“A Twist in Her Plot” JFB in the NYT Book Review: Gender and Genre, Writers and Their Teachers

10AUTHORSNOTE-master675-v2I arrived at the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins in September 1985, bearing a box of books, a Kaypro word processor and a long blond wig I kept hidden in a box in the closet. I wasn’t out as transgender in those days, not by a long shot, but I did have the tools I needed to slip out of the house, once in a while, and prowl around Baltimore en femme. Then I’d head home, wash off the makeup and get ready for the workshop, taught by the writer John Barth.

We’d been told to call him Jack, but it seemed impossible. Barth was considered an Olympian of literary maximalism. In the vein of Borges, Pynchon and Calvino, his work combined erudition, parody and the sense that a novel might be, among other things, a comment on itself. Even if the high-water mark of maximalism in American literature had come and gone by then — the writers in my workshop were more likely to dream of becoming the next Raymond Carver or Ann Beattie — Jack was revered for his teaching. We sat there, enthralled as he introduced his theory of plot (“the gradual perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium”) or compared the structure of dramatic action to a love affair. I can still see him smiling wickedly, saying, “There’s a reason they call it ‘climax.’ ”

I was working on a novel called “The Invisible Woman” at the time, a story that was meant to be Barthian in its comic self-­referentiality, but which, in the end, turned out to be inescapably Boylanesque — a tale of a woman who had to keep herself hidden, lest the unforgiving world discover her identity. It would take me years to understand the obvious: I wasn’t writing a novel, but a memoir, and the woman in hiding was, of course, myself.

On the 40th anniversary of the founding of Hopkins’s Writing Seminars, the university staged a reading by the program’s professors. That was the first time I heard Jack read “Night-Sea Journey,” a short story narrated by a sperm. “I’ve begun to believe, not only that Sheexists, but that She lies not far ahead, and stills the sea, and draws me Herward!” he says.

I did reach Her in the end, if by Her I may refer to my own female self, the woman I finally embraced and unveiled to the world just shy of my 42nd birthday, a woman who was welcomed with almost inconceivable grace by my colleagues and my family. I found the very thing the narrator of “Night-Sea Journey” tries to forswear, the unrefusable summons of “Love! Love! Love!”

I can trace the courage to make the transition back to Barth, from whom I learned a lot about writing but even more about the art of revision. He taught me how to see my life as a story and rewrite it, finding the narratives that brought sense to the chaos. I came to understand that embracing my identity had more to do with genre than gender: The life I was living needed to be truth, not fiction, and in order to live that truth, I needed to get on with the daunting project of creating a new draft.

I wasn’t sure how Jack would react to the news of my transformation. While I thought of him (or at least his characters) as sexually adventurous, transgender issues in those days were still seen as exotic, even by the liberal and openhearted. But one day I got a lovely little email, in response to my memoir titled “She’s Not There.” Jack wrote, “I should say she is very much there, Boylan — or should I say, Girl-land?” The offhand pun on my name, the loving acknowledgment that I had indeed moved from Boy-land to Girl-land, was Barthian to its core.

A few years later, Colby College, where I was teaching, gave Jack an honorary degree. There we were, together again, after all those years — teacher and student, writer and writer. At a celebratory dinner, Jack addressed the faculty and spoke about thinking about life as a story, the very process that had saved me, both in and out of his classroom, half a lifetime before. He repeated his definition of plot, his definition of life: “It’s — all together now, Boylan — the gradual perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium.” I said it along with him, word for word, for a short, strange moment, a student again, still young, all the triumph and turmoil of life still far ahead.

He returned to the table and embraced me. “Nicely done, Jack,” I said. He replied, “Nicely done yourself, Girl-land.” I should have just let go of him, let him return to his chair. But instead I held him just a little bit longer, that great, kind genius of American literature, and thought — well, what else? Love! Love! Love!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Caitlyn Jenner, Ted Cruz, and the Flavor of Tarantulas

caitlyn-ted-cruz-750No, I wasn’t surprised by Caitlyn Jenner’s expression of support for Ted Cruz. I heard her say as much hour after hour this fall as I worked on her show. Everyone needs to get their mind around the fact that politically she is, like half the country, a conservative, and the sooner you get your mind around this, the angrier you can be.

The fact that she’s swooning over Ted Cruz–a bigot, a hater, and an all around dunderhead–is galling, but no more galling, to me, than a political philosophy that exclusively benefits the wealthy and leaves the rest of us to struggle. Cruz’s policies on trans rights are horrific, but not a whole lot more horrific than those of anyone else in the GOP currently running for office. 

Here’s a different question to consider, however. How shall we talk to each other in this country? How is it even possible to open people’s hearts and change their minds when we hold each other in utter contempt?

In the first episode of I Am Cait viewers will see me taking one approach: I yell at her, shouting that the idea of conservatives supporting the rights of minorities, “is a lie! That is never going to happen! You’re living in a dream world!” At the end of this exchange I strike her with a rolled-up newspaper and not ironically either. I smack her like she is a basset hound that just took a dump on the carpet.

I think it is fair to say that this strategy failed to turn her into a Democrat.

In fact, I don’t think there’s any such strategy that would have this result. And so, yeah: hanging out with her was infuriating. On the second day of filming, I tried to quit the show. I had a lengthy conversation with the show-runner saying, “I just can’t do this. I want to go home.”  There is footage of this somewhere.

But I stayed in there. In part, because on Survivor, (my favorite show), I always get angry when people “quit the game,” as if they really didn’t understand what they were signing on for when they agreed to spend 39 days boiling rice and eating tarantulas.

But more importantly: the questions facing me– and my other friends on the show, including Candis Cayne and Chandi Moore and Kate Bornstein– were the very questions facing the entire country right now. How do we learn to live with people whom we disagree? How do we learn to love each other? How is it possible to communicate with people whom we want to smack with a newspaper?

The question, for me, is not, will Cait become a liberal? There is no operation for that, alas. But she CAN become someone who listens, who opens her heart, who has compassion. And so can I.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 48 Comments

The United States of Jennervania

Greetings, culture lovers.   Sunday March 6 marks the season premiere of season two of “I Am Cait,” the docu-series on the E! network that follows the early transition of Caitlyn Jenner. And which co-stars, among other people, me: a professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University, a person who, one year ago, could not have told you the difference between a Kardashian and a kangaroo.

Season two of the show is really different from season one.  This spring, viewers will see a group of Americans fighting out the very questions that now consume the rest of the country:  What do we have to do to secure equality and justice?  What role does privilege play into our sense of ourselves–as citizens, as advocates, as women?

[There are also things like cowboy bars and blind dates and lingerie stores.  And yes, there are Kardashians (but no kangaroos).]

Caitlyn’s “road trip” this season is not just a show about a trip through America. The show IS America.

2016 finds us, as a nation, as divided as we’ve been for a long, long time.  That division is reflected in the women on the bus:  Caitlyn Jenner begins the season as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative; the rest of us are all left of center, including one woman who identifies as a socialist.

At times, it seemed like we disagreed on everything.

Viewers of the program will see cast members shouting at each other, storming out of rooms and slamming doors.  There is at least one show where I’m jabbing my finger in the air at Caitlyn shouting, in response to her suggestion that conservatives “support everybody’s rights”, “That is a lie!  That has never happened! You’re living in a dream world!”  And so on.

You will see us talking to right-wing ministers.  You will see us talking to Hillary Clinton.  You will see us at a Native American medicine wheel ceremony.  You will see us on the receiving end of angry protests in which people shout that Caitlyn Jenner misrepresents the reality of transgender people’s lives.

These are lives that are increasingly threatened– not only by violence, but from a slew of “bathroom bills” now under consideration in scores of statehouses, bills designed to humiliate and degrade us.

The irony is that transgender people have never been so visible in the culture, and not least because of shows like Caitlyn Jenner’s (and I Am Jazz, and Transparent, and others).  This increased visibility has brought about a degree of recognition of our humanity that was unthinkable a dozen years ago.

And yet, as this visibility increases, so do the efforts to erase us.  In the face of all these threats to our humanity, I’ve heard from many of my friends in the trans community, questioning whether it was even appropriate for me to be part of this program, given the terrain we’re now in.

I admit that I struggle mightily with Caitlyn’s political views, as well as with her sense of what “womanhood” actually means.   There were times when I thought that, even though CJ and I are both trans, we couldn’t have less in common with each other.  I found her an exhausting and infuriating companion at times, a Republican glamorpuss with a head like a rock.

And yet, for all that:  I have a tremendous affection for her as well.  I consider her my friend. I admire the way she decided to use her transition–and the strange fame of her family– to create visibility, and to try to make things better for our community.

People who don’t have friends that they disagree on lots of things with probably won’t understand my affection for her, but my tent is pretty big when it comes to the people I love. 

What are the odds that a group of American–trans or cis–can come to understand each other?  Can we even learn to talk the same language?

Over the course of this season, I think people will see us trying.  We learn, sometimes begrudgingly, how to respect each other.  It’s not just Caitlyn Jenner who changes and grows this season– it’s all of us:  me, Candis Cayne, Chandi Moore, Zachary Drucker, Kate Bornstein, and the new addition to the “cast,” 18-year-old Ella Gieselle.

If a group as diverse and gnarly as the women on the Jenner bus can learn, somehow, to talk together, then perhaps the rest of the country can do so too.  As Jenner says in one of the new season’s promos, “The stakes are too high to get it wrong.”  The “it” she’s referring to might well mean the whole country.

Maybe this season of IAC isn’t really about transgender issues at all.   Maybe it’s about learning, against all odds, how to see the love and humanity in each other, even when we disagree.

As Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand a man until you walk around in his heels.”

I hope you’ll step into our heels in the weeks ahead, beginning with episode one, premiering on E! March 6.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

O Christmas Tree: JFB in NYT, 12/25/15

This piece of mine appeared on the op/ed page of the New York Times on Christmas Day, 2015, with the title, “An Evergreen Tradition”:

by Jennifer Finney Boylan, Contributing Op-ed Writer


Belgrade Lakes, Me. — WE turned down the dirt road, the same one we’d been traveling for more than 25 years now. At the top of the hill was a battered sign welcoming us to Ladd Tree Farm.

The road led through the woods, across a small stream, through a meadow, and at last emptied out in the field. And there before us was the old familiar tableau: the balsam firs standing in long columns, a dusting of snow on the ground.

My wife, Deedie, and I got out of the car and looked around. The air smelled like smoke. The farmer, standing by a bonfire, waved at us. Just beyond him, a young family walked into the trees.

We used to be that young family. The first time Deedie and I came here, back in 1991, it was just the two of us and the dog, Alex, an odoriferous Gordon setter who gave up the ghost the following spring. A few years went by and then, there we were: driving to the tree farm with our young sons locked into child seats in the back of a minivan. In 1999, when the boys were 5 and 3, we pulled them through the farm on a small wooden sled. Our breath came out in clouds.

Five minutes later, those boys were almost six feet tall. One of them had a beard. They cut the tree down with a handsaw and then tied it to the top of the car as Deedie and I stood around the bonfire, a little stunned. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” they called to us. “We gotta go!”

Last year, Deedie and I went down to the tree farm without them, as they took their finals. They’re college students now, taking courses with names like “The Anthropology of Death” and “Electricity and Magnetism.” It was the first time we’d been to the farm, just the two of us, in over 20 years. We parked the car and stood there among the trees. The same old farmer was standing by the same old bonfire. “Good to see ya folks,” he said. Then…. (for the rest of the essay please click here.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why Caitlyn Jenner and I Prayed with One of Our Fiercest Enemies.

December 20, 2015

Belgrade Lakes, ME

Good morning from Maine, where I woke up in my own bed with my own dogs this morning, after almost two solid months on the road with Caitlyn Jenner and a band of other trans women. We have travelled the country this fall having conversations with a wide range of trans people and their parents and children and their allies. I hope that when I Am Cait, season two, airs in spring viewers will see and hear a lot of interesting conversations that reflect the full diversity of our great community.

Our last stop on the long journey was Houston, where, among other things, we hoped to meet with the pastors whose intolerant, cruel exhortations to their congregations helped the HERO bill go down to defeat in November. Getting my friend Caitlyn to understand the way social conservatives have used lies about trans people to further their agenda has been one of my goals since I first met her, and this struck me as progress. I do believe her eyes are opening.

We visited pastor Ed Young’s church on Friday, Ed Young being the minister of a megachurch that took the lead on promoting anti-trans hysteria as a means of defeating HERO.

We went there without cameras, without microphones. We did not go there for a photo op. We went there in hopes we could have an off-the-record conversation with the pastor, so that we could tell him to his face the damage that he has caused. This struck me as good work to do.

I can tell you that going into that church was one of the scariest moments of my life. You cannot imagine what it is like to be surrounded by people who have denied your humanity, who have worked to take away your dignity. It is even stranger, and scarier, to have this feeling in a church.

My mother told me to love your enemies, though. So I sat in a pew with my heart pounding, trying to find the love I would need in order to have a conversation with one of our bitterest foes.

My own faith is a private matter that I generally do not speak about in public. But I can say that I believe with all my heart that love is what can change the world.

You can say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

At the end of the evening, Pastor Young approached us. We all stood up. And Caitlyn Jenner looked him in the eye and told him how much his actions and his words had harmed our people. I was proud of her— given her conservative beliefs, it struck me as a sign of great progress, a first step into activism, gentle though it may have been. The pastor seemed to me to have never spoken face to face with transgender people before, and he clearly did not understand our lives, given some of the things he said to us.

But we were calm and polite and dignified. We told him about our lives, and he paused to listen. He really did seem to consider our humanity. I thought that moment was breathtaking.

He asked us if we’d participate in a prayer. As a Christian, when people ask me to pray, I am glad to do so. We bowed our heads. My prayer was pretty simple. Please god, open this man’s heart. Please open the hearts of all of those who would do us harm.

The season of Advent asks us to light one red candle each Sunday: one for Hope, one for Joy, one for Love, one for Peace, and on Christmas Day to light a pink one. It was in the spirit of all four of these that I accompanied Caitlyn Jenner to this church to do just as my mother commanded— to love my enemies.

I am hoping that we lit a candle.

Posted in Uncategorized | 38 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 63 Comments

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.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments
  • 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."