She’s Not The Man I Married
When writer Helen Boyd (born Gail Kramer) was growing up, she wanted to be C.S. Lewis. “What that meant was unclear,” she laughs, sitting in her small Park Slope living room, a pack of Camels by her side.
The youngest of six, Boyd was a questioning child who took great pleasure in books and music. By adolescence the constraints of her working-class Long Island town had her fleeing into Manhattan, taking in shows at the Ritz and shopping at record stores selling British vinyl. After high school, she attended Fordham, The New School, and City College and supported herself with office work, bookkeeping, and canvassing for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).
Then, in 1993, while still finishing her undergraduate studies, Boyd became an assistant to author Walter Moseley, a job that lasted nearly nine years. “I took it expecting to make connections for my own writing but didn’t,” she says.
Instead, a relationship with actor Jason Crowl begun in 1998 and sent Boyd’s career in an unanticipated direction. The courtship began simply enough: Girl meets boy; girl asks boy out; and sooner than later love is in the air. Early on, Crowl confessed his penchant for women’s wear. “I thought I’d found someone who was secure enough in his masculinity to play with it,” Boyd says. In her exuberance she began to call him “Betty.” Efforts to evade Jason’s harassing ex-girlfriend caused Kramer to begin using the name Helen Boyd.
Now 38, she and Crowl have been together for nine years. Their relationship has given birth to two books that merge memoir with social analysis: My Husband Betty in 2003, and She’s Not the Man I Married: My Life with a Transgendered Husband, which was published this Spring.
Both books parse the couple’s unique relationship, educating readers about crossdressing and the transgendered. Critics have described the books as potent, alluring and challenging.
My Husband Betty explains that at first blush, Boyd “thought Jason’s crossdressing was fun, playful, sexy—even subversive. I’d always had a taste for adventure.”
And what an adventure it’s been. While it’s not unusual for straight women to quip that their ideal mate would be a woman with a penis, Boyd has grappled with the reality of that jokey assertion.
To wit: When she and Betty go out, they appear to be a lesbian couple. For heterosexual Boyd, this took some getting used to. “How do you not show affection when you’re together?” she asks. “Holding hands is important.” Like other queer couples, she and Betty are always conscious of the need for vigilance. “At all times we try to be very aware of who we are, where we are, and who is around,” she says.
Then there are the clothes, make-up and shoes. While Boyd favors comfort over style, Betty tends toward three-inch heels and the frilly feminine. Although she admits that she sometimes flinches at Betty’s flawless girlishness, she sees the behavior as a natural reaction to gender restrictions. “It’s what men never get to do in their lives as men,” she says, “so of course they sometimes go overboard.”
Like the zealotry of any new convert.
Still, understanding does not necessarily mean that everything Betty does has been easy for Boyd to accept. In fact, it’s often been downright difficult. A proud feminist who comes from the sex-positive faction of the women’s movement, Boyd has confronted gender in practice, not just in theory. Boyd credits her resilience to the strong females who were a staple of her upbringing and describes her mother and grandmothers as self-determined and capable. Still, while her family knows and accepts that her husband is both Betty and Jason, she acknowledged that there is an uncomfortable familial silence around the couple’s sexual identity. “The hardest thing for me is that no one knows what to ask me,” Boyd says.
Solace has come from participation in the transgender and queer communities. Nonetheless, personal concerns are never far off. “When Betty gets male attention, I get jealous and I get worried,” Boyd admits. “What if they figure out that she wasn’t born female? I’m scared, I’m feeling protective, and I’m jealous and angry, all at the same time.”
On top of this, since her husband is Betty far more often than he is Jason, Boyd continually flashes forward—at least in her head—to the day when surgery moves from a theoretical option to a gender imperative. “I know, logically, that surgery is far off, if it ever happens,” she says. “Betty does not have intense body dysphoria. Hers is social dysphoria. She doesn’t care what body parts she has as long as she can present to the world as a woman.”
Still, the what-ifs persist.
“Genitals,” Boyd writes in She’s Not the Man I Married, “are the least of it.” More troublesome are the ways in which gender gets played out in everyday life, from the pinks and blues of infancy to playground taunts flung at those perceived to be sissies or butches.
Boyd knows what she’s up against. “While it would be lovely to have three or eight or 400 genders, the man on the street will tell you that there are only two,” she writes. “I’d love if we lived in a world where people who don’t fit into ‘man’ and ‘woman’ very tidily weren’t considered weird, scary and duplicitous. But we don’t live in that world, and glossing over the ways gender plays out on the ground prevents people from acknowledging how hard it is to live in the world as a gender variant.”
Boyd’s writing illuminates these difficulties and suggests alternative ways to celebrate people’s differences. “Culturally, we need to do more to hold up a range of role models and stop restricting what people can do because of gender,” she told me. “I remember how cool it was to see women dancers lift men for the first time. They showed that women can be physically strong even if they’re not muscle bound.”
Despite such strides, we have a long way to go before we, as a society, are able to allow people to be who they want to be. Boyd, of course, has no roadmap for this revolution, although she does suggest “queering” how we see male and female. “I’d love to see people do something that is not gendered for them. Like after dinner a woman can casually pull out a cigar and smoke it. Or a man can carry a purse for a day. When you feel how strongly your own internal sense of gender transgression is programmed, it reminds you how strong this stuff is.”
As for challenging persistent homophobia—which Boyd sees at the core of gender rigidity—she is adamant. “I’m not a censorship type, but fairy or limp wrist jokes are homophobic and need to be shut down. I’ve found that when you speak up about them you have a moment when you are stammery and flustered, but in a short time most people understand that what was said was not acceptable.”
Boyd’s next book, still in the planning stages, will focus on sex and the ways that mismatched libidos impact and impede relationships. Once more, her work promises to be provocative, honest and brave.
Unlike C.S. Lewis, Boyd long ago discarded the belief in moral absolutes. Her work probes the continuum of human demeanor, along the way prodding us to be tolerant and accepting, curious and inquiring.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader