“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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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

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.


Haunted by a Disappearance

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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  • 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."