There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the lives of transgender kids and teens and the very important choices their parents have to make. But what happens when parents are the ones transitioning (like reality TV dad Bruce Jenner might be?) Why would a parent decide to transition later in life? And what's that like for their spouses, kids and extended families?
Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan -- a well-known transgender parent and bestselling author -- is kind of an expert on this subject. As an advisor to the Golden Globe-winning TV series "Transparent," she’s an invaluable resource on a show that follows a fictional family after their father comes out as transgender. (The multifaceted Boylan is also the Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.)
A husband for 12 years and the father of two sons when she came out to her family and began her transition, Boylan was the perfect person to help MTV News explore some of the questions we wanted to raise. Nearly 15 years after her transition, she and her wife are still married, and she remains incredibly close with her kids. She opened up to us about why she transitioned when she did, and what coming out is like for transgender parents and their kids.
“Life might have been simpler if I’d come out earlier,” Boylan told MTV News, “But people come out when they can. They come out when they’re ready. And I wasn’t ready until the day I came out.”
When Boylan first told her wife, she was worried about what it would mean for their marriage.
“I knew it would be a serious challenge to our relationship, to say the least,” she said. “My wife, [Deedie], and I took quite a long time to figure out what it would mean if we stayed together and what it would mean if we separated. But we found … the love we shared was more important than any of the other things that changed about me. In some ways, we were still the same lovers we’d always been.”
Boylan also added that the way her and Deedie's story went isn’t the way everyone’s will -- or even the way it should.
“Not every couple has to stay together, and couples that don’t stay together aren’t any better or worse than anyone else,” she explained. “Everybody has to figure out what’s going to make them happy in a relationship, in a marriage, in life.”
Unlike the adult children in “Transparent,” Boylan’s sons, Sean and Zach, were very young when she began her transition. She and Deedie did their best to make sure that the kids knew Boylan wasn’t going away, that her love for them hadn’t changed, that this sort of transformation was unlikely to happen to them, and that the person they’d always known was the same person on either side of the gender divide.
Ultimately, because Boylan stayed so present as a parent, the kids didn’t even notice much of a difference when she transitioned.
“The first time I appeared in front of my sons [dressed as a woman]," Boylan said, laughing, "I asked, ‘Do you notice anything different about me?’ My older son, [Zach], who was 4 or 5 at the time, said, ‘You’re not wearing your glasses.’ ”
Eventually, it got awkward for the boys to keep calling Boylan “Daddy,” so Zach proposed a mommy-daddy hybrid: “Maddy.” (Sean then suggested “Dommy,” which made them laugh but didn't stick.)
The kids have never been bullied, and that's maybe in part because Boylan is so well-known. Zach has said in interviews that though it could be awkward to explain to friends at first, they've ultimately always been accepting. Once the boys were teenagers, Boylan made homemade pizza every Friday and groups of the boys’ friends started showing up regularly for “Maddy’s pizza.”
"I'm a great pizza chef," Boylan said. "And when I go back to Maine, all of my sons' friends still call me Maddy."
In a 2013 interview with NBC, Zach, who was then a college sophomore, said, “If normal is a family with a mom, a dad, two kids and a white picket fence, then no -- I don’t have a normal family. But if a normal family is one where everyone treats each other as equals and with love, then yeah -- I have a normal family.”
“If you were to describe our household, I think you’d describe it as a house full of people, full of love, full of food, full of comedy, and full of music,” Boylan said. “And the fact that I was trans ... Is it really even a thing?”
We asked Boylan if she had any advice for kids or teenagers whose parents come out as trans.
“Just know that whoever your parent has been is largely who they’ll keep being," she told us. "Except that with any luck they’ll be a little better adjusted, and will be more at peace because they’ll feel more at ease in their own skin.”
“Look,” she added, “Parents are embarrassing. Just having any kind of parents at all can be very awkward. They like bad music...it’s embarrassing when they dance. Parents can be so clueless in so many ways.
“But some day -- perhaps not that far from now -- you too will be an adult trying to figure out who you are. Whether your parents are your best friends or whether they drive you crazy, on some level you have to respect their humanity. And a parent who is restless in their soul is not going to be able to look out for you.”
Boylan also had some advice for the haters. "If people don’t understand why someone would come out as transgender, the first response should not be a moral judgment,” she said. “The first response should be trying to understand what a trans person must feel. If you’ve never felt the transgender impulse, it’s worth taking a moment to try to have some imagination and some human compassion.
“By the time someone comes out as transgender,” she added, “they’ve had to gaze into their own soul and ask, ‘Who am I?’ in a manner that other people mostly never have to bother with. ... If someone’s coming out, it means that they have struggled long enough that they really know themselves.
“And what can you do in response to someone else’s acknowledgement of their own soul except to respond with love? Do we need any theory of the world more complicated than ‘Love everybody for who they are, and for who they need to be’?"
If Bruce Jenner does come out as trans in his ABC interview on Friday evening, Boylan said she hopes people will see Jenner as someone who has found their courage and is trying to find their peace.
“We don’t need to focus on the melodrama,” she said. “We don’t need to talk about surgery. We don’t need to talk about marriage and divorce...or about whether Jenner is ‘pretty’ or not. [Jenner’s] desire to find solace is...something that I hope people will find universal.”
“I’m seeing a huge difference in the way trans issues are covered and understood generationally,” Boylan continued. “I’m glad MTV is taking on this story, but I’d be even happier if Fox News was. Or maybe...what media outlet skews the oldest? HGTV?”
“The last two years have been kind of breathtaking,” she said, adding that the tireless work of transgender activists in combination with the TV presence of Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and shows like “Transparent” are making this “a big cultural moment.”
Still, she said she was really looking forward to a different kind of moment: “The work will be done when [trans people] are boring.”
And in a beautifully parental move, Boylan quoted a song by a '60s folk icon to drive her point home. “As Paul Simon said, ‘I believe in the future we will suffer no more. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours, I feel sure.’ ”