Category Archives: Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan: 5 Things Not to Say to a Transgender Person. (And 3 Things You Should.)

Jennifer Finney Boylan GLAAD cochair and author of the Shebook, I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, offers up a list of cringe-worthy conversation no-no’s she’s encountered as a trans woman.

 1. “Hey, you! Have you had ‘the surgery’?”

This is kind of like someone coming up to you and asking about your vagina or penis. No, wait, it’s exactly like that. While there are some trans folks who are eager to start blabbering away about their nether regions, most of us consider our private parts, you know, private. Go figure.

2. “So you must love that Judith Butler!”

OK, so plenty of transgender people love Butler’s groundbreaking work, which has to be respected for (among other good reasons) the way it brought the phrase “gender binary” (as in “reject the gender binary”) into the vernacular. But there are plenty of us who kind of sigh when we encounter a sentence like, “If there is a sexual domain that is excluded from the Symbolic and can potentially expose the Symbolic as hegemonic rather than totalizing in its reach, it must be possible to locate this excluded domain either within or outside that economy and to strategize its intervention in terms of the placement.”

It’s worth remembering that for many trans people, our lives are not a clever academic theory, but a daily struggle against violence, a difficult search for dignity and respect. Make sure, if you’re talking to a trans person, that you are thinking of that person as an individual whose fight for identity is real, and not a person whose identity is some kind of scholarly abstraction.

3. “Do you love RuPaul? How about that Rocky Horror Picture Show!”

It’s important to understand the difference between drag culture and trans embodiment. The former can be about performance, exaggeration, and entertainment; the latter is about people’s actual lives. Plenty of transgender people have begun their journeys in the drag community, and you will find many trans folks who adore all of the subversive, transgressive energy that drag can bring. But many of are uneasy when our lives are mistaken for “performance,” and it’s disrespectful to trans people to conflate the two.

As for Rocky Horror, there’s another delightful piece of subversive drag culture, made more enjoyably depraved over the years by the legendary participation of its audiences at the film’s midnight screenings. All of that is great. But remember that while Frank N. Furter sings he’s a “transsexual transvestite from Transylvania,” he’s surely not an actual trans woman, any more than Al Jolson in blackface is actually Thurgood Marshall.

4. “Can you can have an orgasm?”

Again, getting kind of personal with this one, aren’t you? Most trans people, post-surgery, are perfectly capable of orgasm, but perhaps it’s understandable if this isn’t the first thing folks want to talk about with a stranger. Author Kate Bornstein, in answering this question, playfully observed, “The plumbing works and so does the electricity.” So OK, the answer turns out to be The Hell Yes. But whenever someone asks me this question, I think of the story of the guy who kept asking his parrot, “Can you talk? Can you talk?” and at last the parrot says, “Actually, yes, I can talk. Can you fly?”

5. “You know who I feel sorry for is your children.”

This is a classic way of being judgmental while pretending to be nonjudgmental. As it turns out, most trans people’s children are exactly as screwed up, or not, as anyone else’s children. But it isn’t having a trans parent that affects children, either for the better or for the worse.

What damages children is other people treating their family with disrespect.

Three Good Questions to Ask a Transgender Person

1. “How are you?”

By which I mean, approach a trans person with exactly the same respect and openheartedness you’d approach anyone else with. In the same way you wouldn’t begin a conversation with a stranger by inquiring about that person’s race, or spiritual beliefs, or politics, you probably wouldn’t want “So, you’re transgender?” to be the first words out of your mouth. Many of us would rather not talk about what makes us different, especially with strangers. Many of us would rather talk, at least at first, about the things we have in common.

2. “Do you mind if I talk to you about some gender stuff?

If you’ve established a rapport with a trans person and feel that the conversation has reached a point where Going There would be respectful, proceed with caution and see just how willing your new friend is to have at it. Most of us are happy to talk about the issues, at least in a general way, if we think we can do so in an atmosphere that feels safe.

3. “Are there books you’d recommend I read?”

When I first published my memoir She’s Not There, a dozen years ago, there were precious few books that seemed to address our issues with much subtlety or with any literary quality; that field was reserved pretty much for Kate Bornstein and her groundbreaking Gender Outlaw. Now there are lots of good books, by authors such as Helen Boyd, Jameson Green, Leslie Feinberg, and yes, Judith Butler. I published a memoir about being a transgender parent this spring, Stuck in the Middle with You, as well as the updated anniversary edition of She’s Not There, which includes a new epilogue by my wife, Deirdre Grace. Both of those books are available from Random House.

Two other recent standouts include Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, the first transition memoir to also address issues of gender theory, not to mention the unique challenges faced by trans people of color like Mock. And the brand-new Trans Bodies/Trans Selves, edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth (and with an introduction by me), is a 600-plus-page resource guide from Oxford University Press containing information on identity, love, transition, and politics, written by trans people for trans people.

Finally, your own Jenny Boylan has just published a new novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, now available exclusively from Shebooks. This novella tells the story of the Riley family, traveling from Maine to Washington, D.C., to see their young son perform “The Flight of the Bumblebee” at Ford’s Theatre. But most of the drama focuses on 16-year old Alex, a teenager who has just gone through transition. This is the first time I’ve written a piece of fiction for adults about trans identity, and I hope readers will find Alex an inspiring character, giving life, humor, and dignity to the experience of trans men and women.

I'll Give You Something to Cry About

Jennifer Finney Boylan is the Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University. A contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, she is also the national cochair of GLAAD. Her latest novella, I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, centers around a transgender teenager, is only available from Shebooks.

Jennifer Finney Boylan: “I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.” | Q&A

A conversation with best-selling transgender author and GLAAD cochair Jennifer Finney Boylan about her new Shebook I’ll Give You Something to Cry About.

 

What prompted you to write I’ll Give You Something to Cry About?

My sons had both gone on what they call the “Heritage Tour” in Maine, a rite of passage for middle schoolers, who travel around the East Coast seeing things like the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Statue of Liberty. I thought a road trip of a troubled but loving family, bound together by stops at those “sites of American Freedom,” as they’re called, would be interesting. And of course lead to complete bedlam.

Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

I’m known for writing about gender—men and women, and the choices of transgender people in particular. There’s a trans teenage girl in this family, formerly their son, whose journey I think provides a good measure of where we are, as a country, on acceptance of gender-variant young people.

That said, Alex is not me—she is much more courageous, sarcastic, and adventurous than I was, or would have been, had I been in her shoes when I was 16. Which gives me the opportunity to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you walk around in his heels.”

How do you think your transgender identity has influenced your writing?

Well, gender informs all of my writing. When I was a man, I wrote fiction. As a woman, I write mostly nonfiction. I am hopeful that some grad student is already at work analyzing the mind-numbing profundity of that.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a trans woman writer? How so?

I’ve certainly faced lots of struggle as a trans writer. There’s a particular skepticism some critics bring to trans writers’ lives and work; we have to defend and explain our gender a lot of the time. I think this is changing, but it’s been hard. I wonder sometimes if people will ever read my work for the story, rather than for the fact that a trans woman wrote it. But then, if I wanted that, I could try to keep my mouth shut for once. Like that’s going to happen.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

It was a very early dream. As early as fifth grade I remember amazing and disgusting my peers with the story of a car race through my teacher’s body; these were really tiny, almost microscopic cars, of course. The race began in my teacher’s mouth. You can imagine where we came out. Her name was Mrs. Fineli. She was not an early fan of my oeuvre.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

Like a lot of writers, I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

Well, writing about changing genders was almost as scary as doing it. I can say, however, that nothing taught me so much about a woman’s life as writing. It’s through telling our stories that our lives begin to make sense.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Write every day, including Christmas and New Year’s. When you’re just starting, quantity is a lot more important than quality. Then go back and revise. What’s that Hemingway advice—“Fail. Then fail better.”

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

As a memoirist, upsetting people is what Tiggers do best. I don’t like to upset people, of course, but I’m pretty fearless in terms of what I write about—as a trans woman I have to be. I think it was Annie Lamott who said something like, “I’m sorry if you didn’t like what I wrote, but maybe you should have been nicer to me.” I’ll write about anything, if there’s a good story in it. I think writers have to be fearless. The story is what matters.

How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?

These are all real places—the Liberty Bell Pavilion; the Gettysburg Battlefield; Ford’s Theatre. If you live on the East Coast and have middle-school-age children or teenagers, you’ve probably been there. And wished you were elsewhere.

Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?

If you know your characters, you have to follow them where they take you. And if they take you to a place you don’t know, you do the research—you go there and take notes. When you get home, you throw the notes away and just make the whole thing up.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

Starting this summer, I leave my job as professor of English at Colby College, where I’ve been for 25 years, and take up a new position as Anna Quindlen writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University in Manhattan.

When I was young, I worked in a bookstore in New York City. I sat at a desk beneath a sign that said, ASK ME ANYTHING. People would ask me all sorts of things. Usually I didn’t know the answer, so I’d make something up. Good training for a fiction writer. One time someone walked up to me and just asked, apropos of nothing, “Excuse me, where are all the Santa Claus suits?”

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I play the autoharp, Appalachian style. I’m pretty damned great at it. I also know a whole lot about the Gemini Project, which was the one before the Apollo program.

What is your favorite word right now?

Muslin. Just saying it gives me shivers. Flibbertigibbet is a very useful word also. I use it to describe my three most defining characteristics as a writer: a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown.

What or who inspires you most?

I always loved the work of James Thurber. If you want to go back further, I’m haunted by the poems of John Keats. Whose heart ached, and a drowsy numbness pained his sense.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?

Yes, I have an iPad, on which I use both the iBooks function as well as the Kindle app. I just finished Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief. I read on my device after dinner each night, for several hours before bed. It’s the best time to read, when you are already halfway into the realm of the unconscious.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve started a new novel, I have a new nonfiction book about the differences between men and women, and for young adults I’m working on Falcon Quinn three.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?

I play piano in a crappy rock ’n’ roll band. We are called the Stragglers, and the name is accurate. All of us have been thrown out of other bands. The fundamental rule about the Stragglers is that you can’t be thrown out of it. This should give you some sense of our talent.

Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?

From Huck Finn: “Blamed if she wasn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see. Then the duke took and wrote out on a shingle so: ‘Sick Arab. But harmless when not out of her head.’”

I'll Give You Something to Cry About