Trans author and activist Jennifer Finney Boylan returns this week to Ursinus College, where she served as the Updike-Hoyer Writer in Residence in 2010, for a discussion on gender, resistance and the imagination in the current national climate.
Boylan is a writer-in-residence and professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University Her 2003 autobiography, “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” was the first book by an openly transgender American to become a bestseller. She has written 15 books in her career, including the upcoming suspense novel “Long Black Veil,” which comes out April 11.
Boylan said that speaking in public about trans issues and activism has changed in many ways in recent years.
“We’ve reached a point where some audiences, particularly on college campuses, are really way beyond ‘Trans 101’ and are interested in talking about intersectionality and politics and the complexities of living a life that is gender-nonconforming,” she said. “But another part of the audience is going to be people who are new to the issues and have no idea what you are talking about at all. Then there’s a subset of the trans-identified or queer-identified audience that think they know about transgender issues but what they really know is one small corner of it. Some places I go, if there are trans people in the audience, they are strictly binary. Other places I go, binary people are considered so 1990s and all people want to talk about is genderqueer and genderfluid identities. So that’s the challenge: how to get everybody on the same clinical ground and the highest clinical ground as swiftly as possible.”
Boylan added that she approaches her speaking engagements like an educator.
“I’m not a social scientist or a psychologist,” she said. “I’m a storyteller and an English teacher. I use the medium of story to shine a light on one particular person’s experience. And even in doing that, my own experience has changed a great deal, not just in terms of before and after transition, but also the times immediately after transition and now. I’m just shy of 60 years old now and I’ve seen huge changes in the 15 years since I came out. My primary concern is not social justice but literature, which is sure to disappoint many people who want something else from me. So I’m going to tell stories.”
Boylan said that, in these chaotic socio-political times, interacting with people on a human level can be more effective at winning over hearts and minds and effecting change than political action.
“It may be more helpful for people who are still in the dark to simply open their hearts and show gender-nonconforming people of every kind basic human kindness and a little love. You can learn a lot that way, especially if you’re concluding that whomever you are speaking to is not the ultimate authority of anything other than their own life,” she said. “There is one problem that we have in the trans community: Everyone is an expert in their own life and [it is] very common, I think, for people to wind up in front of microphones and television cameras and claim they are the emblematic transgender person, when in fact there is no such thing. If you’ve seen one transgender person, you’ve seen one transgender person. I tell stories. I try to move people that way and I say, ‘Look, here are a lot of the different identities that are out there, but knowing all these identities may be less important than simply showing a fundamental human decency to people who are different from yourself.’ That’s for people who aren’t trans. It goes for straight people. It goes for anybody who embodies some kind of difference, which as far as I can see, is pretty much everybody.”
Jennifer Finney Boylan hosts a discussion 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at Bomberger Auditorium on the Ursinus College campus, 601 E. Main St., Collegeville. For more information, visit www.ursinus.edu.