Seeing and Believing through Jennifer Boylan’s Eyes
Noted trans author to keynote Unity Banquet.
I’m looking through you, where did you go?
I thought I knew you, what did I know?
You don’t look different, but you have changed,
I’m looking through you, you’re not the same.
—John Lennon/Paul McCartney
The meaning and inspiration behind the Beatles song, “I’m Looking Through You,” differs from that of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s latest memoir of the same title, but one notion is shared: the idea of looking back at the past and questioning, so that you can move forward, understanding and making peace.
Certainly we’ve all felt haunted at some point in our lives, whether it be by a mass of gray mist floating down the hallway, mistakes we might have made in our past, or by a heavy, unsettling feeling that lingers for a significant period of time within our bodies and our minds, alerting us that something just isn’t right. Jennifer Finney Boylan, professor of English at Colby College, parent of two bright boys, Paddy and Luke, lover of her spouse, Grace, and author of the critically acclaimed memoir, She’s Not There (2003), invites you to indulge in her new memoir, I’m Looking Through You , which was released earlier this year.
The book largely centers around Boylan, as a young James, living in her family’s dilapidated Victorian mansion in Philadelphia, haunted by a secret with which she was uncertain how to deal. Like the peculiar house of her childhood, Boylan was haunted by spirits. In particular, a female spirit—her own in a boy’s body. At the heart of the book, she says, is the notion that all of us change over time. She poses: How do we make peace with the people we have been? How do we see our lives as one story, rather than a series of sub-stories, or as a Before, and an After?
Boylan is a thoughtful storyteller. Her stories read as though she’s your favorite aunt, worldly and brimming with character. Instead of homemade cherry pie, Boylan serves a warm, generous slice of Transgender American culture in an honest, emotional, and lighthearted setting. She consistently writes with grace and humor.
Boylan wrote some of the stories in I’m Looking Through You years ago, but she couldn’t publish them because they would have outed her, and that just wasn’t part of the plan at the time. “The rest of it I wrote in a summer house during a cold winter,” she shares. Charming, is it not?
She points out that there aren’t many professional writers who are writing about transgender issues or stories. “I was less interested, originally, in writing about gender theory than in tale-telling,” she confesses, “although over time, the story has become the theory.” She considers it a strategy, believing people tend to understand more rapidly hearing stories than they do from “long harangues about the binary.”
The truth is, it’s not only heterosexuals who tend not to understand the binary of which Boylan refers, but also very much the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. Being transgender is not an issue of sexuality. Rather, it is one of identity. So if it’s an issue of identity, why is it often grouped with homosexuality and bisexuality? Boylan jokes, “I wasn’t around when the groups were being formed.”
On a serious note, she continues, “There is some question as to whether it makes sense for us all to sail beneath the same flag. Until the debacle with HRC and the Employment Non-Discrimination bill last fall, there was the sense that we were all allies because we all had a common goal, and that we’d watch each other’s backs. Now it’s less clear, although I for one am hopeful we’ll all somehow find a way of fighting together, and moving forward.”
Boylan shares a little about her transition, noting that it was always about femaleness, rather than femininity. It was about the female body parts: breasts, a vagina, and a clitoris. “It was less about clothes, or behavior, or any of the other socially constructed forms of femininity.”
Early in her transition, she went through a second adolescence, as she calls it, trying to figure out what behaviors reflected her gender identity. Most trans people in transition go through a phase like this, she says, and it’s not pretty. She claims to have the same luxury that non-trans people do. She asserts, “If you’re not trans in this culture, you’re largely free from having to think about what gender you are in, the same way that if you’re white, you’re free from having to think about what race you are.”
Besides the obvious, is there a difference between a woman and a transgender woman? Rather, should there be a difference? For Boylan, the short answer is her history and 40 years of male socialization.
“The fact that I didn’t want that privilege, or that socialization, is perhaps not the important thing,” Boylan says. “I had it. And that has affected who I have become. And so, I would suggest that trans women need to own up to this—it does make us different.”
Boylan continues by asserting that that difference is not a bad thing—that it is something to accept and be proud of. “On a good day, I feel that this history is a gift; it has surely enabled me to see things most other men—and women—don’t get to see.”
The best thing about Boylan’s writing is her earnestness. Expect her to paint truths to the best of her recollection, but there exists an added quality of intimacy that creates an air of trust between the reader and Boylan, not regarding only her writing, but of emotion—hers and yours. She reveals, “It is hard to be different in this culture, and there are times when I do kind of wish I were like everyone else. That makes me blue. And then it passes.”
When Boylan was a child, she wanted to be like her idol, James Thurber, praised American humorist and cartoonist who experienced an unfortunate accident in childhood that eventually led to his complete blindness. At age 49, Boylan’s wish had been granted. “Like Thurber, I can hardly see.”
Note to Ms. Boylan: On the contrary, you can see what we cannot, and write to what we can only aspire.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, is the keynote speaker for the 2008 Houston Transgender Unity Banquet. Presented by the Houston Transgender Unity Committee, a consortium of area trans organizations, the April 26 dinner will be held at Sheraton Houston Brookhollow, 3000 North Loop West.
Tickets are $50 in advance ($60 at the door) and may be purchased through Ticketweb via the Unity Committee website. Tickets are also available at Vanity: A Trans-formation Studio (1442 Yale, 832/767-3252). Proceeds from ticket sales support the Peggy Rudd Transgender Scholarship Fund, which for the third year will award scholarships to trans-identified students pursuing higher education. Details: www.htuc.org.
Joyce Gabiola contributed to OutSmart’s 2008 People To Watch spotlight in January, interviewing musician Evrim Baykal.