A few weeks ago, I was in a used bookstore in Alexandria, Virg. trying to find some of the stories recently named to The Good Men Project's list of Best LGBT Books of All Time - books with LGBT themes chosen by LGBT writers. As an aspiring LGBT advocate, I felt pretty silly after reading their list and realizing I've only read a handful of the books that had apparently helped shape our movement.
But once I browsed through the store, I wound up settling on a book that didn't make the list: Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. The storekeeper, a woman in her 30s, excitedly offered the book when I asked if she had any recommendations. "It's about the author's transition," the woman told me. "But it's about more than that! It's a beautiful love story, and it's funny, and...," she cut herself off with a sigh. "It's one of my favorites."
I'm glad I took the storekeeper's recommendation, because over the next week, I breezed through She's Not There and marveled at Boylan's life.
Boylan didn't transition from her male identity of James Boylan, the Colby College professor and successful author with a wife and two children, until her late 30s. The book takes us through Boylan's early life, transition, surgery, and the responses she received from nearly everyone she knows.
Boylan doesn't gloss over the challenges of transitioning. In an understanding way that doesn't seek to villianize them, she explains that she faced perhaps the most resistance to her transition from her wife, Grace Finney, and best friend, author and Colby colleague Richard Russo. Some of their reactions are startlingly uncomfortable to read, because they're unique to anything else I've read - neither fully accepting nor fully rejecting, but somewhere in that messy in-between. In this passage, Russo professes his support for Boylan and yet unabashedly declares his preference for "James" over "Jennifer."
Your circumstance as a transgendered person is not a story, and I don't mean to suggest that it is, but we did agree on the deck that night that there are times when we've made decisions about "who to be." I agreed (then and now) that I've invented (to some significant degree) the self that I use to face the world with. I am, to that extent, a fictional character; the reason I'm reasonably content with the self I created, perhaps, is that, while I'm not an open book, neither am I diametrically different from my fictional self. The reason you became uncomfortable in your created stuff is that it contained something so far from an essential truth that you couldn't live with it. A change was needed. Granted. Here, you insist, is the real me, the me I've kept a secret all these years.
And yet the real you seems mannered, studied, implausible. Your claim that Jenny is real may be true, but it seems almost beside the point. That Jenny is the real you is something that I have to take on faith, because the evidence of my senses suggests the opposite. You may have chosen to be James every day for all those years, but the fact is that you got so good at it that the rest of us can't quite make the shift. You say you were miserable, but that's not what we witnessed. You say Jenny is the real you, but we see an actor learning a role, getting better at it all the time, but it still feels like a role.
It's not that we want you to remain in jail. We just prefer the other story. The one where you seemed happy, where Grace was happy. (That you were miserable we have to take on faith; that Grace is miserable now seems beyond question.)
And yet, somehow, despite this honest discomfort (which Boylan doesn't chastise but rather accepts as a necessary phase of her friend's and wife's own concurrent emotional transitions) the trio makes it beyond Boylan's surgery. She is still a loyal and devoted parent to her children, still a talented and insightful professor. She moves from "Daddy" to "Maddy" to "Mommy" for her children, and from "Wife" to "Sister" for her wife.
She's Not There was published almost exactly eight years ago, on July 29, 2003. But despite its age, the story is a fabulous introduction to trans identity. I understand that Boylan's story does not seek to be solipsistic - the life plan for all transsexuals. But reading her story works toward more fully understanding trans identity. She expertly communicates the challenges of transitioning while speaking to its necessity and unveiling its joys.
As a young writer working to expand my horizons about the full spectrum of the LGBT community, She's Not There is an important title to have on my shelf. So, members of the unofficial Bilerico book club - what should find a place on my bookshelf, too?
Tomorrow, Jillian Weiss, who recently reread She's Not There, will discuss her response to Boylan's story - how revisiting the book is different from the first reading, and how her individual experiences have contributed to a different perspective on the book from my own.