Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Southern Comfort Speech

Posted by – September 30, 2006

Thanks to Ms. Boylan for allowing me to reproduce it here; this is the complete & unedited version.

Hi everybody. Gosh, look at you all. You all look fantastic from up here. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room before with so many large women.

(improvised joke #1)

(improvised joke #2)

I notice that some of you look a little tired today. Which is not to say, you don’t look fabulous, I’m just saying that some of you seem like you were up kind of late last night. Did you check out the parties last night? You know the one I mean, the theme party—Come as Your Favorite Nude Author?

(beat)
First time in my life I’ve ever been in a room full of a hundred and fifty nude Kate Bornsteins.

(improvise joke #3)

I have to be honest and say I feel a little bit like a fraud up here today, because I know that there are so many of you who are so much more articulate about these issues than I am. I am an English teacher from Maine, a storyteller— what I’m not is a therapist, or scholar of gender studies, or for that matter, much of an activist. I’ve tried doing some of those things sometimes, because I want to do my part, but I have to say I just so lame at them. I’m grateful that there are people doing all the work around the country that’s being done on behalf of people like us, including the organizers of this conference—our fabulous chairwoman, Kristen, as well as heather O’malley and Cat Turner, and Lola Fleck. I’m just as grateful for all the people who came before me, who blazed the trail that has made my life easier.. I know I would not be here without them, quite literally.

There is an old saying that I find true for me this afternoon—one reason I am able to see so far is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.

If there is anything that I CAN do, it’s to tell a story, and the thing I want to talk to you about today is the value of telling our stories. I must have met thousands of transgendered people over the last few years, and heard thousands of different tales. I was psyched of course, by the success of my own book, She’s Not There, and it was very cool that the media picked up on it, and gave me the chance to talk about our issues on Oprah, and Larry King, and the Today Show, and on CBS’ 48 Hours. But occasionally when I meet with other transgender people, they give me this hangdog look, and say, I wish they would tell my story. (implying, of course, instead of yours, Jenny Boylan, ye bastard.)

To which all I can say is, I couldn’t agree more. The media is very comfortable telling one particular type of story, and it’s usually the tale of a kind of old-school MTF transsexual like me. I know you’ve all seen those documentaries, becaue they’re always the same. You have the shots of the TS woman as a boy, the school picture played against some sad new age piano music; you have the interviews with the stunned friends, the heartbroken spouses, the bewildered children. You have the woman in question sitting in front of a mirror, combing out her long blonde hair. And always, always, these stories end with a trip to a surgeon’s office, and the last shot is always of our heroine in some hospital bed, high as a kite on Demerol, saying, I feel so happy.

I don’t know about you but if I see one more show that views surgery as the most important thing in a transgendered person’s life, I’m going to scream. It’s as if they wanted to do a documentary on Jewish people’s lives, and all they could talk about was the bris.

(If this joke gets no response, follow up with: You know what the bris is, the circumscison? Are there any Jews here at all?)

And I can tell you how frustrating it is to see these shows because, guess what, I was IN a bunch of those shows. And they always want to get a shot of you putting on your panty hose. And I want to say, did you get a shot of Toni Morrison putting on HER panty hose? Did you get a shot of Anna Quindlen putting on HER panty hose? Did you get a shot of Steven King—well, anyway.

What’s frustrating about it is that there are so many other stories out there, and they all desparately need to be told, so that all of our stories can become familiar. We need to hear stories about trans men, we need to hear stories about cross dressers, we need to hear stories about people who are grateful for their gender diference, stories with humor, and love, and affection, instead of the usual blah blah blah about wrecked marriages and heartache and people sobbing until their eyes are tired. I’m not saying those aren’t important, and true, tales to tell of our experience, but you know, I think we’ve heard those stories. Now let’s hear some of the others, the ones in which you see people enjoying their lives, the ones in which, believe it or not, some of us are even grateful for the thing that makes us different.

One very good reason to start telling all of these stories is so that when people hear about a transgender person, they recognize the wild variety in our experience. And when I say “people’ I don’t just mean the kind of straight, clueless audience out there who has no idea what our stories are. I’m talking about us. Even we—the people in this room and our brothers and sisters throughout this country and around the world—sometimes forget that there are about a million different ways of being transgendered. There is no one single narrative, and there is no one single way of “doing it right.” IN fact, what you may want to do, or need to do, regarding your own adventure with gender, is likely to change over the course of a long life. For some of us, it may even change over the course of a single day.

The theme of the conference this week is, The Times of Our Lives, and I hope you’ll all take part in the special events that have been planned on your behalf. ON Thursday night, we had the 1950s Slumber Party in the Crown room, and last night, in addition to the Come as your Favorite Nude Author party, there was the 1920s Speakeasy, and the So Co a Go Go, not to mention the clubbing at the Wet BAR. And today we’ve got a 1960s Hawaiian Lua, the 1970s Disco Blowout, and the grand Times of our Lives Gala.

I wonder how many of you, as you looked over the list of events at Southern Comfort this year,, had the same thought that I did, which was to be vaguely reminded of that old Frank Sinatra song, “It was a Very Good Year,” As I’ve been thinking about our many different stories, I’ve thought about the way in which there are different seasons in a transgender person’s life. I’m sorry to tell you that, in fact, I’ve been humming that song, altering the lyrics as I went along. Pretty soon I was singing something like this:

(sing)

When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for slipping into my sister’s room
I’d steal a bra from her drawer.
I’d go back to my room and then I’d lock the door,
When I was seventeen.

(okay, and right about here we have a very emotional instrumental break, featuring a big string section. Which then leads us to the second verse

When I was twenty-five, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for dating girls who look like I do now.
I’d try to act like a guy
When we’d break up they’d look at me and ask why,
When I was twenty five.

(this is the point where we have another even more emotional violin solo. If I had a violin, I would play it for you now.)

When I was forty-one, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for Premarin pills I got from my shrink.
I’d tell my wife, I’m still me,
She’d say , yeah, but you’re a thirty-six C
When I was forty one.

This is the point where we start handing out the hankies. Here comes the waterworks!

I thought I’d share with you all today some of the stories that I’ve found over the course of these good years, as I’ve traveled this long road. Some of these are probably familiar to you, whereas others I know, are just the result of my own particular experience. What they’re not are emblematic stories, any more than I am the emblematic trangendered person. Becauses there is no emblematic transgendered person. Each of us, on the long road, finds something a little different.

But let’s start with this one: when I was twenty-four years old, my girlfriend—the woman I lived with—went out of town for a few days. Well now. What do you think I did in her absence? In those days I lived in new York City, and there was a wig store one block north of the Emprie State Building, on 35th Street. So I walk in there, and this very nice Korean lady says, how can I help you, and I say, I’d like to buy a w—- I’d like to buy a w—-

I’m looking all around to see if anybody is going to notice me. I mean, after all, 35th street and 5th avenue, it’s not like it’s a very busy intersection or anything. So finally I point to the wig I want, which was a long and blonde and straight—kind of like the Joni Mitchell effect. Can you imagine that, a grown woman wanting to look like Joni Mitchell, or Laura Dern, or some chick from the seventies. Thank god I grew out of that!

(runs hands through hair.)

Anyway, so I hand over the money, and it was a lot of money, well over a hundred dollars, and then right as she’s ringing it up, there’s this PING from the cash register, and uh oh—she needs to change the tape! So she opens the top of the cash register, and she’s fumbling with the tape, and I just want to say, here, take the money! And run, but she’s working in there, and now she’s calling to the back in Korean and out comes her husband, walking incredibly slowly, like this… and she is shouting, I am trying to sell this man a wig but the tape broke! And he say, you want to sell this guy a wig? This guy? And she says, yes, THIS GUY WANTS TO BUY A WIG. I’m looking out the window at everybody wlaking by on the street, people looking in at me, standing there with the wig, which if I recall correctly had the brand name, CHER, and this very agitated Koren couple, and I can feel the sweat pouring down my temples.

Well finally I get out of there, and I go back to the apartment and I spend exactly 48 hours being a fabulous blonde, looking in the mirror, singing Joni Mitchell songs—Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what yo’ve got till it’s gone. Thank you, thank you. I love you all!.

And then, at the end of the day, Joni goes in the trash, and I carry the trash about four blocks down the street, because if anybody, for any reason, goes through the trash and associates it with me, why—the world would come to an end! (dun dun duh duh)

And I realize, as I walk back to the apartment, it isn’t Joni Mitchell songs I ought to have been singing. It’s secret Agent man. There’s a man who lives a life of danger. To everyone he meets he stays a stranger.

Now I ask you, does that sound familiar to you?

OR: how about this one—I’m a little kid, and of course when I was a boy, there was only one thing I wanted for Christmas, which was of course the one thing I was never going to get, because Santa Claus generally doesn’t bring a vagina down the chimney. At least not in the stories I read.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I hated opening gifts on Christmas, or on my birthday, because I knew that the boxes were never, ever, going to contain the one thing I wanted. Except, on this Christmas, I open up a box, and what’s inside? Panty Hose! I’m thinking, okay! I’m eight years old, and I’ve just gotten a pair of fish nets! I’m looking at my parents, not sure what to say, when my sister, across the room, opens up a box for her, and what’s inside? A baseball glove. Whoa! The worlds gone Topsy turvy! And my parents look at what’s going on, and they come over and switch the presents, and say, oops! What a big mix up! Can you imagine that, our son getting panty hose, and his sister getting a baseball glove! Talk about hilarious! And of course, I have to sit there with the baseball glove in my hand, and I have to look happy about it, and I have to laugh about it, because everyone thinks its very funny, and so I have to act like it’s funny. And all I can do is sit there pretending to laugh, and nodding my head at how funny it all supposedly was. While inside, of course, my heart was breaking.

You ever been in a situation like that?
(improvise here, reaching out to crowd.)

Or how about this: I’m in my late twenties and I have finally fallen in love with an amazing woman named Grace. My whole long life, I have been praying and praying that someone would fall in love with me, because if someone falls in love with me, I will finally get outside of myself, I will finally be cured of this crazy thing I have. And to my amazement, Grace is in love with me. We drove all the way from Louisville Kentucky to Washington DC one day, and we kissed at every stop light on the way. And I feel transformed and healed, and when I get back to my own apartment in Baltimore, I go to the closet and I gather everything up in a big plastic bag. The wigs. The clothes. The bobby pins. The copies of Allure and Vogue and the balloons that I filled with tap water for breast forms and the shoes in size twelve I had to send away for to Lee’s Mardi Gras Boutique, and the heavy pancake makeup and the purple eyeliner and the clip on earrings. And into the trash they went, and I went outside and put the bag by the curb and I stood there beneath the full moon, and I thought, yes, yes, yes, at last I am free! I’ll never need to be a woman again!

Does this sound familiar?

Well, this last story probably won’t sound familiar to most of you, but it happened to me. Fourteen years after I threw that bag of stuff out in the trash, I was waking up in Neenah Wisconsin, with the body I’d always prayed for. In one hand I clasped a little Demerol drip, so that whenever I felt the slightest bit uncomfortable, I went DING, and all my problems went away. I spent a week or two in bed, high as a kite, saying, I’m So Happy! And I’m trying to be entertaining to the people that surrounded me, starting to tell a joke and then falling asleep in the middle of the punchline.

But get this: at my side on that occasion were three people: including Grace, the woman I’d married all those years ago, the woman to whom I’m still married, the woman who at one point said, this is not what I wanted out of a marraiage, I feel totally gypped out of my husband, it’s just not fair, b ut who at another point said, I would never turn my back on the person I love, ever. And so Grace sat by my side and held my hand. And I said to her, Sing me a song?

And she sang me this song:

(singing)

Do you think I could leave you crying?
When there’s room on my horse for two?
Come up here Jack, quit your crying.
We’ll mend up your horse with glue.
When we grow up we’ll be soldiers,
And our horses will not be toys.
Maybe then we’ll remember,
When we were two little boys.

And next to Grace was my friend Rick Russo, a writer from Maine, and my closest friend. And next to Rick, was the cartoonist Timothy Kreider, who, after Grace and Rick headed back to the east coast, hung out with me day after day, watching Buster keaton movies and reading me, from cover to cover, The Princess Bride.

I can tell you that I never had a girlhood. I never had the experience of my father sitting next to me, reading his daughter a good night story. I never had that, and I never will. But when I was forty one, I had Tim Kreider, my dear friend, read me the Princess Bride, chapter after chapter. Hello My name is Inidgo Montoya.
(get crowd to say the next two lines, in unison.) You keel my father. Prepare to die.

Okay. So those are some of my stories. What we need now, in the years to come, are some of yours. Each of us embodies our gender difference in a different way, and what we all need are more stories, more opportunities to learn from each other exactly how many different ways there are to live this life.

We need to hear the story of the genderqueer youth on campuses around the country who are messing with gender every day, who exhibit a courage that I could never have found at their age, who are rejecting the gender binary with bravery, and playfulness, and in your face directness, and with joy.

WE need to hear the story of transmen, and the unique struggles of our brothers, so often forgotten by the media.

We need to hear the story of what happens to transpeople as they get older. We need to hear the stories of the members of our family as we pass through our sixties, and seventies, and eighties.

We need to hear the story of transgender Veterans, who are so often abandoned, or forgotten, even after risking their lives on behalf of their country.

WE need to hear the story of spouses and partners, who suffer just as much as we do, some times, and who, sometimes, help make our lives possible. We need to hear the stories of all of our lovers and partners, who try to be helpful, who try to make sense of something that even we sometimes cannot explain.

WE need to hear the story of some of you in this very room, who are not only here at Southern Comfort for the first time but who are, in fact, out of their own house for the first time, people who this very day have felt the sun on their faces as men, or as women, for the very first time.

I am just enough of an old Deadhead to remember a line that Robert Hunter once wrote,

“Let my inspiration flow in token rhyme, suggesting rhythm,
That will not forsake you, till my tale is told and done.
While the firelights aglow, strange shadows from the flames will grow,
Till things weve never seen will seem familiar.”

I love that idea, of a time coming when things we’ve never seen will seem familiar. But the only way we can achieve this is by seeking our inspiration, that will not forsake us until our tales are told and done.

And if we tell these tales, two things may happen. First of all, all those people out there in the world who right now still don’t get us, who don’t’ understand who we are, or what our problem is—some of those people will start to get it. And so, instead of viewing us like strangers, they will view us as something familiar. And all those tedious shows on TV will stop showing the same story over and over again, and truly start to show the richness of our lives. And instead of talking about jenny Boylan, the transsexual, they might say, oh, there’s jenny Boylan, the English teacher. She’s a parent like me, or a teacher, like me, or I don’t know. Someone who seems like a person you might actually know.

If, we all find the courage to tell our stories, the other thing that may happen is this. That when young transgender people start to try to figure out who they are and what they are, that instead of thinking that they have to live up to somebody else’s story, they can, instead, live out their own. Instead of wanting to be the next Christine Jorgensen, or Ru Paul, or Leslie Feinberg, or god help us, Jenny Boylan—they will, instead, choose to be themselves.

That frank Sinatra song ends like this:

(sings

But now the days grow short
We’re in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my lives as vintage wine
from fine old kegs
from the brim to the dregs
It pours sweet and clear

It was a very good year.

In that spirit, I want to wish you all a great day, a wonderful weekend, and many, many, many good years, of telling your stories.

Thanks everybody.

2 Comments on Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Southern Comfort Speech

  1. djessica says:

    Thanks, Helen, for printing Jenny’s speech. Her book came out just as I was starting therapy because I realized that I was more transgendered than I had thought I was for the first 50+ years of my life. I found a lot of events in common with her, but a lot of differrences, too. Her speech, like “She’s Not There”, makes me think about how I got go be where I am, happily married (for the second time!) but readier and readier to realign my gender to how I feel.

    -Jessica

  2. [...] who have made being transgender just a little easier for many of us today. Jennifer Boylan, in her speech at Southern Comfort Conference 2006 last year, said that, “there are so many other stories out there, and they all desperately [...]

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