Transsexual Colby professor gives reading on identity
Kresge Auditorium was packed on Tuesday evening for a reading by Jennifer Finney Boylan, comic novelist and co-chair of the Colby College English department. Boylan was introduced by Dean Craig Bradley and made some opening remarks before beginning the chapter "Hurricane Ethel" from her first non-fiction book, published this year.
"I was born in 1958, on June 22, the second day of summer. It was also the birthday of Kris Kristofferson and Meryl Streep, both of whom I later resembled, although not at the same time," she read.
Boylan's new book She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders is a memoir and account of her gender transformation from male to female over the last several years. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show promoting the book this summer. In her opening remarks Boylan discussed her book tour. She said Oprah was an especially nice person. She also discussed her stop on Martha's Vineyad where she was directly competing with another reading by Hillary Clinton on the same day.
"I realized my audience would consist only of transsexuals and Republicans," she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Boylan said she has known with absolute certainty since a very young age that she was a female spirit in a male body.
"Gender, more than anything else, is a fact," she writes in She's Not There. "It is the dilemma of the transsexual, though, that it is a fact that cannot possibly be understood without imagination."
During her reading, which told of an experience in a summer house with three eccentric old ladies including her grandmother, Boylan both sang and assumed the voices of the characters-the harsh voice of her grandmother, the soft and reserved voice of her aunt, and the "guinea pig" whoops of their deaf friend-to the amusement of the audience. The first question in the question and answer session that followed was if the book was available on tape (it is not).
Boylan defined herself first as female but "carries" her transgender history. She frequently made jokes about this-"Imagine you're a woman and you have a penis. How embarrassing!" She said at one point-but also said that her history has probably given her more insight into both genders than most people have.
Boylan said the worst part of being born James Finney Boylan was having a secret from everyone, "a wall between me and the rest of the world, including the people that I loved the most."
She feared what the reaction to her change would be at Colby. She said the primary response was one "of love and respect," although she thinks she may have lost some of her status as an authority figure in the classroom. She said her change has cost her a couple of male friends, and altered her relationship with her sister.
The last three questions Boylan answered concerned her changing relationships with her children, her then-wife/now-partner 'Grace,' and her mother, and brought the talk to an emotional climax. Boylan's transition from male to female was gradual.
Her kids now call her "Maddy," a cross between "Mommy" and "Daddy." 'Grace' has stayed with Boylan as a partner, though she has lost a husband. Her mother, a deeply religious woman and an immigrant to this country, told Boylan "I would never abandon my child."
"Shit happens to families," said Boylan. "I bear the responsibility. It's my burden to carry."
"I didn't want to be different from people," said Boylan. "But eventually your soul makes itself heard."
Boylan received a standing ovation at the end of her talk.
"It was an eye-opener," said Blakeney Schick '04 who attended the talk. "It brought out some interesting ideas about how we identify ourselves."