“The dilemma of the transsexual”

Jennifer Finney Boylan is an author, an activist, a mother, and a transgender person. Like all Americans, her identity is complex. Boylan shares her experience of coming to terms with her identity in the memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. Born as James Boylan in 1958, Jennifer internally knew her gender was female. She constantly hid her gender identity from an early age and looked for ways to “fix” her internal struggle. Growing up as a boy, Boylan looked for “cures,” such as love from his friends and family or sexual encounters with girls. The fact that Boylan focuses on her own internal struggle in this memoir shows how pervasive the rejection of LGBT culture is in our society. Before anyone ever expressed disapproval of transgender people to Boylan or before she realized laws did not exist to protect her rights as an American citizen, she knew others would not understand or accept her identity. As she explains,

“What it [gender] is, more than anything else, is a fact. It is the dilemma of the transsexual, though, that it is a fact that cannot possibly be understood without imagination.” [1]

Boylan begins her memoir by meeting a former student from a college course she taught, Love, Literature, and Imagination. In the class, Boylan mostly covered the “mythic hero” and “people trying to find the courage to do something impossible.” [2] This line sets a precedent for the work in showing Boylan’s experience in reconciling with her biological sex and her gender identity. She knew from an early age to  internalize her questions of identity, “as a child I surely understood enough about my condition to know it was something I’d better keep private.”[3] The courage necessary for James Boylan to openly become Jennifer Boylan says a great deal about our society’s level of tolerance and acceptance.

Reading Boylan’s work made me wonder how our ideas of the norm present barriers for those who do not fit in categories we have created as a heteronormative society. Boylan’s work She’s Not There provides a bridge for audiences, much like myself, who do not have a thorough understanding of the transgendere experience. Boylan eloquently explains that being transgender is not a choice or a lifestyle, “being transgendered is about identity.”[4] The theme of courage reappears throughout Boylan’s work and inspires her activism for transgender equality. In May 2007, Boylan spoke to the National Press Club about the world she wanted to “wake up to.” She describes a society where transgender people do not face discrimination for their identity, but are seen as humans with something valuable to add to democracy. She envisions a world where transgender people, or gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, can come out without fear of losing their job or experiencing hate crimes. [5] Boylan works to achieve this world through her service as co-chair for the board of GLAAD, an organization that exposes the challenges to equality the LGBT community faces through media coverage and representation in entertainment. GLAAD’s mission of educating the public and influencing the media’s presentation of the LGBT community works to promote understanding, increase acceptance, and advance equality. [6] The work of organizations like this expose deeply held stereotypes and misunderstandings of the LGBT community and cause us to think about what equality means in a country labeled “the land of the free.”

Boylan’s memoir illuminates the challenges imposed by society that transgender people face. Boylan does not tell stories of violent hate crimes or active discrimination she experienced in her memoir. Rather she shows the subtle ways our society creates difficulties for people who do not fall within a prescribed norm. There is the fear of losing a job or not being able to find employment if openly identified as transgender. There is the cruel possibility that friends and families may turn away and reject a person’s identity, a reality that cannot be governed by law. Boylan’s work provides greater understanding to the internal struggles of a transgender person but perhaps more importantly the work questions why transgender people should struggle at all. Why is it that Boylan at an early age knew with conviction that her gender identity was female but also knew it was better to keep this private? Recognizing the entrenched notions that create barriers for our fellow citizens can help us break them.


[1] Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 22.

[2] Ibid, 4.

[3] Ibid, 21.

[4] Ibid, 21.

[5] Jennifer Finney Boylan, “I Want to Wake Up” (speech, National Press Club, May 2007), There From Here,  http://www.jenniferboylan.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/pressclubspeech1.pdf.

[6] “GLADD’s Mission,” GLAAD, http://www.glaad.org/about#mission.

Image: © 2007 Photos by James Bowdoin

15 thoughts on ““The dilemma of the transsexual”

  1. One thing that struck me is that Boylan said homosexuality was a sexual orientation, not an identity. This does not sound like something someone would say if they were part of the LBGT movement, since it runs contrary to what many homosexuals and bisexuals would say. It seemed like Boylan only supported one of the movements wholeheartedly. It reminded me of a gay man I know who finds transgender people creepy: I found both of these remarks a little strange because we associate transgenders with homosexuals. I could very well be wrong in my impression about what Boylan’s affiliations are, but that doesn’t change the fact that transgenders and homosexuals may not be as similar as we think they are.

    1. It makes sense that Boylan said homosexuality was a sexual orientation. I wonder if it could be that people are using their sexual orientation as their main identity as a reaction to the rejection society gives them? Overall, your comment made me think of a webcomic I read a couple of years ago. I thought I’d share it with you.. http://www.darcomic.com/2009/06/23/identity/ (It’s just the artist’s personal changes through time.)

      1. I really like that comic. To me it shows not just a transition of personal identity but also brings up the question of how labels identify a person and sometimes cause more trouble then being un-labled. Maybe it is that we don’t have enough labels to encompass all of the differences in humanity or maybe it is that we are to preoccupied with labeling people.

    2. I think the point that Boylan makes, and the point that many of the LGBTQ activists I know make, is that outsiders have conflated the transgender community and the queer community as the same. Also outsiders often confuse drag culture with transgender identity. Because they have been treated similarly and are classified the same by mainstream society, they have formed a messy coalition to gain political rights. Within the LGBTQ activist community there are power struggles between groups with conflicting goals, just like any other coalition.

      Homosexuality is definitely not an identity marker, and I don’t really know anyone personally who would identify as a “homosexual.” Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer…these are identity labels that people take on as a personal (and often political) statement against an oppressive system. Audrey Lorde, for example, identified as a lesbian while she was married to the father of her two children. She obviously had sex with men (though she had many sexual relationships with woman also), but she identified with the lesbian community.

      Mainstream culture is uncomfortable with difference in many ways and gender nonconformity is no exception. Personal politics over sex and gender are not as simple as women vs. man or gay vs. straight. Most people, even those straight/cis identified, fall beyond those binaries.

      1. “Within the LGBTQ activist community there are power struggles between groups with conflicting goals, just like any other coalition.” Jillian, this comment makes me think about the scene from “Angels in America” when Henry informs Roy that he has AIDS. Roy cannot accept that he has AIDS, a disease that “homosexuals have.” I bring this up because he frames this rationale in relation to his professional identity–a successful lawyer with considerable “clout”–suggesting he was well aware of identity labels’ effects on political power.

      2. I agree with your sentiments Jillian. People do not and should not have to use their sexual orientation as an identity marker. Mainstream society has unfortunately brought these views on the LGBTQ community thus giving the impression that it is a form of identity, they all have the same struggles and that they are all the same.

  2. The Philadelphia History Museum had a community gallery exhibit a little while ago called Private Lives in Public Spaces (http://www.philadelphiahistory.org/node/594). Your point, Emily, about how even as a child, Boylan knew to hide her gender identity. People are forced to keep their differences private. So how do we help break these barriers? Talk about them. Include people who are different in the conversation. This exhibit was well received by the LGBT community in Philadelphia, many of whom left really touching, heartfelt notes about how they never had seen their inclusion in another exhibit in the city.

    1. Thanks for sharing this example Emily! I think inclusion of diverse communities in museums is important for generating understanding and empathy. In this class we’ve talked a lot about the need to educate oneself on the issues other face and not relying on a person with a perceived identity to be the spokesperson for a single group or shared experience. I think exhibits like this are helpful in enabling us to understand experiences outside our own and being informed about the issues many people face. These exhibits can also be effective in inspiring a call to change like we’ve discussed in other posts.

  3. I agree with Stephenie. Our current society has the tendency to see gender and sexuality as major components of a person’s identity, which is true; however our personal understanding of our identity can vary greatly from the image created by others. Jennifer’s sexuality was an important component of her identity, but the core struggle for much of her life had been repressing her gender identity. While others ascribed great importance to both her gender identity and sexuality, Jennifer was more concerned with being given labels representative of the gender she identified with rather than any concerns over how her sexual orientation was labelled. Much like the misinformed belief that people of another ethnicity are representative of other members of that ethnicity, we have to remember that people who have a particular sexual identity do not always ascribe as much importance to that part of their identity as we predict they would.

    1. I agree with your point Keith, and back to Stephenie’s point too, that our society ties gender and sexuality with a person’s identity. I think this goes back to our class discussions where we have a need to label and keep people in clear cut categories, even though that is impossible. Any time you take a survey or fill out information for a doctor you are asked basic categorical questions. What is your race? Your gender? Your sexual orientation? Unfortunately we are tied to these categorical definitions in our society and I don’t see this changing in the near future.

      1. I agree, Michelle. What do you think these basic categorical questions really tell someone about us? They do give a snapshot of parts of who we are, particularly in a medical sense. Perhaps that’s part of the problem- so much of identity is connected to our biological composition, which effects how we perceive the societal composition of identity?

      2. Michelle- your comment brings up how these binaries are codified in our society. Those boxes always make me feel uncomfortable; giving someone you don’t really know a sketch of who you are based on a somewhat arbitrary checklist diminishes the complexity of identity.

  4. I like your comment on the courage it takes, Emily. Some people look at the transgender dilemma and admire how gutsy it is in our society to make that decision. On the most base level, Jennifer just chose what she wanted. If you look back on any life decision, you may find that choosing what you want is a lot harder than it appears. Society may feel better about some choices over others, but personal convictions and obligations to others still play a huge part in how we choose. Does it take a certain kind of person to have that courage?

    1. I think you’re right, Patrick. For any one of us it takes courage to follow what truly makes us happy. This is certainly a struggle we can all identify with. In the case of Jennifer, I think she is a very strong individual. To answer your question, I think we all have the capability to find the courage to live the lives we deserve, but it is up to all of us to work on creating a society that makes it easier for us to each find this strength.

    2. I’d be interested in a museum exhibit on this topic. Going back to a conversation on one of the other threads, could it be done without seeming like the museum is taking a stance on the issue? I don’t think that would necessarily be a bad thing, but still.

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