Five Questions With… Holly Boswell

Holly Boswell helped launch the transgender movement with her groundbreaking essay “The Transgender Alternative” in 1990. S/he has been the chief architect of Southern Comfort‘s programs since 1991, and is a regular presenter at several conferences. In 1986 s/he co-founded the Phoenix Trans Support group in Asheville, NC, in ’93 founded the alternative Trans-Spiritual community known as Kindred Spirits, hosts the Bodhi Tree House, and directs the Traveling Medicine Show.
photo of holly boswell

1) Recently our message boards have been discussing the way “transgender” seems to be coming to mean – in the popular/media usage – “transsexual.” As someone who self-identifies as a transgenderist, how do you feel about this new usage?
I reject the usage you describe of the term “transgender” as coming to mean “transsexual” — if indeed that is really happening. That is totally erroneous. “Trans” means to cross: either vestments, gender, or biological sex. All of these categories cross the lines of gender, which is why the word “transgender” has come to be an umbrella term for the entire Trans Community, such as it is gradually formulating itself out of its own amazing diversity. Transsexuality comprises only a small (perhaps 10%) segment of the overall Trans Community, and yet it receives the lion’s share of attention because it is so dramatic and sensational. Please, let us respect our terminologies, as well as the roots of our word meanings, so that we can continue to make sense out of our own personally complex equations, without abandoning our ability to communicate our truth to mainstream culture through a common language.
2) Why has it been important to you to talk about non-surgical means of expressing transness?
Nowadays, anyone with a ‘gender twitch’ can get Sex Reassignment Surgery pretty easily, whether by satisfying the current Standards of Care, or simply going on the internet and choosing their own course of treatment, for a price. What I like to remind us all about, is that throughout the entire history of humanity on this planet — up until about 50 years ago — our transgender ancestors projected their truth ‘spiritually’ through their sheer force of being, and everyone “got it”. We were simply different — sometimes revered, sometimes marginalized — but they respected our being as a part of Nature. Our place in the universe is still the same, and the plant and animal worlds bear this out, yet most current cultures have forgotten who we are, and are afraid of us. So the easier, and more imperative, path for us now is to assimilate as only one of two genders. For some, this is a just resolution. But for many others, it is ludicrous. We don’t need surgery — or even hormone therapy, necessarily — even though we are expected to satisfy social expectations of gender. I believe what we need is enough ‘gumption’ to live our lives with integrity, no matter what society tries to dictate about our gender.
3) Tell us about your spiritual path, and how it has informed your acceptance of yourself as trans.
At age 3 or 4, I re-experienced “the void”, from whence I had newly arrived into this particualar life. I have preachers in my family, and my life would have been easy if I had followed that path, but I simply couldn’t buy into any of the world religions I explored up until the age of 30. And so I finally acknowledged my life-long reverence for Nature, and specifically my love of trees, which defined me as a pagan. In my twenties, I thought I might have wound up on a mountaintop with only a blanket and a bowl of water (literally). But my gender issues led me back into the valley (literally) where my spirit found a way to express myself “in the flesh” — in my own body. I was able to integrate my spirit in my flesh, at last. I truly believe that, unless one’s preoccupation is primarily fetishistic, we trans people have the rare opportunity of exploring our spiritual evolution in tandem with our gender potentials. The two work very well together.

4) In Charlotte Suthrell’s Unzipping Gender she talks about how the lack of recognition of a ‘third sex’ gives trans people more individual freedom, but less belonging, while those in societies that do recognize a third sex, like the hijira of India, trans people may sacrifice individual freedom but do get to ‘belong’ somewhere. She specifically mentions that people who might identify as crossdressers end up feeling required to become castrated in order to “fit” the hijira profile. Could you comment on that?

I have not read Suthrell’s Unzipping Gender, but I can comment on the issue of ‘belonging’. The prospect of certain trans people getting pidgeon-holed into any sort of ‘third gender’ would most probably not ever be well received. And the prospect of crossdressers feeling pressured to conform in any way seems even less acceptable. Whether we might attribute this to Western Civilization in general, or our culture here in the USA in particular, it seems to me that most of us are defiantly individualistic. The Navajo have a word for their trans people which translates as “one who is in a constant state of becoming”. I have been able to build communities within the trans sub-culture which honor that fact, and hence forge that very sense of belonging. Paradoxes within paradigms…
5) I know I tell you this every time we meet, but I love your hair. There are pounds of essays about women’s hair, discussing everything from Rapunzel to the outrage people felt about women getting bobs in the 1920s. How important is the femininity of your hair to your overall identity?
My hair is naturally curly, somewhat blonde, and has been long ever since my ‘hippy’ days back around 1969. The ‘beat poet’, Gary Snyder (my mentor) wrote a poem called “Long Hair”, which ends with the line: “and deer bound through my hair”. Most shamans let their hair grow long, thus allowing natural energy to flow through one’s being. The feminine designation of long or curly hair is arbitrary, cross-culturally. But yes, I have enjoyed a certain status and ability to pass as my chosen gender because of my hair. What is interesting, is that I will soon have to re-negotiate that status because my hair is thinning (at age 55) to the point where I am having to consider several new options: 1) a transitional hair-do that may buy me a few more years, 2) a wig — goddess forbid !, 3) shaving my head bald and living as some radical form of femininity, or 4) dispensing with the entire notion of gender conformity. This last option is most appealing to me, yet it would not support me in my livelihood, which is in sales. I accept that we live in an imperfect world, and I will have to make the most of it.
(Thanks to Marlena for the tip about Unzipping Gender.)