Sunday, August 31, 2014

Helen Boyd Interview

Regular readers of this blog will know of the esteem in which I hold Helen Boyd, author of two forthright and powerful books about life with a cross dressing husband. The first, My Husband Betty (2003), describes Boyd’s relationship with her husband, from his first admission of cross dressing, and her exploration of the consequences of this on their relationship. Just about every aspect of cross dressing comes under Boyd’s insightful and sympathetic, yet ruthless, eye.

This book was followed by She’s Not the Man I Married: My life with a transgender husband (2007). In this book, she describes Betty’s further exploration of her identity, and the consideration of transition.

Helen Boyd 
Boyd is a fellow academic. She is a lecturer in Gender and Freshman Studies at Lawrence University, Wisconsin, USA. In my (limited) experience, partners of cross dressers tend to either loathe it openly or tolerate it silently. Boyd is a rare animal: someone who did neither, but was prepared to inquire, to appraise, to judge the good and the bad of cross dressing. Best of all, she is well-placed to tell us her thoughts: cross dressers, our partners, and those around us who want to know more. For people who ask me about cross dressing, I tell them there is no better place to start than My Husband Betty.

After some effort and persistence, Boyd agreed to an email interview with me. I was delighted, but suddenly (and this is unusual for me) lost for questions. I struggled to think of questions which wouldn’t make her roll her eyes (“Like I haven’t been asked this a million times before?”) So I tried to compose questions which were a little probing, a little challenging, just to see what the results would be.
It's been several years since She's Not the Man I Married was published. For those of us who don't know the latest, could you give us a brief update on where things are with Betty's transgender journey?

She transitioned and has been living in the world as a woman for a few years now.

Does this mean hormones and surgery, or something short of that? Legal gender change?

I mean she lives as a woman now. I’m not being coy, but how she transitioned doesn’t make much of a difference for me. My husband is now my wife.

I completely understand your desire to write My Husband Betty, but did you realise or suspect at the time the impact it would have on you? Did you foresee that it would become part of your identity, at least your public one? And is that OK?

I had no idea what was about to happen! None. When you’re an aspiring writer your whole life you have no idea what it will mean – and I’d worked as an assistant to a writer for many years before I wrote it, too, so you think I might have. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and actually like having a public persona, although I’ve had to fine tune how to have a private one, too.

What are your plans for your next book?  
Helen and Betty 

I’m writing about masculinity. Something like my other books, but more – this sounds pretentious – literary. It’s an evocative, emotional book right now, brought about by my realization that when my father died, and my husband transitioned, I felt really adrift with no men in my life. It’s hard to explain, but that was the starting point. The first sentence I wrote was “At the age of 43 I’ve found myself bereft of men.” Because I was.

What else do you write about which isn't to do with gender? From my point of view, you seem like someone with a point to make, and I suspect you would have made it in a different area if the cards had fallen a little differently. I just wonder what that area might have been.

A point to make, ha. It’s never occurred to me. I think often the point I’m trying to make more than any other is that people need to let go of shame. Half of the misery in the world is worrying about what other people think even if we think we don’t. I write about music on my blog a lot. The one thing I don’t write about is my family, really, and sometimes I wonder why not.

I admit to feelings of envy when I read your books and realise how open you are to the idea of Betty's transgender status. I suspect that a question you get asked frequently by cross dressers is: "How can I get my wife to be more like you?"

But my question to you is this: has your acceptance of Betty ever led to problems? Have you been the subject of hostility for your views?

Of course! Plenty of wives of cross dressers think I’m a pain in the ass. Which, yeah, I am. But I do like to explain that as much as I was an accepting, even enthusiastic, spouse, I had a very hard time with Betty’s transition. Still do. I think the second book hinted at exactly what kinds of issues I would have, but you have to read between the lines to find them.

Why do you consider yourself a pain in the ass?

Because I like cross dressers and would be happy to have one as a husband. They aren’t. For a lot of wives, the cross dressing is a deal-breaker, or keeps them from seeing the masculine husband they know and love. I genuinely enjoyed having a husband who cross dressed. I wish I still had a cross dressing husband, to be honest. Betty knows that, too, but it wasn’t in the cards for us.

What's the most difficult thing for you about having a trans husband?

That she’s my wife now. :-)

What's the best thing for you about having a trans husband?

I think my very favorite thing is having to confront my own issues about gender, although that’s often the most difficult thing, too. (Difficult and amazing do seem to go together a lot.) Because of the work I do, people often assume I’m trans, so I get to experience that thing that trans people do, when others look for the “signs” of whatever gender they think I was declared at birth, which in turns makes me think about what parts of me are masculine, or might be read as masculine if someone thought I was trans. That is, the best thing is being in a space and a community where I get to hear people talk about gender and learn about mine.

What advice would you give to a woman (perhaps a wife) whose partner has just told her about his cross dressing for the first time?

Fasten your seat belt.

A theme of my blog has become my (qualified) acceptance of the Freund-Blanchard autogynephilia model. I wondered what your current view about this hypothesis is (you touch on it in My Husband Betty, but I wondered if your views have evolved).

A couple of things:
(1) I don’t think it’s causal. That is, that there is sometimes a correlation of transness + sexuality, yes. But I don’t think one causes the other.
(2) I’m tired of old men telling everyone else they’re perverts. Honestly.
(3) I have a hard time believing that autogynephilia is a thing at all these days. I think Blanchard has taken autosexuality – which is practically a requirement for men who cross dress – and has turned it into something else. That is, I think there’s a desire to feel pretty, or powerful, or sexy – whichever version of femininity excites you, combined with an acceptance that others aren’t going to be into it so it becomes an autosexual fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes that person will need to transition and sometimes they won’t. That is, I think they’re turning it into a thing where it’s really just a perfect storm that looks like a thing.

Old men? You mean scientists? Or perhaps priests?

Ha, I mean the whole of the patriarchy, sure.

Most crossdressers insist they are straight men attracted to women. Yet some gay men crossdress. What's your take on that?

There have always been gay men who have cross dressed, and it’s not always drag when they do. I assume it’s for similar reasons cross dressers do – some combination of scratching an itch, connecting to a feminine self, fabulousness, and sexuality.

What famous person would you most like to meet and why?

Honestly? I think my answer is still Adam Ant. He pretty much kept me alive with his music as a teenager and young adult, and I read an awful lot of books he mentioned in songs and interviews, and he’s recently come back after being diagnosed as bipolar, and is as thoughtful and interesting on that topic as he’s always been about art. And he’s still crazy hot at 58. :-)

This wouldn’t be much of an interview if all I did was to gush about Helen and how great her books are. Putting my own academic hat on, a little analysis and discussion are in order. All I know of Boyd is what I have read in her books, and a little on her blog, and these answers above. That may not be all that much to go on.

Boyd is about the same age as me, and I find her attractive. This is not merely about looks, but a combination of intelligence, self-confidence, and acceptance of trans people; a heady mixture indeed. She ranks very highly on my list of people I would like to have dinner with.

One of the reasons I feel uncomfortable when I read her books is that I think: why can’t my wife
Adam Ant
'see that cross dressing isn’t all bad? I am sure that Boyd has often been asked questions like this; how do I make my wife understand? I believe she has, perhaps unwittingly, become a poster child for the (hypothetical) Supportive Wives of Cross dressers Movement.

I find it extraordinary that people might consider Boyd herself to be transgendered. However, I suppose this situation allows (as she says) her to experience some interactions exactly as a trans-person would.

I deliberately posed the autogynephilia question because it was raised by a previous commentator to this blog. I am not wholly satisfied with this answer. I see autogynephilia as a theory which fits some of the observable facts quite well. Like all good models, it is testable, and makes predictions which can also be tested. (As I have written elsewhere, the fact that it is a reasonable model does not make it the truth; nor does the fact that it makes some people uncomfortable make it false; nor does it hold a monopoly on ways to conceptualise men who enjoy wearing women's clothing). I don't see it as "old men telling everyone they are perverts", and my first take on this phrase was to assume that Boyd was talking about clergymen, rather than scientists.

From my perspective, with limited information, it looks as if the autogynephilia theory applies quite well to Betty.

For someone who has written so openly, Boyd seems (in my opinion) slightly elusive. She deflected two of my questions above with amusing or pithy retorts, rather than a seemingly honest or analytical response, and disregarded a couple of others completely. In addition, she mentions her family without really being drawn into why she doesn’t write about them.

I am left with the impression that Boyd is being guarded. She hints at keeping her public persona and private life separate. I understand this completely; she has no reason to take me into her confidence, nor the anonymous readers of this blog. In her books, she has explicitly held up the “Do Not Disturb” sign: there are some places she will not go. And I understand (from Wikipedia) that “Helen Boyd” is itself a pseudonym, albeit one which seems to be quite official.

What would have happened, I ask myself, if Helen Boyd and Betty had never met? Who would Boyd have chosen as a partner? Another trans person? An “ordinary” guy (perhaps a fellow scholar)? And what then? It seems to me that Boyd’s name and (public) identity are inextricable from her association with transgenderism. Would her life have unfolded differently?

I wonder what would she have had to sink her academic teeth into, if not gender issues? And what would that look like to us? Would she be as well known? (“And tonight, my guest is Helen Boyd, author of My Husband the Trainspotter. Helen, a lot of wives will be wanting to know: how do I get him to stop this weird behaviour?”)

And I can’t help wondering, what is the real Helen Boyd like? Perhaps we get a clue from her answer to my “famous person” question. Adam Ant, a singer best-known in the 1980’s for his outrageous and flamboyant style, produced hits like Prince Charming and Stand and Deliver. His videos were colourful, energetic and Bohemian, and regularly featured glorious costumes and cosmetics for both men and women. His music was edgy punk, mixed with energetic rhythms and tribal-influenced vocals.

With lyrics like “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” and “Although we know it’s wrong, we must  do it every day”, Ant was making powerful statements about clothing, identity and behaviour. In the video for Prince Charming, Ant is featured as a Cinderella-like character, with his two ugly brothers going to the ball. Fairy godmother Diana Dors appears to wave her wand. The significance of all this wasn’t lost on me, as a young cross dresser: boys can be Cinderella too.

And Ant spends plenty of time pouting and preening for the camera with liberal quantities of mascara and lip gloss on. Boyd’s affinity for Adam Ant confirms she has an innate liking for boys in costumes and makeup. I didn’t follow Ant’s career past about 1985, and I had no idea he was still touring. But he is, and still, apparently, pressing Boyd’s buttons. Perhaps even without Betty, we can infer that Boyd’s life would have followed a similar groove.

But as a further thought experiment, I wonder what would have happened to me if I had married Helen? Or perhaps Betty, if she had married someone less tolerant? In my case, would I now be transitioning, supported by a loving partner, instead of being a closeted, occasional cross dresser? In Betty's case, would she now still be transitioning, or would she have suppressed her feminine inclinations more? To borrow a very old metaphor, when you look at a tree, how much of its character and appearance is determined by the seed, and how much by the soil?

My thanks to Helen for her time and patience with my questions, and for linking to this blog from hers, which you can find here. 
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