Welcome to the 29th article in our 2019 Pride Month Series! Each day in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQ+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQ+ community and in mainstream media.
Today’s spotlight is on author, professor, and activist Jenny Boylan.
I first saw Jenny Boylan on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the early 2000s. As a transgender woman, Jenny spoke of her struggles with accepting herself and working through her gender transition. Her wife, Deedie, was also there, and she answered Oprah’s questions about their marriage and love life.
At the time the show aired, transgender folks were often seen as a joke in the media or as people who were nothing more than an operation they’d had. Jenny was different — she was a teacher, a wife, a mom. I remember Jenny complaining to Oprah that in her recent experience with buying a car, the salesman tried to convince her to purchase, based solely on the number of cup holders the car had.
In other words, Jenny was different, because she was just like you and me.
Even though members of the trans community still struggle to be seen and represented appropriately in media today, Jenny’s appearance on Oprah (and Oprah’s respectful treatment of Jenny and Deedie, it should be noted) helped start a shift in the public discourse and perception around the transgender community.
Jenny’s 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, became a national bestseller (the first by a transgender American), thanks in large part to her appearance on that show. Since then, Jenny has written about a dozen more books and has worn many hats — as the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University; as the national co-chair of the Board of Directors of GLAAD (and the first openly transgender person to hold the title); as a contributor to the op-ed page of The New York Times since 2007 (becoming Contributing Opinion Writer in 2013), and as a Board of Trustees member for the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Jenny has spoken to audiences all over the country and abroad, and has served as a consultant on television shows, such as I Am Cait and Amazon’s Transparent.
Over the years, Jenny has helped to chip away at the misconceptions and harmful rhetoric that are thrown at the trans community. And she has accomplished this feat primarily by the revolutionary act of existing. Guided by her mother’s advice — “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know” — Jenny lives her life in the public eye, because she knows that the very act of existing and being visible can help refute others’ bigoted beliefs about trans persons.
I’m seeing lots of trans peeps bravely and calmly having difficult convos here today. Thank you all for the work you are doing. It’s hard to have to defend your humanity. I try to refute people by existing. I am grateful to all of you. pic.twitter.com/vU78D0rdIM
— Jennifer Finney Boylan 🐕 (@JennyBoylan) December 30, 2018
While many of Jenny’s books center around transgender characters and their experiences, the themes she writes about are ones that anyone can relate to: the struggle to accept ourselves, the challenge of summoning the courage to face our fears, and the fight for space in the world to live the lives we choose.
To bring this point home, in an interview with Science Goes To The Movies! earlier this year, Jenny demonstrated the ASL sign for the word “transgender.” The hand starts out as a closed, upside-down flower over the heart, and then the hand turns itself right side up as the fingers open, symbolizing a flower opening in the light, and the hand is then brought back to the heart.
Jenny continues to show all of us what it means to be not just transgender, but also human, in a world that seems to be rapidly losing touch with its own humanity. In a 2017 conversation with author Susan Faludi for Crown Publishing Group, Jenny shared her hope for what the future will look like for someone who is struggling today.
I hope that, as time goes on, that people will see that trans people…that this is one more way of being human. The days in which we need to constantly explain ourselves and justify ourselves and wind up in these crazy conversations in which we have to defend our own humanity — I’m hoping that that is a moment in time that we are now passing through, and that, in the future, whether you’re trans or anything else, you can be human and still be loved.
Jenny and Deedie live in New York City and Belgrade Lakes, Maine, and have a daughter and a son.
Stay tuned for the conclusion to our 2019 Pride Month Series tomorrow. And be sure to catch up on the rest of the series articles we’ve published here.