On October 16, 2015, I received the “Spirit of Justice” award from the Boston-based LGBT legal advocacy group, GLAD (not to be confused with GLAAD, the media advocacy group which I serve as a Board member). While the actual speech I delivered upon this occasion, at the Copley Place Marriott, involved much more ad-libbing and improvisation, the text below gives you the basic idea.
Thank you GLAD. I am so grateful to you for this honor, which is surely one of the nicest things anybody has ever done for me.
A big shout out to the many friends of mine who have come to be on hand tonight— my colleagues from Barnard College; from Colby College; my cousin MJ, my friends Rick and Kenny, and of course, my family at GLAAD with two A’s, or as we say in the movement, GLA-AD, or, if you prefer, ‘Dutch GLAAD.’”
It’s a particular honor to receive this award from GLAD with one A, which since 1978 has been committed to full equality under the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and people living with HIV/AIDS. I may be your honoree tonight, but you are the ones who have helped bring honor, and dignity to my life through th work you do. It was GLAD, in particular, that pushed back against the legislation in my home state of Maine in 2007 that would have removed transgender people from the category of individuals protected under Maine’s Human Rights Act. Thanks to the work of Jennifer Levi, and all of you at GLAD, the Maine Legislature, after some consideration, decided that, as it turns out, people like me were human after all.
Boy, talk about a relief.
Given that I’m the co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD with two A’s, and that I’m receiving this amazing honor from GLAD with one A, there have been no shortage of opportunities recently to make light of the fact that our two LGBT nonprofits are often mistaken for one another. Which, in some way is frustrating, I know: One-A GLAD’s legal work is a very different route to full equality than Two-A GLAAD’s focus on accellerating acceptance through the media. And yet we are, each in our different ways, involved in the same work, trying to bring about a world in which all of us are free to live the lives we love, in a world in which our stories are told with dignity and accuracy, and in which we all enjoy equal protection under the law.
There are a lot of ways to try to make this dream a reality, and I’m grateful, in fact, to all of the nonprofits engaged in the work. But GLAD (with one A) and GLAAD (with two A’s) find each other particularly linked, and not least because we are so often mistaken for each other. We are, if you’ll forgive the phrase, nonprofit doppelgangers, the LGBT version of twins separated at birth. Sometimes this is a little awkward, like last year when one of my potential donors happily told me that he’d sent off a huge check to support GLA-AD, and then noted, “Funny thing— I never knew you all were headquartered in Boston!” Yeah, funny thing.
But most of the time, I don’t mind GLA-AD being mistaken for GLAD, in the same way that I don’t mind being mistaken, now and again, for a celebrity who is much more attractive than I am.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a doppelganger, or someone whom everyone thinks is you, but I have. And I can tell you that the experience is very different depending on whether the person everyone thinks you look like is someone whom you admire. Or the opposite. When double-A GLAAD had a board meeting in London two weeks ago, there was one night when I had to give a speech, and someone in the audience later said to me, I was so excited when you walked out! I thought you were Meryl Streep.
And of course, I got home that night and looked into the mirror and thought, well, hello Meryl.
On the other hand, my mother used to always say, You know who you look like now, Jenny? Ann Coulter? She used that, in fact, as her last ditch attempt to get me to cut my hair. “I don’t mind you being a woman,” she used to say. “But I do mind you being a hippie.” Her theory was, t if she told me I looked like Ann Coulter, that would goad me into getting a perky little hairdo. But she was mistaken. I used to say, Mom, I don’t look like Ann Coulter. Ann Coulter looks like me.
The topic of doppelgangers, or doubles, is one with a great tradition in American and English literature, of course. The poet Shelley allegedly saw his own double the day before he died; a stranger who looked just like him came up to him while Shelly was in his garden, and said, “How much longer do you intend to remain content?” In literature, some of the greatest stories, particularly in the horror genre, are about individuals who swap identities, or, alternatively, about a single individual torn in two. Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde is probably the most famous version of that particular kind of story, but there are plenty of others— the portrait of Dorian Grey, or even Frankenstein. In most versions of the story, things don’t turn out well.
For transgender people, the story of the doppelganger, or double, takes on a unique twist. For many of us, the story of our lives is often the story of a person trying to let go of one identity, and embracing another; it’s our hope that this transformation, unlike that in the Jeckyl/Hyde swap-up, is one that leads from a false self towards a true one. We sometimes face the additional struggle that we’re often surrounded by people, including some of the the ones that love us most in the world, who at least initially seem to prefer the Mr. Hyde side of our selves. Jeckyll? they say to us. Why on earth would you go to all this trouble just to become Jeckyll. When you could be Mr. Hyde! Oh my god, we LOVE Mr. Hyde. Don’t take away Mr. Hyde and leave me with this Jeckyll. Who is this Jeckyll, anyhow? And so on.
Afterwards, if we are lucky enough to survive our transitions intact, we’re sometimes faced with an additional quandry. What does it mean to be Dr. Jeckyl, if you’ve grown up as as Hyde? Or, more specifically, what does it mean to be an adult woman if you’ve had what looks to everyone else, like a boyhood?
You don’t have to be trans to struggle with the dilemma of “before” and “after” in this life. As years go by, I think it’s only natural to look over your shoulder at the person you have been, and then into the mirror at the person you have become, and to ask, as David Byrne once put it, “Well. How did I get here?”
Or, as Andre Gregory poses the question in the film, My Dinner with Andre: “A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly, there’s this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he’s gone. Where’s that son? Where is that father?”
The world is full of people who in fact think of themselves as a former this, or an ex-that. Former Marines. Ex-nuns. Ex-husbands. X-men. In some ways, I am an X-man, and I can tell you that being an X-man is sometimes not all that different from being one of the X-men, except without any of the superpowers.
Actually, I do have a super-power: super gender.
But it can be very hard to live a life that is defined only by what you have been, rather than what you have become, or who you are. This is not the particular struggle of the transgender man, or woman. It’s all of us.
So how do we make peace with all these selves? How do we wind up living one life, instead of two?
In my case, the answer comes from the telling of story. You look at your life as one continuous narrative, rather than as before and after. It’s story that connects us to our past; it’s story that helps us, quite literally, understand the narrative of our own lives.
I have written my books for lots of reasons, and not least because writing can be just about the most enjoyable way that I know of passing the time— but ultimately, most storytellers that I know are engaged in the craft because they are trying to make sense of their lives, to join the before with the after, to join the Jeckyll with the Hyde, to join our GLAD with our GLA-AD. I went through a lot of rituals on my way to womanhood, from hormones to electrolysis and a trip to the large-size shoe store. But nothing, truly nothing, taught me as much about being a woman as telling my story.
And it’s this that I wish for all of you, tonight, and through all the days of your lives: I hope that over the course of a long life, you will find the words to tell your story, in all its, joyful, scary, contradictory wonder. It’s a great gift, one that has saved my life, and the lives of many other people I know, and I’m grateful for it. Just as I am grateful for my wonderful wife Deirdre, our sons Zach and Sean, my cousin MJ, my friends Kenny and Rick and my colleages from Colby and Barnard and GLA-AD; and for the amazing gift of this strange and wonderful life. Just as I am grateful to all of you at GLAD for this Spirit of Justice award, and for which I thank you from the bottom of my heart.