Personal Histories – Holly Boswell (OC 72)


“Everybody was bending gender a little bit…”

Thom Boswell in 1972.

Thom Boswell in 1972.

Raised in a middle class, suburban family outside of Washington D.C., Holly Boswell was assigned a male gender at birth and named Thom Boswell. At Oberlin, as a double major in English literature and music composition, Boswell also lived with a male name and persona. She told nobody her “big secret”—that she was what we now call transgendered—until she was in her thirties, when she “came out” as a visionary trans activist and author. Boswell founded the Asheville Trans Support Group, which now serves five states, and “Kindred Spirits,” an alternative spiritual community for transgendered people.

Oral history conducted by phone, Aug. 12, 2004, by Joey Plaster. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted.

At Oberlin, I was blind. There was nothing. I don’t even think I had seen a Donahue show until later on at Oberlin. I realized, “Oh my god, Donahue is having transsexuals on his show”…That was kind of the first I got wind of it. I mean, I’d heard of Christine Jorgenson, but I didn’t know anything other than she supposedly had some sort of sex change, which I didn’t necessarily want to do, but I loved the idea that she could express a different gender…

I was aware of at least one person like that, and then gradually—you know how we are when we’re closeted and we’re hungry for any little bit of information we can find about what might explain our situation and how to deal with it. So it’s hard to remember that far back as to all the little morsels that I must have picked up. I was quite lost and just acting purely on instinct. At Oberlin, I knew of no other trans people. Roger Goodman…wore capes and things, and I thought, “Well that’s kind of neat, that’s a little gender-bending in a way”…

But see the hippie thing was going on, so everybody was bending gender a little bit. And that was nice. I was comfortable with that…[There were] gentle men, men who were compassionate and open-minded, and not the typical guy, and I felt wonderful about that too, even though it still didn’t quite do it for me, cause I was of course floundering around in the middle somewhere…

I started growing my hair long and that sort of thing… Freshman year I went to the barber at Oberlin, thinking I needed a little trim, cause I was still a guy of course, you know, and they probably hadn’t seen a college kid in there in months [laughter]. I mean, business was bad for barbers back then. Well they took their revenge out on me and they practically scalped me. And that was the last time, to this day, that I’ve ever gone to any kind of hair person…

It would have been hard to find a straight [meaning non-hippie] person on campus back then. They were the minority. I’d say three quarters of the campus were all hippies, at least in terms of adopting the culture…the dress, the language, the drug culture…The whole climate at the time was all about rebellion, and turning things around, and creating a new world. The whole ecology movement started in ‘71, the first Earth Day, which I remember vividly on campus, and that remains a huge issue for me to this day. In fact, I’ve even linked certain unhealthy notions that our culture has about gender with the same that tied directly to its unhealthy notion against nature.

I had no language [at Oberlin]. I had no culture, really, that I was aware of. No ancestry. No community. It was pretty lonely. And even though I was going through the motions of a straight person, having love interests which seemed heterosexual in that context, deep down I knew, “Oh my God, well what about these other feelings?…How do I reconcile those [gender] feelings with these other desires, and what the culture is telling me is the pattern here?” It was very perplexing, and in a way it’s amazing that I didn’t turn to various forms of self-destruction, because there was no support whatsoever… There was no language for it, there was virtually no cultural context in which to view it, it would have appeared to be totally freakish, it would probably have been seen as the freakish part of being gay, or twisted or something, to bend one’s gender that radically. So yeah, it wasn’t time yet…

1999 photo of Holly Boswell (OC 72) from “The Gender Frontier.” Courtesy of Mariette Pathy Allen.

1999 photo of Holly Boswell (OC 72) from “The Gender Frontier.” Courtesy of Mariette Pathy Allen.

There was really almost no gay community at Oberlin at that time. Very few people were kind of visible and you probably figured, yeah they’re probably gay, and you’d occasionally hear about a faculty member who was that way, or something, and that was about it…

I was the only person I knew like myself living in a world that didn’t understand me. So I felt really isolated in that regard, and I think it really compromised my ability to be an effective, potent person back then. I felt like I was holding back. I felt like I couldn’t be free to fully express everything. I had to watch my p’s and q’s or I might tip my hand and somebody’d figure out I was gender queer. So it was hard, but there was so much else that was going on that I found fascinating, that it was well worthwhile…

My time at Oberlin really opened my eyes to a viable alternative community. You know, I saw Oberlin as questioning a lot of things and looking alternatives, not being satisfied with status quo, and as an academic community, it was really committed to that in a very deep way that I resonated with… I walked away feeling affirmed in my ability to stake out different ground from the established order of things.