Transgender Author-Activist Jennifer Finney Boylan Continues to Open Minds

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Author and political activist Jennifer Finney Boylan has been busy as she continues to raise awareness and spread acceptance for the transgender community. (James Bowdoin photo)
Author and political activist Jennifer Finney Boylan has been busy as she continues to raise awareness and spread acceptance for the transgender community. (James Bowdoin photo)

“What is a transsexual Republican, anyway? The answer, of course, is someone who thinks a little too much about their private sector.” — Jennifer Finney Boylan

Long before Jeffrey Tambor and “Transparent” or Bruce Jenner on Diane Sawyer, there was trailblazing writer and political activist Jennifer Finney Boylan. Boylan has been a guest on TV and radio shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (four times!), “Larry King Live,” “Today,” the “Barbara Walters Special” and a documentary on CBS News’ “48 Hours.” So it is no surprise that Boylan is in great demand for speaking engagements; this month alone, she has had three biggies.

Boylan is the author of 13 books including “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” a memoir that became the first bestseller written by a transgender author. She is a contributing writer for The New York Times Opinion page, and her articles have appeared in way too many top magazines to list here. Boylan’s books include three memoirs, three novels, a collection of short stories and six young adult novels. And, as if that isn’t enough, she is currently the inaugural Anna Quindlen writer-in-residence at Barnard College.

She was born James Boylan in 1958, and 30 years later, she married Deirdre “Deedie” Boylan and had two sons. In 2000, Boylan very publicly began her male-to-female transition. Her marriage has stayed strong and intact, and Boylan has played a huge role in educating the public about acceptance and support for the transgender community.

“The last year … has been remarkable in the changes that we’ve seen in the culture. We’ve seen Jeffrey Tambor in ‘Transparent’ [and] we’ve seen Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine.” — Jennifer Finney Boylan

Following is a roundup of what Boylan’s been up to this month, including snippets of her never-ending inspiration.

May 1: The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA)

There was an enthusiastic roar from the crowd for Boylan after she opened her keynote speech at ASJA at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. It was a foreshadowing to the standing ovation she would receive at the end. Her speech, “Connecting Hearts: Storytelling & Social Change,” began:

“When I do events like this and speak to people, I often think back to a reading I gave at a bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard, now many years ago, when ‘She’s Not There’ first came out [2003]. As some of you know, Martha’s Vineyard is small. There are only two bookstores on the island, so I was going to give a reading at one of them … It was a beautiful day, and I spent the day riding a bike, then [I] show up at the bookstore … and there’s the owner of the bookstore with this kind of depressed, sad expression, and I said, ‘Why the long face?’ She said, ‘Wouldn’t you know, at the last second, [the other bookstore] scheduled a reading at this exact time.’ Of course, I thought, who is going to see that when they can come see me? She said, ‘It is Hillary Clinton,’ which made me think that the only people that would come to my reading would be transsexuals and Republicans. And, in some cases, transsexual Republicans, which raised the question, what is a transsexual Republican, anyway? The answer, of course, is someone who thinks a little too much about their private sector.”

The crowd went crazy.

Freelance journalist Randy Dotinga, the first openly gay ASJA president since the organization’s inception 67 years ago, told the room, “Jenny’s message is crucial for independent writers. As freelancers and authors, we often get distracted by the day-to-day grind and forget we hold tremendous power as storytellers. Our work can transform the world for the better.”

I was especially moved by Boylan’s remarks about feeling suicidal when she was younger. I can relate. Our reasons were different but, like Boylan, I, too, would like to tell my younger self, “It will get better. It will not always hurt the way it does.” At the end of the speech, with a tear in my eye, I told Boylan how much she inspires me. She gave me her warm, radiant smile, and we chatted for a while despite the long train of other people who wanted to thank her, too.

Jenny Boylan at a speaking engagement. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Finney Boylan)
Jenny Boylan at a speaking engagement. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Finney Boylan)

May 9: The Annual GLAAD Media Awards

This year’s 26th Annual GLAAD Media Awards were held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. These awards recognize and honor the media for its fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the LGBT community and the issues that affect their lives. The awards also fund GLAAD’s work to amplify stories from the LGBT community that build support for acceptance. While introducing “Transparent” stars Judith Light and Jeffrey Tambor, and in celebration of Mother’s Day, Boylan described her coming-out conversation with her mother.

“So, there I was, in the house I’d grown up in, coming out as transgender to my 85-year-old mother, an evangelical Christian, a Republican, a nice suburban lady who did needlepoint and drove a Lexus. She didn’t know the difference between a transgender woman and the Trans-Siberian railroad. I kind of had a feeling that my coming out as trans wasn’t going to be the high point of her week. Quite frankly, I had a strong suspicion that she wasn’t going to want to know me any more.

“When I started to cry, however, my little mother got up out of her chair and put her arms around me and said, ‘I would never turn my back on my child. I will always love you. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re gay, or lesbian, or, well, whatever you are. The important thing is this: Love will prevail.’

“And I said, ‘But Mom, won’t it be embarrassing for you when everyone finds out I’m your daughter now?’ And she said, ‘Well, quite frankly, yes. But I will adjust.’

“Later that night, as I headed for bed, she kissed me and said, ‘You need to tell your story. Because no matter what, it’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.’”

“My mother passed away five years ago at the age of 94, still Republican, still an evangelical Christian and forever a transgender ally.”

May 15: The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute (WTCI)

On Friday, I asked WTCI faculty member Anne Wennerstrand to describe the organization’s mission statement. “The WTCI is evolving as an Institute to respond to the needs of non-binary, gender-variant communities via our professional training programs, workshops and lectures for the public,” she replied.

On why Boylan was chosen as this year’s speaker Wennerstrand said, “We have an annual tradition of honoring Laurie Phillips, a beloved faculty member who died of breast cancer in 1995. As an organization dedicated to mental health, we also have an equally strong commitment to social justice and equality. Each year, we honor notable feminist thinkers and practitioners who have made significant contributions to our notions of gender. We invited Jenny this year to honor her for her advocacy, feminism and unwavering dedication to civil rights.”

Wennerbrand then shared the WTCI’s definition of feminism. “To practice feminism is to believe in basic human and civil rights and equality for all regardless of gender. Jenny, through writing and advocacy embodies the definition of social justice. Jenny expands our knowledge, but more importantly, our hearts and helps us understand how to be true allies for feminism and the trans community.”

“Through her writing and speaking, Jenny [Boylan] helps raise awareness of the extremely high suicide risk and other vulnerabilities of trans youth.” — Anne Wennerstrand, Faculty member, WTCI

After the event, I asked Wennerstrand what the highlights of the evening were for her. “Jenny gave an enormously generous, funny, smart and heart-filled talk. She read from her memoir and talked about her own transition,” she said. “She took many questions from the audience, which included many trans folks, and reflected on the vulnerabilities of being in a female body and how that differs from being male. And she specifically reflected on the pressures and objectification of women’s bodies in society. The highlight for me was at the end when she led the audience in singing ‘The Water is Wide’ in memory of Laurie Phillips.”

May will continue to be jam-packed for Boylan. Here’s an excerpt from a recent update on her website:

“I’m scheduled to continue my life of travel for another few weeks: off to my 35th college reunion on May 22 and 23rd; from there to my hometown of Devon, PA, right after that; back to NYC for the night of May 27, where I’m being feted along with Anna Quindlen in a tribute for Barnard College; and from there back to California for GLAAD’s May board meeting.  I’m doing a road trip in CA after that before finally arriving back in Maine about June 9 or 10, where I hope to spend a large part of this summer sitting on a fishing boat staring at the still, quiet waters.”

You go, girl! The world is a better place with you in it, Jenny!

Watch Boylan at the 2015 GLAAD Media Awards:

Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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