An Address to a consortium of allies attending independent high schools in the Philadelphia area– Haverford, Episcopal, Shipley, Agnes Irwin, Penn Charter, Springside, Friends Select, Germantown Friends, and Baldwin. These are the rough notes (from which I frequently strayed) for the speech given at Penn Charter, March 15, 2012, to an audience of roughly 500 students and their teachers. The talk was sponsored by the Multicultural Resource Center, run by the amazing Karen De Gregorio.
Hello everyone. Thank you for having me.
Okay, so first off? If any of my Haverford teachers from the 1970s are here? Can I just say: you guys look different too.
It may surprise you to learn that I haven’t come all the way from Belgrade Lakes, Maine in order to talk to you about what it means to be transgender. By which I mean, specifically that if you haven’t been freaking out about how you suspect you really ought to be a member of the opposite sex by now… you can probably cross it off of your list of things to worry about. It‘s not something that’s likely going to start bothering you simply as result of hearing me talk to you today. It’s a fairly rare condition, and learning about it today isn’t going to do you any lasting harm. Which is roundabout way, I suppose, of reassuring you that it’s not contagious. I hope that’s a relief.
Let’s also pause to say that if there are some of you who are struggling with our gender identity, and you want someone to talk to about it, you can probably start just by e-mailing me. My e-mail is jb(at)jenniferboylan.net. And If you didn’t commit that to memory, you can find it on my website, and if you send me a note, I’ll write you back and we can have a conversation about it all. I’ll keep it confidential too, if you want. You should know that I’m an English teacher, not a therapist, and that the things that turned out be true in my life may not be of much use to you. But still, I’m always glad to help, if I can.
There. That’s out-of-the-way.
What’s probably more important to address than the specifics of transgender experience – which by the way I will try to loop back to later in this talk – is the more important subject of what it means to be different. What’s strange, if you think about it, is that on paper, anyhow, we all say we value individuality, difference, people pursuing their dreams. You have to think that on some level it’s the thing that we value above all others; it’s even in the Declaration of Indenpendence, for crying out loud, our national reverence for the pursuit of happiness– whatever happiness might mean to each Ameircan citizen. AT the same time– and especially in high school–there’s this insane pressure to conform, to be like everybody else. And yet over time you find out that everybody is struggling with something, even – sometimes especially – the cool people.
My experience of being transgender–can you imagine that, a transgender girl at an all male school, Haverford, in the 1970s– what’s the expression? DUDE. My experience meant that I was suffering – from my earliest memory of being alive – with something so fundamentally weird that it was almost impossible to explain to other people. I mean, that really is one of the worst aspects of being trans, at least for me it was. The thing that was so fundamental to my sense of self, the certainty that I had a spirit that was a different gender than the body in which I found myself – was something that other people have probably never even thought wants about ever even possibly being a problem. What was it like? It was really hard.
Overtime I guess what I’ve learned, though, is that everybody’s carrying something in their hearts. And even if it’s not something as strange is being trans, that doesn’t make any less hard if it’s the thing you’re struggling with. Whether its sexuality, or gender identity, or race, or being bullied by others, or eating disorders, or being OCD or ADD or autistic, or just your own impossibly weird parents, everybody has a burden to carry. It can be a hard life, this one, and it can be hard even if you’re relatively normal. Not that I’ve ever met anybody who’s actually normal, but you know. I can imagine that if there are such people, they have a hard time too.
So. How do you survive when in your private heart you know you don’t fit in?
Well one-way fitting in is to pretend you’re something you’re not. To put up a brave front and do what you have to do in order to get along. Learn to be a first-class fake.
I’ll pause here to plug a relatively new book series of mine, Falcon Quinn. I actually have a couple copies here. Falcon Quinn is kind of a bizarro-world Harry Potter; only with monsters instead of magic. Our hero Falcon, and his friends find themselves, at the age of thirteen, turning into monsters– Banshees, Sasquatches, Chupakabras, Wind Elementals, Abominable Snowmen, frankensteins. they get sent to a special school where they’re taught how NOT to be monsters, how to imitate human beings. So they literally can survive in the world without people trying to kill them with stakes or silver bullets. The question in Falcon Quinn, then, becomes: is it better to be something you’re not, if it means survival? Or should you embrace your true self, if your true self is, say, a zombie?
There’s a scene in Bride of Frankenstein– the old version, with Boris Karloff– that strikes me as emblematic of what adolescence can be like. The monster comes upon a mirror one night, and he’s never seen a mirror before– and thus doesn’t know that the terrifying thing he’s looking at is actually himself. AT first he’s scared, as all the humans are when they first see the monster. But then, slowly, it dawns upon him that the terrible thing he’s seeing is himself. (acted this out, complete with groaning).
For me that was what it was like to be a teenager, and I suspect, that on dark days, it’s what it’s like for everybody. (groans)
I remember when I went to the Haverford school, occasionally other students and what frequently teachers, including the headmaster, would make comments or jokes about transgender, or gay people, and the punchline was always something about how messed up you have to be if you’re one of those people.
What could I do, except to stand there with a stupid look on my face and laugh and say yeah. I guess you would have to be pretty messed up ha ha ha ha.
It puts me in mind of the Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell, who, back in the 1970s, was the swing vote in a case called , Bowers versus Hardwick. That case held that sexual acts taking case between consenting adults done in private, ought to be legal. Justice Powell, who wound up voting against the case, later turned to his clerk, and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a homosexual.”
As it turned out, his clerk was gay. But because he was in the closet, he couldn’t tell Justice Powell. At the time, all he could do was turn to Justice Powell, and say, “Actualy, I bet you do.”
The other strategy, of course, is to live your truth out loud. But how do you that? Bob Dylan has a tune called Absolutely Sweet Marie, in which he sings,, to live outside the law you must be honest.
What I say, and what I learned at the Haverford school all those years ago, was that to live outside the law you must be smart.
I would never consider myself one of Haverford schools better students. In fact, last year when I spoke at Haverford, my old biology teacher, Mr. Alford, came up to me after my talk and showed me a test that I had taken back in 1973, a test on which I’d gotten a 29. Out of 100. Thanks Mr. Alford. What a great memory!
Look I wasn’t a great student at Haverford school by any means. But in spite of my grades, Haverford school did do one incredible thing for me. It woke me up. I had these great teachers, most of them anyway, including Edward Hallowell and Todd Pearson and Robert Ulysses Jameson. they taught me how to write, and how to read critically. They gave me the very thing I needed to survive– the ability to trust my wits, and the faith that if I worked hard enough, I would find the words to explain the thing I felt in my heart.
So thanks guys. I’m not sure that I am exactly what you had in mind when you devised your curriculum. But one way or another, the gifts you gave me in your classrooms actually helped to save my life.
So how is it that you connect other people? How do you explain to people the thing that’s in your heart if that thing it’s in your heart is almost unimaginable for other people? Will you can give them lectures, I suppose. I know that there are plenty of teachers who think that that’s a good way of getting information across to people.
But lectures can only take you so far. Over time, I’ve I found that the best to make people understand what you feel is by telling them a story.
Among professors of creative writing, there’s an old cliché, show don’t tell. You’ve probably heard people use that line before. It’s a way of suggesting that in stories the best strategy is scene setting and dialogue,, as opposed to telling, through narration and summary and exposition. It’s probably advice you’ve heard before, if you’ve ever tried to tell a story– show don’t tell.
This thing is, this turns out to be true in life as well. If you want people to know something show don’t tell people what you believe. Show it. Live your truth out loud.
It was Gandhi himself who said, Be the change you wish to see.
That doesn’t mean that if you want to work for civil rights for trans people you have to change your sex. Which I hope comes the relief and most of you.
What it does mean is that if you want to change the world, treat people were different from you as if they are human. Treat them as vulnerable, fragile, noble, complicated people who just like you, are trying to make sense of this strange and wonderful and terrifying life
You want to change the world? Be more loving.
Okay, so with all that in mind, I want to read you a story from this collection that came out last year called IT GETS BETTER. Some of you probably know about this project; it was created in response to a series of suicides of LGBT young people, including the celebrated case at Rutgers which is actually going to trial right now. The idea was to remind young people that life is long, and that there are good reasons to have faith in the future. There were a lot of contributions, not only from people like Ellen DeGeneres and Barney Frank, but from President Obama as well. This piece was my mine.
(At this moment I told the story from the It Gets Better anthology.)
In the early morning rain
By Jennifer Finney Boylan
© 2003 & 2010 Jennifer Finney Boylan. A slightly different version of this essay appears in Jenny’s memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (New York: Broadway/Random House, Inc.) 2003. Used by permission.
When I was young there was a time when I figured, the hell with it. I’d never even said the word transgender out loud. I couldn’t imagine saying it, ever. I mean, please.
So instead, one day a few years after I got out of college, I loaded all my things into the Volkswagen and started driving North. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I knew I wanted to get away from the Maryland spring, with its cherry blossoms and its bursting tulips and all its bullshit. I figured I’d keep driving father and farther north until there weren’t any people. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do then, but I was certain something would occur to me that would end this transgender business once and for all.
I set my sights on Nova Scotia. I drove to Maine and took a ferry out of Bar Harbor. I drove onto the S.S. Bluenose and stood on the deck and watched America drift away behind me, which as far as I was concerned was just fine.
There was someone walking around in a rabbit costume on the ship. He’d pose with you and they’d snap your picture and an hour or so later you could purchase the photo of yourself with the rabbit as a memento of your trip to Nova Scotia. I purchased mine. It showed a sad looking boy—I think that’s a boy– with long hair reading a book of poetry as a motheaten rabbit bends over him.
In Nova Scotia I drove the car east and north. When dusk came, I’d eat in a diner, and then I’d sleep either in the car or in a small tent that I had in the back. There were scattered patches of snow up there, even in May. I kept going north until I got to Cape Breton, which is about as far away as you can get from Baltimore and still be on dry land.
In Cape Breton I hiked around the cliffs, looked at the ocean. At night I lay in my sleeping bag by the sea as breezes shook the tent. I wrote in my journal, or read the poetry of Robert Frost, or grazed around in the Modern Library’s Great Tales of Horror and the Supernatural. I read one up there called Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.
In the car I listened to the Warlocks sing In the Early Morning Rain on the tape deck. I thought about this girl I knew, Grace Finney. I thought about my parents. I thought about the clear, inescapable fact that I was female in spirit and how, in order to be whole, I would have to give up on every dream I’d had, save one.
I stayed in a motel one night that was officially closed for the season, but which the operator let me stay in for half price. I opened my suitcase and put on my bra and some jeans and a blue knit top. I combed my hair out and looked in the mirror and saw a perfectly normal looking young woman. This is so wrong? I said to myself in the mirror. This is the cause of all the trouble?
I thought about settling in one of the little villages around here, just starting life over as a woman. I’d tell everyone I was Canadian.
Then I lay on my back and sobbed. Nobody would ever believe I was Canadian.
The next morning I climbed a mountain at the far northern edge of Cape Breton Island. I climbed up to the top, trying to clear my head, but it wouldn’t clear. I kept going up and up, past the tree line, past the shrub line, until at last there was just moss.
There I stood, looking out at the cold ocean, a thousand miles below me, totally cut off from the world.
A fierce wind blew in from the Atlantic. I leaned into it. I saw the waves crashing against the cliff below. I stood right at the edge. My heart pounded.
I leaned over the edge of the precipice, but the gale blowing into my body kept me from falling. When the wind died down, I’d start to fall, then it would blow me back up again and I didn’t. I played a little game with the wind, leaning a little further over the edge each time.
Then I leaned off the edge of the cliff at a sharp angle, my arms held outward like wings, my body sustained only by the fierce wind, and I thought, well all right. Is this what you came here to do?
Let’s do it then.
Then a huge blast of wind blew me backwards and I landed on the moss. It was soft. I stared straight up at the blue sky, and I felt a presence.
Are you all right, Son? said the voice. You’re going to be all right. You’re going to be all right.
Looking back now, I am still not sure whose voice that was. You can call it god if you want. Or my guardian angel. The ghost of my father, maybe. I don’t know. Does it really change things all that much, to give a name to the spirits that are watching out for us?
Still, from this vantage point—over twenty-five years later –it feels to me as if that voice was coming from my future self, the woman that I eventually became, a woman who, all these years later, looks more or less like the one I saw in the mirror in the motel. Looking back on the sad, desperate young man I was, I am trying to tell him something. It will get better. It will not always hurt the way it hurts now. The thing that right now you feel is your greatest curse will someday, against all odds, turn out to be your greatest gift.
It’s hard to be gay, or lesbian. To be trans can be even harder. There have been plenty of times when I’ve lost my hope.
But in the years since I heard that voice–Are you all right Son? You’re going to be all right–I’ve found, to my surprise, that most people have treated me with love. Some of the people I most expected to lose, when I came out as trans, turned out to be loving, and compassionate, and kind.
I can’t tell you how to get here from there. You have to figure that out for yourself. But I do know that instead of going off that cliff, I walked back down the mountain that morning and began the long, long journey toward home.
Returning to podium. Okay. So I will be happy to answer your questions about anything you want to know at all.
(A round of question-answering and ad libbing, followed by a concluding paragraph about the journey of the mythic hero. I also read from the ‘crisis of conscience’ scene in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I encouraged the students to find their courage, to be themselves, to slay their dragons, and to be kind.)
I also quoted, somewhere in here, lines from Paul Simon: ”I believe in the future, we will suffer no more. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours I feel sure.”