THE BLOG

'Unlike Some People I Could Mention': On Transgender Identity and Storytelling

05/06/2013 03:41 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Getty Images

2013-04-28-jboylan.jpgLast fall I sat down to read my 2003 memoir, She's Not There, in preparation for a new, 10th-anniversary edition. I returned to that book in the same room in which it had first been written: the study of a summer house, in the heart of winter. From outside came the sound of snow against the window glass, the warp of the water below the ice in Long Pond. I remembered hearing those sounds 10 years before as I sat in that place and looked out the window at the Maine winter, searching for the words to describe my "life in two genders."

This exercise in time travel put me in mind of an old Amish expression: "Ve are too soon olt und too late schmart."

I know there are plenty of people who, looking back at their younger selves, have had occasion to think, "Man, what you don't know could fill a book." However, I'm unique in that the book filled with the things I don't know is an actual book.

She's Not There, allegedly the first bestselling work by a trans American, was the first in a trilogy I wrote about gender. The second, I'm Looking Through You (2008), concerned my parents' haunted house and the ways in which the living, too, can wind up haunted, especially by the phantoms of their younger selves. The last in the series, Stuck in the Middle With You, hits the shelves this week; it addresses the differences between being a mother and being a father and considers the time when I was betwixt and between the binary poles of gender, the parental version of the schnoodle or the cockapoo.

My boys, who were 6 and 4 when She's Not There was begun, are now a college freshman and a high school junior, respectively. It's my hope that having a father who became a woman has, in turn, helped my sons become better men.

Looking back on my life from the vantage point of my 50s, I'm aware that the woman I have become in middle age is perhaps less the result of hormones than of a lifetime spent telling stories. It was the writing of those books that, more than anything else, helped me understand the narrative of my own life, and those of other women like me. This isn't a truth unique to transgender authors: It's all of us; we write, at least in part, to learn the meaning of the stories in which we ourselves are the characters.

When I was a teenager I searched the library in vain for the story of a person I might resemble. To whom could I turn? Tiresias? Jan Morris? The Amazing Kreskin? Back then, a trip to the library was fairly certain to result in a book that was wrong about people like me, and not just a little bit wrong, or accidentally wrong, but completely, willfully, shockingly, hilariously wrong. Some of those books are still out there. Just before a recent lecture at a library in Maine, I was stationed in the stacks as I was waiting to go on. Before me, at eye level, I found a book published in the early 1970s about the transgender experience, one that, as far as I could tell, does not contain a single fact. I remembered reading it in college and thinking, "This doesn't sound right at all." But at age 19, who was I to challenge the wisdom of a published author, someone who, even though she was not trans herself, was hailed as an expert on the topic?

Without much in the way of dependable narrative or contemporary myth, there were ways in which I felt, in my teens, as if I did not exist. Talk about phantoms: Surely, if there were no books about lives like my own, I was fated to live a life in which I could only be invisible.

There are lots of good books about people like me now. There are memoirs and textbooks by Jamison Green, Leslie Feinberg, Matt Kailey, Helen Boyd, Donna Rose, Susan Stryker, Julia Serrano, Chaz Bono, Deborah Rudacille and many, many others. All these stories have helped change trans issues from something extraordinary to something more commonplace, from a single, simple narrative to a series of messier ones, moving us toward a time when, as Robert Hunter once wrote, "things we've never seen will seem familiar."

In updating She's Not There (which also meant including a new afterword by me, as well as a new epilogue by my wife of 25 years, Deedie, or "Grace," as she is called in the book), I was sorely tempted to alter the original text, inserting all the revelations I've had since 2003. In the end, though, I left the original story unaltered. The one exception was that I changed the word "transgendered," which freely inhabited the original, to "transgender" or "trans." In the intervening years, these have become the preferred terms, and I'm fine with that.

Other than that, the original words stand unchanged. Unlike some people I could mention.

After all these years, my own identity has wound up less altered than I had expected. It should not have been a surprise, perhaps, but the most shocking revelation after 10 years in the female sex is that mostly I am the same person I always was, gender notwithstanding. As my wife Deedie notes in her epilogue, "the strength of our love for each other never fundamentally changed ... as Jenny used to say, it's the same monkeys, different barrel."

It has been a long journey, made possible by my loving spouse, my remarkable sons and the creation of those tales. It is only because of these gifts that I have left a phantom's life behind and have at last become something solid.

I am also put in mind of the story of James Thurber at a party in Paris, in which a woman informed him how much funnier his stories were in French. "Yes," lamented Thurber. "They tend to lose something in the original."