Good writing has the potential to incite change, move readers and convey the profoundly personal experience of an author. But for those who have been systematically and historically silenced, writing is simultaneously a radical act.
For Jennifer Finney Boylan, memoir was the perfect vehicle for her story. On September 18, she will visit Vassar to give a talk about her writing career and the representation of her identity as a transgender woman.
Boylan, who is currently a Professor of English and at Barnard College, explained that she has known for quite a while that she wanted to be a writer. “I have always been a storyteller,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “I can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t writing, or working on something.”
Boylan’s first memoir, “She’s Not There: A LIfe in Two Genders,” published in 2003, was one of the first top-selling books by a transgender American. In it, she recounts her transition while commenting on femininity and family.
Beyond the literary acclaim of “She’s Not There,” Boylan recounted a personal instance in which she saw a very positive outcome of the memoir. “Once someone stopped me on the street in New York, and told me that because they’d read my memoir, ‘SHE’S NOT THERE,’ they’d decided not to take their own life, to leave their small town in Texas, to undergo transition and to live a life without secrets,” Boylan wrote. “She said this was because of reading my work, which I doubt very seriously, but still, it’s nice to think that stories can help people to find their courage.”
Boylan maintains a presence as a speaker as well, giving lectures at colleges. One such reading was attended by Judy Jarvis, director of the LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center,. “I saw Jennifer Finney Boylan give a talk and reading at Barnard College last semester and I loved her humor, her memoirist abilities and her interest in educating others about trans lives and experiences,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “I was thrilled to learn that the Women’s Studies Program was already moving to bring her to campus, and the LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center became eager co-sponsors of the event.”
Boylan sees her writing and speaking as a way of participating in the fight for civil rights for trans people. “Through my published books, through speaking at places like Vassar, and through my New York Times column, I’ve had the ability to tell the stories that have started to change the world, a little bit,” she wrote.
Leslie Dunn, Professor of English and Chair of the Women’s Studies program, echoed this sentiment. “I don’t think you can separate Boylan’s writing from her advocacy, because her writing is itself a form of advocacy,” she wrote in an emailed statement.
Boylan has also made several appearances in the media, such as “The Larry King Show,” “The Today Show” and NPR’s “Marketplace.” These, too, Boylan explains, can advance the work she does to promote awareness for issues that trans people face. “After I was on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ the first time,” she wrote, “someone wrote me a letter: ‘Jenny Boylan, you seem almost like someone a person could know.’ She meant that nicely of course, but my own feeling was, ‘Well of course I’m somebody a person could know.’ I think that’s the thing that has been most gratifying—that through my work people have come to recognize trans lives as real and complex.”
Since she began her own participation in trans activism in 2001, Boylan acknowledged that she has become more optimistic about representation of trans people. “I despaired that we’d ever reach the so-called tipping point where trans issues would at last gain a kind of cultural currency,” she remembered. “Now it seems trans stuff is everywhere, from Laverne Cox on the cover of TIME to Janet Mock’s ridiculously amazing book, “Redefining Realness.” So progress is being made.”
Boylan recognized that in recent years, trans women, and trans people more generally, have had a somewhat more diverse range of narratives. “Now there are a lot more stories being told,” she explained. “We’re seeing genderqueer people; we’re seeing cross-dressers, we’re seeing non-transition track people, we’re seeing people who are increasingly free to express their gender identity just as they goddamn please. And that’s a step forward. The media is catching up, slowly.”
Dunn was eager to invite her to speak at Vassar when Boylan approached her on the subject. “Last year she emailed me out of the blue, asking whether we’d like to have her come to speak at Vassar,” Dunn wrote in an emailed statement. “I had recently read ‘She’s Not There,’ which I loved, so it was even more exciting to hear from her.”
Dunn is confident that due to the many roles Boylan plays as a transgender activist, the Vassar community will appreciate her upcoming reading. “Boylan is not only a transgender woman, but also a novelist, a journalist, a professor of literature, a teacher of creative writing, a partner, a parent, an advocate for LBGTQ people, an avid cyclist and cook and a wonderful conversationalist,” she wrote. “I think that everyone who attends her talk, or speaks with her informally at the signing afterwards, will take away something of her generous spirit.”
Jarvis shared Dunn’s sentiments. “I hope that Boylan’s reading will reach employees and students alike, both to affirm the importance of trans people sharing their stories and to underscore for cisgender people that we need to listen and learn.”