expression. “Hello, ladies,” Mort — now Maura — says.

When I was first asked to serve as an adviser to the show, I hesitated, fearing that it would get the issues all wrong, as television and film often do where transgender characters are concerned. And yet I was won over by the pilot’s charm. So far, anyway, “Transparent,” written and directed by Jill Soloway, shows every sign of being one of the first television shows to depict the life of its transgender heroine with grace and respect.

Of the 10 pilots released early this month as part of Amazon’s gambit to enter the content-streaming market, “Transparent” is the breakout hit. A reviewer in the culture blog Vulture called it “my favorite pilot in years, and by a lot.” She continued, “the thesis of the show” is that “we hide some things and disclose other things but maybe not as well as we think we do. (Or maybe, accidentally, too well.)”

The only problem? The actor playing Maura, Jeffrey Tambor, is neither female nor trans.

One might think that this is not much of an issue; stepping into other people’s skins is, after all, what actors do.

But there are plenty of talented transgender actresses in Hollywood, including, of course, the amazing Laverne Cox, currently burning it up in “Orange is the New Black.” There are others as well; Calpernia Addams and Candis Cayne come to mind, although, admittedly, they aren’t old enough to play the part of Maura.

But you can understand why trans viewers might grow weary of seeing themselves constantly portrayed by straight actors for whom trans roles are an opportunity to “stretch themselves.” Why do these parts go to people who struggle to imitate us, when… (click here to read the full column in the NYT).

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Ring them Bells: Two NYT op/eds from JFB, December 2013

Greetings all.  While the December Project dominated my home page during the last month, I did want to post links to two columns of mine that appeared in the New York Times during that month.

The first is about my days ringing a bell for the Salvation Army.  Here’s a short tease:

A Transgender Volunteer for the Salvation Army

By JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN
Published: December 16, 2013 206 Comments
BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — I GOT to the Waterville mall a few minutes early. My shift began at 11, and snow was falling from a pewter sky onto the parking lot. I’d been having a hard time. This was about four Christmases ago, a few years after I’d come out as transgender. In the aftermath of that unveiling, I’d lost a couple of important friendships. Getting into the spirit of the season had been a struggle.

Then, one day, I saw someone ringing a Salvation Army bell outside a Walmart. I thought, hey, I could do that. And so I signed up, hoping it might help dispel the blues. I wasn’t sure how the charity would react to the fact that one of their volunteers was a 6-foot-tall trans woman, though. This was before stories of the organization’s antigay discrimination really started emerging, or at least before they’d reached my ears. Still, I knew that it was a traditional religious charity, and I could picture the scene — the head of the Red Kettle corps taking one look at me, knocking the Santa hat off my head, contemptuously snapping all my candy canes in half.

Instead, as I drew near, the woman standing at the entrance to the mall said, “Oh, thank God you’re here. My arm is about to fall off.” And with that, she….(click here for the full story, over at the NYT site.)

The second is about someone who disappeared 30 years ago New Year’s Eve.  I never knew Sam Todd, but I still “mourn him like a brother.

CONTRIBUTING OP-ED WRITER

Haunted by a Disappearance

By JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN
Published: December 30, 2013 81 Comments

IT was 30 years ago this New Year’s Eve that Sam Todd left a party in Soho to get some air. He would not be seen again.

Sam Todd was a divinity student at Yale, a young man, like many, “giddy with their own futures.” On New Year’s Eve, 1983-4, he attended a party at 271 Mulberry Street with a group of recent graduates from Vassar. He was 24. One of his friends, Heather Dune Macadam, described Todd that night, as he “twirled like a young colt, laughing and eating up the energy of the night until he was so dizzy he had to leave me on the dance floor to spin alone while he went outside for a breath of air.” At 3 a.m. he left the party without his coat.

I was living uptown that year, across the street from a vacant lot, trying to be a writer. We were the same age, Sam Todd and I. The New York papers were full of the story of his disappearance. Fliers were posted; homeless shelters were searched. Rivers were dragged. Weeks went by, then months. Eventually there was nothing more to say about his story, other than the unbearable sadness of never knowing its ending.

The story haunted me, however. I’d wake from dreams in which Todd was knocking on my door. Come on, he’d say. Everybody’s waiting. He made it sound as if… (click here for the full op/ed, at the NYT site.)

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Trans? Holidays got you down? WE WILL CALL YOU ON THE PHONE


Update, Dec. 9: Please scroll to bottom for the latest.

Hello there.  For the third year in a row, we are doing THE DECEMBER PROJECT.  The plan is simple.  If you are trans– or if you love some one who is trans– and you need a friendly voice, email us and we will call you on the phone.

We began this project in 2011.  I was thinking that year how hard the holidays can be for people– but they can be especially hard for trans people and their families.  Charles Dickens had it right when, in the CHRISTMAS CAROL, he suggested that it’s Christmas, not Halloween, that’s the most haunted of holidays.  Our memories are heightened at this time of year– we think back to our childhood, to our many struggles.  For some of us it’s a time when we’re acutely aware of how cut off we are from those we love.  The world is full of transgender people who are unable to see their children, their parents,  their loved ones, all because of the simple fact of who they are.

We cannot undo all the hurt in the world.  But what we can do is CALL YOU ON THE PHONE and remind you that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  You don’t have to be in crisis to take advantage of this project.  All you have to do is want a friendly voice.

The project is run by four people– Jennifer Finney Boylan, national co-chair of GLAAD; Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality;  Dylan Scholinski, director of Sent(a)mental Studios, and Helen Boyd, Professor at Lawrence University.  We are two trans women, a trans man, and a spouse of a trans woman.  Between the four of us, we have heard many different kinds of trans narratives.  If we can help you, we would be glad to do so.

How do you get us to call you? By emailing jb@jenniferboylan.net.   I’ll use that email as the central mailbox;  if you have a particular preference to talk to one or the other of us, let me know– although I can’t guarantee that you’ll always here from the person you request.  Also please tell us the time of day and the date you’d be free for a call; you might want to give us a couple of options.  And of course, tell us your phone number.  WE WILL KEEP YOUR CONTACT INFORMATION ABSOLUTELY CONFIDENTIAL.

We will start with calls on December 1, and keep this going until New Years.

Sound good?  I hope so.  We hope we can help, even if just a little.

Three other caveats I should mention at the end here:

1) First, no one in the December Project gets a dime out of it.  This is a shoestring operation, largely consisting of four people trading phone numbers.  If you want to support our causes, you can let us know, and we’ll tell you how to give.  But this is not about that.

2) If you are in serious crisis, please bypass us and go directly to the national suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255  WE ARE NOT TRAINED AS THERAPISTS or as counsellors for individuals in crisis.  If you need something more serious than a “friendly voice,’ please call the lifeline.

3) For the moment we are content with this project consisting of the four of us;  in past years, we have been a little overwhelmed (and yes, deeply touched) by the many, many of you who have wanted to join us.  While we thank you for your grace and your love,  it’s also overwhelming for us to sort through the requests; we hope you’ll understand if we ask that folks writing us be primarily those who want a call. There are many ways you can get involved in your own community, and we heartily encourage everyone who wants to spread some love around to do so in their own way, starting right at home.

Thanks so much!  Wishing you all the best for a positive, hopeful, loving holiday season!

Sincerely,

Jennifer Finney Boylan, on behalf of the December Project

Update, Dec. 9:  We have been deluged with requests!  We are making the calls as swiftly as we can, but if you haven’t heard back from us, please be patient.  Also, please request calls via the email address listed above, and NOT through the comments section below!  Thanks so much.

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JFB in New York Times, 10/28: The Costumes We Choose

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — SALES of President Obama masks at Party City in Augusta, Me., are down this Halloween season, way down. “It’s not that popular an item,” said a sales clerk when I visited a few weeks ago. You’d think this would be a bad sign for the Democrats, but on the other hand, there weren’t any John Boehner or Mitch McConnell masks in the store. The public has spoken: no one fantasizes about being a politician anymore. The most popular costume at that Party City? The minions from “Despicable Me.”

This is a comedown from the days when one of the most popular masks in the nation was Richard Nixon. It doesn’t seem all that long ago when one could reasonably expect, on Allhallows Eve, to see children dressed up as the president who had resigned long before they were born.

You can still get a Reagan mask — available in both regular and zombie models — although you’d have to order it online. In fact, there are plenty of politician costumes available on the Internet. But it’s curious, who’s in and who’s out. Costumecraze.com carries George Washington and Abraham Lincoln costumes; Jack Kennedy; both Clintons; George W. Bush; and Barack Obama. But no… (click here to read the rest of the column at the NY Times site.)

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One Classroom, Two Genders: JFB in NY Times

Here’s a column I wrote for the Times published on September 9, 2013.

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

One Classroom, Two Genders

By JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN
Published: September 9, 2013 118 Comments

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — MY favorite teacher in high school was a man named Robert Ulysses Jameson, a terrifying, red-faced man whom the students called “Chopper.” Chopper yelled at us if we said things that were stupid. If our stupidity persisted, he’d throw us out of the classroom by pointing to the door and saying, “Out!” Sometimes he threw us out one by one, and on other days he threw us all out at once. One by one was worse.

Behind that crotchety exterior was a man who loved the cello, American literature and us. You didn’t have to dig too far to find his loving side, either; you simply had to give him your best.

I’m not sure if I feel that “getting Chopped” (as we called it) is the best pedagogical strategy for all students, but it worked with me. After a year of Chopper, I became a better writer and a more critical reader. As I look back over a lifetime of learning, I still credit Chopper with having woken me up from the sleep I’d been in until 10th grade.

Of course, I was a boy then. As a transgender woman, I find it impossible not to… (read the rest of the column on the Times web site).

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JFB on Chelsea Manning in Washington Post 8/22/13

Here’s an essay I wrote for the Washington Post about Chelsea Manning and trans identity.  I was also interviewed for this other story about this “cultural moment” for trans folks, which ran the same day.

Longing for the day when Chelsea Manning and I both seem boring

  • By Jennifer Finney Boylan, Published: August 22

The first thing I wanted to say to Chelsea Manning was congratulations. Not on the sentencing, of course. But on coming out as transgender.

I was not entirely shocked by the news, which was hinted at throughout Manning’s trial. Up to this point, whenever I’d seen photos of Manning with the buzz cut and the beret, I’d thought, this person looks uncertain and afraid. But in that selfie I saw of her en femme, with the blonde wig and haunting, melancholy eyes, I thought for the first time: This person finally looks like herself.When I came out as trans back in 2003, an older person in the LGBT movement offered this advice: “You have to comport yourself with unimpeachable dignity. Carry your head high, and above all, don’t ever let people see you cry.” By this she meant that trans issues were still so new to the American consciousness that any trans woman in the public eye had to behave in a manner above reproach. Lots of people wouldn’t call Manning “above reproach,” though; as a spokesperson she sets a very complicated example.

I’ve been deeply conflicted about the Manning story from the beginning. I opposed the Iraq war, and I believe Manning’s actions helped shed necessary light on the true nature of that awful enterprise. At the same time, (read the rest of the piece at the Washington Post 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

    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."