I remember the day well. My partner Billy and I were in Savannah, Georgia to visit his mother Sarah. It was the middle of summer, the heat and humidity making a bad Chicago day seem like a walk in the park. What to do when your only thought is how to get from one air conditioned place to the next? This is when a large chain bookstore starts to look particularly attractive.
So there we were enjoying the incomparable coolness of the local Barnes & Noble, when, quite randomly, I happened on Jennifer Boylan’s book She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. I had never heard of the author, and, prior to this moment, had not really paid much attention to the literature on transgendered folks. For a scholar working in the field of lesbian/gay studies, this is actually a rather embarrassing admission – but as is so often the case in the academy, ever-increasing specialization can lead to a peculiar kind of myopia.
She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders
I started to read – and within a few minutes, I was in the strange, yet utterly delightful, space you enter when a book takes complete control of you. The account of Boylan’s transition from James to Jennifer literally opened a new world to me. To be sure, there were some similarities to the gay experience, including the “closet” and the question of family acceptance. But I was struck by the differences. If we set aside the overheated rhetoric, homosexuality, after all, is really just a “benign variance,” a perfectly healthy circumstance comparable to left-handedness. Those of us who are able to transcend the shackles of homophobia to live openly lesbian/gay lives really don’t have to do that much, comfortable as we are with our bodies and desires.
Not so if you are transgendered. As Boylan taught me, the recognition and acceptance of being transgendered is hardly a liberation. On the contrary, it creates an acute sense of being imprisoned in a totally alien body. To read about the decades Boylan spent negotiating this predicament is as heart-breaking as it is eye-opening.
For me, it was the inspiration to delve deeper into the field. And while there are a number of very fine books on the topic – I am particularly fond of Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States – as well as such excellent films as Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica, Boylan’s She’s Not There remains my favorite. As only the very best writers can do, Boylan uses one story, in this case her own, to illuminate an entire world, changing the way we understand ours in the process.
Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry
Felicity Huffman in Transamerica
I have never met Jennifer Boylan. And I can’t wait to hear her lecture at CHF so that I can thank her in person for teaching me so much.
#401: Sun, Nov. 7 10:00 - 11:00 AM
Tags: gender, sexuality, lgbtqa, anthropology