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February 09, 2015 07:35 PM

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s sons were both younger than 10 years old when she came out as transgender – and she says her journey has made her a better parent.

“Having a father who became a woman has helped my sons become better men,” Boylan, 56, tells PEOPLE of her now college-aged sons Zach and Sean. “They have learned that there are times when you have to be true to yourself and that you have to find the courage to do things that people will not understand or criticize.”

But Boylan is the first to admit it took her some time to find that courage herself.

In 1988, Boylan – then known as James – wed social worker Deirdre, and she previously told PEOPLE that she had hoped “falling in love would cure me.” And in fact, Boylan said, “the feelings of wanting to be female went away” for a time.

But by 2002, Boylan had come to terms with the fact she was a transgender woman and underwent hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery.

“[I’m so much happier] waking up and not thinking, ‘Ugh, I have to pull off this boy thing again,’ ” said Boylan, who has authored 13 books including her best=selling autobiography She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders.

Now, almost 15 years since her transition, Boylan says she and Deirdre enjoy the same relationship as any married couple of 27 years.

“I’m teaching in New York City this semester and my wife came down this last weekend from our house in Maine and we had this kind of delightful date weekend,” says Boylan, the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence and Professor of English at Barnard College. “We were husband and wife for 12 years, and we’ve been wife and wife for 14 years now. Some of the obvious aspects of the relationship have changed, but most of the things that brought us together in the first place are still right at the center of our relationship.”

As for the recent media attention on the transgender community – including Bruce Jenner‘s transition – Boylan feels that while “it is a private business and no one’s opinion matters except for those of the people who are experiencing it,” she hopes the public is educated by the process.

“I wish Jenner strength and love on this journey, and I hope whatever Jenner goes through not only helps Jenner but all of the rest of us,” says Boylan, who also serves on the GLAAD board of directors.

“Trans people face many obstacles in life, including violence and suicide. [Transgender teen] Leelah Alcorn said in her suicide note, ‘Please fix society.’ I hope in her transition, Jenner will keep the Leelah Alcorns of the world in mind,” she continues. “We have to make life better for the tens of thousands of trans people and the people that love them in this country.”

For more on Bruce Jenner’s decision to transition from male to female – and how his famous family reacted – pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

And for more information about transgender issues, visit the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and PFLAG.

More on Bruce Jenner:
• Bruce Jenner’s Mom on His Transition: It’s a Shock but I’m Proud of Him
• Lance Bass on Bruce Jenner’s Transition: Whole Family – Including Kris – Is ‘So Supportive’
• For Kris Jenner, Bruce’s Transition Was a ‘Hard Adjustment’
• How Bruce’s Kids – and Kanye – Reacted to His Transition News
• Who Snagged the First TV Interview with Bruce Jenner?
• Bruce Jenner Is ‘Transitioning into a Woman,’ Source Confirms to PEOPLE
• Kim Kardashian: Bruce Jenner Is the Happiest I’ve Ever Seen Him
• Is Bruce Jenner About to Get His Own Show?

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