The trans experience — both the experience itself and the way we talk about it — has changed rapidly since 2003, when Jennifer Finney Boylan published her game-changing memoir, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. The book, one of the first best-sellers by a trans author, has gone on to become a seminal piece of the trans literary canon.
Looking back, Boylan notes a "faint aroma of apology" that colors certain aspects of the book. "I felt like I had to be apologetic. I felt like I had to say, 'I'm so sorry, but this is who I am.'" Now, almost 20 years later, thanks to the work of Jennifer Finney Boylan and many, many others, being trans is no longer a reason for apology.
In her new book, Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, Boylan returns to memoir to ask, "What does it mean to be a middle-aged woman who had a boyhood?" She makes sense of what that answer might look like with the help of Playboy, Sausage, Brown, Alex, Lucy, Ranger, and Matt the Mutt, each of the dogs that have been there with her through life's many transitions.
Jennifer Finney Boylan joins the LGBTQ&A podcast to talk about her new book, breaking from popular trans narratives, and why coming out felt like she "was opening the door to danger, to a process that might very well take my life."
The Advocate: Good Boy, where you describe your childhood as your "boyhood," is a good reminder that there isn't a single trans narrative that applies to all people.
Jennifer Finney Boylan: There are many transgender women who would not refer to the first part of their life as boyhood. That's really important to respect that. I hope it is OK to acknowledge that there are a lot of different ways of being trans. I came out publicly as trans when I was 40, which means that, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, I lived a boy's life or a man's life before that time. It wasn't something that I was particularly good at or was something that I particularly wanted, but I did experience it.
I’m 61 now. I've lived a third of my life as my own self. Here's what I'm trying to lead up to: What does it mean to be a middle-aged woman who had a boyhood? At least as far as other people were concerned.
What are the lessons of boyhood that I took with me? Not every lesson that I took with me from boyhood was necessarily a bad one. How do I make sense of it? Through the dogs. There were seven dogs that were at my side pre-transition; there's a dog for when I was a boyfriend and a husband and a father. I had all those experiences, and even though I can't exactly remember what that life was like, I definitely remember the dogs.
You started in the trans movement when we were still educating people about what trans meant. We're now able to talk more about how different each person’s experience can be.
My daughter is trans. No one was more surprised than I was when she came out. I think she would be the first person to tell you I was not the perfect transgender parent poster child at that moment. I was really concerned for her.
There was a lot of work that had to be done, and most of it by me. But one of the things that I really learned in that experience was that being trans, for someone coming out 20 years later than I did and almost 20 years younger than I am, it means something different.
When I came out as trans, I felt like I had to spend a couple of years explaining myself, educating people around me, because I was the first trans person that a lot of people had ever heard of. A lot of people thought that I'd made the whole thing up myself. For my daughter's generation and for my students' generation, it's a whole other thing. Being trans means that you can celebrate, you can be happy, and you can be trans exactly as you feel like. You don't have to jump through the hoops of various medical or psychological professions anymore.
Twenty years ago, celebrating being trans wasn’t part of the conversation.
No, I felt like I had to be apologetic. I felt like I had to say, "I'm so sorry, but this is who I am. I hope you'll understand me now. Please forgive me, really." If you read She's Not There, which continues to be a book I'm tremendously proud of, there's the faint aroma of apology about some parts of that book. That is not how many people experience being trans now.
One of the reasons I think people feel better about being trans — Can I say this? — is through the work that's been done by a lot of writers, including me. It does mean that sometimes there's a bit of melancholy for me that the world, which seems to be more understanding and celebratory, is a world that has come a little bit too late for me.
Before transition, you write about a voice in your head that repeated, “You are not you.” Did you always assign those feelings to gender?
I did, actually. It was specifically about the body that I was in, so it was not about femininity. As a woman, I've never been a fashion model, particularly. I've never really cared about clothes too much. The sense of not being myself was definitely a physical one.
If I came out as trans ... I mean, I'm not even sure I even knew what that word was. I felt if I came out or if I even applied that name to myself, that it would mean that I was opening the door to danger, to a process that might very well take my life.
Yet you still went forward with it.
Well, I was 40 years old by the time I got around to it. Everyone always says, "Oh, Jenny Boylan, you're so brave." Actually, you know who's brave? People who come out when they're 5, people who come out when they're 10 or 20.
I felt like I had tried every way I could of negotiating with the issue of being trans other than going into full transition. In the end, it was like, well, I've run out of choices. Although I'll also say that I'd reached a point in my life where I was being loved and protected by my partner, by my wife, Deedie. I was afraid I was going to lose her love when I came out as trans, but in fact, it was her love that in the end gave me the courage to open the door that had to be opened.
You write about the enormous love you have for your wife. Is that the language the two of you use when talking to each other?
I'll have to be honest that my wife and I don't talk about love that often. We live it. Every day we get up and we have coffee together. She walks the dog. She's the one who walks the dog in the morning.
At the end of the day, we come together and sometimes will have a cocktail and say, "So, how was it?" Our lives revolve around, in the winter, the fireplace, and in the summer, the front porch. I don't think we talk about love a lot, which is maybe just as well, but we do live it every day.
Do you have a grand secret to your longevity?
We've been married 32 years this year. Twelve as husband and wife, 20 as wife and wife. I don't know. I think we're just stubborn people. I don't know what helps keep relationship together, but I know meals are good. We've always had our meals together. We spend a lot of time sitting around the dinner table talking and telling stories and telling jokes.
In Good Boy, you write that being in love has always been a thousand times more important than sex to you.
I want to make sure … I'm sex-positive too. But it's more important for me to be in love. I was never somebody, in either gender, who could just have sex without thinking about it. It always felt like a very precious thing to me, my body. Maybe it's because I had to spend so much time negotiating with my body and who I was in relationship to that body.
And it's not because I didn't like sex. I love sex. Let the record show, Jenny Boylan recommends sex.
Back in the day, in college, I would go home with a lot of women and what I'd want to do is snuggle and read books of poetry in bed. I think I was having lesbian relationships, except the women that I was with didn't know it. Awkward for them, awkward for me.
Whatever I believe about love or sex, it's unique to me. It doesn't strike me as a philosophy to guide anyone else in the world because this is not a road map to anywhere except my own heart. It served me well, but everybody else has to find their own way.
Jennifer Finney Boylan's new book, Good Boy, is available now.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Alok Vaid-Menon, Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Lili Reinhart, and Roxane Gay. Episodes come out every Tuesday.