Saturday, August 22, 2009

if it walks like a duck: sports and the regulation of female bodies

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a's a duck.

Substitute woman for duck, and one has illuminating insight as to what our culture finds appropriate femaleness, as well as the absence of wiggle room.

Just ask South African athlete Caster Semenya. Muscular body? Deep voice? Stellar athletic performance? Must be a man.

Top it off, Semenya now needs to take a "gender verification test."

News flash: gender is not a more sophisticated or politically correct term for sex. Sex refers to chromosomes and genitals, and gender refers to social performance. Therefore, a person whose biological sex is male may have a female gender performance.

This brings about another issue: how do members of trans communities participate in sports teams? I'd love to get some feedback.

The Colonic

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How I Found Out I Was Sexist

I wrote this piece for On the Issues magazine, and it's since been picked up by Bilerico and by AlterNet, so I thought I'd post it here, too.

It's been a surprise to find out what a sexist I really am. I've been calling myself a feminist for two decades, and surely was one for the two decades before that.

I'm a woman who found myself with a female husband - the man I married is trans and currently transitioning to living as female in the world. She has been doing so socially for some time and only now has decided to make it official with a name change and all the legal ballyhoo. I've been surprised by a lot of aspects of this process, not least of which is our relationship surviving it.

People can't and don't just change their sexual orientation because they want or need to, and partners of transgender people are no exception. I can't magically become a lesbian, no matter how useful that would be. I am seen as one by most other people when I am holding my female spouse's hand.

If I were categorically heterosexual I wouldn't have managed this transition at all, which is one of many reasons I think of myself as simply queer.

I never played a heterosexual woman very convincingly, but I tried. That's one of the reasons I didn't expect any sexism in my own attitudes about gender in relationships. I was a tomboy growing up. As an adult, I was always a little too forthright and ungiggly for most straight guys. I preferred buying my own dinner and drinks in order to avoid any expectations later in the evening. I didn't play along, reflecting them at twice their natural size, as Virginia Woolf once so famously put it in A Room of One's Own. That said, as the woman in a straight relationship, you're assumed to be the more feminine of the two of you - even if you aren't.

What has surprised me the most are the expectations I had first of a male husband - and what the loss of "him" meant - as well as my more recent expectations of having a female wife. I use both husband and wife because both are true: legally, she is my husband, but socially, people see her as my wife. It is one thing for someone to become "not man," which is more like subtracting visible markers of masculinity, both physical and social. And it is quite different for someone to become a "woman" - which involves something far trickier.

When it came down to it, I feared my partner's transition because I expected her to become a woman, but what I didn't expect was how differently I would see certain things she did.

It wasn't about her femininity. As I noted, she was always more feminine than me, even when she lived in the world as male. My own gender, and our relationship, makes a lot more sense to people - what the gender theorist Judith Butler would call "cultural intelligibility" - now that we live in the world as a lesbian couple. Because I'm a tomboy, mentioning a boyfriend meant conversations would grind to a halt while I waited for people to make sense of what I'd just said. Now, when I mention a female partner, people just keep on talking, underwhelmed by the detail.

I'm sure that there are plenty of women like me, who are regularly surprised by the subtle ways our culture has of telling women to take it down a notch. A friend of mine had someone chide her about how openly she tells her husband how much money he can spend on drinks when they're out. A few years ago a bunch of college guys said they didn't want to marry women who had more money or more impressive jobs than they did, and women who make a lot of money or who have a lot of authority in the world have found that being in relationships with men who don't wear the pants in the relationship still want to be treated as if they do, as Carrie Fisher once pointed out to Maureen Dowd.

But at home, I wanted her to stop doing Lewis Black impersonations and playing air guitar. At the time I'd convinced myself I was just trying to help her fit in - something some transgender people value very much. In other ways, I was shielding her from the kind of admonishment any tomboy is sensitive to. I didn't want her to hear the snide comments I'd heard as a kid, and as a teenager: you're too angry, you don't smile enough, or, why don't you wear heels or dresses or more makeup.

She was - due to the demands of her own internal sense of gender - a tomboy too, but the kind who wears heels and beats everyone at pool. I found myself discouraging her from being the kind of woman who kicks ass and takes names, all for fear she might be clocked as trans.

What's funny is that I never shielded her from the jokes about how "whipped" she was. She heard these regularly when she was my boyfriend. But that was about my gender and my feminism. It was okay for her to call and see if I was cool with her hanging out with co-workers when she was a guy, because that was considerate. As a woman, I found myself embarrassed by her being so considerate because it seemed "clingy" instead.

It astonishes me that that was all it took: same person, same decision, same expression of her love for me, but my own sexism kept me from seeing how much the same it was.

When "he" used to get us both drinks, it was gentlemanly; but once she became female, it was hard not to see it as subservient. "His" humility can look more like a lack of confidence; "his" graciousness can be read instead as self-sacrificing.

All of what she does looks like something else because she's a woman.

I should have known better. My own decision to stay with her as she transitioned to a woman has been categorized as either the worst kind of self-effacing, "stand by your man," doormat codependency, or as evidence of my own radicalized choice to reject gendered expectations.

Feminism is in the eye of the beholder, apparently. I just never expected my husband to be the one whose gender would let me know I needed an optometrist.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Writer's workbench: On the ecstasy of the home stretch

Writers’ workbench: On the ecstasy of the home stretch


This is actually a re-tweet (sic) from my own blog,, and the content here has not much to do with trans stuff. But as writers, and allies-of-authors, I'm hoping this resonates with somebody.

So here I am, late summer, deep in the heart of the first draft of a new book. I’m in that euphoric, terrifying, mysterious frame of mind that arises when the end of the draft is almost in sight. I try to write about 1000 words a day, which translates to about four pages of double-spaced manuscript. I’m on about page 350 of a book that feels like it will be around 450 pages long. Everything’s set up for the ending, all the characters and clues and tools are in place, and now mostly I have the feeling of standing back, watching the storm I have created roll through the village.

I don’t know if people who are not writers can relate to this at all, but I wanted to linger over this moment with you here. Right now, the world of the book I’m writing is really all I care about. It’s what I can’t wait to do once I get up in the morning, and when I’m doing it, I”m about as happy as I can be, and when I’m finished, I start to think about what I’m going to write tomorrow. Each tiny block of pages brings me closer and closer to the end. I know a lot of what’s going to happen, but not exactly, and there’s still room to be surprised, both for better and for ill. But this particular place– the home stretch–is such a delight.

I have hopes to be done with this first draft by summer’s end, which would truly be impressive (and tidy, since it means I wouldn’t be dragging summer projects into the academic year.) I am such a confused flibbertygibbet of a writer that I really have to go through two drafts, just to have a first draft, because even at my most careful, I am still capable of writing, “A hole fell out of the wall.” (The HarperCollins copyeditor actually caught this one recently; with deep chagrin I had to change it to, OF COURSE, “a stone fell out of the wall, leaving a hole.”) And so on. It is so easy to get blind, in the whirlwind of this part of writing.

Steve King encourages writers to write 2000 words a day, if possible, and to spend no more than 3 months on a first draft. I’m a fast writer, but i’ve never been THAT fast. Still, these fantasy books I’m writing have come faster, and been more fun, than almost anything I’ve ever done. The problem is that, every 200 pages or so, I have to completely stop and go back and fix all the things i’ve screwed up because only writing the story lets me know what the story is. And while this might well be a crazy way of writing (rather than planning it all out in advance), I’ve NEVER been able to do that; for me it’s always writing blindly but with hope, and then going back, and fixing it, and fixing it.

So coming down the home stretch is especially exciting because the options narrow, and I’m less likely to go off down a blind alley. AT this point, I’ve been down so many of them that the number of false moves has been reduced– because I’ve already taken so many of them.

This particular project, by the way, is FALCON QUINN AND THE (SOMETHING SOMETHING) (we’re keeping the something something secret for now). It’s book two of the Falcon Quinn project, and i’ve just learned that book one, FALCON QUINN AND THE BLACK MIRROR (the cover for which is here) is now slated for April publication. I’ve had such a ball with these books, and even now I am still doing what I started doing two years ago with book one– doing a morning’s writing, and then reading the day’s work to my boys at day’s end. Zach and Sean continue to be some of my best critics, especially with this book, which I’ve written for (and in many cases, with) them.

It’s funny, though, I will end book Two before Book One has come out yet, so I wont’ know whether there will be books Three and up (and yeah, I have a pretty specific idea of how many of these there will be) when I have to hand them in. So I have to come up with an ending for Book Two that will end the series if we end at two, but also provides an opening if we go more than that, which I surely hope we do.

At any rate, I am not at all sure that this makes me a very fun or pleasant person to be around right now, because my mind is really drifting away to Shadow Island and the world of the story all the time. Deedie is long suffering and patient about this, having long ago decided that the best way to deal with a writer-spouse is to pretend I’m normal. The boys, meanwhile, want to CONSTANTLY talk about the latest twists and turns in the story. It’s such a fun and fulfilling place to be.

There are times I wish I could stay in this frame of mind forever. But that’d be no fun, because then I’d never find out how the story ends. And I’d be denied the even scarier, even more amazing prospect, of staring something new.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

On Breaking up With Myself

I wrote the following very short entry for the Penguin Blog in support of my story, "Trans," in the anthology LOVE IS A FOUR LETTER WORD, which is about broken hearts and breakups. The entry I post herewith; the blog itself you can visit here, if you want, and read more from the other authors about this subject, and their own stories.

Breaking Up With Myself
by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Nine years ago, I made a big stack of all the clothes I had ever worn and gave them to the homeless. This included wingtip shoes, three-piece suits, Grateful Dead T-shirts, ties, belts, cotton shirts and boxer shorts. Pffft, down the chute. A moment like this is one of the rites of passage for transsexuals in transition, or can be. It was for me.

And yet it was not without a bittersweet pang that I hauled the bags of clothing down to Goodwill. What I realized was that I was saying farewell not only to the Perry Ellis suit and the Timberland jacket, but to the man I had been when I had worn them. In some twisted way, I was breaking up with myself.

Fifteen years earlier, I'd broken up with Allison (an account of which appears in Love is a Four Letter Word). I was glad to be done with the endless bickering, (like the night after my friend Tim died, and she said, "I'm glad he's dead! He was so annoying!") On the other hand, Allison was the person I'd been closest to when my father died, when I lost my first job, when I got my first short story published.

It was Allison who'd held me in her arms, when I was twenty-five, on the day that the dog I'd gotten as my eleventh birthday present was put to sleep.

So when we broke up, I wasn't only losing her. I was losing the person I had been during the time we were together.

It's like that Hopkins poem, "To a Young Child," when our man tells little grieving Margaret, "It is the doom that man was born for; it is Margaret that you mourn for."

I think the same thing is true of breakups. When we lose someone we've loved, it's not only that relationship we mourn. It's the loss of our own history, a connection to the people we have been.

I was so glad when I left the world of being James, and began the world of being Jenny. In its own way, it was a miracle. Still, after I gave away my clothes, I thought: Who would know that the stains on that striped shirt had come from the Beaujolais I drank the night I got engaged? Who would know that that green tie was the one I'd worn that day in high school, when I wrecked my parents' car?

I think about the man I used to be, now and again, with fondness, and bereavement, and wonder idly, what ever became of that dude? I look at photographs of my younger self, and heave a sigh, and think the thing we all think as we grow older, and our former selves recede: You never call. You never write.