Honor Book for the 2012 Stonewall Book Awards in non-fiction
The next-generation Stone Butch Blues--a contemporary memoir of gender awakening and a classic tale of first love and self-discovery.
Ambitious, sporty, feminine “capital-L lesbians” had been Nina Krieger’s type, for friends that is. She hadn’t dated in seven years, a period of non-stop traveling—searching for what, or avoiding what, she didn’t know. When she lands in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, her roommates introduce her to a whole new world, full of people who identify as queer, who modify their bodies and blur the line between woman and man, who defy everything Nina thought she knew about gender and identity. Despite herself, Nina is drawn to the people she once considered freaks, and before long, she is forging a path that is neither man nor woman, here nor there. This candid and humorous memoir of gender awakening brings readers into the world of the next generation of transgender warriors and tells a classic tale of first love and self-discovery.
Discussion Guide for Book Clubs, Classrooms, and Group Discussions
What did you know about transgender people before reading this book? How has your perspective changed?
Did reading this book make you think about your own body, gender, and identity? In what ways?
How do you feel about the way Nina treats her parents? How about the way they treat her? How would you react if your child was transgender?
What role does Ramona play in Nina’s journey?
How do you envision gender—a binary, spectrum, galaxy…?
What are some of the benefits to our culture of gender? Some of the downfalls? How does the binary (man/woman) system help you? Hurt you?
How do you relate to Nina’s experience? In what ways is her story universal? Specific?
In what parts of your life do you feel you are “privileged”? Have your privileges changed over time? Has this impacted your worldview?
How is this book similar to other memoirs about gender? How is it unique?
How does the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder and its classification as a mental illness affect trans people?
What do you see as the main challenges for trans people in our society? Are these covered in the book, or are these from other sources and experiences?
What did you learn through The Boys? How are their gender expressions and decisions similar? Different?
Where do lesbian and transmasculine (trans people on the male side of the spectrum like The Boys) communities overlap? Where is there friction?
What defines “women’s spaces” and in what cases, instances, or places should transmasculine people be included? Excluded?
Travel writer Krieger takes us into his gender transition in this candid if uneven memoir. As a woman, the Nina of the book's title, Krieger enjoys San Francisco lesbian life and a circle of glamorous gay friends. But her growing acquaintance with an unconventional circle, many of whom are experimenting with gender identification, prompts Nina to interrogate her own feelings about gender. Increasingly ambivalent about her large breasts, the author decides to begin masculinizing her appearance—she stops shaving her legs, opts for "top surgery" to re-form her chest into a more masculine shape, and becomes Nick. Though the early part of Krieger's journey feels like a standard primer on gender identity, didacticism and clunky prose give way to a beautifully rendered and personal account that feels like a fresh addition to trans literature: making a break with the typical transgender narrative, Nick did not feel like she was the trapped inside the "wrong" body; her discomfort with her female identity came much later and was often at odds with her staunch feminism. The narrative especially gathers confidence and momentum in Kreiger's recounting of his parents' efforts (and at times, inability) to understand his transition. And the final discussions of occupying a place somewhere not quite on either extreme of the gender binary are fascinating: "When I envision my own gender, it is with my eye to the lens of a kaleidoscope that I spin and spin and spin." (May)
A native of New York, Nick Krieger realized at the age of twenty-one that he’d been born on the wrong coast, a malady he corrected by transitioning to San Francisco. His writing has earned several travel-writing awards and has been published in multiple travel guides.
On a Saturday afternoon in May, tucked into a friend’s backyard near my house in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, only a few blocks from the supersize rainbow flag, the memorial triangle of pink stones, and the landmark marquee of the Castro Theatre, women surrounded me. They were my older, established, financially secure, coupled-off, home-buying, capital-L Lesbian—as in women-loving-women—friends. With money, influence, and good looks, they weren’t quite mainstream, but part of the emerging gaystream, those targeted by the New York Times, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and marketers of the pantsuit. I called them my A-gays.
Our host, Stephanie, appeared at the top of the stairs, sporting a J. Crew sweater, gold necklace, and designer jeans that hid a small tattoo by her hip. “Helloooo, ladies!” she shouted, before descending into the yard. Her girlfriend, Beth, followed close behind, sporting a collared shirt, silver thumb ring, and cheap khakis that hid a small tattoo by her ankle.
After a lifetime in the women’s athletic scene, I was accustomed to the understated casual wear, parties reminiscent of halftime huddles, and a definition of “ladies” that implied ass kicking rather than good manners. My connection to everyone in the backyard crew stemmed from soccer, a sport I’d stopped playing a couple years before, tired of competition and commitments that required me to run around at specific times.
I came to this postgame gathering to see Zippy, a tiny and witty monkey-like thing who’d recently moved to LA for a film ca reer and was back in town for a visit. She and I were younger than the others, less accomplished, A-gays in training—although we weren’t really on course to pass the entrance exam. We sat across from each other on folding camping chairs, rickety on the yard’s uneven slabs of stone. Pockets of flowerbeds and banks of shrubbery sprouted around us, the dirt still wet from the morning rain.
“Well, isn’t this my lucky day,” Stephanie said, placing one hand on my shoulder and the other on Zippy’s. “A special day indeed when you kids come out to join us.”
Zippy sprang out of her seat, shooting her tricolor pompadour- mullet to the sky. “Well, wouldn’t you know, it’s my lucky day too, be-otch.”
The two of them hugged before Stephanie opened her arms toward me. “Always a pleasure.”
Had Stephanie not meant every word, her exaggerated pleasantries would’ve been embarrassing. I felt myself blush all the same from her kindness.
“How’s your writing?” she asked.
“Yeah, how is your writing?” Beth seconded. “And when do I get to see what you’ve been working on?” She winked, just as she did at the office when she caught me with one of my essays open on my computer.
Beth had contracted me to do web writing at the bank where she worked and considered my employment “supporting the arts,” as did a handful of other A-gays I’d worked odd jobs for over the past three years. They couldn’t get enough of the mass e-mails and blog posts I sent from my trips—backpacking in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, bicycling from Canada to Mexico— and, much to my appreciation, always helped my traveling-writer lifestyle by employing me and buying me drinks whenever I was back in San Francisco.
I knocked around a few pebbles with the toe of my hiking boot. “At the rate I’m going, I’ll have some quality writing in a few years,” I said.
“And I got first dibs,” Zippy jumped in.
“Well, I’ll be waiting patiently.” Beth offered me an encouraging smile before turning to Zippy. “For your next film project as well.”
Zippy motioned me back down to our seats and scooted hers closer. “So, what are you working on?” she whispered.
Ever since Zippy had read one of my early travelogues, forwarded by a mutual friend, she’d been my biggest fan. When I returned from that trip, she found my number and called me six times in one day, begging to hang out, a near stalking that might’ve scared me had I not been laughing so hard from her messages. We ended up chatting for hours about our book and film influences and passions, barely stopping to breathe. For a few weeks, early in our friendship, I thought I might be in love with her, until the moment she flipped upside down on her couch, inhaled a whip-it balloon, and I knew she was too out of control to date. Zippy was a best pal, the only one I’d ever showered with, which had happened once when we were unable to pause an exciting conversation.
Of all the things I’d missed about Zippy since she moved, it was our artistic talks, creative speed as we called it, that I missed the most. I told her about the essay collection I was developing out of an unfinished one-woman show she and I had collaborated on about my futile quest to find a girlfriend, now going on nearly seven years.
“Who’s your latest crush, or should I say character?” Zippy gibed, nudging my foot with hers as if we were both in on the joke that my life only existed to serve my writing. “Let me guess, unrequited?”
“Yeah. She’s straight.” I avoided Zippy’s eyes, knowing they would be both chiding and compassionate, as I described the flighty girl in my graduate writing program. “She confessed to having a crush on me. Then for the next three months, whenever we went to a bar after class, she made sure she was never left alone with me.”
“Classic.” Zippy slapped her leg a few times. A half-dozen zippers fluttered on her baggy pants. They looked like something Mi chael Jackson would’ve designed for MC Hammer, but on Zippy they seemed cool. Everything did.
From my jeans, I pulled out a glass bowl and weed from a medical dispensary. I’d claimed “anxiety” to receive my cannabis card, although “New York City Jew” would’ve been equally accurate. I packed the bowl and waited for Zippy to take the first hit.
“It gets worse,” I said. I lit the last patch of green and inhaled deeply. “I finally got her alone and made a move. She said she wasn’t ready.” I blew out my frustration in a huge cloud of smoke. “The following week, she asked me to walk her home and invited me up. We ended up messing around in her bed. I stayed over, but no sex. She said she wanted to, but pulled ‘time of the month.’ I still don’t believe her.” I tapped the pipe against my hand. The ashy residue stuck. “We met up a few days later at a literary event. She brought some guy. He groped her the whole time.”
“Why do you do this to yourself?” Zippy asked.
“Dude, this guy was such a loser. She could do so much better.”
“Yes, like me.”
“But she’s not a lesbian.”
I banged the pipe on the stone at my feet, nearly cracking it. In the hammock across the yard, two women lay entwined, swinging gently. Next to them, Beth was curled into Stephanie’s lap. “I prefer straight girls,” I said.
“You do see the problem, right? They don’t like the hooha.”
I grabbed my Milwaukee’s Best, one of the many leftover cans from the soccer field, out of the chair’s cup holder. The beer tasted like piss, but I chugged the rest, the same move I made when anyone implied they might want to get near my hooha. Leaning back into my chair, I could see through the protective cover of the trees. My eyes followed the white trail of clouds off into the distance. “I could really use a trip,” I said.
“It hasn’t even been a year. Aren’t you just getting settled?” Zippy said. “How are your new digs, anyway?”
I thought of the parties at my house, my roommates’ friends with tattoo sleeves and septum piercings, boyish and manly dykes flaunting all that had been ingrained in me as disreputable. “It’s an education.” Picturing the chest scars of the few folks who often went topless on my back deck, I added, “And then some.”
I pulled a flier out of my jeans pocket, one of the many left lying around my kitchen. I unfolded it to reveal a grayscale guillotine, designed not with one hole for a head, but two holes. For breasts.
“Whoa,” Zippy said.
I felt relieved to see her large blue eyes expand as she stared at the words Ta-Ta Tatas on the top of the flier. My roommates talked about their friend Greg’s top-surgery fund-raiser as if it was a common occurrence, like raising money for the AIDS ride as some of the A-gays did annually. I glanced at the flier again, at the guillotine. It was both sacrilegious and curious.
“I think I saw this on MySpace. You wanna go? There’ll be hot girls there.” Zippy sang the last word like an enticing advertising jingle.
I anxiously patted my jeans for the pipe. “Do you even know Greg?”
“Not well. Just from flag football. I found out about her— I mean his—transition from our teammates.” I’d forgotten Zippy had played flag football with Greg and many of the others who hung around my new house. With a history of outsider experiences only a few people knew about, Zippy was deeply empathetic. Her greatest skill, other than a left-footed soccer cross, was chatting up the visitor from out of town, the wallflower, the lone guy, or the solo guest at a party to make them feel included. “I’d like to support him,” she said.
“I want to support him, too.” I jostled my legs, feeling the start of pins and needles where the backs of my thighs molded to my seat. “Although I’m not entirely sure why.”
“If Greg thinks he’ll be happier as a guy, then he should go for it.”
“It can’t be that simple.” I stood up, shook out my legs and unwrapped my hoodie from my waist. “What does that even mean?”
As I zipped up my sweatshirt, Stephanie walked over. “You’re not leaving, are you?”
The sun dipped behind the hill. I pulled the hood over my head and dug my hands into my pockets. “Just cold.”
“We’re going to Greg’s benefit party,” Zippy said as if I’d already agreed. “Wanna come?”
“Do I know Greg?” Stephanie asked.
“He plays flag football,” Zippy said. “He used to be Kerry. He’s having a fund-raiser for top surgery.”
Stephanie looked at Zippy and then back to me. I felt uneasy, as if an unmarked dividing line between two social circles was cracking under my feet.
Stephanie crossed her arms, pushing a bit of cleavage into the V-neck of her black sweater. “I’ll leave this one to you kids,” she said, patting us both on the shoulder. “But if you want to stick around and get cozy, I’m about to get this fire started.”
I watched Stephanie head back across the patio and enlist Beth’s help in carrying the stand-alone pit from the corner of the backyard, springing everyone into action. Someone grabbed the pile of wood left over from the last bonfire, and another went inside for newspaper. They would be there all night; they always were, their gatherings like the San Francisco monoseason—sixty degrees and partly cloudy with a chance of wind and fog—comfortable and easy, so predictable and unchanging as to be suffocating.
“I wanna go,” I said to Zippy. “Let’s go.”
“Now you’re clucking, big chicken.” She popped a set of car keys out of a canvas shoulder bag and dangled them in front of my eyes. “I’ll even drive.”
We said good-bye to a few of the A-gays and said we’d be back, a statement Zippy believed but I did not. When she turned on the car, the stereo blasted a female vocalist. She turned the volume down, barely, aware of my preference for conversation over ear damage, and started to tell me how her long-distance girlfriend, Sonia, thought trans gender people were setting back the progress of gays and lesbians.
I listened to her ramble about the inequality of civil unions and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" while I stared outside the window as the streetscape changed from colorful Victorian houses to highend restaurants, taquerias, and convenience stores displaying Spanish-language ads for money-wire services.
"I don't have a stake in marriage and the military," I conceded, turning the knob on the radio volume down further to avoid having to yell. "But I still don't understand the 'my turn first, your turn later' mentality."
"Hey, me neither," Zippy assured me. "Sonia just doesn't know any trans gender people in East Bumblefuck. It's still scary to her. So, I told her about SF peeps and set her straight. But not too straight." Zippy hit the gas and flipped the volume up to full blast. Belting the chorus, she cruised the last few blocks and pulled headfirst into a metered spot. We parked close enough to the neighborhood dive that I could see a bunch of people smoking and talking on cell phones by the entrance. From the outside, the crowded scene didn't seem all that different from that at the monthly dyke party I used to attend regularly there.
At the door, a woman leaned over a cash box collecting donations, her T-shirt emblazoned with the image of the breast guillotine. I turned to the place in my brain that craves reason, but it fell silent as I handed over my twenty dollars.
One Ta-Ta Tatas Two Home Three Binding Four Middle Ground Five Packing Six Wings Seven The Queer Birds and the Bees Eight Homesick Nine Roots Ten The Good-Bye Wad Eleven The New World Twelve Mama’s Boys Epilogue