Jennifer Boylan is a best-selling author and professor at Colby College in Maine. Her new memoir is I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, which is about growing up in a haunted house, and about what it means to be “haunted.”
Until 2001, Jennifer published under the name James Boylan and while she now has a perspective on “a life in two genders,” she also provides an interesting view about the financial realities of transitioning. Skip to Question 6! Or start from the top as Jennifer gets personal with all things money.
1. What are some preconceived notions about money that typically get associated with gender?
In my family, you’d go to my mother for small amounts of money, and she’d say no. Like, you needed five dollars for the school trip. She’d ask you why you needed five dollars, grill you about the whole thing. Then maybe, if you were lucky, you’d get two. You’d go to my father if you need a lot of money, like a hundred dollars for a new amplifier. And he’d always say yes.
2. Are there any money lessons in I’m Looking Through You?
Well, there’s a chapter where I’m the world’s worst bank teller. I was so dreamy then. I’d give people six thousand dollars when their check was for six hundred. Or I’d just lose tens of thousands of dollars in my drawer because I hadn’t counted it right, or left a wad of thousands by the coffee machine. Eventually they put me on “probation”, and my supervisor, Mrs. Muhammed, had to watch me like a hawk. That helped, but not much. Nothing they could do would make me less dreamy.
3. What was your very first job? How did it teach you the value of a dollar?
I mowed lawns when I was a kid. A very male job, I guess. I liked the constant drone of the engine and the smell of the freshly mown grass and the gasoline. I liked the clank the mower would make when I ran over a rock. Or you’d mow right over a mound of dog poop and it would all spray out the side. Good times.
My first job in college was working at Lenny’s Hot Dogs in Atlantic City during the summers. That was a whole other trip.Working the night shift with my friends. It felt kind of like being in a play, every night, making hot dogs, burgers, fries, corn on the cob, frozen yogurts. We’d get off at five or six in the morning and walk down the beach and look at the stars. Minimum wage, but a great job.
When they gave me the W-4 Exempt from Withholding form at the beginning of the summer, I had no idea whatsoever what this was. Withholding? What’s withholding?
4. As a college professor, have you seen a shift in the financial values of students throughout your years of teaching?
Colby students come from a pretty wide swath of financial backgrounds, but a lot of them have spending money. My students, like people across the country, have gotten used to having more disposable income over the last 25 years.
5. Do good grades typically translate to higher earnings in one’s career?
Depends what you do, I guess. If you’re out to become a fiction writer, or a journalist, good grades might get you the job, but the job of a writer is one that almost always guarantees financial hardship, at least it is if it’s your only income. Or unless you get very lucky.
6. Did changing your gender have any impact on your financial status?
Well, I changed genders right as we were going from parents of toddlers to parents of grade school kids. So there were lots of strains on us financially at the time. Going from male to female is expensive, at least if you go the whole nine yards and include all the therapy and the surgery and the electrolysis and the hormones. Plus having to buy mostly all new clothes. And moistureizer, for gods sakes. I probably spent over 20,000 bucks in the process, over five years. People going from female to male can spend four or five times that. And of course, none of this is covered by insurance.
This is one reason people transition in mid-life; it can take that long to have the financial resources to get from one place to another. I know plenty of genderqueer people are happy being in the middle, and I respect that, but I wasn’t happy there.
Issues of privilege and income (which are related anyhow) are wedded to trans issues in a way that makes them a world apart from the issues for gay and lesbian people. If you are trans and hoping to make a complete transition, then you will come up against the financial realities of it. You don’t need twenty-thousand dollars to come out as gay or lesbian. But if you embark upon a transition path as trans, you’re going to need that. And where will it come from? Do you ask your parents, at age five, or fifteen, or twenty five, “Say Mom, I need twenty thousand dollars for one a them sex changes?” Young people don’t have that kind of money. Plenty of older people don’t have it either.
And so people with privilege in the culture– whether it comes from race or sex or class or education– are more likely to have the financial resources to go through the process. Which means that plenty of people without those resources, who feel the issues just as intently, are left without a means to move forward. And so people’s lives get desperate, and they resort to whatever they can just to get by. Which means their lives are very, very hard. And that’s not right.
Money enables people to “pass,” and passing is a highly charged and volatile issue for trans people. The more you look like everybody else in normative culture, the easier your life may be. And people with deep pockets can buy the surgeries that enable them to blend in with everybody else. The tyranny of passing, of “having to look like everybody else” is often financial at its root. And so this is another thing that trans people have to struggle with.
When I counsel young people about how to move forward, often I give them the advice they least want to hear, which is, finish your education, get a degree if you can, and try to attain some sort of power in the culture, because it can take resources to overturn the cultures rules effectively.
Either that, or be prepared to live totally outside of society’s rules. “To live outside the law you must be honest.”
7. What is your most significant memory about money?
I remember being a young writer in NYC, and I was broke as can be. I made 300 dollars a month as a writer for a magazine. My rent on 108th street was $175 a month in 1980. So I had $125 for everything else. I asked my mother if she would send me a winter coat, which I figured cost $75; I was wandering around New York without a coat. My mother mailed me $25, and said, “Well you’ll have to earn the money for your own coat. But here is some money for the sleeves.”
My parents had the money– but they believed very strongly that you have to support yourself– especially if you’re going to do something deranged like become a writer. So they wanted me to learn the value of earning my own income. Which I did, but it still annoyed me. I mean, hello? You sent me money for the SLEEVES?
This is an example of the time I should have asked dad, instead of mom, for the money.
8. Which is your preferred way to make a living: writing or teaching?
They each have their pleasures. Teaching can be really hard, because you have to figure out how to reach each student differently. Sometimes there’s a nice matchup between what I know and what students need. Other times, I can’t figure out how to get through to students, and I don’t know what it is they need. Writing is more familiar to me, and I usually only have to answer to myself.
9. How does money play a role in the trans movement?
10. Do people in academia pay enough attention to finances?
Well, to become an academic means a series of acts of financial suicide– all the money you spend on tuitions for undergraduate and then your graduate work. You can easily wind up twenty-six, twenty-seven years old without every having had a job besides teaching and research. And then, if it’s a tenure track job, it comes down to getting tenure, or not. If you don’t, maybe you can get a job somewhere else, or maybe not. Sometimes people wind up in their late twenties without any prospects and an enormous personal debt. And only then do they have to start figuring out what to do next.
For people who are tenured, they sometimes then commence living inside of a bubble; education can be one of the few recession-proof industries. Which means that teachers can obtain a certain distance from the realities of the world, including the realities of the lives their students are living. Which means that if you want to stay relevant and connected to your students’ lives, you have to stay on your toes.
More about Jennifer Boylan
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a widely praised author and professor of creative writing and American literature at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine. She is the author of 10 books, including She’s Not There, which was the first bestselling book by a transgender American.
Her new memoir, I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted, was just published by Broadway/Doubleday (Random House). While trans issues form part of the exposition of the book, the primary focus is on what it means to be “haunted,” and how we all seek to find peace with our various ghosts, both the supernatural and the all-too-human.
Photo credit: © 2007 James Bowdoin
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.