Category Archives: Sex and sexuality

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.

Barbara Graham: Is sexual abuse at the hands of women the last taboo?

In her haunting Shebook memoir Camp Paradox, writer Barbara Graham grapples with the realization that the “love affair” she’d believed she’d shared with her 28-year-old female camp counselor as a preteen was actually sexual abuse. In this fascinating tell-all interview, which recently aired on HuffPost Live, Graham speaks candidly about her memoir and the notably unspoken issue of abuse at the hands of women.

Enjoy the program? Read the rest of the story by downloading Barbara Graham’s memoir Camp Paradox, only at Shebooks!

CampParadox

Nine questions about sex with Jessica Anya Blau

An Interview by Marion Winik

Jessica Anya Blau, author of the best-selling novel The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, recently came out with a sexy new Shebook titled Mating Calls. Here Blau sits down with former NPR commentator and fellow Shebooks author Marion Winik (Guesswork) for a quick and dirty interview.

blau

Why do you like to talk about sex so much?

Well, I didn’t realize that I like to talk about sex so much. I like talking to people. I’m interested in people. And sex is a lot of who they are. So I’m interested in that.

Yes, but you seem to turn the subject to, say, labia, much more frequently than other people I know.

No, I don’t! Do I? But, really, aren’t labia way more interesting than, say, the water commissioner? Or…people’s kids’ lacrosse tournaments?

OK, if you’re not obsessed, then why “The Six Question Sex Interview”? You could be asking people about their protagonists and their metaphors and their literary influences, but instead you’re asking them about their orgasms!

Well, that wasn’t deliberate. What happened was I was interviewing James Magruder, who wrote a hilarious novel about growing up in the ’70s as a gay, horny, kid. And—

Sugarless! I just bought my third copy! I keep loaning it to people who don’t give it back.

Right, it’s a great, funny book. And when I was interviewing Jim, the subject kept turning to sex, and somehow it worked its way to a story he told me about being a young gay man and having some guy stick a candle up his ass—

Because Jim Magruder is that rare person who likes to talk about sex even more than you do. He’s told stories like that candlestick one in front of my kids at the dinner table!

Ha ha! OK, yes, so he’s willing to say anything anywhere. And I’m always willing to talk about other people’s sex lives. I don’t talk about my own sex life because I’m sort of shy about my personal life, and I have two kids. Anyway, I finished the interview with him and I titled it “Six Question Sex Interview with James Magruder.” The editors loved it and have kept it as a regular thing on the Nervous Breakdown ever since.

The Wonder Bread Summer begins, literally, with a large, exposed penis. I’m sure most readers will wonder, as they did with the ickier sex moments in your previous works, if there is an autobiographical basis for that. Did that, or anything like that, ever happen to you? How have you handled unwanted or scary male attention in your own life?

The opening scene happened in some version to me. I was working at a little boutique on the Oakland-Berkeley border, and as the summer progressed, I eventually realized that the boutique was a front for cocaine dealing. The owner of the shop seemed like a nice, cool guy. He dressed exquisitely and he wore a beeper. At some point in the summer he started pulling out his dick. No one was ever in the store, so he’d just unzip his slacks and whip it out.

It was sort of terrifying, and I was only 20 and wasn’t sure how to respond. He liked to talk about his dick while he was holding it out, and since I wasn’t sure how to act I did stupid things like laugh and say, “Oh, you should put that away because customers might come in.” You know, silly things like that. I found that from puberty on, there was a continuous stream of attention like that that I never quite knew how to handle.

It was a different time. We weren’t raised with the “unwanted touch” lessons that my kids have had. And it was rare to report that kind of stuff. I think that most women of my generation and all the generations above mine dealt with this stuff for a number of years. You deal with it until you become wise enough to look someone in the eye and reduce their power, their power over you.

So you’ve pretty much always been able to neutralize the ray guns?

Well, no, I was always fumbling and terrified, and I would laugh or make a joke or something. I mean, there was the teacher in high school who pushed his hard-on into my ass before class started and whispered in my ear, “I can’t wait until you’re 18, Blau.” I rushed away and never came to class early. And there was the teacher in college who showed up in my room when I was in bed sick and lunged at me on the bed, and I pushed him off and said something about having bronchitis or being contagious, oh and something about him being married, and he said, “My wife doesn’t mind!”

There were the numerous penises that came out—a housemate’s brother’s, for example; while talking to him alone in a room, he just whipped it out. I remember that it was extraordinarily pink. And he was a great-looking guy, someone I probably would have hooked up with until that moment. When he pulled his dick out, I just laughed nervously and then lied about having a boyfriend.

My God, there was the guy who delivered pizza to my friend’s house when her parents were out of town when I was only 13. He was 24 or 25. He sat next to me on the couch and whispered in my ear all night, and I was terrified but transfixed. He used words I’d never even heard up to that moment.

Eventually I did figure out how to neutralize these unwanted encounters. The people who do these kinds of things choose well; they don’t choose people who are onto them. And after experiencing and studying people for so long, you can figure out who’s who pretty quickly.

I can see how those experiences played out in the development of Allie, who has a sexually abusive boss and an emotionally abusive boyfriend. But, you also give her one off-the-charts amazing sexual experience. 

Well, yes, because great sex is great, right? She has sex with Billy Idol, and it is purely joyous sex. And he doesn’t force it on her, he asks her. And, of course, she says yes. Wouldn’t you? I think sex can be incredible with anyone who is genuinely interested in you as a complete person. Great sex is one of the biggest joys on earth. I mean, don’t you feel better and happier when you’re having sex? It’s a wonderful way not to think, a way to eliminate neurosis and self-centeredness, eliminate the me me me me me from your consciousness. It’s great to be out of yourself.

Yes! But does great sex have to be with a rock star? Doesn’t great sex make us all rock stars?

Absolutely! And when you’re in love, the person you’re in love with is like a rock star. In the book, Allie has great sex with her boyfriend before he dumps her. But that sex is in the past—it happened before the start of the book, she only remembers back to it. Maybe the best thing about sex is that it is all equal. There’s nothing about being a rock star and going on world tour that makes you any better when it comes to sex. What’s wonderful about Billy Idol and Allie is that they both see the experience for what it is. She has no illusions of running off and marrying him, and he has no illusions of being worshiped. Yes, she’s starstruck at first, and even during the event, but each of them is coming to it in a totally genuine and honest way.

This interview originally appeared on the Nervous Breakdown.

 

Jessica Anya Blau is author of the Shebook, Mating Calls

Mating Calls