Speaking to Students

This past Thursday I had the opportunity – for the second time – to speak to a group of students at a highly esteemed college. Last time it was for a group of students gathered at the Women’s Center of Yale University as part of Trans Week, and this time it was Columbia, and a class in “Feminist Texts I” offered by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.
There is something remarkable for me about speaking to (and with) a class of mostly female, intelligent, empowered young women. They are full of hope and confidence; they have questions; they ask for clarifications and will tell you when they don’t know what you’re talking about. They are students in the true sense of the word – the root of student is “zeal” – and one has to ‘go on’ with a backbone of steel.
I have been at TG conferences where people whose lives are lived largely in trans spaces tip-toe – or don’t ask, and only gossip – about whether or not I would be okay if Betty transitioned. But in this class, instead, I got asked, “How would you feel if Betty had surgery?” and “Are you attracted to your husband when he’s a woman?” and “Why do you use ‘she’ and ‘husband’ in the same sentence – why don’t you call her your wife?”
And as blunt as they were, they were also polite; I think every question asked was prefaced with “If this is too personal you don’t have to answer, but…” They always gave me an out – but what kind of educator would I be if I’d taken it? There is nothing that thrills me more than people who want to know, who want the truth, who need information.
I started out by asking whether they needed for me to present “transgender 101.” They nodded they did. So I explained the MTF/FTM divide, the various people within the larger spectrum (crossdressers to transsexuals), the concept of gender dysphoria, and how the experience of gender dysphoria is often experienced as an intersection of frequency and intensity. I explained that when one says “transman” you’re referring to someone identified as female at birth who has gone on to live in/present as someone of the male gender. (Lots of nods and thanks for that clarification. They want to be able to talk without stumbling, too.) I talked about my own experience – of being a straight woman who met a straight man and who didn’t understand anything about what crossdressing was even though it didn’t freak me out or offend me. We talked about gender roles in domestic society, the sense of expectations, safety, and what it’s like to have my sexuality determined by my relationship when we’re in public. We talked about Betty’s safety, and my fear for her when she thinks she’s presenting as a man and someone’s reading her as a woman.
Helen Boyd speaking to a class at Columbia University
We also talked about how trans-ness both subverts and defends existing gender roles, in
that on the one hand, Betty is a person legally identified as male but who is feminine, but who embraces sometimes culturally-constructed notions of gender. I passed around photos of Betty performing the song “Falling in Love Again” at Fantasia Fair, and one woman said “David Bowie” when she saw them.
The one thing they all agreed on is that they would all feel put out of joint by having a husband who inhabits the “feminine ideal” more easily than they do, and from there – we talked about images of women in magazines, the sense of a “natural feminine” (and how ironic it is that my husband, born male, inhabits that space more “naturally” than most women I know, and what that might mean).
Overall it was a heady and friendly conversation; a group of mostly women (there were two men in the group) talking about who we are, what we’re supposed to be, and what “feminine” is. My thanks to the class, Professor Tricia Sheffield for inviting me, and to Columbia for an amazing couple of hours. Thanks also to Ariela, a photographer, who took a few photos, and whose other artwork is at www.amadai.com.

A Genuine Blog Entry

Maybe it’s fall, or maybe it’s because I spoke with my mother today, or still yet it may be that I’m facing the ‘wrap-up’ of the so-called “tour” for My Husband Betty, but I’ve been somewhat circumspect about the experience of the last (nearly) two years.
[A brief timeline: I started writing MHB in January ’03, saw the reading copies about a year ago, and although the official publication date was Jan ’04, the book started shipping by early December ’03. A full year for writing, printing, & distribution. 2004 was entirely about publicity and outreach.]
I never intended to write non-fiction. I’ve got a couple of unpublished novels tucked away into drawers (along with the requisite rejection letters from agents & editors), so it was kind of a surprise to be offered the chance to write a book at all. And non-fiction? Other than keeping a journal since I was nine years old, and papers for school, I didn’t have much experience. But how could I resist?
Two years later, I have several hundred emails in my inbox – some answered and some not – and I’ve met innumerable people. Some I know only via computer and this wonderful thing our President refers to as “the Internets,” but others I’ve had a chance to meet in person. There have been movers and shakers among them, yes, but I think it’s the quiet CD who comes up to me at a conference and stands in line at a book-signing to tell me how much MHB helped his relationship with his wife that means the most to me. There have been other remarkable stories people have emailed or told me in person: the gay rabbi who got in touch to tell me that upon cleaning up his father’s apt after his death, he’d found pictures there of someone named “Fiona” and only then realized his father was a CD; the septegenarian living in Africa who was first crossdressed by whores in Singapore while he was serving in WWII as a young man. The stories are remarkable – not even because they are fascinating and all preciously singular – but rather because people have come to tell them to me.
I love stories. I love lives lived. I love the great inconsistencies and frustrations and triumphs and even the failures of actual people. And the most incredible – and unexpected – thing about having written a book about crossdressing is to have had people come up to me just to tell me their own.
I joked with my mother today that when I announced I wanted to be a priest at age nine neither of us ever expected that I would be – at least not in such an unusual way. But that’s what I feel like. Whenever a crossdresser comes to me and says “I never believed I was okay until I read your book” what can I say in response except “You are!”? What is that except absolution?
I have days when I am absolutely crushed by how hard it is to get a book published, to get paid as a writer, to live and pay the rent. Other days I’m reminded more clearly: this is what I do, what I should be doing. The cheers of support I get from all of you are at least equal to the disappointment of what it means to live as a writer. But more than the support, it’s the help I’ve been able to give – via the book, or email, or when I go to conferences – that means the most at the end of the day.
You get so many chances to laugh at yourself as a writer, mostly for your own unabashed pretentiousness! This little apologia is what I get to laugh at myself for today: this Preface to the Fourth Printing, as it were. But it is something I have been meaning to say for a long while: thank you.
Helen Boyd

On Being a Writer (Mostly), or Why I Wrote This Book

A discussion on the MHB message boards has brought up the issue of whether or not MHB is some kind of TG “bible,” and I have to be honest that it’s completely weird for me to hear “bible” and my book in the same sentence.
Writing is such a tricky art – it doesn’t pay, takes years to get even a foot in the door, & then – when you’ve gotten published – you’re given tremendous authority for actually knowing something. That is, when you’re an aspiring, unpublished writer, you’re basically treated like some kind of freak and/or malconent, and after one book, you’re all of a sudden an upstanding member of society.
I have a sense of humor about it, of course.
I never intended my book to be any kind of bible. To me, the only goal of writing that matters is to present the truth as the writer sees it in as clear & unblemished a way as possible. It takes plenty of craft to do even that! I’d argue it takes the MOST craft to be able to do that; since as a smart person it’s very easy to become too sophisticated to know the truth when you see it.
I have only two rules for writing: 1) from Neil Gaiman, is that when you sit down to write you’re not allowed to get up or do anything else except make tea. 2) from Dorothy Allison, is that you have to wear your skin as thin as you can.
Being complimented on having the courage to share our lives with others in order to educate is always lovely. But as I recently said to Betty, I’m not sure why being honest about our lives is so remarkable. I have never felt ashamed of my husband, and never felt ashamed of any of the feelings I have had concerning his CDing. Feelings are never anything to be ashamed of, where I come from. The kinds of things people should be ashamed of – willful ignorance, greed, a lack of integrity – are rarely what they are embarassed about. Instead, they are embarassed to be sweet, loving, sympathetic. People are embarassed about being liberal! I don’t understand that, & never will.
But my point is – Betty & I knew full well that our privacy would only remain if others respected it. That was a chance we were willing to take. Shoot, we’d already been blackmailed! Once you’ve been through something like that, you realize the ONLY way to prevent it from having it happen again is that no-one has anything on you that you wouldn’t share yourself.
Plenty of people know our legal names: you can’t go to a TG conference without a credit card, & mine doesn’t say ‘Helen Boyd’! We just didn’t want to use our legal names publicly, as it were – on the book or on TV. Mostly that was to spare our families, & our nieces and nephews, from being associated with us without their choice.
My issue as concerns our privacy is more a political one: I don’t want to see the book discredited as not being by the wife of a CD because Betty is expressing gender dysphoric feelings and exploring them. I didn’t want some CDs (who already dislike what I’ve said about sex & other things) in the book to have found a reason to say that nothing in the book holds for CDs because my husband isn’t one. Many CDs have written to me now to tell me that considering transsexualism is in fact very much a part of the path of becoming a self-accepting CD. Considering transsexualism is certainly not grounds for not identifying as a CD.
But the book was never intended as some kind of bible. I wrote it for SOs, for CDs, & for a larger audience: therapists, sexologists, the larger GLBT community. For friends, families, allies. I wrote it because I found too much propaganda & doctrine within CD literature. If it becomes a good reference book for therapists, I’ll be pleased. If it helps couples talk over issues, I’ll be thrilled. If it helps CDs come to a place where they feel less shame and self-hatred, I’ll think I did a good thing. Ultimately, I wrote it because I don’t think there is anything bad about anyone – male or female – enjoying feeling pretty and embracing a softer side of themselves, and because I don’t think it’s bad to be turned on by something others arent’ turned on by. Mostly I wrote it because although crossdressing is not usual, it’s certainly not BAD.


It turns out the whole fiasco was caused by someone who self-confessed to not having realized that Betty is not on hormones and is not transitioning, nor that the information that we’re struggling with this wasn’t public knowledge.
And ironically, she was recommending my book to a new wife whose husband is not sure if he is CD or TS.
If only all such drama turned out so well.
Thank you all for your love and support and emails. I would have rathered this not be public, but now it is, and well – so it is.

Gossip & Calumny*

Okay, I’m definitely upset.
As of a few months ago, Betty & I both realized that she is struggling with issues of TGness, basically questioning if she is TS. She is decreasingly unhappy returning to guy mode, and started to express serious interest in transitioning (whether that would involve hormones, surgeries, or just social transition, we hadn’t a clue.)
So, I recently joined a list for partners of trans people – partners I could talk to who were in similar situations, to figure out what people were doing about job/family/sex, etc.
Today I heard from an old friend in the gender community that she has heard on another list that Betty is transitioning.
I know there are people out there who would have my head on a plate for having publicly & emphatically criticized Tri-Ess for being both trans- and homophobic in my book. But despite that, I didn’t expect for us to be gossiped about this way: surely anyone in the gender community knows how hard this is without me having to watch my back all the time!
I’m feeling like I have no choice but to keep my mouth shut on our own issues, and that hurts. Whoever it is out there that is doing this – spreading rumors to somehow squelch my credibility as the partner of a CD/TG – is a nasty piece of work. I’ll figure out where the leak is, eventually – of that there is no doubt.
Betty & I have always been honest about our struggles, and to realize this is the way one person has responded to my attempt to educate the greater population – and help people who are just finding out – really gets on my case.
For the record, Betty is not currently transitioning.
* cal-um-ny ( P ) Pronunciation Key (klm-n)
n. pl. cal-um-nies

1. A false statement maliciously made to injure another’s reputation.
2. The utterance of maliciously false statements; slander.