Imagining Grace

Deirdre “Grace” Boylan, wife of transgender activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, speaks about change, love, and resilience.

Deirdre and Jennifer Boylan have been married for 28 years — 12 as husband and wife, and 16 as wife and wife.

Jenny is the writer in the family, so I am not totally sure how to do this. Just dive in, I guess.

People have asked me to comment on She’s Not There (my wife Jenny’s memoir about trans experience) since it was first published ten years ago. They ask me all kinds of questions. I haven’t responded publicly all that often. Sometimes I feel a little bit like, “I gave at the office.”

I suppose that the most important thing I would tell families and spouses is that there are many harder things that families have to endure than having a family member change genders. During the time of Jenny’s transition, my sister Katie died of ovarian cancer. Jenny dedicated She’s Not There to her. At the time it was far more important for us to share our experiences and to support each other as a couple and as a family, as we dealt with that loss, than it was to separate. It was much more important for all of us to come together than to choose that moment to divide our family.

It was a time of enormous uncertainty, anxiety and grief. In some ways, it’s difficult for me to go back and really remember or describe everything that was going on.

Truthfully, I don’t know how I did it. I did what I’ve always done, which is putting one foot in front of the other. I was anxious. I was scared. I didn’t know what my future was going to be.

I felt like I was riding a freight train. There were no good choices. If I jumped off the freight train, I’d be killed on impact. If I hung on, I had no idea where I was going.

There were a lot of dark moments where I felt like I didn’t know what was going to happen, what I wanted, or what would help me answer those questions.

At the same time, Jenny was on a journey of self-discovery and exploration. It could make her quite giddy at times. I was the one hanging back and feeling bereft. I always felt like the children were going to remember me as the sad, depressed, bitchy parent, while Jenny got to be playful and delighted and excited. That was one of my biggest fears — that I would turn into the mean parent.

I think the main thing that got us through the transition was the strength of our love for each other. That never fundamentally changed. It was the internal kind of spiritual connection between us, and our commitment to caring for each other and for the boys, that enabled me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and to remember the things that have always delighted me about Jenny, and our lives together.

Our family is very united by baking bread and sharing food and drink as a way to be together and to communicate. We don’t talk about sex and gender all that much these days. That shouldn’t be surprising to anybody who has teenagers. It’s a lot of work just to be a family. It takes a lot of coordination, a lot of effort and a lot of time, which doesn’t always leave space to process everybody’s life. We’re pretty comfortable with each other, the four of us.

Often I forget that our family is all that different, in terms of gender anyway. But we are extraordinary — extraordinary in terms of the great gifts and talents and love that are embodied in our family. I never forget that.

The lack of physical intimacy is not particularly hard for me. I think it’s much harder for Jenny. Like I said, our lives are very full and very busy and I feel like I have lots of closeness.

I’ve always really enjoyed exercise, and that’s it’s a huge stress-reliever for me, and kind of a substitute, if not for intimacy, then for sex. I have a friend named Patty that I walk with every morning for an hour before sunrise. The dogs, Ranger and Indigo, come with me. The only time we don’t walk is if it’s below zero.

I thought She’s Not There painted a fair enough portrait of our family. I hear sometimes from readers who think I’m a martyr, or that I’m “stuck” with Jenny. I think those are silly words.

Personally, I prefer “saint-like.”

Gender journeys are not the same as losing someone.

No matter what has happened, I have always had the power to make the decision that’s best for me. I have always seen my choice as positive and strong. I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed myself or subsumed myself to that. There were times that it was very, very difficult to make that decision. But now it’s ten years later, and I’m happy with our lives.

Not every person who finds themselves with a transgender partner has to decide what I decided. Everybody gets to make their own decisions. There are things to be gained from working through adversity with the person that you love. There are things to be gained from raising a family together. But nobody should stay in a marriage or a family that is not sustaining for them, whether that involves gender or any of the other changes that pull people apart.

We didn’t only stay together for the children. We stayed together for each other. If we were staying together only for the children, we would never have made it for the ten years. Jenny and I are together for the boys, sure, but we’re also together for each other.

I think our boys have learned a lot from having Jenny and me as parents. I think they’ve learned that the most important thing is to love each other and to look out for each other. Jenny’s mom used to have a saying — “love will prevail.” I think they’ve learned that from us.

I never look at Jenny and see Jim anymore. Not physically, anyway. On the other hand, she’s still the same person she was when we got married. As she used to say, same monkeys, different barrel.

I’m neither a hero nor a martyr. I’m lucky because I’m married to someone that I want to be married to, and that we have created a life together that we’re both proud of, a life that both makes us proud and delights us.

If I could somehow meet my younger self, the person I was ten or twelve years ago, I’d want to tell her that gender journeys — like any journeys — are many and varied. It’s not the same as losing someone. I’d like to tell her that most of the things she’s always done, she’ll get to keep doing. She’ll have lots of adventures. There will be days when the whole family rides their bikes, or hikes up a mountain, or takes a boat ride. There’ll be cooking and drinking together. There will be meals with all of us, and talking and laughing.

I would want my younger self to know, truly, it’s all going to be okay. That I’ll be able some day to look back and know that I have a life I enjoy sharing with the person I love, a life that’s full of good work, good friends, and good kids.

After all these years, I still think marrying Jenny Boylan was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.

Deirdre “Grace” Boylan is a social worker and a professor in Maine. This essay appears in the 10th anniversary edition of Boylan’s memoir She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders.