Jennifer Boylan was once Jim Boylan: novelist, teacher, and father of two sons. But from his earliest memories, he had always believed that he was female, but trapped in a male body. Finally he can't take it any more, comes out to his wife, male best friend, and everyone else, and decides to make his body match his identity.

As might be expected from a professional writer, this is a very well-written memoir, and not only has an inherently interesting subject, but an unusual focus, which is how Boylan's change affects the people who know her and their relationships. It's quite thought-provoking, though I would have liked to see it go farther in grappling with the issue of gender identity and how that interacts with social and personal conceptions of masculinity and femininity.

For instance, after Boylan begins taking estrogen and presenting herself as female but before having the operation, she becomes obsessed with dieting even though her weight is perfectly normal. She feels that this is the result of her picking up on societal pressures on women-- but if she always identified as female, why did she never feel that before? And if the pressure is so great that even someone raised and living as a man immediately succumbs to it, why is it that some women raised in cultures less obsessed with weight are immune to the diet frenzy even after moving to the US? Did Boylan already believe that women are manipulated by social pressures, and so was predisposed to that manipulation?

I don't have an answer, but I would have liked to see more thought devoted to those questions, and similar ones dealing with sexual orientation. A doctor tells Boylan that of his heterosexual male-to-female patients, after the operation one third stay attracted to women, making them lesbians, sort of. One third become attracted to men, making them heterosexual, sort of. And one third become asexual. I can't even begin to guess what this says about gender and sexual orientation-- fluid? fixed, but in different ways for different people? -- But I'd have liked to see the matter explored further.

I followed a link from a webpage on the book to a webpage on transsexuality, intersexuality, and gender identity, which suggests that gender identity is based on brain structure rather than genetics, genitalia, or upbringing. This explains everything from the sad case of John/Joan (a boy who was raised as a girl after losing his penis in a circumcision accident, but who believed that he was male despite all insistence to the contrary) to androgen insensitivity (people genetically XY who appear female and have female gender identities) and, of course, transsexuals.

However, I have a problem with the site's definition of male and female identities, as they seem entangled in stereotypical ideas of masculinity and femininity:

"It is amazing that psychiatrists completely missed all of this in the past, and so long assumed that gender identity was neutral at birth and later established by social interactions. Mis-gendered people themselves have long reported their problem not as one of THOUGHTS, but of cross-gendered percepts and BODY FEELINGS - as a little child the gendered feelings of how your body wants to move, how you respond to being touched, how aggressive or cuddly you are, how you interact with other little children. Then, after puberty, one's feelings upon being sexually aroused, and whether those deep urges are male (mounting urges) or female (urges of being manipulated and penetrated)."

This suggests that a woman who is aggressive and likes to be on top has a male gender identity. I beg to differ.

I have always strongly identified as female (as far as I know, I am physically and genetically female), so much so that as a girl, I was offended when I was called a tomboy. I felt that not only was I not a boy, I was not even boy-like. Rather, I felt that the feelings and activities which people said were masculine couldn't be, because I experienced them and I was a girl. I was a girl who liked to climb trees and kick balls and catch lizards, therefore none of those likings could be masculine.

To this day, I am dubious about the terms "masculine" and "feminine" when they are presented as anything other than common stereotypes, cultural trends, or bell-curves. But though I can't think of a single non-biological or physical tendency or trait that I sincerely believe is truly masculine or feminine, I am still rock-solid convinced that I am one hundred percent female. It's a puzzler.
The Return of the King: Extended Edition trailer:

Eowyn and Faramir in the Houses of Healing! The fall of Saruman! Aragorn and the palantir! Gandalf vs. the Witch-King! The Mouth of Sauron! (The last is scary, but not quite as scary as his incarnation here as George Bush.)

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