It’s been a while since I talked about books and random musings, so today I’m going to share a few of the novels I’ve read and the thoughts on gender they inspired.
When I set out to make my diverse author reading list for 2016, I was particularly interested in books by transgender authors. Since I’m writing for a trans* character, I wanted to educate myself as much as possible. Part of that education comes from non-fiction articles and talking with friends about their real-life experiences. It can also come from fiction and autobiographies.
Unfortunately, trans* authors were often hard to find. (I’m constantly keeping my eye out for new books to add, so if you have a favorite please share!) The first book that my Google search pointed me to was “I am J” by Cris Beam.
This is a classic coming-of-age story as J, a young trans* boy, grows into a man. Not always a pleasant book, as Cris captures that uncomfortable teen experience of being one’s own worst enemy on occasion. Although J has plenty of external troubles too. While being trans* definitely heaps a huge amount of additional stress on an already difficult situation, the book is ultimately about becoming an adult. In realizing that everyone, even one’s parents, has problems. And sometimes you have to live your own life and let other people sort out their own damage.
I didn’t discover until after I’d finished the book that, while the protagonist was transgender, the author was not. That said, the book did come from an informed place, as Cris Beam prior to “I am J” wrote “Transparent,” a non-fiction book about four young teen girls that Cris met while volunteering at a school for gay and transgender teens. Cris was connected to her local transgender community very closely.
However, I’d really been hoping to read work by people who were trans*, rather than researched trans* people. Even “Beyond Magenta”, which is a series of interviews with six transgender or gender-neutral young adults, is still a work compiled by a cis-gender person.
So I was pleased when I discovered “Rethinking Normal” by Katie Rain Hill and “Some Assembly Required” by Arin Andrews at my library. These two memoirs were in a collected volume, in part because they are the two sides of a connected experience. You might have heard of Katie and Arin. Their story was presented by the media as “America’s first openly trans-teen couple.” Which is kinda silly because transgender people have been around a loooooong time and that makes trans* people sound like some sort of new phenomena…just because we’re starting to have national conversations about trans* people doesn’t mean they haven’t existed prior to now. Regardless, each memoir focuses on their childhood, meeting each other, becoming a couple, and drifting apart.
Reading their personal accounts was a very interesting experience for me as a reader for a few reasons. For one, it highlighted a few weird blind-spots I have on gender. I read Arin’s account first, and found myself rooting for him every step of the way. Yet when I read Katie’s account, I kept being much more critical of her. What was going on? Was it writing style, or personality? Or was it the fact that Katie was a woman, and I’ve been trained from a very young age to judge women more harshly than men? To be frank, I’m still sorting through my reactions. It bothered me that I seemed to judge Katie by a different standard than Arin, particularly when their stories had so many similarities. Something for me to keep my eye on, and continue to evaluate.
The other reason it was interesting was that I heard different views on gender that I don’t encounter much in the mainstream, cis-dominant world-view. One section that resonated strongly with me was from Arin’s memoir, from a discussion between him and a boy named Austin. Austin was talking about his own feelings on his sexuality and gender. He said, “I think I’m sort of gender neutral. Like, I know the outside of my body is a boy, and I’m happy with that. But inside I’m something else, at least in terms of how society expects a boy should be.”
I had never seen gender described like that before, but it made so much sense to me. When I first learned about transgender people, one of the ideas that I had the most difficulty understanding was how a person’s gender, and being recognized as the gender they identified as, could be so vital to them. I have never particularly identified with my gender. It is so utterly disconnected in my mind to what makes me…well…what I consider me. It’s part of why I’ve always been frustrated with gender roles so deeply. The behavioral codes and expectations based on physical attributes seemed so absolutely arbitrary and asinine. I happen to be in a female shaped body, but the person I view as me has very little to do with that shell. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with my body. I don’t experience gender dysphoria. It’s just…irrelevant to me. Sometimes I might feel more feminine, or more masculine, but most of the time I just…don’t feel any gender at all.
I’ve come to view myself as more of a woman as I’ve gotten older. I used to hate being a girl, but not because I felt I was a boy. I hated what being a girl represented. To me growing up, it meant weakness. Women were vapid, ignorant, inferior, stupid, objects, and fragile. I didn’t feel any of those things, so I viewed my gender as a handicap to overcome. If I could make people see the person I was beneath the shell of my gender, then they’d be seeing the real me. Over time, I’ve come to realize the problem is not my gender, but society’s general issues with people who are women. Recognizing that has made it easier to accept my feminine aspects…but even now if I was to try and put myself on a spectrum, I’d feel the most accurate position would be something floating back-and-forth around dead center.
As I researched gender more, I came to realize that a lot of people identified with their particular gender far more strongly than I did. Accepting this became part of coming to terms with the idea that “normal” as a single concept where everyone is the same doesn’t actually make any sense to me. We all have different experiences. We all have a different sense of self. Who am I to tell somebody else what their perspective is? Nobody can “Know Myself” better than I can. And thus the most qualified person to tell the world who I am is me. Which means that the most qualified person to tell the world who THEY are is THEM. “Normal” isn’t sameness. “Normal” is that everyone is different, and that’s okay. Somebody tells me who they are. It’s my job to accept their reality and their truth. Not to try and super-impose my own over it.
What made that section of “Some Assembly Required” so special was it was the first time that I’d read a perspective on gender that I actually related to. I never realized how much that had bothered me until that moment. I read those words over and over, and something about them just felt right.
I’m really, really glad I decided to seek out diverse authors this year. Not only has it lead me to a lot of powerful, fun, and interesting stories, but it’s also helped me expand my perspective on my world, and myself.
How do you relate to identity, gender, and your own sense of self? What pieces of you most make up…well…you?