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.

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