Jennifer Finney Boylan, the first trans woman to author a bestselling book, describes her latest novel Long Black Veil as “a literary mystery in the tradition of Donna Tartt.” Boylan spoke with Bitch during the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City to discuss her fiction career, the trans community’s internal turmoil, and that time Larry King asked about her sex life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I was doing research for this interview and found out that in addition to Long Black Veil, you’re also the author of the Falcon Quinn series of middle-grade fantasy adventures.
I had no idea, and I consider myself familiar with your body of work. Do you feel as though your advocacy for transgender rights overshadowed your other writing?
[laughs] I wonder if that’s true. I mean, I’m probably best known as a writer on trans issues and transgender memoir for sure. She’s Not There was my bestselling book, and I think—it’s hard for me to say. The Falcon Quinn series is a middle-grade series about monsters and kids who turn into monsters. You know, it’s kind of the anti-Harry Potter. They’re taken to a school where they’re taught how not to be monsters.
Or at least, that’s what it appears to be. So the question in that series is, “Is it better to become your true self if your true self is a zombie? Or to learn how to hide yourself when it literally may be a matter of life and death?” Because humans are literally going to come after you with torches and pitchforks. So you don’t have to look real hard to see a metaphor for LGBTQ experience and trans experience in that. Does it overshadow the work? I don’t know. I think I’ve always been concerned with issues of difference and the tension between fitting in or embracing your outlaw self. And so that’s true whether the topic is transgender people or the story is about sasquatches and Frankensteins.
You were one of three out trans people at the PEN World Voices Festival. All of them were on panels you moderated or appeared on, and all were on queer-specific issues. Do you have any thoughts on expanding trans people’s presence at events like these?
This is my first year being involved with PEN. […] I was contacted by PEN as part of a group of people who were kind of assembled on an ad-hoc basis to put together some panels. And so I thought about a combination of both what I’d like to talk about and who I knew who might say yes. I mentioned [queerness] in faith, especially as it pertains to transgender people, and I mentioned it in the media. Actually, I proposed about a half dozen ideas, but they liked these two the best. And from there, I began to put together a roster of people who I thought might be included. I knew I wanted to do something with Joy Ladin if I could because Joy is perhaps my favorite person writing in the transgender space right now. She’s smart, she’s quirky, and gently, gently funny. Some of the people on the panel were people I’ve known for a long time, some people I met for the first time at the panel. So it was wild and wooly. I love the conversations we had, though. I thought it was really cool.
Do you think trans folks are pigeonholed with regards to when and where our opinions are solicited? I couldn’t help but notice that all the trans voices were so concentrated on specifically queer issues and not necessarily other things that affect us, like reproductive health.
There are enough transgender writers out there certainly that we don’t always have to be talking about the experience of being trans and the cliche of transition in particular. It does seem like that’s a lot of where our stories go to. On the other hand, they’re interesting stories, and they all deserve to be told. […] I think people need to learn that our community is really diverse and that there’s no unanimity of opinion about anything, actually, other than that things are too hard right now and they need to be made easier.
So should trans people be talking about things like health care and reproductive rights and elder care, if I can put that in? The answer is yes, but remember, this is a writers’ festival and most of the people on the panel are people who are there not because they’re activists, but because they’re authors. And people are usually put on a panel because I wanted them to talk about the thing they’re known for writing about.
You were on Larry King quite a while back, in 2005—
Oh my God.
—for the paperback release of She’s Not There. And you mentioned that you don’t feel you’re “emblematic” as a trans person, and that you’d avoided commenting on public policy as a result. Now you write columns for the New York Times. What made you decide to wade in?
My work at the New York Times is still generally that of a storyteller. […] I still feel like there are much better people than I am at doing that kind of advocacy work—Mara Keisling is one person. NCTE [the National Center for Transgender Equality] does, on the whole, very good work. And we have a strong TransPAC here in New York City as well. And the Transgender Legal Defense [and Education] Fund, TLDEF are people trained in the law and trained in policy who I defer to.
I’ll also say if I am doing a little more policy work than I used to do, it’s simply because it took me this long to begin to understand the issues. It’s kind of a classic problem in our community, that if somebody comes out—usually by way of doing some media-worthy thing [like] writing a book, or if you’re Caitlyn Jenner, you just have to open the door—they generally have microphones and cameras shoved into their faces long before they’re ready to comment on the nuances of the diverse world of trans experience, and the very complex rules around public policy. […] And I assure you there are people more famous than Caitlyn Jenner about to come out, and what I hope is that the stories people like me and other people can tell will help make everybody smarter about the human experience of being trans and encourage more than transgender people to speak up for us and defend us.
I do want to ask one question since [Jenner’s] new book is out as well, and I assume you know that in Secrets of My Life, she prints some text messages between you two—
She does indeed! You’re the first journalist who’s asked me about that. Do you want to ask me if she asked permission about that beforehand, whether or not that was a surprise to me when I opened the book and found our text messages there on the page? Go on, ask me.
It sounds like it was a surprise.
It was a surprise. If she’d asked me, I would have said yes, because we are friends. And you know, she lives in her world and I live in my world. She’s in Malibu and I’m in New York City and Maine. But it did surprise me that she didn’t give me the heads up. Also, I guess I kind of figured those text messages were private. I guess not.
What’s funny about those messages is that I think they show me counseling her on speaking publicly about The Danish Girl. If I’m reading her thread properly, she’s saying to the reader, “Can you believe Jenny Boylan stopped me from just talking about what a wonderful movie that was and how great Eddie Redmayne was?” I wasn’t trying to stop her from expressing herself, but I wanted her to understand why transgender people—many of us, anyway—really hated that movie. That’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to get her to understand the world from the point of view of people who were not her. And I think in those text messages, it seems kind of like I’m censoring her and crushing her spirit, which I didn’t want to do at all. I was trying to help her not by shutting her down, but by saying “Look, here’s a movie that your brothers and sisters have an issue with, and you ought to understand why.” Do you understand what I’m saying?
Yeah, definitely. It might be my personal bias in how I read that conversation, but it came across to me as though you were explaining those arguments and she very forcefully rejected them, and said they didn’t make sense and neither did the people who were making them. I think that was her general gist.
Yeah, but that she’d keep her mouth shut because she didn’t want to get in trouble. I mean, maybe I was trying to keep her from getting into trouble, but what I was really trying to do was to get her to understand why this was an issue. I don’t know.
Is that generally what it’s like to talk with her?
It depends on the issue. Early on, she was very, very thirsty to learn, and was very aware that there were things she didn’t know, but she didn’t know what she didn’t know. As time went on, I think she got more exhausted with being told that she was doing it wrong. I don’t know, if it were me I probably would have gotten exhausted with it too to tell you the truth. But I told her when I first met her that I would be her friend and that I would be loyal to her even though we would disagree on many, many things. And we continue to disagree on many things, but I hope I have continued to be a good friend of hers, and I hope I will continue to—I mean, she has a very, very good heart and she means well and she’s done a lot of great things for our community and I think she does deserve some respect for that.
You’ve been involved in transgender advocacy in one way or another for going on 15 years now.
Larry King asked you a lot of very pointed questions about your sex life, and how it felt to have breasts. The conversation is very different from what we might expect to see on cable today.
Yeah, well, even if he asked me the same questions…I was raised to be polite and helpful. So I always felt like whenever people asked me those questions it was my job to kind of answer them as best I could. Even Oprah Winfrey asked me a lot of—looking back now—what would seem like improper questions. It was really Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox, those two people, who in that Katie Couric interview way back when put their foot down and said, “You know, there is some shit we don’t talk about. And it’s disrespectful to make us talk about it.” That was a really powerful moment. That was the first time that I saw transgender people on TV saying, “You know what? You don’t control this narrative, we control this narrative.” So I can tell you this: If I were on that Larry King show now, I would be different too.
A thing I think still plagues our community is that because there are so, so many different ways of being trans, your experience of what transgender people are like is often dependent upon who’s at hand in the place where you live. And in the worst cases, our community can still have little fiefdoms and feudal states, where you go one place and everyone is genderqueer and talking about Judith Butler and you go somewhere else and everyone is doing drag and talking RuPaul. And you go somewhere else and everybody is like, nonbinary and talking Kate Bornstein. And you go somewhere else and everybody says that being trans is just a medical problem, you know? I know lots of women—sometimes men—that are like, “Yep, I was born this way, went to a doctor, now it’s fixed.”
I mean it sounds uncool, but believe me, there are many, many people in our community who feel that way. Our problem is that the community’s so diverse, and as a group of people we don’t agree where the leading edge of the discourse ought to be. Is it medicine? Is it intersectional gender theory? Is it fantasy? Is it feminism? There’s a lot of ways of being us. And in fact, I think that ought to be the good thing. That ought to be a good thing for the community, that we don’t have to agree. But it also means we have to make room for each other, and we need to be a little more forgiving of people who don’t completely see the world through our eyes.