WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan is an author of nine books, including, most recently, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. This memoir was the first bestselling book written by a transgendered American, and won the Lambda Literary Prize in the transgender category in 2004.

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Jennifer Finney Boylan's Blog Introduction

Women, Media, AND... Transgender Issues

Probably no single issue highlights our feelings about gender and culture better than that of transgendered people, and transsexual men and women in particular. While TG individuals have made great strides in the last decade in terms of public understanding and acceptance, it'd be fair to call the quest for equal rights a work in progress.

In part this is because the discourse for talking about TG issues is still being formed. Often transgender individuals themselves don't agree on the issues surrounding the "condition." To paraphrase an old saying about magicians and ventriloquists-- "Two gay men in a room is a conversation; two transgendered people is an argument."

Thus, the umbrella term of "transgender" itself contains a wide range of subsets which refer to people who may well not even agree with each other on what the issues are, or what's at stake. There are "genderqueer" activists, for instance, who are primarily motivated by an attempt to eliminate the binary poles of masculinity and femininity in our culture, and who advocate a more freeing androgyny. There are "classic" transsexuals, meanwhile, who have little interest in activism or social issues and whose primary desire is to deal with what they see as a mostly medical or genetic condition, and to move on with their lives in their new gender. And then there are drag queens-- gay men whose concern with gender-instability has--sometimes-- a theatrical or ironic intent. Did I mention "cross-dressers", who frequently identify as straight men, whose concerns involve a healthy, if baroque, fantasy life, but whose heterosexuality is not particularly in question?

And so on. Still larger are the numbers of people, male and female and "other," who resist classification and stereotyping, who wish to express their gender according to their own lights.

If all of this sounds a bit bewildering to those who haven't considered TG issues before, it's no wonder. Where on earth would a person have heard of these issues in any meaningful or complex manner unless he or she were affected by them personally? For years media offered virtually no good information on the wide range of gender expression; a person wishing to find out more about these issues might well find him or herself leafing through a dog-eared, long-out-of-date and never accurate reference text in the library. Or worse, leaving the library and turning on the TV, only to find “Jerry Springer” parading around trans people as sensationalized freakshows fit only for audience scorn. And when journalists encounter transgendered people, the framework for telling our stories is often presented in exploitative, ratings-grabbing ways. Take, for example, a “Dateline” NBC broadcast described in a Women’s Review of Books review of my memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (Doubleday):

Dateline NBC spent a year following a woman named Joyce and her husband David, who was in the process of becoming Victoria. Reporter Dawn Fratangelo repeatedly badgered Joyce with variations on the question "Why go through all of this? Why stay?" When Joyce said their love would prevail, Dateline was skeptical: "It seemed too calm a response for something so drastic," Fratangelo narrated. The newsmagazine edited a year's worth of footage to highlight Joyce's pain and loss and to downplay the couple's commitment to one another. The implication was that their marriage was bound to disintegrate, despite having survived "so far." Sadly, that sort of framework is more the rule than the exception when media take on transsexuality…

While media invisibility has been a deeply-felt problem for transgendered people, media images that have portrayed TG people as overly sensationalized and less than human have often, unfortunately, been a source of pain. And without nuanced media portrayals of trans people, where would a young person find transgendered role models to look up to? There have been relatively few real-world TG role models because, after all, so many TG folks, upon reaching their destination, disappear into the woodwork. As a result, the sense, even among people who ought to know better, is that this condition is rare. Which it's not. We know now more people in this country suffer from transsexuality than multiple sclerosis. The current best estimate, according to Professor Lyn Conway at the University of Michigan is that over 50,000 people in this country have already had the surgery-- and again, those who seek surgery are a small minority of the larger TG population. (Conway’s web site is probably the best, and most responsible online resource for learning about transgendered people).

I was lucky enough to appear on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” on three occasions—once with my spouse—to talk about these issues, and on the whole I was grateful for that opportunity; as a result of that interview many more people learned about these issues, and got the chance to read about them firsthand in my memoir, She’s Not There. The best moment came at the end of the third show, when Oprah said to me, “I think I finally get it.” That was a powerful moment.

Still, many of the reporters I’ve interviewed seem skeptical, or wary. The funniest thing someone said was, "The weirdest thing about you, Jenny, is that you're so normal! You're like somebody I might actually know!" To which I can only reply, well of course I’m someone you might know. Some interviewers seem to be under the false assumption that people in so-called Middle America won't understand. But if people in rural Maine get this – and they do, that’s where I live and people have been wonderful to me and my family – then people can get it anywhere. When I came out almost everybody knew what transsexuality was. I wasn't the first transgendered person they knew of. Yet the media is stuck in this idea of novelty. There's been no shortage of shows about transgendered people, but they tend to always be the same. I've done a lot of TV, and yet I constantly seem to be echoing the same interview I saw on TV with some other host, with some other transsexual, 15 or 20 years ago.

It's not a great topic for short TV segments, because the condition is complex and takes a fair amount of explaining. On the “Today Show,” I got six and a half minutes, which, again, I was grateful for, but it’s hard when a lot of the interview puts one on the defensive. And one of the minutes is always devoted to, "So, are you gay?" while another is always, "How sad is this for your poor wife?" The hardest thing for me about these short segments is that they don't give me room to be funny. I don't get to be myself. I feel like I'm doing a book report: "How I Changed Genders on My Summer Vacation." One particularly stupid radio show, all they wanted to talk about was “So, are you going to start having sex with men? What’s that like?” These radio shows can be brutal. It feels like, “Welcome to the Morning Asylum with Benito and Adolph.” It's very hard to have an intelligent discussion in these forums, because it's always okay to make fun of transsexuals--we're seen as pathetic and freakish.

But those kinds of presentations of TG people in the media have changed, slowly, along with public understanding. There have been excellent films and television shows and articles featuring transgendered individuals in the last decade, from “Normal” on HBO to the films The Crying Game and Southern Comfort and Boys Don't Cry. Even daytime talk shows, which have traditionally ground vulnerable transgendered people up like sausages, have gradually started showing more positive, measured presentations of transgendered people in the last few years. And news media, well, news media are conflicted, but slowly waking up. CBS News’s “48 Hours Investigates” ran a segment in January 2004 about my family, and to my great gratification they didn’t focus on my spouse’s pain (though I write about that in my book) but on the realities of my transition, the fact that my wife and children have kept our family together and remain strong for it, the acceptance I’ve received from the Colby College community where I teach, and the fact that I (along with thousands of others) live a full, happy life as a well-adjusted, responsible transgendered adult, parent, and professional. CBS even closed the segment by allowing me to say that “When people see me, they don’t see some honking transsexual. They see a good parent. And when you see our family, it doesn’t seem like an unusual thing. You see four people who love each other.”

Now, I never wanted to be the transgendered spokesmodel—or, as a Boston Globe reporter called me, “America’s transgendered sweetheart“—but if media give me opportunities to broaden our cultural understanding and acceptance of transgendered people, then I’ll use this opportunity. For a while. But I’m only one of many people to whom media can turn for reasoned, seasoned insights on TG issues. In recent years, great books have been published, and more TG people have become public. Authors such as Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Deborah Rudacille and Amy Bloom have published smart, provocative, insightful accounts of the lives of transgendered people in America. While it was once possible to think of a transgendered person as living a marginal life in the twilight of the culture, there are now thousands of people in the public eye, visible as airplane pilots and police officers and bankers and teachers and electricians. And doing quite nicely, thank you.

(Listen to an interview with Deborah Rudacille concerning the science of transsexuality).

If I sound a bit overly optimistic, that's perhaps because as a transgendered person in the public eye, my experience was surprisingly, and overwhelmingly encouraging. My memoir, She's Not There, was the first bestselling book by a transgendered American, and it took me not only to the sets of the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” NBC’s “Today Show” and CBS’s “48 Hours,” but also CNN’s “Larry King Show,” through the pages of Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and on into thousands of regional papers and broadcasts. For the most part, I was surprised by the decency with which people treated me; the most interesting thing I noticed was that the majority of the readers I've encountered are not transgendered; they're readers of memoirs, or novels, or nonfiction, and their lives are generally dominated by the same things as my own: family, love, work, friendship.

I am not a “media critic,” and I’ve always been better at telling stories than reporting the news. But I’m hoping that some of the stories I’ll get to tell in this blog will help to shine a light on the lives of transgendered people, and their ongoing encounters with their televisions and radios and newspapers. I'm grateful for all readers of this blog, and will try to do my best.

Click here for listings of my public appearances.

And if you have stories you’d like me to tell about transgender issues in the media, feel free to drop me a line at JennyBoylan@aol.com

Jennifer Finney Boylan's Biography

Jennifer Finney Boylan is an author of nine books, including, most recently, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. This memoir was the first bestselling book written by a transgendered American, and won the Lambda Literary Prize in the transgender category in 2004. Writing of She's Not There for the Book of the Month club, Anna Quindlen said, "A very funny memoir of growing up confused and a smart consideration of what it means to be a woman." She is Professor of English at Colby College in Maine, where she directs the program in creative writing. In addition to She's Not There, Jenny is the author of many novels, including The Planets (1991) and Getting In (1997). She has also written screenplays for New Line Cinema as well as a collection of short stories (Remind Me to Murder You Later (1988).

Jenny speaks on issues of gender and story throughout the country; since 2003 she has been on the Oprah Winfrey Show (three times), The Today Show, 48 Hours, and the Larry King Show, as well as lecturing at a wide range of colleges and universities, including Cornell, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, and Bucknell. She lives in central Maine with her partner, Deirdre, and her two sons. She also plays piano and keyboards in a tacky rock and roll band, The Alibis.

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