Jennifer Finney Boylan is an American author and political activist. In 2014 she joined the faculty of Barnard College of Columbia University as the Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence, having previously been professor of English at Colby College in Maine. She is a trans woman. Her 2003 autobiography, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, was the first book by a transgender American to become a bestseller.
• Patricia Cornwell (Patricia Cornwell is a contemporary American crime writer. She is widely known for writing a popu...)
• Richard Adams (Richard George Adams is an English novelist who is known as the author of Watership Down. He stud...)
• Jessamyn West (Mary Jessamyn West was an American author of short stories and novels, notably The Friendly Persu...)» All Novelist Interviews
PROFESSOR JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN, author of thirteen books, is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University. She also serves as the national co-chair of the Board of Directors of GLAAD, the media advocacy group for LGBT people worldwide.
She has been a contributor to the op/ed page of the New York Times since 2007; in 2013 she became Contributing Opinion Writer for the page. Jenny also serves on the Board of Trustees of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Jenny also serves as Special Advisor to the President of Colby College in Maine.
She is a consultant and cast member for I AM CAIT, the docu-series about Caitlyn Jenner that debuted on the E! network in July of 2015; and also served as a consultant to the Amazon series TRANSPARENT.
Her 2003 memoir, She's Not There: a Life in Two Genders(Broadway/Doubleday/Random House) was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. A novelist, memoirist, and short story writer, she is also a nationally known advocate for civil rights. Jenny has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show on four occasions; Live with Larry King twice; the Today Show, the Barbara Walters Special, NPR's Marketplace and Talk of the Nation; she has also been the subject of documentaries on CBS News' 48 Hours and The History Channel.
She lives in New York City, and in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, with her wife, Deedie, and her two sons, Zach and Sean.
Check out the Twitter feed at @JennyBoylan; or follow Jennifer Finney Boylan on Facebook.
Moderator /u/courtiebabe420 is here via phone helping me with this AMA!
Hi Jenny! I am a trans woman and also a 5th year PhD student. Your memoir was the first book I read when I started questioning my gender and I wanted to say thank you. Even though I am still very early in my transition, I find that the more time that passes, I relate to more and more things that happened to you. Teaching while concealing growing breasts comes to mind immediately!
My (vague) question is, do you have any advice for someone who is transitioning while in academia?
I lost the response to this one, which is lengthy-- I'm going to come back to this, promise.
The first thing I did was talk to my college president and get his approval and understanding. That was a meeting that I had to prepare for pretty thoroughly, but I did it, and after that most of the other doors at the institution opened fairly simply.
Another good first step might be to talk to your affirmative action/equal opportunity officer, and see where the college stands. You may be protected in the category of people who are covered by the college's anti-discrimination policy period. Or, on the other hand, you may not. A trip to the AA/EO officer will help bring some clarity to this.
I also thing its helpful to have one or two people on the faculty who know what you're going through, and who you can turn to knowing you can trust their confidentiality and guidance.
This is hard shit to carry around in secret, and it's really important to know you have someone on your side. But, I would say be very, very careful you who share your secret with. Once it's out, it will flow like water.
How did you initially get involved with the I AM CAIT show, and are you happy with the way it is presenting the trans community and the issues and accomplishments of that community?
This is very complicated. Caitlyn Jenner is sui generis-- she really is a unique person, and her experience is so different from most of the people I know. She lives in a very different world. There are times I worry that the privilege of her world makes her experience of not much use to people who are deep in the struggle, and who don't have those resources. On the other hand, her tremendous visibility can only help, I think. I just returned from London and Paris, and I found everywhere I went people stopping me (and my wife) on the street and asking us about the show, and thanking us for it. So: it's a mixed bag: in the end, though, I am very proud to be involved. I think Cait is a very endearing, if eccentric person, and she truly is committed to doing good in the world.
You've done a lot of pretty awesome things in your life, and have been a great advocate for the trans community. That must all be hard work, so - what do you do you to relax and destress?
You are nice to say that. I relax in ways that you'd find pretty unsurprising: I like to read books and I like to play the piano. I sing stupid rock and roll tunes. I watch old movies. I hang out with my wife and we drink dry martinis. I listen to the Grateful Dead.
There, now I bet you're sorry you asked.
If you had a castle what is the weirdest item/thing would you fill your moat with to prevent crossing?
Pad Thai noodles.
I am happy that my first response on Ask Me Anything is "Pad Thai Noodles."
Omg hi! I'm a huge fan of yours. I'm a trans woman myself and She's not There was the first trans related reading I ever did. It really helped me with my coming out and acceptance process, so for that thank you so much. <3
How does the progress of the trans community from when you came out make you feel? Would you change anything we've established so far as a community?
Well, history is history and you can't change the past. IT's hard enough to change the present. I do think the trans community is rich and diverse; we have many, many different voices. In our community we want different things, and depending on who you talk to, "being trans" can mean many different things. What does it MEAN to be trans? Is it a medical condition you deal with, like cleft palate? Is it about "rejecting the binary," and living in a more fluid space? Is it about a political identity, and/or living your life according to a larger matrix of social justice? is it about a big party, and you should bring along your feather boa? is it about performance? Is it about going from one place to another, or the journey in between? Believe me, you can find members of our community who will fight vociferously for each one of these as the thing it is all really "about," and we tend to fight with no one more intensely than each other. Our most well known figures tend to be people that frequently divide us-- because whether we see trans issues like RuPaul, or Caitlyn Jenner, or Kate Bernstein, or Jenny Boylan-- is a very personal issue for us.
I think my biggest regret is that we aren't nicer to each other.
And that we don't accept that it's a very big tent, and that we ought to be in the business of watching each others backs, instead of constantly tearing each other down.
This dress is big enough for all of us.
Jenny, where does the LGBT community go from here?
Well, there is plenty of work to do in this country. We should be wary of thinking that marriage equality means that the battle is over, or even won. GLAAD research shows that even in states where marriage equality was the law for a long time before the Supreme Court decision, there is LOTS of pushback-- people are still uncomfortable being around LGBT people. Over 40% of people report they are uncomfortable JUST SEEING A SAME SEX PERSONS WEDDING PICTURE ON THEIR DESK AT WORK.
So we have to open hearts and minds. In some ways, our laws are ahead of our hearts.
Which one of your books do you think is your favorite?
My favorite is the middle of my three memoirs, I'M LOOKING THROUGH YOU, which tells the story of growing up in a so-called haunted house, and uses "haunting" as a way of talking about the way people occupy their bodies. It was also the hardest thing I ever wrote. Writing that almost did me in.
I'm a big fan of yours and have been for a while. I love that you and your wife are still a strong and loving couple. As a transitioning mtf who is married, my wife is very loving and supportive, although certainly questioning what our future holds. What are some things I can do to ensure I continue to support her? Based on your personal experiences, what are some pitfalls I should try to avoid? Any other words of advice on marriage?
all marriages are different, and I'd be a fool to give anyone else advice about this very personal subject.
I'd be patient and loving with your wife, and accept that she's going through a transition of sorts as well.
No couple "has" to stay together, and those that do not are not necessarily less loving than those that last. Everyone has to figure out what's going to bring them joy in the long term, period.
In our case, Deedie/Grace and I decided that our lives were better together than apart. But this was not immediately apparent, and it took us a while-- more than a year-- to figure out what our new relationship was going to be. In some ways we are still figuring it out (although more traditional couples do this as well.)
I can say that there was plenty of compromise-- her accepting me fully as a woman, and me accepting that her being straight was not something she was going to abandon just for me. There were plenty of tears. Now, these many years later, I can tell you there has been lots of laughter and joy and wonder as well, but the tears were real, too, and we would not have gotten here without them as well.
What's your proudest achievement?
What do you consider your biggest failure?
Proudest achievement is being a parent of two remarkable sons, and in keeping my marriage together for 27 years-- 12 as husband and wife; 15 as wife and wife. I know that some progressives might roll their eyes at this, but I do believe that the most radical thing I ever did was to raise these two sons of mine: they are wise, kind, sweet, good men.
Biggest failure? I wanted to learn how to play the bagpipes. That ended badly.
Caitlyn has a lot of controversy within the trans community. She is very popular and well known among the masses, much more on both accounts than most trans activists, but is often criticized by the trans community for being out of touch with 'real everyday' trans people and the issues we face, and by creating something of a rift of miscommuniation between us and the larger masses... Do you think she should be acting as a spokesperson for the trans community, and if so, is there anything you think she should improve on?
it's complicated. She isn't exactly a spokeswoman. She is one very famous person, to whom people listen, because she is famous. But I don't think she intends, or even wants, to speak for anyone other than herself. She's been very sincere in making it clear that she has a LOT to learn. I admire that she's exposed herself in her show to lots of people whose experiences are very different. In the second and third episodes of HER OWN SHOW, in fact, trans women of color at HRC looked her in the eye and said, You just don't get it. I thought that was brave. And necessary.
She will get better at speaking as she gets more comfortable within herself. It takes a long time for all the dust to settle. In the meantime she is a work in progress, and she deserves kindness and respect no less than any other trans person in the process of self-discovery.
Jenny, your book was very helpful to both me and my husband. He is currently questioning (MTF), and hasn’t really figured out what it means or if he’s going to transition yet (hence the continued male pronouns). But your book really helped me to understand some of what he is going through, and he has said that it helped him to put into words things that he was having a lot of trouble articulating.
What other resources or reading would you recommend for partners?
the best book for spouses is MY HUSBAND BETTY by Helen Boyd. She has a follow-up entitled SHE'S NOT THE MAN I MARRIED. You'll like helen, and you might check out her site, myhusbandbetty.org, which also has an extensive message board, focussed largely on spouses' experience. She's more of a theorist than a storyteller (compared to me, anyhow), but she's pretty great.
hey Jenny, you mention in She's Not There that your sister wasn't very supportive when you told her that you're trans and I was wondering has your relationship improved since then ?
I am trying not to talk about my sister in public any more since it pissed her off so much when I did so. I can say we are working on it. A little.
Dear Jenny -
I just want to say that I absolutely loved your book She's Not There. It was inspiring and well-written. My communications class was assigned read your book and lead to some deep discussions about the restrictions language can hold.
What is your biggest concern regarding communication and non-inclusive or gender restricted language language?
Well so much of the discourse is new. We are still trying to figure out how to talk about trans people. I think people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. And even trans people don't agree on what the language should be, or what the most important issues are. We are working that out in a very public way. I think it can be confusing for cis people who are trying to catch up, and who are aproaching us with good intentions. all i can tell people is, dive in, and keep your heart open.
Normative shifts were critical to our victories in Lawrence, Windsor and Obergefell. What tactics or tools do you believe most helped cause the normative shifts that facilitated legal victories?
I think that legal victories came about when the discourse shifted from "gay sex" to "love." Which is to say that, once upon a time, when straight people talked about gay people, it was with a mean, sniggering middle-school joke about gay sex. Which straight people just COULD NOT get their minds around. If you asked straight people, "HEY WHO HERE IS FOR ANAL SEX?" you might not have gotten an immediate chorus of rousing cheers. (Although who knows?) But marriage equality changed the discourse to a different question: "HEY WHO HERE IS FOR LOVE?" Even the most conservative people, like my mother's bridge group, came out and said, We're for love.
So that was a big change. I think the challenge for transgender people right now is that the leading edge issue for us is not love but identity. And asking cis people who have not thought much about the question of identity if they're for the right to find "authenticity," well that's just a very different question, and it requires a bit of moral imagination to embrace.
But of course people should embrace it. We all ought to have the right to be ourselves without shame, and to live the lives we love.
Hi Jennifer. I'm a MTF who's just embarking on her journey (2 months on HRT). My question for you is this: what do you think is the best approach to dealing w/the recent wave of murders & violence against transwomen of color? What's the root cause here? Is it a lack of education in areas where it's happening? Is this the result of toxic masculinity?
Also, thank you for everything you've done for our community.
I wish I had an answer for you. I really don't know. Sometimes I just feel overwhelmed by it all: the violence, the hatred, the cruelty.
I know that people living their lives publicly, that people telling stories, can help save peoples lives, in the long term. But in the short term it feels like there's just all this bloodshed. I wish that my own magical powers as a storyteller were enough to make a difference. They are not.
Still, this is all I have. So each day I get to work as a writer and as a teacher, and I try to have faith in the future.
Paul Simon sings: "I believe in the future we will suffer no more. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours I feel sure."
If you had to choose only one album to listen to for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
LIke, a record album? Or a collection of work?
Offhand, Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" would probably be a good companion. One, because it's brilliant, and two, because it's over four hours long, and all those compositions are really different from each other.
The scientist Lewis Thomas was once asked which music we should put on board the Voyager, when they were recording "Sounds of Earth" to send into space. He said, "Well, Bach, of course, although perhaps that would seem like boasting."
> Biggest failure? I wanted to learn how to play the bagpipes. That ended badly.
I can only imagine how that worked out for the people you lived with at the time. :P
The gender change was nothing compared to the bagpipe period of our marriage. And yet we survived. By my stopping playing bagpipes.
You see, the system works.
Right after your "BIG" surgery was complete and you saw the results, what was your immediate reaction?
It was a quiet, thoughtful moment. Kind of like after Frodo finally throws the ring into Mt. Doom. He just turned to Sam (or in my case, my wife Deedie, who was sitting by my side,) and said, "it's done!"
Thank you for doing this AMA. I am a conservative and not all that concerned with LGBT issues. The biggest problem your movement seems to have is the wide variety of opinions and classifications and pronouns that get thrown around and bundled together as if coming from one voice. The variety of opinions get misinterpreted as one, large, nonsensical one.
One issue I'm confused about, and I'm sure this is still up for debate, is whether gender is a social construct or not. Do you believe it is? And if it is, does that mean a little boy playing with "girl toys" is significant? Are instances of makeup/dressup in a boy proof that transexuality is not environmental, or is that a misconception?
This requires more than a paragraph to answer.
Gender is a social construct; I think we all understand that. I mean, there are girls' bikes and boy's bikes? Seriously? Bicycles are gendered? That's just silly.
On the other hand, gender is also biology. And transsexuality clearly has biological and neurological components to it as well.
Trying to separate whats a matter of culture and what's a matter of wiring, of course, is the way one could keep oneself busy for years.
I think as time goes on science will tell us more and more about the neurological differences between male and female.
That said, it's not "neurology" that determines whether we live our lives with dignity or honor. That's up to the people around us, and to some extent to ourselves as well.
Here's my way of cutting to the chase: why don't we just treat everyone with love? It may be that if you open your heart, and accept that many other people experience "being human" different from your own self, that all sorts of things will make sense. As my mother used to say, "the heart knows what the brain will know tomorrow."
How many pushups can you do?
maybe five. With a pushup bra, six.
On IAC, you created your own catch phrase, "Oh, my paws and whiskers." It's that a phrase you use daily or just something that happened?
That was totally random. I can't believe it became a thing. When I first heard it, I thought, What? Who SAYS that? It's not something I usually say. I think I was freaking out a little bit when I first met Catilyn Jenner. She was a real knockout, and it made me momentarily stupid. Now, it's my thing. I keep trying to come up with new variations: Oh my ears and fingers. I'm willing to take suggestions.
If you could host a single-issue presidential debate or forum, what questions would you ask?
Who would you invite to co-moderate?
Well, of course I'd want to know if candidates were supportive of LGBT people in general, and trans ppl in particular.
I would ask Bill Murray to co-moderate.
Do you have any special sub-areas you'd like to focus on?
Like protecting trans youth and elders from caregiver abuse? Guaranteeing access to gender affirmation support?
These are all very good areas to focus on. I would be glad to ask these in the presidential debate that I moderate.
Who should the candidates be? (that is, if we are imagining a world in which I am the moderator, we may as well imagine one in which we invent the candidates as well, right?)
I nominate Janet Mock. And Bill Murray.
That's not what I asked you.
Why do some people insist you never mention previous names they had? Not everyone does this, of course:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaz_Bono "Chaz Salvatore Bono (born Chastity Sun Bono, March 4, 1969)"
Chaz is apparently cool with that. When I tried to remove his deadname it was reverted, so WP policy clearly is to include that info.
Not including it wipes out a lot of her history. Don't try to add it, either. She won't like it.
Then there was the grantland article about Dr. V, and the apology for the grantland article.
I'll change the question - should encyclopedias include all pertinent information about famous people? Should investigative journalists be forbidden from mentioning a person's past, even if it is germane to the investigation?
If it's germane to the investigation, perhaps. But "germane to the investigation" means, that somehow the fact that this person is transgender, and used to have another name, is somehow connected to whatever it is that's being investigated. Which, if you think about it, sort of suggests, "Yeah, so because this person is trans, they must be considered a shady character, or someone who might be considered a liar, or someone who cannot be trusted." It's hard to imagine that kind of logic standing scrutiny.
> Seriously? Bicycles are gendered? That's just silly.
You can't easily mount a boy's bike wearing a skirt [or a kilt]. You either have to hike up the skirt up to your waist and rearrange it or let it drag or be caught in the rear wheel.
This should be known to you already.
What's known to me already is that it's silly to wear a skirt when you're riding a bike, unless you're riding one in Victorian England.
Why do mtf transgendered people seem much more crazy/unhinged than ftm transgendered people?
well, you should hang out with some of the FTM dudes I know. They'd even up the score right pronto.
That said, it's worth (if you'll forgive the academic in me) looking at this question harder-- in particular you phrase whey do MTFs "seem" crazier? It may be that femininity in our culture is seen as "crazier" than masculinity-- Julia Serano's book WHIPPING GIRL is all about this, and is surely worth a read.
Why are so many trans people insistent on hiding or denying their previous names and history? It doesn't engender trust in their future endeavors.
I think Ms. Jenner has a healthy attitude in this regard.
Well, Bobcat, i call people what they wish to be called.
I have a friend, "Mrs. Jones," who was married before; her name used to be "Mrs. Smith." Calling her Mrs. Smith now would be insulting, right? And when I introduce her to new people, the first thing out of my mouth isn't, "She's Mrs. Jones, but SHE USTA BE MARRIED TO THIS OTHER DUDE!" Respect for who she is now demands that we focus on the present. The past is not a secret, but there is such a thing as decency and kindness.
also, cait jenner was NEVER not going to be known for her earlier self. I'm glad she's embraced her whole history, but it's also true that she didn't have much choice.
Also, at what point is a person's earlier history important? I know a trans girl who is 19 years old; she stopped being seen as a boy at about age 6. should I go around telling everyone who she was when she was born?
> On the other hand, gender is also biology. And transsexuality clearly has biological and neurological components to it as well.
And yet, you have chosen to treat this not by the obvious solution of correcting the thought patterns to correspond to what physically exists, but the physical body to match the thoughts. Insane. It's like you have chosen to lobby for voting rights for the voices in a schizophrenic's head.
I am sure that I don't want to engage in a back and forth on this with you. But I would ask that you respect the transgender person's experience of being alive. You're saying that instead of going through a procedure that enabled me to have my insides and my outsides match, so that I could feel at ease with my self, that I should have somehow "corrected the thought patterns." I truly don't know what this means. My thoughts weren't wrong. And anyway, it wasn't thoughts: it was a complete sense of self, a soul, if you will. I can't imagine wanting "correction" so that I did not have my soul any more, can you? That sounds terrible.
I feel very lucky that I was able to achieve a sense of wholeness and happiness and completeness. I know it's hard to understand what trans people feel, but I am asking you to open your heart, and try to imagine.
If you were blind, and could have your sight restored, I reckon you would say, yes, please. You would do that in a heartbeat.