'It Begins and Ends With Love': A Conversation with Trans Activist Jennifer Finney Boylan
Best-selling author and transgender activist Jennifer Finney Boylan discusses her new memoir in a conversation that explores the transformative power of storytelling, the redefinition of family values, and the radical potential of love.
Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three GendersPublisher: Crown
Length: 284 pages
Author: Jennifer Finney Boylan
Publication date: 2013-04
Jennifer Finney Boylan's Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders begins with a chance encounter between Boylan and another mother at her teenage son’s fencing match. Sitting beside each other in the bleachers, the two women strike up a conversation that turns unexpectedly personal. As they watch their sons sparring in the ring below, this stranger, Grenadine, confides to Boylan that she sometimes wishes her husband, a soldier serving a tour in Iraq, would never come back home.
When Grenadine asks Boylan about the wedding ring on her own finger, she knows she’s about to find herself in “one of those situations where neither telling the truth nor coming up with a great big lie was going to accomplish anything.”
Boylan is transgender, and ten years after her transition from male to female, still happily married to her female partner of over 25 years with whom she has raised two now teenage sons. Since there was nothing be gained in that moment by revealing the truth about her and her family, Boylan responded with a suitably ambiguous: “I don’t have a husband right now.”
But the irony of the situation lingered with her. That “by almost anyone’s measure, Deedie and I are the dangerous outliers and Grenadine and her husband Mr. And Mrs. Normal. Even though Deedie and I love each other beyond all understanding, and Grenadine’s fondest hope was that her husband would be murdered by insurgents.”
Although the Fox News crowd still clings to the idea of the traditional American family as the paragon of all that is virtuous in society, the rest of the country has long been moving in a myriad of other directions. In fact, today in America, only seven percent of families consist of a married man and woman in which the father works and the mother stays home.
With the struggle for marriage equality claiming more and more electoral victories around the nation, and women gaining greater power in the realms of business and politics, it has become increasingly clear that the traditionally defined American family is an idea whose time has past. As Boylan puts it in her book—“the biggest outlier in our culture is not same-sex couples, or transgender people, or adoptive parents, or single-fathers, but the so-called traditional American family.”
Stuck in the Middle With You blends memoir with reportage to paint a vivid portrait of this rapidly shifting landscape of the American family. Boylan renders her own experiences as a father, mother, son and daughter in lively, often hilarious and deeply moving prose. And she intersperses these narrative passages with a series of candid, thought-provoking interviews exploring other people’s unique family experiences. Many of these interview subjects are close friends of Boylan’s, making for deeply personal discussions that add depth and nuance to her own meditation upon the nature of family. And many also happen to be famous authors, playwrights and memoirists themselves including Ann Beatie, Susan Minot, Richard Russo, Augusten Burroughs and Edward Albee.
Taken as a whole, the book is a celebration of the multiplicity of possibilities for love, support and self-realization to flourish outside of the confines of the traditional American family. As Boylan writes: “What does it even mean, at this hour, to call anybody traditional? Surely it is not the ways which we all conform that define us, but the manner in which we all seek our own perilous truth.”
Boylan’s own search for truth has lead her to become a widely recognized public advocate for trans rights with appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Live with Larry King, The Today Show, and The Barbara Walters Special, and as a frequent contributor to the op-ed page of the New York Times. In addition to her work as an author and activist, she serves on the board of directors of GLAAD, the board of trustees of the Kinsey Institute and works as a professor of English at Colby College in Maine.
The following conversation took place by phone as Boylan was heading out on a speaking tour of East Coast colleges.
Why do you think the idea of the traditional American family has been so prevalent and powerful in our society?
I think it all comes down to storytelling in the end and the stories a culture tells about itself. Until recently, there was only one kind of story that was being told. But the wonderful thing is how dramatically that has changed. I can’t say that we have full equality, obviously, for gay and lesbian people, and trans equality is further down the road than that. But we are hearing different kinds of stories now.
As a stay-at-home father myself, with an 18 month old daughter, I’ve been amazed by all of the anxiety that still exists in our society around parenting and gender, and how much pressure there is for both children and parents to conform to prevailing gender norms. Did having kids change the way that you thought about your own gender identity and the various forces that impacted your experience?
That’s a wonderful question. Do you mind if I think about that for a minute?
I’d have to say, yes—in the most profound of ways. It was really after my sons were born, when they weren’t much more than four or five, that I began to understand that transition was going to be necessary for me to survive. Maybe part of me felt that my work was done as a man. That by siring two boys I felt that I’d climbed the last mountain. Or maybe I felt that by becoming a father I had done all that I could to embrace a traditionally masculine role.
You see this in transsexual people a lot, particularly among trans women. It’s very typical for people like me to have served time in the army or to have climbed mountains or done a lot of these hyper-masculine activities, in an attempt to kind of, I don’t know, man the woman out of you. Not that that ever works, but, you know, you can’t blame people for trying. So, that was part of it.
But I also wondered what kind of parent I was going to be if I was essentially living an untruth, if I was hiding from my true self, if I was teaching my sons that they had to avoid embracing their authentic selves in order to survive in the world. And so I can’t say that I went through transition because I thought it would improve the lives of my sons, although, it may be that in an oblique way that that turned out to be true. Because I do think that my transition had a positive effect on them. Both as men and as humans.
Look, you can’t do a more traditionally gendered thing than become a parent. So, it’s a moment for the kind of radical or nonconformist people that my wife and I were and are when you either find yourself back-pedaling and becoming more conservative, when you hear things coming out of your mouth that your own parents said; either that, or it’s a moment to get serious and understand—and this is what I believe—that there really is no more radical act that having a family. Particularly having a family that is different.
There are transgender activists who have criticized me for not being radical enough. I don’t want to speak for those people, but I certainly am not advocating conformity by any means. I think that for a transgender person to devote him or herself to raising children, to raising a family—I think that’s a very radical act because that is changing the culture. That is devoting yourself to something other than yourself.
One of the things about being transsexual is that it certainly makes you into a narcissist. Everything is about you and your transition and your experience of gender. And so, raising a family and being part of a community, by definition gets you out of yourself and stops you from being so obsessed with your own narcissistic world and it encourages you to think outward. And I think that’s a highly radical act. It helps to remake the culture.
I found your description of your marriage with Deedie to be a powerful testament to the fact that what really holds a family together is love rather than adherence to any traditional norms or values. But I was also struck by the importance of compromise in your relationship, because you’ve both had to make some major sacrifices for each other throughout the years.
Yeah, you don’t stay together this long… and we’ll have our 25th wedding anniversary a week from today …
Well, we got to get through one more week.
You don’t stay in a relationship for 25 years without compromising. One of the hard things for transsexual people in a marriage who want to stay with the person they married in their former gender is that for some of us there’s no middle zone between male and female. For me, there wasn’t.
For my wife, you know, we tried compromising with it a little bit for the first couple of years after I came out to her. But it was difficult. The hardest thing was finding a middle ground, and I guess that’s always true in a marriage, whether you’re dealing with gender or not. I think that fortunately both Deedie and I are fairly low maintenance people, we’re fairly elastic people and our love for each other goes pretty deep. So, I can’t say that we figured out a way to make it work all at once, but we certainly did over time.
You’ve been concerned in the past that having such a highly non-traditional family might have some negative impact on your boys. But you eventually realized that “having a father who became a woman has made them into better men.” What do you think that says about the idea of traditional family values?
Well, traditional family values is one of those phrases that seems to change depending on who’s saying it. When I hear the catch phrase “family values”, I associate that with Dan Quayle and his campaign against Murphy Brown and all of those terrible single mothers out there. Which I think by now seems like a fairly silly campaign.
People use “family values”, and “the children”, as shields to justify whatever prejudices they carry around themselves and which they are determined to perpetuate upon the next generation. People say, “I don’t want my children to learn about the lives of gay men and lesbians because of family values” — what? How insane is that? If the conservative people who would say such a thing had any real knowledge of the lives of gay men and lesbians who are raising families and the values within those families … I think that would open people’s hearts—wouldn’t it?
So, in a way, family values are very important to me. But when I say family values, I’m not talking about what those other people are talking about. They’re talking about bigotry and close-mindedness and prejudice and fear of things that they don’t understand. When I talk about family values, I’m talking about being loving. Being loving to the world, being loving to your immediate family, to the people around you in your community and to people who are different from yourself.
It begins and ends with love. And is there any more radical, subversive thing than love? Really—is there? The idea that through this mysterious power, we would open ourselves up to people who are fundamentally different than ourselves, and in so doing, create a family, create a community, create a world… I don’t know, I always stop and think about that when I hear people say family values, because it’s a reflection not so much of the family, but of the person who’s speaking.
One of your concerns was how having a trans parent might impact your sons’ social lives, but your son Zach just sort brushed this off, saying: “our generation doesn’t worry about the same things that your generation worried about.” Does this reaction give you hope for the future, even as trans people still face so many difficulties in our society?
Well it does give me hope, first off. I’m an optimist by nature. But I do think it’s worth saying, that through my work with GLAAD and also just as an activist whose ears are open, I hear stories everyday of transgender people who face incredible violence and fear and loss because of who they are and kids who experience these things because of who their parents are.
So, I don’t live in some magical my little pony world where there is no prejudice or fear. The fact that nothing happened to my children is a great thing, and it does make me optimistic but I’m also aware that we may have just been very lucky.
We could have a whole conversation about why nothing happened to my family, or very little happened to my family. You could say that part of it has to do with living in Maine, where people respect privacy and there’s very much a live-and-let-live philosophy to a lot of Yankees. You could say it’s because I’m so very public. One of the things that I think puts people in the cross hairs is not only their truth but also their fear to tell the truth. People can sniff out when people are lying even when they don’t know what they’re lying about. So, I think the fact that I’ve been so public means that there’s been no secret to unveil.
It helps that I’m a person of privilege, which I feel rightfully self-conscious about. And by privilege I mean the privilege of race, of social class, of education. I work in academia, which, at least in New England, is a fairly supportive culture. And the culture in general has ridden a wave of increased understanding and compassion around diversity issues for the past ten or 15 years.
So all of that’s good, right? But I can also say that I know people in Maine, and also children of people in Maine who have been on the receiving end of trouble. I know people with education, who are white and who have good jobs who have lost everything. I know people in this supposedly more supportive age who have been fired or, for heavens sakes, people who have been murdered, people who have been the recipients of violence. Or, more frequently, people who have lost their families. People who, their spouse just said, “okay, that’s it.” And they took the children.
So, why didn’t any of this happen to us? Is is really that their generation is cooler than mine? Maybe. But luck and privilege played some role in it too. We just got through what everyone else calls Father’s Day, but for me, we call it Maddie’s Day. We don’t make a big deal out of it, we make a little deal out of it, but it’s nice.
But, I am Facebook friends with close to 5,000 transgendered people, and on days like Father’s Day, the heartbreaking things that I read people posting up… people who haven’t seen their children in a dozen years because their wife or husband just said, “okay you’re out of here.” And the courts support them. Or children who have been told that their parents are dead—that it’s better to think that your parent is dead than to know that he or she is transgender. Those are real stories too, and it’s part of what keeps me coming back into the ring to keep doing this work, even though I admit that I do get tired of talking about gender and fighting this fight endlessly. There’s so much work to do.
Since the publication of She’s Not There, you’ve become a well known public advocate for trans rights, acknowledging that your own experience has been remarkably free from many of the difficulties that trans people face in our society. What are some of the most important steps that can be taken to address the misconceptions, discrimination and outright hatred that still exists around these issues?
By trans people or non-trans people?
By trans people and by allies.
I’m a firm believer in the power of story. The best thing that trans people can do is to tell their story and to live their lives in as public a way as they can. A lot of people can’t do that. But I think as time goes on, more and more people are finding the courage. So, the first thing we can do is to be known.
We should hear more stories of trans people, other than the endless transition meme, which is told again and again and again in the media. It’s funny, I just did an interview two days ago with some British journalist. And I’m loving this talk that we’re having today because your questions are so smart and so sophisticated and go to the heart of the issues. Whereas I was on the phone for an hour with this journalist and she wanted to start with, “So when did you first know you wanted to be a woman?” And I’m like … “okay.” And she says: “did you cross-dress when you were little … and when did you start taking hormones” … and it was like that for a half and hour and there was a certain point at which I just said, “you know, I have to say the conversation that we’re having is a conversation that you could have had with any transgendered person or any transsexual person. And also you could have had it with me ten years ago.”
We’re at the point now where gay men don’t have to explain what it means to be gay if you want to have a conversation with them about their memoir. You don’t have to explain gay sex, right? But for a lot of trans people, no matter who you’re talking to in the media—and a lot of the time the larger the audience, the dumber the questions—it’s like I’m the first transgendered person who ever fell off the truck and I have to explain how it is that I am actually human. Which is exhausting. And until we reach a point where people are familiar enough with our narrative and where we don’t have to start from square one every single time, we’re just going to be trapped in this circle again and again.
So, what can people do? They can tell their stories. Education helps. The more about trans people that allies know the better. Through my work with GLAAD, I know tens of thousands of gay men and lesbians in this country, and quite frankly, my gay and lesbian friends are not a whole lot more sophisticated than straight people when it comes to understanding the issues around trans experience. What’s the difference between a transsexual and someone who is transgender? What’s the difference between a transsexual and a cross-dresser? What does it mean to be genderqueer? These are concepts which to me are really familiar, but to a surprisingly large part of the population, these are new terms.
So, how can you learn these things? There are so many great books out there now. And not just by me, although everyone should go out and buy all of my books, of course. But some people don’t like my books. Some people might rather read books by Helen Boyd or Jamison Greene or Susan Stryker or Julia Serrano or even Chaz Bono for heaven’s sakes. There are so many good books out there, so how can people support us? By educating themselves. Either by reading or hearing stories or just by supporting trans people.
And trans people don’t always want to talk about surgery or hormones or high heels or tattoos. Right? Are those the big four? But a lot of transgender people do want to talk about their children or their work or the people they love or the people that they hope to love and you can learn as much about our lives by hearing about those things as by anything else.