Author, professor and New York Times columnist Jennifer Boylan captivated the community on Tuesday, April 16 with a frank and enlightening Circle Talk about her journey as a transgender woman.
Peppered with clever asides and self-deprecating humor, the lecture frequently had listeners laughing, yet consistently transmitted a clear message about understanding the various ways that people might express their gender identity.
“There’s no one in this room who doesn’t have something in their heart that they have to keep hidden,” said the Barnard College/Columbia University professor and author of fifteen books. Her heart carried her secret until she was forty. “That was too late,” she said, then quickly corrected herself. “It’s never too late to be yourself.”
Informing her 85-year-old mother, a conservative Evangelical, was terrifying—and also surprising. “It was hard to tell her the thing I’d known in my heart since I was six years old,” she said. “I was afraid she wouldn’t love me.” Her mother reaffirmed her unconditional love, said she would never abandon her child, and promised to adjust. She then recited a passage about faith, hope, and love from 1 Corinthians, which says, “… the greatest of these is love.”
The importance of loving others was a recurring theme. “We’re here to love each other and to be loved. If there’s another reason to be here on Earth, I don’t know what it is,” Professor Boylan said.
Part of the talk was a primer on gender-related terminology. The speaker acknowledged that discourse was changing quickly, and that the word “trans” connoted many things. “Transgender,” she said, is generally an adjective and refers to “lots of different kinds of people who are working through all kinds of gender stuff.” “Transexual” generally means someone who has had surgical intervention to transition, she explained, while drag queens are gay men who present as female, sometimes for entertainment; cross dressers tend to be straight men; and gender queer or gender nonconforming want to get away from the male-female binary and live along a spectrum.
Gender identity and sexual orientation are separate topics, she warned. “If you’re gay or lesbian, it’s about who you love,” she said. “If you’re trans, it’s about who you are.” Gender identity, she said, is “who you know yourself to be” while gender expression is “who people see when they look at you.”
The morning after her Circle Talk, Professor Boylan held an open Q&A in the Sackett Forum, where students crowded in to hear her outlook on everything from her marriage to femininity, which she explained was especially important to her right after her transition “because I hadn’t be able to express that before.” Eventually, she said, some aspects of femininity struck her as oppressive.
Students appeared to absorb her message of love and acceptance, hanging on every word. “Trans people exist,” she concluded. “We’ve always been here and we’re not going to go away.” The choice is to ostracize people who aren’t like you, she said, or to show them love and respect. Listeners left understanding that that was not a choice at all.