'Every Single Family in the World Is a Nontraditional Family'

An interview with Jennifer Finney Boylan about her transition from man to woman
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At 42, James Boylan was married to a woman he loved. They lived in Waterville, Maine with their two sons. Boylan taught English at Colby College.

Then he became Jenny. Never at home in a male body, Boylan underwent gender reassignment surgery and wrote about it in her 2003 memoir She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. Her new book, Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders, reflects on what her transition to a woman means as both a parent and a partner in her family, which has remained united. We spoke about what she's learned about women, how she and her wife Deedie navigate intimacy, and what her experience tells us about the ever-changing concept of the American family.


Can you talk about the transgender spectrum?

Transgender is a way of talking about all sorts of gender-variants as if we had something in common with each other. Gender-queer people, cross-dressers, transsexuals, and drag queens don't really have all that much in common. Ru Paul who, when the wig is off, is a gay man, doesn't have anything in common with Amanda Simpson, who was appointed in the U.S. Commerce Department by Obama as the first transgender presidential appointee. They might not have anything in common with someone like, say, Leslie Feinberg or Kate Bornstein, who are more interested in the political aspect. They are very different.

Is being transsexual genetic? Is there a biological component?

The science is getting better, but it's not especially conclusive. Trans-sexuality seems to have its genesis in the sixth week of pregnancy when fetuses form brain structures usually associated with that of the opposite sex. It might have to do with the hormone bath that the fetus is in or it might be something else entirely. I don't know if it's genetic, but it does seem to be neurological. It's not related to anything you grow up with. It doesn't have to do with how your parents treated you. And it doesn't have anything to do with whom you're attracted to. Although sexuality and gender overlap in such interesting ways that it's easy to get confused.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about transsexuals?

The hardest thing is for people who aren't transsexual to be compassionate and have the imagination to recognize that this is the defining crisis of someone's life. If you're trying to live in a body that you're not wired for, it's like paddling upstream against the current in a tiny boat. Because people who are not transsexual have never had this problem, they assume that it must not really be a problem. If you're not trans, you wake up in the morning and don't worry what sex you are. For people who do have to worry, people for whom it is a constant, agonizing heartbreak, others think it's funny or strange. It's a measure of our compassion as human beings. Can you understand the problems of someone who is not you? I didn't change genders because I was really gay and couldn't accept it. I didn't change genders to be more feminine, quite frankly. It's not about femininity, it's about femaleness. It's not about playing with dolls or making brownies or whatever cliché of femininity we have. It's about finding peace in your own skin.

How has the media played a role in shaping the way the public responds to transsexuals?

I was on the Larry King Show in 2005 and remember having a conversation about the caption below my name saying "professor" or "author." They ended up using "had sex change operation." I thought, really?

Why aren't there many role models for transsexuals?

Gay people who are out increasingly spend much of the rest of their lives going about their business. Transsexual people, if they come out in a public way, more often than not fade into the woodwork in two or three years. A lot of trans people "go stealth" which means that you transition and move somewhere and don't tell people about your past. But if sexual transition is marked by seamlessly integrating into the culture, there aren't visible transsexual people of an older generation. If you think of trans people you know, it's mostly people on the street who don't pass well. But if a transsexual does pass, you don't know.

How central is gender to identity? Are you the same person underneath?

When transsexuals go through transition, the great question is: Who am I going to be on the other side? Will I be some completely new person? The great surprise is no, of course you're not. I went through the adolescent period that transsexuals go through, feeling out what parts of the new personality were going to be the keepers. There are probably some things that are a little different, but I'm not conscious of them. You still have the same history, sense of humor, parents, and children as you had before. What I don't have is secrets. It's not so much going from male to female as going from a person who had secrets to a person who doesn't have secrets anymore. The big thing is, I wake up in the morning and don't have to think about gender.

When Deedie gave birth to your boys, did you re-question your sexual identity? Or did you think, "Ok, I'm a father now"?

Yeah, I felt, I'm a father. Any ambivalence about being a man I have to let go of because it's now about something bigger than me. When they were born I thought, "Okay cowboy, you better get in character here!" And I'll tell you what: If I could've pulled off that stunt, I would have. But I wonder if I could've given them a better life. I think maybe all of our lives are better, full of more surprise and gratitude as a result of having to find our way through this domain.

When you first came out, did men and women react differently?

Absolutely. Women, generally, were very welcoming. Almost from the get-go, women were like, "Welcome to the sisterhood!" One friend from Ireland wrote, "Welcome! It's bloody brilliant being a girl." But even the hippie, groovy boys I knew from college were very uncomfortable. Some of those relationships have never really been repaired. There was much more negotiation that had to be done. And some of them may never have quite accepted me as a woman but kind of play along with me, which I find insulting. The women were interested in the transition and wanted to talk about womanhood and gender. And maybe women are more accustomed to knowing that gender is a difficult world that has to be navigated whereas the guys didn't want to hear about. It might also be that a lot of my close male friends were upset that I'd kept something hidden. You can see how they'd respond with disbelief and a sense of sadness that they didn't know me in the way they thought they did. So it could've been a sense of loss.

What did you learn from your father about how to be a man? And how have you passed that on to your boys?

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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