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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Helen Boyd Does Milwaukee

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Helen Boyd, the author of My Husband Betty and She's Not the Man I Married, will be in town this weekend, making stops at UW-Milwaukee, the Tool Shed, and the Gemini Gender Group. Boyd's books chronicle her experiences with her partner Betty's gender journey, as they explore together Betty's identity as a male crossdresser and, later, as a transsexual woman. Although Helen is from New York, her writing exudes a Midwestern no-nonsense practicality, and I'm really excited to hear her speak in person. I was able to ask her a few questions prior to her visit.

You published your first book in 2003 and your second in 2007, and since then have served as an advocate and spokesperson for transgender people and their partners. Over the past couple of years, what trends have you noticed in the trans community or in society's treatment of trans people?

What's been truly remarkable is how much the tide has changed. We wanted to use the word "transgender" in the sub-title of the first book, but my publishers felt enough people didn't know the word or what it meant. Imagine! That's only five years ago. What trans people have gained is visibility though organizations like NCTE (National Center for Transgender Equality) and media exposure - whether it's Thomas Beattie on Oprah or Isis on Top Model - and as a result, more people know what trans is and understand this isn't a "lifestyle" or a choice. (Betty likes to say that being trans isn't a choice, but how you handle it is.) While that's increased understanding, it's also made the trans community a more visible target of groups like Focus on the Family and others who believe in essentialist ideas about gender. Attempts have been made, as in Gainesville recently, to scare the public into not support transgender rights by scaring them with "men in women's bathrooms." The good thing is that usually people are smarter than that, and Americans, as a whole, seem to agree that it's wrong to discriminate against someone because of who they are. There is still a lot to do, but with a new Hate Crimes Bill just announced that is gender-inclusive, things are looking much brighter.

You're teaching at Lawrence University in Appleton this semester. What are you focusing on at Lawrence, and what has your experience living in Wisconsin been like?

So far I really love Wisconsin, which surprises me. New Yorkers have a tendency to believe they can't live anywhere else. Appleton has College Avenue, which is a lovely main drag full of little stores and coffee shops -- it reminds me of my neighborhood in Brooklyn, actually. At Lawrence, I'm teaching Gender Studies 101, a course on transgender lives, and currently a course on gender variance - tomboys, sissies, drag queens and kings, too. One of the best things about teaching people who are 18 or 20 is the constant reminder that they don't have the hang-ups of even my generation. Their questions are more like "Why wouldn't I consider a trans woman a woman?" instead of "Why should I consider a trans woman a woman?" It's encouraging.

While in town, you'll be appearing at Gemini Gender Group, the Tool Shed and UWM. What messages are you most looking forward to bringing Milwaukee audiences?

The one thing we all have in common is the way that gender proscribes the ways we can be - whether it's the way we are, the way we live in the world, who we date, who we desire, what expectations we have of our careers and our relationships. I'm not a big "smash the binary" type, even if I love the idea, because I've watched Betty live outside the binary for a few years now and it's damned hard, even in the most trans and queer friendly neighborhood in Brooklyn, much less anywhere else. Mostly what I'd like is for people to realize how gendered expectations end up being more limiting than anything else, and how, in that sense, most people are not dissimilar to trans people.

Helen's appearances while in town include a meet-and-greet with the Milwaukee LGBT community on Saturday, April 18 at 6:00 pm at the Martin Luther Church on 93rd and Bluemound Road (sponsored by Gemini Gender Group), a workshop on negotiating needs in relationships at the Tool Shed on Sunday, April 19 at 5:00 pm, and two workshops at the UWM Union [http://www4.uwm.edu/wrc/wrc_interim/interim/events/events.cfm] on Monday, April 20 - one at 2 pm on Gender Variance Through the Trans Lens in Union 191, and another at 7 pm on Queer Heterosexuals in the Fireside Lounge. All of these workshops are free and open to the public, so don't miss an opportunity to meet Helen Boyd while she's in town!

Laura Anne Stuart owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side. She has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.