Defining Themselves: Transgender Teen Lit

The bibliography of Susan Kuklin’s new nonfiction book, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, includes five films from the past twenty-five years that feature transgender characters. They include The Crying Game (1992), in which a transgender woman provides the “shocking” plot twist; the more hopeful Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), which ends in happy fatherhood for a gay man and happy marriage for a transgender woman; the tragic Boys Don’t Cry (1999), which depicted the real-life rape and murder of a transgender man; and Transamerica (2005), in which the lead role was played by Felicity Huffman, as opposed to a transgender woman. All were good films and ahead of their time, but one of the most hopeful notes struck after reading Kuklin’s interviews with six transgender teens is that each film now seems dated in its own way.

Not that we still don’t have a long way to go. To cite two recent examples: Last fall, Islan Nettles, a transgender woman, was beaten to death in public across from a New York City police station. And  this past January, Grantland, a publication with a reputation for meticulous editing, sent a story to press that managed to make almost every possible mistake in its treatment of its subject, a transgender woman inventor: the author didn’t follow the most basic (and easily found online) forms of protocol when referring to transgender people, treated his subject’s gender as a form of deception, and outed her to an investor. Ultimately the inventor committed suicide (up to 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in their lifetime). The story had been read by between thirteen and fifteen editors, according to Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons, including the publisher and’s editor-in-chief, before going to press; not a single one had raised objections.

But the good news is that this generation of transgender youth is the most aware and active yet. They are coming out earlier (particularly important for those who choose to transition using hormones, which are more effective the earlier they are used), forming their own communities, advocating for their civil rights, and insisting that parents and authority figures give them the respect they deserve.

One of the most surprising tools for self-determination is the most basic: the Internet. While earlier generations of transgender teens may not have had words for their identity until they met another person like themselves, these kids started typing in search terms to educate first themselves, then others, on complicated notions of sexuality and gender. Christina, a transgender woman, invokes the ire of the principal at her Catholic all-boys school when she shows up to school in acrylic nails (“If it’s not in the handbook,” insists Christina, “I can wear nails”). As the principal slams his hands on the table screaming, “YOU’RE A BOY! YOU’RE NOT A WOMAN! YOU’RE A BOY!” Christina, replies, “You just need to educate yourself. Get on Google and Google transsexual cause I’m a girl.”

Gender identity exists across a spectrum, but Kuklin’s subjects fall into three general categories: Jessy and Luke both identify primarily as transgender men and prefer male pronouns; Christina and Mariah identify primarily as transgender women and prefer female pronouns; Cameron and Nat identify as gender-neutral and prefer they or them.

Gays and lesbians are far more visible in politics and pop culture than transgender people, and while this may have made society at large more open to people whose self-definitions depart from norms of gender and sexuality, all six teens found most people around them fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be transgender. Some parents and friends were cool with the idea of a kid being lesbian or gay but seemed to think of transgender as taking things to unnecessary extremes. “Being transgender is not the next step in being gay,” says Cameron. “They are similar in that they are both breaking gender rules.” But, as Christina points out, “Sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender.”

Some, such as Jessy’s mother, seemed to view their children’s desire to change their gender identity as a form of body hatred. “Why can’t you be comfortable with yourself?” she asked. “I don’t see other lesbians doing this.”

“I told my mom that I wanted to see myself as a man in heterosexual relationship,” says Jessy. “I wanted to be referred to as he. I wanted to live my life as the man of the house, masculine. I know there are butch lesbians and stuff but I didn’t want to be that. I just  wanted to be a normal man.”

Luke, who also identifies as a transgender man, says, “If anyone asked, I would say I was gay, not lesbian.”

Jessy, who grew up in Florida, Thailand, and Nairobi, identifies himself on Facebook in such a way — “male — so glad I’m taking T” — that acknowledges both the male and the transgender part of his gender identity. But he pretty much achieves his desire to be perceived as a “normal” straight man, which comes with all sorts of benefits in the outside (sometimes homo- and transphobic) world. He is elected student-body president at his college, and invited to pledge a fraternity. Now, he says with delight, he is referred to unambiguously as “sir.” “Before, the guys on the street wouldn’t respect two women together” but now when he is out with his girlfriend, they aren’t hassled because he is seen as a “guy with his gal.” (Ironically Jessy’s girlfriend, who has only dated “older women, never men” identifies as lesbian and therefore prefers to refer to Jessy using female pronouns.)

This, as Cameron points out, is a product of what is sometimes called “male privilege,” and it’s  not necessarily a good thing. Though identifying as gender-neutral, Cameron is often perceived as male and “Because I’m perceived as male, I get male privileges. It weirds me out a little…. ‘Wait, guys, I haven’t said anything yet. And besides, you shouldn’t be giving me male privilege because I’m not really a guy — at least not by your standards. By your standards, I’m definitely not.”

Transgender women, particularly transgender women of color, have the highest murder rate in the LGBT community, accounting for 44 percent of all LGBT murders, and thus it’s not surprising that Christina’s story begins with her getting into a violent confrontation on the New York City subway. “It’s really weird, because now if people think I’m a man, it sometimes turns me into a very violent person,” she says. “I know — that’s masculine.” (Mariah, the other transgender woman interviewed, has many similar stories.) While five of the six teens interviewed are taking hormones, Christina is also saving up for surgery, “While everyone else my age is saving up for a car or a house, I’m saving up to look possible. I’m saving up for a vagina.” Part of it is the very understandable wish to have one’s outside body match their lived experience. But for some transgender women, it can also be a form of self-protection: “When I started dating straight men, it was very scary to admit I was transgender,” says Christina. “They could get very violent and freak out.” She also admits she’s stayed with her boyfriend longer than she’d like because she’s worried she won’t find another straight-identified man who will accept her. (“At the end of the day, they are going to put the ring on the genetic female,” she says. “If I had been born a female, I could leave Gabriel.”)

Cameron and Nat, on the other hand, do not strive to fit neatly into any gender category. Instead, both deliberately aim to blow up the idea that binary categories of gender exist (throughout, they is used as a singular pronoun with reference to Cameron and Nat). “I don’t know,” says Cameron, ” — am I allowed to curse? — I’m dressing gender fuck,”  — a state defined as “something girl and something boy and something neither.” Nat identifies as “Intersex — I’m both male and female; I’m neither male nor female; I’m a whole different gender, a third gender.” Although gender identity does not need to match one’s biological sex, Nat’s discovery of a medical condition that produces a much higher than average mix of both male and female hormones bolsters this perspective. While Nat’s mother dismisses the condition as “crap,” Nat finds a kind of relief in a perceived match between biological body and gender identity.

Although many of the parents start off somewhat confused, nearly all of them come around, and most of them are pretty great. One of my favorites is Christina’s mother, in part because she allows love for her children to overcome her initial prejudices. A few years before Christina told her parents she was transgender, her older brother, Jonathan, came out as gay and took the brunt of his mother’s ire, “That’s disgusting,” she said. Their father took it all in stride (“I love you,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve known since you were a little kid that you’ve always wanted to be a girl.”) Christina’s mother was, above all, afraid for her daughter’s safety. When she shows up with acrylic nails for the first day at her all-boys Catholic school, her mother says, “Someone’s going to hurt you baby.” But in the end, her mother defends Christina against the neighborhood bullies, lends her credit card to pay for breast implants, and brags about how good-looking both Jonathan and Christina have become. She is the only parent photographed in the book, and there she is, posed with her arms around her daughter. “Don’t be like I was with Jonathan,” she says. “Don’t say horrible things to your child. That will haunt me ’til the day I die. Hug your children. Hug them.”

Changers, by husband-and-wife team T Cooper and Allison Glock Cooper, turns fluid gender identity into a kind of superpower at the center of their fictional, perhaps even utopic fantasy series for young adults.  In a literary nod to Virginia Woolf’s classic 1929 novel, Orlando, in which an English poet swashbuckles through several centuries, writing verse and taking lovers while living as first a man, then a woman, the teens in Changers wake up on the first day of every year of high school as a person of a different gender. At the end of the four years, each Changer chooses a single body in which to live out the rest of their lives. Thus on the first day of high school, freshman Ethan wakes up to discover he is no longer a skinny-jeans­­-wearing skateboarder but that an admittedly sort of hot blonde named Drew has taken his place in his Slayer T-shirt.

“Just think of all the insight you’ll gain!” exclaims his/her mother. Drew’s parents are in on it; Dad, like Drew/Ethan, is also a Changer; his mother is a Static, a person who does not change.

But as Chase, one of Drew’s two love interests, puts it, “With great power comes great controlling rules.” First among these is the (very heteronormative sounding) ban on Changer-Changer coupling. Just as in the real world, this ban is  justified as a reproduction/racial purity thing — Changer-Changer couplings cause the entire family to revert to Statics and Changers are in the business of “producing more Changers, not fewer.” (This rule knocks Chase, a fellow Changer and a boy, out as romantic contender).

Changers have to come up with good excuses — they call them “feints, a.k.a. lies” — to explain their annual disappearances that “range from the exotic (sent to European boarding school) to the tragic (drug overdose).” (This means that Audrey, Drew’s second love interest, a Static, and a girl, will not know where she has gone at the end of the year and imagine herself abandoned.)

Drew’s body may be all-girl, but she has a bit of a pansexual thing going on herself, mostly seen as no big deal. When the mean girl Chloe — the archetypal head cheerleader — slags Drew and Audrey by calling them “Ellen and Portia,” they snap back, “Wait, is homophobia even a thing anymore?” And their super cool English teacher brings them together casting them as Romeo and Juliet in “gender-bending Shakespeare,” reminding the class that in Shakespeare’s time, all the roles were all played by boys.

To Drew’s surprise, her girl self is pretty darn good at girl things, even the “crazy unicorn-prancing thing” practiced by Chloe and her minions and she finds herself  at the tip-top of the high school social pyramid — a varsity cheerleader, i.e., “queen of the world. (A really shitty, awful, confusing, heartbreaking world.)” Having conquered the jocks, she also attains hipster girl cool, as the drummer in a “Neo-emo-ska” band.

But cool as she is Drew,  can’t fully escape the Tennessee gender hell, where daddy dances co-exist with twerking and pink birthday guns. Like her real-life counterparts in “Beyond Magenta,” she gains insight by seeing gender from both sides: She is well aware that becoming a girl means losing her male privilege, when, for example, she no longer called on in algebra class. She endures a particularly harrowing menstrual accident, gets first-hand experience of the power of the virgin/whore dichotomy, and reflects often on the different feeling of being in a girl’s body. Most serious of all, a violent confrontation at a party results in Drew understanding the sexual vulnerability of girls and women, while another Changer, now in a boy’s body, takes revenge for an assault he endured while living as a girl.

Gender is only one of many categories — or if one prefers, “stereotypes” — the authors encourage their readers to transcend.  In a line reminiscent of  The Breakfast Club, the novel’s tagline reads:”The Cheerleader, the nerd, the jock, the freak — what if you had to be all four?” The authors’ activism continues online with the “We Are Changers” website, labeled an “empathy project,” in which teens are encouraged to think beyond other binaries, including immigrant/native, black/white, fat/skinny and so on. That exercise in imagining the lives of others may be meant to alleviate suffering, but it’s also a reminder that Changers are already with us: we call them writers.