Over and over, during my time of transition, I kept hearing those same damning words: “What a terrible thing for her boys.”
The only phrase I heard more frequently was probably “You know who I feel sorry for is her wife.”
I was aware that my coming out as transgender would plunge my community here in Maine into unknown territory 14 years ago — a community of people whom I knew full well did indeed love me. But I chafed more than a little bit that the news of my emerging identity was seen as an occasion to feel pity for the people who appeared to love me most.
Now, almost a decade and a half later, it seems curious that anyone could have doubted the strength of the love that my wife and my sons had for me, that anyone could have questioned the love that we all had for each other. Back then, in 2000, the thought that we’d all thrive in this new version of our family was one possibility that no one considered.
But we have thrived. This fall my wife, Deirdre Grace, and I took our younger son off to begin his freshman year at the University of Rochester, where he’s studying astrophysics. His older brother is a theater major at Vassar. They are bright, luminous young men. One got straight A’s for four years running in high school; the other single-handedly directed Thorton Wilder’s Our Town his senior year and made several hundred people sitting in a theater cry their brains out. They’ve been successful with their relationships — with the girls they’ve dated as well as the lasting friendships they’ve sustained. They aren’t perfect boys any more than we were perfect parents. But they’re bright, generous, and full of beans. What better thing could you say about any soul?
My wife and I celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary this summer — 12 years as husband and wife, 14 as wife and wife. As I write this, she and I have just returned from Maine’s Common Ground Fair, where we took part in such radical, out-of-the-mainstream activities as eating burritos, watching a sheepdog demonstration, and listening to a bluegrass band.
I mention all of this because the question of what kind of families transgender people create is central to the most highly anticipated television show of the fall season, Jill Soloway’s Transparent (on which I served as a paid consultant). The pilot is available for free online now; the whole series is downloadable as of Friday from Amazon. There’s been a lot of buzz around the show, in part because Amazon seems to be taking the Netflix model one step further, in launching an online-only series that has the kind of sophistication and edge we’re more familiar seeing from the likes of HBO.
2014 has been a remarkable year of progress for transgender people. But one question that seems to still linger is the one at the heart of Transparent. What kind of messages are sent to children when they see their parents change gender? As one well-meaning friend said to me, back during the days of transition, “Who’s going to teach your son to mow the lawn and throw a football? Who’s going to teach your son how to be a man?”
What our family has learned, over the last 14 years, is that love transcends gender. And it is the love that our sons have received from both parents and from each other, that has made them who they are.
It’s true that I didn’t provide a role model for my boys on masculinity as they were growing up. But what I could model for them — compassion, a love for literature, a sense of humor — has helped make them better adults.
It is my own sense that having a father who became a woman has in turn helped my sons become better men.
Both violence and bullying are frequently the results of transgender people coming out, and I know many mothers and fathers whose children suffered at the hands of iron-hearted bigots in the wake of their parent’s coming-out. We need to educate principals and teachers and school board administrators to ensure that young people are safe in their school communities, no matter who their parents are.
But my own boys never experienced any trouble as a result of having me as a parent. While I’m aware that a healthy dose of luck — not to mention the general respect for privacy that can be one of the better aspects of the Yankee character — played in our favor, I also think that, perhaps, we were protected by the simple fact that I was so out from the very beginning. I was on Oprah four times; my book She’s Not There was a best seller; we all wound up, at various times over the years, on the Today show, on Larry King, and on Fresh Air With Terry Gross. The Boylan family was never like the Boo Radley house, a place to be shunned and feared.
Instead, we lived our lives openly, sending the message that we were proud of our family and that whatever made me different was a whole lot less important than the love that we shared.
In the years since then, what I’ve learned is that every family is a nontraditional family. You don’t have to dig very deep to find the many different burdens that all sorts of families carry and suffer with. But being a family is not about a race to find out who can have the fewest troubles. Being a family is about taking whatever life throws at you and doing your best, with love and humor. And pizza.
While Maura, the family patriarch on Transparent, is considerably older than I am (she’s 70), and her three children are all grown, she’s probably still wondering, as transgender parents do, what kind of parent she will be, as she negotiates the transition from father to mother.
I can tell her—and the thousands of other Mauras across the country — that with love and faith and hope, as we say in Maine, you can, indeed, get there from here.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN is the author of Stuck in the Middle With You: Parenthood in Three Genders (Random House) and She’s Not There, the first best-selling book by a transgender American. She is the Anna Quindlen writer-in-residence at Barnard College of Columbia University as well as national cochair of GLAAD.