When Helen Boyd goes out with her husband, who cross-dresses, it’s not unusual for strangers to perceive her as a lesbian, she said at a lecture Tuesday night.
“When we go out, nobody knows what we are,” she said. “As a partner, nobody knows I exist.”
Boyd, the author of “My Husband Betty,” a book about her unique marital circumstances, discussed both her personal experiences and broader transgender issues during the talk, which was sponsored by the Women’s Center and the Larry Kramer Initiative. Twenty people attended the lecture, which was part of the first annual Trans Issues Week at Yale.
Boyd began by defining the term “transgender” for her audience, which she said is oftentimes misconstrued. According to Boyd, “transgender” can either be used as an umbrella term, referring to all degrees of transgenderness — cross-dressers to transsexuals — or as a means of identifying individuals who have not undergone any surgical procedures to become the gender they most strongly identify with.
All forms of transgenderness, Boyd said, are rooted in the same principle.
“It’s an internal sense of not being the gender you look like,” Boyd said.
Boyd said one of her primary reasons for writing the book was to promote visibility among transgender individuals.
“It used to be the tradition that transvestites were invisible, and transsexuals didn’t acknowledge their former lives — they lived as their new identity,” she said. “Before it was largely closeted.”
But now, due in part to the gay and lesbian community’s efforts toward gaining acceptance, the transgender community is attempting to increase public awareness of transgender issues and visibility, Boyd said.
One of the most difficult issues facing transgenders who want to live as the gender they most strongly identify with involves the degree to which they are able to maintain their identities, Boyd said.
Transgenders often grapple with many other issues that might never have occurred to nontransgenders, such as routine visits to the doctor’s office, medical or insurance forms requiring individuals to check a box designating whether they’re “male” or “female” and paying for transitional operations that aren’t covered by insurance companies, she said. By becoming more visible, Boyd said the transgender community hopes people will learn about the various needs of transgenders and will work toward addressing some of their concerns.
Boyd said her own experiences living with a cross-dresser have helped her to become more receptive to the needs of transgenders. She said she has also begun to reflect on the meaning of masculinity and femininity, and where the two concepts intersect.
“When you’re living with a transgender, [gender] becomes very complicated, because it’s the most important thing in their life,” Boyd said. “Gender is disturbing and upsetting for them, because it just doesn’t feel right.”
Ultimately, Boyd hopes the transgender community’s growing visibility will foster a greater sense of empathy and understanding in society, and this means “being able to recognize and respect someone’s true identity,” she said.
Lauren Wilson ’04 said she attended the talk after reading some of Boyd’s book in a bookstore.
“I was really happy to see the author,” she said.
Jessamyn Blau ’05 said the talk was highly relevant, as it comes at a time when the transgender community is making itself heard on college campuses.
“We have no real transgender community at Yale because Yale is not seen as an appealing place for transgenders,” Blau said. “But Yale’s going to have to deal with them eventually.”
Blau is a staff columnist for the Yale Daily News.
Other Trans Issues Week events include a panel discussion on the relationship between trans and queer issues on Wednesday and a drag king performance and workshop conducted by Renee Farster and members of Queer Soup Friday night. A Silliman College Master’s Tea Thursday afternoon will feature University of Texas Professor Sandy Stone, a renowned trans-theorist, author and performer.