Report: Jennifer Boylan is one of the best known authors about transgender experience. Ahead of a speaking engagement at UCC next week, she recalls a year living and working in Cork pre-transition as a visiting professor at the university. This extract is taken from her memoir She's Not There
I spent 1998 in the traditional Irish manner—drinking heavily, singing songs, and wearing sheer-to-waist pantyhose.
I’d started talking about my gender issues with my wife, Grace, that spring, shortly before we moved to Cork to direct an American college’s program at UCC. It wasn’t clear to us what the future would hold for us as a couple, and while our lives in Cork were full of music and books and Murphy’s, there was also a current of tension between Grace and me. Although I’d felt myself to be female since I was very young, the idea of embarking upon the journey of "transition" seemed fraught with danger to me. I couldn’t imagine it. But just as clearly, I couldn’t imagine remaining as I was. It was a puzzle with no solution.
Things have changed so much concerning transgender discourse that it’s hard to remember that in 1998 there wasn’t even much of a language for talking about gender identity. It’s better now, nearly twenty years later, but to be honest, it’s not a whole lot better. There are still times, when I try to explain trans issues to people, that I still feel like I’m inventing the language as I go.
The closest I’ve ever come to describing my experience post-transition is to compare it to emigration. True, I was born in a different country, genderwise—dear old BoyLand. I made a difficult crossing and washed up, alive and amazed, on the shores of GirlLand, where for the last nineteen years I’ve been a naturalized citizen.
And yet, as a woman I do have something of a foreign accent, the telltale trace of the country of my birth.
In Cork, in 1998, I fell in with a crowd of people that followed several trad bands. There was Nomos, a group that included both a sixty year old ex-policeman on fiddle and a nineteen year old teen idol on guitar. There was North Cregg, which included the teen idol’s older brother on silent-movie-style piano and a man named Christy Leahy on the box. The best place to hear these bands was the upstairs of the Lobby Bar, which was across the street from the Cork City Hall, on whose steps John F. Kennedy had stood early in 1963.
Another good venue was The Gables pub on Douglas Street, where Christy, along with North Cregg’s guitarist, Johnny Neville, sat in a corner on Thursday nights and played their brains out. Frequently all sorts of their friends showed up as well, and there in the corner would be Christy on the box, Johnny on guitar, a piper, a banjo player, a mandolinist, and six fiddlers, their bows waving through the air in unison. I usually sat at a table about three feet away from this menagerie and just listened, transfixed. Every now and then Johnny would look over at me and say, "You liked that one all right, then, Boylan?"
Yeah, I liked it all right.
I liked ballads and songs better than the jigs and the reels, on the whole, because the lyrics always seemed to speak to me. In the ballads I heard the constant theme of emigration. Surely they had me in mind when they sang about having to leave the land of one’s birth because of the Great Hunger. Standing on the deck of a Coffin Ship, waving farewell to one’s sweetheart. Making a difficult ocean crossing. Arriving at last in a new world, the land of promise, the land of freedom. But never quite fitting in.
Sometimes I think the best way to understand gender shift is to sing a song of diaspora.
Oh come to the land where we shall be happy.
Don’t be afraid of the storm, or the sea.
And when we cross o'er, we shall surely discover,
That place is the land of Sweet Liberty.
One night I sat in the Four Corners, listening to a boy I did not know sing this song, tears coursing down my cheeks. Don’t be afraid of the storm or the sea, he says. How could I not fear the storm, or the sea? Surely, before I reached the green fields, I would perish in the briny ocean. Or, even if I did successfully cross o’er, how could I live without the love of the girl I’d left behind?
The people are saying that these two were wed,
But one had a sorrow that never was said.
He moved away from me, with his goods and his gear.
And that was the last that I saw of my dear.
On New Year’s Eve, our children went to bed early, and Grace and I were able to say goodbye to 1998 like adults. I made Peking Duck for dinner. After we’d finished the last of the plum sauce we snuck off into the bedroom and made love. We lay there in the warmth of each other’s bodies for a while, and then heard, far off, muffled in the Irish rain, the sounds of midnight as it was celebrated throughout the city.
"Happy New Year," we said to each other.
"You know what this year feels like, 1999?" I said.
"It feels like a sneeze coming on."
Grace laughed, and then rolled over and went to sleep.
The boys went to a Montessori school that year, where they learned to sweep the floor and put sponges in cans. Grace had an early morning workout at the gym, which she often followed with a trip to the English Market in Cork’s downtown. That left me at home in the Colby flat, where I would frequently put on a Coldwater Creek skirt and a black top and sit in the office and work on a screenplay. Occasionally Grace would come home to find me en femme, and she’d just shake her head and laugh. "No pearls before five," she’d say, nervously, before heading out again.
More often than not, though, I was alone in the house as a neofemale. I’d pay the bills for the program, or I’d sit at the upright piano and sing "I Wanna Be Just Like You" from the Jungle Book.
Sometimes I would put on my pumps and my coat and I’d stand there in the front hallway, thinking about going out into the world. I looked in the mirror. I thought I looked fine, if you didn’t look too close, that is. Still, I stayed indoors. I did not want to jeopardize the program or my own professional integrity by risking intrigue. Instead I waited on this side of the door, the Irish rain coming down outside, wondering when, and if, I would ever be able—as a woman—to feel that rain upon my face.
Professor Jennifer Boylan will be speaking at UCC (Room 2.12, O'Rahilly Building), Cork on Wednesday October 4 at 3pm.