When One Odyssey Begets Another (She’s Not There)

I’d been meaning to read Jennifer Boylan’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders for a dog’s age, but having detoured from memoir, I couldn’t find my way back for a while. As fate would have it, a copy’s been floating around at Oslo, Williamsburg’s best new coffee shop, and this morning I finally surrendered my day to reading it. I am so glad.

Boylan, who used to publish under the moniker James Boylan, was already a Colby University professor and established writer of some repute when she started to transition from being a man to a woman. (People who are in or have completed this process are often referred to as MTF transsexuals.) She had two children; a real partner in her wife Grace; a strong, kind family of origin; and terrific friendships, most notably with the writer Richard Russo, who writes an afterword to this book. And she had a fairly killer sense of humor. Yet, as she conveys in her dry, spare style, she’d felt fairly sure that she was meant to be a woman since she was a young boy, and that feeling loomed as an enormous elephant right in the center of her life.

I majored in feminist/gender studies at Bryn Mawr College in the early ‘90s and, like the good postmodernist groupie I was, promptly dismissed transsexuals as the sorry victims of a world that conflated gender with sex. Long after I’d dismissed much of my academic studies as too facile, I’d always slightly turn off from FTM or MTF people I’d meet. “This is Gary,” a friend would introduce a 5″1 obvious girl, albeit one with a crewcut and the beginnings of a beard, and I’d immediately channel my inner Andy Rooney. Lesbian, gay, bi: quatever. I’d decided I was a queer straight girl as soon as I realized I wasn’t going to fall into any normal heterosexual life trajectory. I could even get transgendered persons like drag queens or kings who switched back and forth; all that flipping the constructs on their head made sense to me. But transsexuals seemed so implausible. I thought people already wasted too much time being defined by their gender. Why make so much more of a fuss over whether you were going to going to wear pink or blue, be the mommy or the daddy, be (let’s face it) the financial or sexual object? Why try so hard to fit more neatly into a paradigm that limited us all?

Reading Leslie Feinberg’s affecting (if slightly wooden) book about her own gender odyssey only validated my biases. Born on what she calls “the anatomical sweep between male and female,” she spent the bulk of her young adulthood transitioning with the aid of hormones from a woman to a man. At a certain point, though, she opted out of the whole gender program entirely and has since lived her life as what she calls a she-he — someone who does not identify with the either/or gender assignment that most people adopt. Although Feinberg herself publically supports pretty much every path that transsexuals and trangendered persons take, I embraced her own path as the “right one.”

And ideology proved thicker than blood in this case.

During a Brooklyn visit a few years ago, my old man grew uncharacteristically absorbed in a book he pulled from my shelves. It was Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors.

Suddenly he jammed the book in my face.

“That’s my cousin Mahty!” he said. I looked at the page. It was a story I’d read many times about Martin, a Johns Hopkins doctor, husband and father who’d transitioned into a woman named Martine. Or Mahty, as we Massholes will always have it. She and her wife remained legally married, though Feinberg wrote they now referred to each other as “spice” rather than “spouse,” a bad wordplay that red-flagged this person as within my bloodline. (It’s family legend that, when put on oxygen at the very end of his life, my grandfather began to sing, “Tanks for the memories…”) A call to my dad’s sister confirmed it as so. Somehow, though, I avoided any further exploration, even avoided getting in touch with Marty when in Baltimore.

But reading Boylan’s book has given me pause about my attitudes. As a person who otherwise had found her way, Jenny had no reason to want to shake up her life to the degree she nonetheless felt she had to. She passed easily as a man, for example, unlike many of the he-shes whose testimony I’d read over the years. She just didn’t feel like a man. She didn’t even feel like a he-she. She felt like a woman, so much so that she always felt that an important part of her was held at bay while she lived her life as Jim. And being a highly developed writer and human being with many tools (pun intended) at her disposal, she managed to convey both her transition and its fallout with a wry, bittersweet evenhandedness that got through to me.

That is not to say that it took middle-class respectability to finally legitimize the entire spectrum of transgendered persons, although I suppose it didn’t hurt Jenny’s testimony that she possesses all the benchmarks that other artists can either relate or aspire to: the fucked-up NYC years, the travel abroad, the Johns Hopkins MFA, the plum teaching position, the movie-optioned books. Nor is this to say that reading this book magically erases my no-doubt still-ignorant assumptions. Just that I finally felt rather than intellectualized the reality some describe of being trapped in a body of the wrong sex.

She’s Not There isn’t perfect; it’s a little long, a little too careful on the topic of Boylan’s clearly now-fragile marriage, a little too removed from a larger context of transsexualism. But that detachment also serves her story well. She doesn’t come off as a particularly politically activated person before her transition, so it makes sense that she doesn’t become one afterward. Instead, she shows how her transition took place in her continued life as the wacky college professor, father and, er, spouse.

Jenny moves me to confront my bullshit assumptions by deploying all them writerly tricks that actually work: through showing-not-telling, through specifics that render her story more universal, by writing herself as a person rather than a symbol. When Russo tells Boylan, for example, that he finds her newly constructed identity as Jenny to be “implausible,” the very word that I so often apply to transgendered persons, I started with recognition. And finally felt ashamed at how emotionally shut-down I’d been on this subject for years.

I should note that, though she doesn’t really get into an extended discussion of the cultural implications of gender-sex assignment, Boylan hardly refracts an uncomplicated notion of gender. She writes that, like many newly transitioned MTF transsexuals, when she first completed her gender transition she behaved like a 40something girl. At an age when her wife had largely dispensed already with all the obvious earmarkers of gender that younger females sometimes glom onto when they’re still sorting themselves out — the nail polish, the coquetries — Jenny was ecstatic to try it all on. Only now is she transitioning from a girl to a woman, someone who has successfully integrated traditionally male and female attributes in a way that works for her adult persona. (It’s a transition too few American females undergo for, oh, a bevy of reasons.)

So often memoirs about a personal odyssey rely on the import of the story itself to carry all the dramatic heat. Here we’ve got Boylan, a person who obviously has never sought to ruffle a feather except through laughter her whole life. But ruffle she does, merely by being specifically herself not only in her life but in her writing, too (perhaps for the first time). This is how memoir and social change most effectively entwine.

Lady Be Goode

Last night, I saw Lady Sovereign at the Knitting Factory. Like MIA, Lady Sovereign is a fierce lil Britgirl rapper. There are so few American female MCs living in any kind of limelight these days (fewer than there used to be, even) that I am tres curious about these girls. Also I have not been able to stop singing “Ch Ching,” her Little Engine That Could single.

Jostle and I drove over the Williamsburg Bridge at an hour already past our bedtime and parked right around the corner from the club like true suburban haufraus. Then girlfriend didn’t come on until after what may have been the longest DJ set ever to precede a live act. So long that I nearly drowned in the showkid culture that doesn’t even proliferate Williamsburg in such volume: The girls growing out their bangs by combing them into poofy pompadours; still rolling up their jeans too many times. The boys in their goofy railroad conductor hats. The dancing, ever more white. I nearly decked a guy who poked me hard “as an experiment to see if I would fall.” Why not dip my braid in the inkwell, you Tom Sawyer douchebag?

But it turned out Lady Sov was worth it and then some. Tiny with a braided side ponytail and big-boy basketball sneakers and jeans, she came off like the improbable love child of a ménage a troi between the Little Rascals, Tintin and Punky Brewster. All small useless limbs and cockeyed grin and accent. Ch ching. Reeling from bad McDonald’s, she had to fit her set in between vomiting sessions, and her deejay’s equipment kept malfunctioning so badly that she stamped her tiny foot. But stylishly. If she could pull her set out from under those bad stars, she’s already a star herself. And she did. She charmed the shite out of all of us with her oddly easy chatter. Like Dean Martin she was. Even standing in the queasy upper section, far from the madding crowd, her charasma bit me pleasurably in the assma. So that I got asthma. Oy. After a while, I barely even noticed how everyone around me was dancing like they were knee-deep in aerobics class.

I mean, really. Really.

On Walking Out: Not So Keane

Last night I walked out of a screening of Keane, due for release in late September. It wasn’t the worst movie, at least what I saw of it. Represented by one of my favorite publicists, one known for her choosiness, and executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh (which doesn’t automatically recommend a film; see Criminal or, rather, don’t), I’d been anticipating Keane with some low-level excitement. But 30 minutes in, I knew I had to leave. The story of an obviously mentally ill man seeking a daughter abducted from NY Port Authority made me wobbly: crampy, headachey, feverish, dizzy. Made me like him, in other words; him, as he spun in circles and hissed at himself and pulled anxiously at all his layers of clothes.

I used to believe that anything that evoked such a strong physical reaction shouldn’t be dismissed — the first 10 minutes of Leaving Las Vegas were at least as harrowing as this film, for example — but the last two films that I’d found as nauseating (Demonlover and Irréversible) didn’t exactly inspire me to stay yesterday. Both ambushed my senses merely as a crash course in their stunted nihilism. Keane’s payoff for all this physical misery wasn’t clear enough; I could see stretching ahead another whole hour of a wild-eyed, tight-mouthed man inadvertently bungling all the lives all around him. So I grabbed my purse and hustled out in search of some Advil.

Back before I mostly attended press screenings, I walked out on films all the time. It was a lavish, dramatic gesture, almost like paying for a bad date’s meal with your last 50 bucks. It was my way of claiming my time as important, of also (I must confess) peeving my then-boyfriend, who insisted on catching not only every trailer but every final credit. Looking back, skipping out really was a luxury. As a paying audience member, I had a right to walk if the movie wasn’t holding me in its grasp. These days, I’m a cog in the film industry machine — albeit a small cog. (Right now I’m mostly doing listings for the estimable flavorpill. ) I still feel lucky to be invited to screenings, and, especially in the case of indie movies, I feel a responsibility to the filmmakers who’ve likely invested a few years of their lives and their resources to at least watch the whole damn thing. What if the film is great and just hasn’t inspired the right critics so far, hasn’t been accepted by the right festivals? (The terrific Funny Ha Ha is a prime example.)

Honestly, I’m not proud of what I did yesterday. I’m thinking of seeing the film again in penance. And of pleading heat exhaustion.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy