Transition: A Universal Experience

We all have things about ourselves that we wish we could change. For transgender people, this anxiety is amplified by the disconnect between the inner being and physical body. While reading Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, I was struck by the on-going process the character takes from child to adult, from male to female, and from James to Jennifer, as well as the change in those around her.

The dictionary defines transition as “passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another,” or simply “change.” [1] Transition is also the term used to describe the process of making a permanent change of gender. Jennifer’s transition is much longer than this formal process, however. Beginning as a young boy, Jennifer, then James, dresses in her mother and sister’s clothing. Of the experience, she writes, “dressing up was a start; it enabled me to use the only external cues I had to mirror how I felt inside. Yet it was the thing inside I wanted to express.” [2] At this early stage, Jennifer realizes that she is different. She recognizes her internal self is distinct from the one that appears in the mirror. Attempting to rectify this dissonance by changing her attire, she realizes that this is not sufficient.

As an adult, she is able to make the brave decision to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Even after she is in the appropriate physical body for her inner being, she still has some adjusting to do. In the parking lot after a concert, a drunken man attempts to assault her. Unsure of what to do, she calls it “immersion learning.” [3] She is able to push him away and escape. In her physical state as a man, she had not had deal with unwanted male advances or violence toward women. Even though she has spent her life as a woman internally, the physical aspects and experiences most women have are still new to her.

One of the most difficult transitions Jennifer faces is exterior. This struggle is gaining acceptance from her family and friends. While her mother lovingly accepts her change, her sister refuses to speak with her. Transition in some ways seems a term more applicable to those around her. Jennifer knows early on that she is a female in a man’s body. While she changes physically, she remains the same person throughout. It is her friends and loved ones who must adapt. Unlike her mother and sister, who have rather immediate reactions, her close friend Rick Russo’s struggle with James becoming Jennifer is more gradual. At first he refuses to admit that “Jennifer” even exists. He then admits that he has some more growing to do. “If learning is hard,” he says, “unlearning is harder.” [4] His sentiments speak to society’s struggle to accept transgender individuals in general. Many have learned to hate and discriminate and see transgender people as different or strange. Sometimes these prejudices are more difficult to get rid of than they are to acquire. Perhaps we all need to experience a transition of thought when it comes to those who are different than us.

In many ways Jennifer is not alone in her process to become her true self. After her co-worker asks her for advice on how to apply make-up, something that would seem to an outsider to be a skill that comes naturally to all women, she realizes that her own transition is in some ways not so different from what others go through. She writes of the experience: “I did think, as I walked toward my car, that it was interesting that genetic women didn’t necessarily know anything more about this than I did. As it turns out, we’re all still learning to be men, or women, all still learning to be ourselves.” [5] While transgender individuals face difficult physical and emotional transitions, the experience is in someway universal. Once we begin to realize that we all require work, perhaps we will be more understanding of the struggles others face.



1. “Transition,” Merriam-Webster Online,

2. Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 32.

3. Boylan, She’s Not There, 190.

4. Boylan, She’s Not There, 198.

5. Boylan, She’s Not There, 197.

14 thoughts on “Transition: A Universal Experience

  1. I’m glad you chose to bring this up within your blog post. The never-ending task of learning to be ourselves is something everyone can relate to. I feel like that explains how Jennifer Finney Boylan’s book was so approachable. We’ve all had that experience where we realized we know surprisingly little about the world we live in. This ties in with the other blog post about shared experience. We’ve all had to unlearn something, like Jennifer’s friend and we’re all learning what it means to be a man or a woman. At least… I am.

  2. I’m glad you included this quote, Britney. “I did think, as I walked toward my car, that it was interesting that genetic women didn’t necessarily know anything more about this than I did. As it turns out, we’re all still learning to be men, or women, all still learning to be ourselves.” For me, this hits home the concept that gender is a social construct. Just because I am a woman does not mean that I know how to put on makeup. I think part of the problem with the things that we learn, is that they are internalized without ever having realized we learned them. We do not take classes in school on how to be a boy or girl. Part of the difficulty is realizing what society has taught you and coming to terms with the fact that that may not be true. Museums offer a place to call attention to and challenge these assumptions.

  3. Great post, Britney. I think you have touched upon the core reason that our society has trouble defining transgender people, since society is often focused on defined gender constructs. As Emily mentioned, gender expectations are continually reinforced by advertising, media, and even the things we are taught (or not taught) in the classroom. I am not sure how museums can best approach gender identity and transgender issues, but I believe there is great potential for the field to help re-define our understanding of gender. Are there any museum programs that are currently addressing this issue?

    1. Keith, after reading your post, I searched around and found an article about an exhibition from the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco ( The exhibition featured photographs and objects associated with Vicki Marlane, who helped unite San Francisco’s gay and transgender communities during the late 1960s. The article made a point to mention that the museum was initially hesitant about celebrating her contributions. It took people who knew and worked with Marlane to mobilize support of the exhibition. Ultimately, I think this demonstrates (once again) the importance of having community input into museum exhibitions and programs. So, to answer your question, I think getting into the community and talking with people who are intimately linked with the issues that museums hope to present is an important step in creating the most meaningful exhibitions and programs.

  4. I really liked your post Britney! I think the idea of transition, though, may be a little misleading, because, to me, transition implies a destination–a desired end result. When thinking of transgender individuals specifically, this can be problematic. Many people chose to remain in the “transition” phase forever, never opting for surgical reconstruction of their bodies. When thinking of my own journey to find myself, as you bring up in the end of your post, I have no clue what the desired end result. I want to be happy, but I’m also happy now. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m transitioning but perhaps evolving? What do people think of this?

    1. I’m not sure Jillian, I guess it depends on your point of view. I felt like Jennifer recognized a transition was needed in her life because SOMETHING was not right. She later learned it was her gender. We can be content in the moment, I believe contentedness is a sign that you’re headed in the right direction. But life is always changing, whether you realize it or not. Jennifer’s change was physical, taking emotional energy as she was trying to figure it out. Maybe this choice was the one thing getting in the way of her ability to think about what’s next in her life, the obstacle that was preventing transition in all other ways. We all have to adapt, as everyone has said above, always in transition. But without those end results to guide us along and tell us HOW we want to transition, are we really moving or adapting or are we just staying put? Jennifer knew she had to keep going.

    2. Jillian I actually agree with the terminology of transition as opposed to evolving. Evolving really means “to develop gradually, especially from a simple to a more complex form.” I think when talking about Identity it is problematic because it implies that someone is not complex, or not as complex, before their evolution. Transition is defined as “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.” I think based of the inherent meaning of the words alone transition is better suited when talking about one’s identity and transgender issues.

    3. Jillian, you bring up a great point in regards to transition and the difficulties with the terminology. As a general point about society, I think there’s often to desire to fit people into a particular mold, and to expect that they will have completed their journey of self-discovery, especially as it relates to gender and sex, by adulthood. Hence the gender binary. But it’s not just limited to that- it happens to everyone- people who are GLBTQQ allies are often guilty of expecting someone to know all there is to know about their identities, when the opposite is actually true.

    4. I really liked your post Britney. I agree with Jillian’s point of view, that evolving seems to be a better term to describe the transition. Transition comes across as limiting, for instance once one has changed it implies they stay that way whereas evolve implies it is a continuous process to finding yourself.

    5. This is an interesting concept, Jillian, and it makes me think of the process of “learning to be ourselves” as Stephenie put it. Is there a self that exists in everyone that we discover and express bit by bit, layer by layer, over time? I like the concept of evolution to describe this process, meaning that we are ever in a state of discovery, and are possibly in different stages or manifestations of ourselves; so identity isn’t something we discover, but something that is constant, unfolding, and evolving.

  5. I think transitions have mile markers and moments that define the evolution we all go through. As you mention Jillian, they are evolutions. I don’t think this necessarily means there is an end result or anyone knows what that end will be for them. Even though Jennifer chose to have a surgical change, I think she is constantly transitioning into the role or identity she has always had. In her memoir, she constantly eludes to the things she learns about herself , and other’s experiences for that matter, through both the lens of a woman and a man. I think transition is appropriate because the only constant or end it suggests is change and that is continuous.

    1. I agree, Emily. Even the definition Britney provides suggests the changing nature of transitions. Jennifer is constantly learning new things about herself and the roles that she is trying to fulfill. I found her example about women saying their names as a question to be an interesting lesson, one which she adopts at one point or another. Or the fear she feels when confronted by a large intimidating man. Each lesson moves her along the process. I think everyone is in some form of transition or another.

      1. I don’t remember anything about the man being large. I remember he was intimidating because he lived in a bad area, had an unkempt yard, had misogynistic decals, and first showed up in a towel. He may have been a creep, or he may have just been poor and immature. As it is, the guy seemed to be going through a transition himself. The way he cried made it seem like he dearly wanted to keep the dog. Maybe he was learning how to be responsible with his time and money, and the dog just couldn’t fit into his life. There’s not really enough information to say anything about the guy for certain, except that he should probably get new decals.

  6. emilyjanehopkins12 I really like your reflection on transition and evolution. I agree with thezestyhistorian that transition doesn’t seem like the right word all the time and that I would identify with evolution more in my life. That doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t think about their life as more of a transition.

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