Jennifer Finney Boylan ’80: “A Day of Change”

Editorial StaffMay 28, 20238min
Jennifer Finney Boylan ’80

Jennifer Finney Boylan ’80, who was named an Honorary Doctor of Letters at Wesleyan’s 191st Commencement Ceremony, implored the Class of 2023 to face a world constantly in flux with a spirit of compassion.

“What I learned is that greeting the world with love doesn’t mean sitting around with a dopey smile on your face while the world burns around you,” Boylan said. “For love to prevail it is necessary to greet the world with fierceness, to push back against injustice with both relentlessness and joy, wisdom, and ferocity.”

Boylan is a writer, teacher, and activist, who has fused her experience as a transgender person with her extraordinary talents as author and her desire to better society. She is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence and professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University and is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study. Boylan is the author of 18 books, including the novel Long Black Veil and her 2003 memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, the first best-selling work by a transgender American. She is a member of the board of trustees of PEN America, and from 2011 to 2018 was a member of the board of directors of GLAAD, serving as the first openly transgender co-chair from 2013 to 2017. While at Wesleyan, where she graduated with a BA in English, she was editor of The Wesleyan Argus and a member of WESU radio station’s board of directors.

Boylan made the following remarks during Wesleyan’s 191st Commencement Ceremony on May 28: 

Hi, everybody. Thanks so much. President Roth, trustees, faculty, seniors, parents, those of you who have served as parents. I’m just so grateful to you all.

I just wanted to say a few words, if I could, about the idea of change, which, as a transgender American, I guess I know something about. It’s also a concept that’s very much on all of your minds today, as you all move from one chapter of your life to the next.

And if you ask me—and you did—much of the world’s trouble at this moment is traceable, in fact, to the resistance to change. This resistance is not a passion unique to political conservatives; being grumpy about a change in something that we liked just fine the way it was is part of being human. Who has not experienced a sense of loss when something we love is taken away from us, or transformed beyond recognition?

Like, for me, as a member of the Class of 1980, when I look around the campus this morning, I’m filled with sweet Wesleyan nostalgia—I can smell it from here. But I also look at that glass thing somebody built between the ’92 Theater and the chapel, and I’m like, “Dude, what were you thinking? You thought that putting a little glass Pizza Hut right between those beautiful old buildings was a fantastic idea?”

But the thing is, that’s the nature of the world. Things morph and evolve. Things disappear.

In being grumpy about change, it’s easy to forget the fact that, you know: nothing lasts forever, including people. And in fact, some things shouldn’t last forever. How can we ever make things better, if, at the same time, we’re just so in love with keeping things just the way they were?

Changing our country, for instance, by expanding equal rights for one group of Americans should be an occasion for joy, not lamentation. If one group of people gains the ability to live with justice and with grace, it’s not as if someone has taken away your portion. Equality is not the same as a coconut cream pie. There really is enough for everybody.

Many years ago, when I came out to my mother—my 85-year-old, Republican, Conservative, Evangelical Christian mother, I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to view my coming out as trans as an occasion for celebration. Because I already knew pretty well: She liked me the way I was.

But the moment came to spill the beans. So, on that Sunday evening, I poured her the world’s largest gin and tonic, and then I sat down with her and I said, “Mom, there’s something I need to tell you.”

That’s when I told her I was trans, that I had known I was supposed to be female since I was a child, but that I was afraid of telling her the truth, all these years, because I was afraid of disappointing her. I was afraid she wouldn’t love me anymore.

Which is right about when I started crying, and found it impossible to go on.

And that is when my tiny, 85-year-old, Conservative, Republican, Evangelical Christian mother got up out of her chair and sat down next to me, and put her arms around me, and said, “Love will prevail.” Thanks, Mom, wherever you are. I was thinking about Mom as I was walking up here—Mom was sitting right there, 43 years ago.

In the years since then, I have tried to make that my mantra, “love will prevail,” even on those days when other things have prevailed. Things like violence and ignorance and loss.

What I learned is that greeting the world with love doesn’t mean sitting around with a dopey smile on your face while the world burns around you. For love to prevail it is necessary to greet the world with fierceness, to push back against injustice with both relentlessness and joy, wisdom and ferocity. Those attempting to turn back the clock to a time when women were denied the right to control their own bodies, to a time when LGBTQ people had to live in the shadows, to a time when people of color could be denied the right to vote—these people need to understand that they have a fight on their hands—but that those of us engaged in the mission of change are motivated not by fear but hope, not by intolerance but justice, not by hate but love.

Members of the Class of ’23, we cannot wait to see what, and who, you change into next. We wish you joy and Godspeed in all the adventures that now begin. May love in your lives always prevail.

Thank you.