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.”  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.”  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.”  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.”  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.”  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, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transition.
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.