Human Rights

Gender Immigrant

Transgendered author Jennifer Finney Boylan talks about the joys -- and unexpected cultural baggage -- that come with being female in America.
Broadcast TV bookers seem to think transsexuals are flaming, cheating sadsacks on Ricky Lake and Jerry Springer, murdered victims of brutal hate crimes on lurid nightly news segments, or pathetic, selfish husbands who break the hearts of angry, grieving wives and children in order to become female. In a February special titled "Scenes from a Marriage," Dateline NBC spent a year following a woman named Joyce and her husband David, who was in the process of becoming Victoria. A year's worth of footage was edited to highlight Joyce's pain and loss, and to downplay the couple's commitment to one another, leaving audiences with the implication that their marriage was doomed to disintegrate, despite having survived "so far."
All this makes transgender author, comic novelist and English professor Jennifer Finney Boylan's contribution to our political climate particularly important. Since the publication of the New York Times bestseller She's Not There: A Life In Two Genders, a memoir about Boylan's sex change at age 42, she has made the media rounds, her humor and savviness as an interviewee resulting in a relatively rare phenomenon: coverage of transgender issues that educates rather than exploits. Light on political theory but brimming with anecdotes about the ways gender politics trickle into our daily lives, She's Not There is subversive, poignant and funny. The book's working title was "Gender Immigrant": Boylan has traveled from the culture of men to the culture of women and has emerged with insights extraordinary yet distinctly relatable.


Jennifer Pozner:The subtitle of your book is A Life in Two Genders. Having lived most of your life as a man, what were your expectations about becoming female?

Jennifer Finney Boylan: It's important to understand that if you're a transsexual, you're not changing genders in order to get a better deal. Having lived in this culture and having been a professor for many years, I had a pretty clear sense of the realities of being female, but what I most wanted was a sense of peace. And that is absolutely what I've found now that my gender and my spirit match. As I go through the course of my day there are things that are aggravating about being a woman and many things that are wonderful -- but I can wake up in the morning without having to wonder "what gender am I?" or worry about what to do about a struggle that to most other people is incomprehensible. That is the particular dilemma for transsexuals: The main thing that is required to understand the condition is imagination.

JP: During your transition, you noticed yourself gaining food issues and body image anxieties along with your new breasts and hips. You say the culture had its hooks in you to the point where you felt like you were oppressing yourself. A lot of women can relate to that feeling. Did being socialized with a male sense of confidence for four decades prepare you in any way to reject negative, external judgments?

JFB: Initially, I had to go through a second adolescence, and it was a time of real awkwardness and narcissism for me. Most post-operative transsexuals eventually become rather unexceptional men and women who go on with the business of their lives unnoticed. People don't look at them and say "Hey, wow, there's one of those transsexuals I've heard so much about." We think, "There's a mother, an English teacher, a musician." You asked whether 40 years of maleness in any way prepared me for this. I was not socialized as a woman and didn't suffer firsthand the slings and arrows that women have to experience. Those 40 years did give me a certain strength and patience, and I needed that to endure the indignity and awkwardness of changing genders. It's possible in a strange, ironic way that the male life I lived gave me the courage to surrender it. Being trangendered is not about masculinity and femininity, it's about maleness and femaleness. I'm female now, which is to say I have a female body, but I'm feminine in some ways and not in others. I have the right to decide on any given day, just as all women do, where I fall along the femininity spectrum -- with Dolly Parton on one end and Janet Reno on the other.

JP: There's a way most people "do" gender -- we mimic what we're taught: shave our legs, apply eyeshadow, flick the blush brush. Then there's the way you had to do gender: As a man, you started out wearing your mother's and girlfriends' clothing, and eventually underwent therapy and hormone treatment and surgery to become female. Now that you're a woman, do you find that you spend more or less time "doing" gender?

JFB: You could argue that all gender is "done." The question is, how consciously? That's the definition of what we go through as adolescents, a time when, through trial and error, we're doing not only gender but our whole character. Trying on our whole persona, finding which songs, fashions, and interests feel comfortable, what creates the effect we desire. We call ourselves adults when all that stuff becomes less conscious. I would say that at some point most of our behavior is performative. I shave my legs now, and what's interesting is that back in the old days when I was a guy, I felt that this was something very powerful I was doing. I'd sit there thinking, "I am crossing a divide here, I'm being daring, feminine, powerful." And now I think of it only as something tedious, annoying, and inevitable.

JP: You have this great joke in the book about the effects of estrogen pills and testosterone suppressors: "One pill makes you want to talk about relationships and eat salad. The other pill makes you dislike the Three Stooges." Part of the reason it's funny is because it gets at deeply held notions about nature versus nurture. From your unique experience, how much of male/female behavior do you believe is innate, and how much is socialization?

JFB: I'm nervous about declaring "The Truth" about nature versus nurture even from my own perspective. I am a storyteller, not a sociologist. Here's what we know: There is a physical, neurological genesis for transsexuality. To get technical on you, the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis of the hypothalamus is 40 percent larger in women and in male-to-female transsexuals than it is in non-transgendered people born male. It's not caused by hormone use, it doesn't have anything to do with being gay, lesbian, or straight. It's there your whole life. That's real. Now that I've said all that, I'm going to contradict myself. People in the "genderqueer" community are saying a very different thing. They say it is our duty or at least our prerogative to mess with accepted notions of gender, to turn every assumption upside down. They're particularly suspicious of some kind of hypothalamus litmus test to judge whether you're "really" transgendered or not. They say it's wrong to imply that there's just one thing that makes us this way.

JP: That sounds similar to the debate in the gay community about whether finding a "gay gene" would help end discrimination by showing people it's not a "chosen lifestyle," or whether it would give fundamentalists a way to isolate the "cause" of homosexuality in order to "cure" it.

JFB: From the research I've seen, the biological components of transsexuality seem to be a lot clearer than those involved in the genesis of homosexuality. But even if people could choose to prevent transsexuality, I hope they would not. As difficult and painful as it was, in many ways I consider myself to be very lucky. It is a great gift, this ability to see into two worlds. Nurture, nature -- the short answer is that a lot more is nature than any of us would like to think. We live in a patriarchal culture that we have to resist. I agree with that. But, hormones and genetics help to make us what we are. This makes us uncomfortable because it seems to take away our free will. It doesn't do us much good to cover our eyes to facts, and one of the facts I know is that hormones do matter. But when I found myself worrying about my weight and ordering salad -- that had nothing to do with biology and everything to do with culture. So, I made damn sure to stop acting like an idiot and eat the baby back ribs if I wanted them. In some ways, some things have become more complicated than they used to be. I don't have a constant internal battle about gender anymore, but I do have to make a conscious decision to have the ribs for lunch in a situation when people are going to notice and perhaps disapprove.

JP: One thing that comes across in your book is the sense of surprise you felt during your transition when bartenders started trying to offer Jenny sports insights Jim already knew, car dealers tried to hustle you, and neighbors addressed you as "just" Jim's sister. Was it really that surprising to you?

JFB: When I went to New York for the first time as Jenny, the level of harassment just walking down the street was amazing. I'm a professor of culture studies, and I've been a guy, and I have two eyes. What was the big surprise? It was everything that I knew to be true, but it was happening to me, not someone else. Faced with that aggressive attention, I felt scared, singled out, vulnerable, and angry. But here's the kicker -- there was some part of me that thought, "Well... looking good today, Jenny Boylan." I was in a bar with a friend and she's a pretty hard core feminist. But she said "see that guy over there -- he's checking you out. I'm so jealous." You're jealous? She said, just a little. There's just enough adolescent in us to look to men for... what is that? JP: Validation?

JFB: Yes, it's exactly that. Validation. I'm in bars sometimes with my band. This guy came up to me last week and his first question was, "Can I French kiss you?" Just like that! I shrugged and said, "Well, no!" And my friends asked me, "Why didn't you say 'Go screw yourself?'" You know, I don't have a long history with that. There is nothing in a man's experience that is like that.

JP: In one of the most powerful scenes in your book you describe a guy in a bar who stared at you all night, followed you into the parking lot, and tried to attack you. That scenario would be familiar to far too many women. You fought him off, got to your car, and escaped. You called it "immersion learning," and gave readers a glimpse into your mind after the encounter: "What did I do to him, why does he hate me so much?"

JFB: I was terrified. I hadn't done anything other than to be attractive to him and then to say no, and suddenly I was an object of fury, lust, and loathing. I was on the receiving end of a hatred I'd never imagined before. It's no surprise to me that such moments exist for women, but it had never happened to me. I was never particularly physically intimidating as a man, but I wonder, if I had not had those years of male assurance, when he came at me would I have shoved him away, would I have fought? Or would I have already surrendered, just hoping to get through the situation without being killed? Sometimes I think it was because I still had enough male history in me that my first instinct was self-preservation. I went on this journey to find peace, but it has also brought me all the burdens that women have to bear in this culture and none are more heinous than this sort of violence.

JP: Drawing distinctions between sexual orientation and gender identity, you write that the main thing gays and lesbians have in common with transsexuals is "that we get beaten up by the same people." As a woman and as a transgendered person, how do you cope with being at risk in public space?

JFB: How does any woman deal with it? What do you do, both as a woman and as a visible transgendered person, if you want to live your life? You swim against the tide until you get tired, and then you swim with the tide until you get your courage back. I pass pretty well, so some of the violence that is reserved for people who are visibly transgendered is not shown me. In general people leave me alone. Rural Maine, where we live, is a wonderful place. Yankees generally respect each other's privacy. I have not been on the receiving end of much cruelty or stupidity yet -- most of the burden I've had to shoulder is the result of being female in this culture, not because I'm transgendered.

JP: How did you feel about media coverage in general?

JFB: One thing about transsexuality, it takes a lot of explaining. It's not a great topic for short TV segments. At least on Oprah I got a whole hour to myself, and then I was a panelist when she did a second show. That's an eternity compared to the Today Show, where I had 6.5 minutes. And one of the minutes is always devoted to, "So, are you gay?" while another is always, "How sad is this for your poor wife?" The thing I hate about these short little shows is that they don't give me room to be funny. I don't get to be myself. I feel like I'm doing a book report: "How I Changed Genders on My Summer Vacation." One particularly stupid radio show, all they wanted to talk about was "So, are you going to start having sex with men? What's that like?" These shows can be brutal. It feels like, "Welcome to the Morning Asylum with Benito and Adolph." It's very hard to have an intelligent discussion in these forums, because it's always okay to make fun of transsexuals -- we're seen as pathetic and freakish

. JP: Media must have a harder time plunking you into their pre-written "family heartbreak" stories, since you and Grace have stayed together.

JFB: That's the thing people are most uncomfortable with -- they're telling me, in effect, what people have told women for decades: I won't be a "real woman" until I find a nice man and marry him. Even people who have dealt with my transition in a very sophisticated way are uncomfortable with the fact that we are two women living together and legally married. Somebody said to Grace, "Don't you understand? You need to get a divorce and move on with your life." And Grace -- this is how phenomenal she is -- Grace said, "No, you don't understand -- this is my life."

JP: You seem to have gone to great lengths to make sure everyone around you was okay with your transition, not only your close family and friends but also Colby campus administrators, faculty, and students, as well as any number of current and former acquaintances. And your book seemed to be written with that same care. Why has taking care of other people's adjustment to your transition been so important to you?

JFB: I wanted to bring as many people along with me as possible. It's sadly true that most people, including liberal, compassionately minded people, don't understand transsexuality. They think it's some nutty lifestyle, or that it has something to do with being gay or lesbian or wanting to be "feminine." Alas, many people think that male-to-female transsexuals define themselves as women in terms of skirts and makeup and high heels and sponge cake. Why was it so important to educate people? Because I wanted them to understand. Because I wanted people to recognize that in me, as a woman, they would find someone who is generally familiar to them, that as a woman my issues are pretty similar (although, admittedly not identical) to the issues of women-born women. It's also fair to say that some people will never get it. In which case, what can you do? You move on.

JP: You mentioned once that you don't want to be a "model transsexual." But your wit and your articulate style seem to have made you a bit of a media phenom. Are you actively involved with the transgender movement?

JFB: I am not involved in the transgender "movement," which is not a movement but a series of different groups of people doing different things. I've decided I can do the most good by concentrating on what I do well, which is telling stories, and just going about my life. It seems as if that has connected with people in some way, though, and maybe that is its own revolution. I guess that for a little while I'm going to be a transgendered spokesmodel. There will be other people. I don't see myself being defined by this for the rest of my life. I'll write other books. I'll go back to fiction. But I'm glad to be in the public eye for the time being, because we need more good role models. I'm tremendously proud of my book, because it did something I've always wanted to do in my writing, which is to stay in that zone between the tragic and the comic. This book has connected with a lot of people, and surprisingly so -- my publisher, Random House, certainly didn't expect it. I like to think that this book connects to such a wide audience because the main question I'm asking is not, "How do you have a sex change?" but "How do you live an authentic life?" That's a question all people ask themselves, or should. The book isn't long on obscure gender theory or on gory details about the surgery. People don't necessarily want to know about that. They want to know about how they can be true to themselves, and what will the cost of that truth be to them and to the people they love. At the heart of the book are very mainstream questions: How do I tell the truth? How do I live my life with honor?

Jennifer L. Pozner is Executive Director, Women In Media & News, This interview originally ran in the Women's Review of Books, along with a full review of She's Not There.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World