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Transgender Literature: A Refuge for Many ... and Perhaps an Education for Others?

There are days when the LGBTQ community makes progress, only for someone (*cough* a politician) to knock it a step back. With moves forward like the legalization of gay marriage and the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” it’s hard to believe that a president can ban transgender people from the military. And yet, here we are.

Still, we move forward. We try to show representation, both to try to instill empathy in those who would try to push the transgender community back, and to show the transgender community that they are not alone. If you need some refuge in knowing that there are others like you or to find some support in light of the new development, these books are for you. But hopefully, those who have prejudice will also read them, and discover that they can hold empathy for their fellow humans.

Beyond Magenta

Transgender Teens Speak Out

Book Cover
Susan Kuklin
Candlewick Press
Hardcover $22.99 (192pp)
978-0-7636-5611-9
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Intimate personal stories and photos of transgender teenagers invite discussion of the gender continuum.

Most people struggle to find their place in the world and with identity issues. This is even more difficult for transgender individuals who do not fall into the category of either female or male. Susan Kuklin’s book of photo essays, Beyond Magenta, explains how gender, sexual orientation, and identity itself are complex and multilayered. Six gender neutral or transgender young adults explain their lives via photos and interviews, highlighting people who do not fit into traditional societal norms.

Though the book definitely focuses on what it is like to grapple with gender identity and sexual orientation, the photo essays also touch on the teens’ passions and interests: from soccer and music to attending prom and going to college. Kuklin could have simply summarized their stories; instead, she allowed the young adults to speak for themselves. The interviewees have agency because they are not objectified or pitied. The photographs feel intimate, like those in a family album. There are before and after images that portray the genesis of fully realizing one’s true identity, and there are photos of the youths embracing their loved ones. These teens do not avert their gazes, they have worked hard for empowerment.

Kuklin organizes the book using everything from direct quotes and summaries to photos and even poems and short plays. The author understands that different stories need different frames. A glossary provides helpful definitions to better explain what it means to be “intersex” or how “FTM” (female-to-male) describes “a person assigned female at birth but who identifies as male; a trans man.” This ensures even someone new to the gender continuum or transgender world can access the subject matter.

Kuklin is bold when discussing sex reassignment, male privilege, and sexual orientation. People unfamiliar with such topics may feel uncomfortable with the bold language or confused about using pronouns like “they” instead of “he” or “she.” However, the glossary, personal stories, and photographs may help put the reader at ease.

Kuklin’s photo essays demystify the transgender experience. The teenagers are allowed to speak about their struggles with gender, sexuality, family, and finding a place in a world that often asks people to be one thing or another. Like the gender continuum, the six young adults have different experiences, personalities, and viewpoints. Hearing from people like Cameron and Jessy makes the trans world more personal.

LISA BOWER (February 27, 2014)

Before I Had the Words

On Being a Transgender Young Adult

Book Cover
Skylar Kergil
Skyhorse Publishing
Hardcover $22.99 (224pp)
978-1-5107-2306-1
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Skylar Kergil was born female, but he identified with males before he could even understand what that meant. As he grew, he became increasingly uncomfortable living as a girl, and as a young teenager began exploring his sexuality and questioning his gender identity. Before I Had the Words is his honest, thoughtfully told memoir.

As Skylar’s story starts, he is living in California as a little girl. A very active child, Skylar was involved in sports and wanted to be just like his older brother. At a young age, he dealt with challenges including a move east, his parents’ divorce, his mother’s cancer diagnosis, and his brother’s substance abuse issues.

Middle school and puberty were the next challenges, followed by high school, romantic relationships, and a growing understanding that living as a boy was a more comfortable natural fit. Throughout his story, Skylar faces each challenge with grace.

Though he writes primarily about the resources he discovered and the support he received, the fact that the book offers so much hope after a clearly difficult childhood is truly remarkable. Skylar’s story will be incredibly helpful to young people who may be struggling to understand their own gender or sexual identities, and who may feel very alone.

Skylar’s story will also benefit anyone who is curious about what it means to be transgender. Written with openness and honesty that conveys much about Skylar’s struggles, the book does a wonderful job of demystifying identity and normalizing differences. It is a beautiful book.

CATHERINE THURESON (July 26, 2017)

True Sex

The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Book Cover
Emily Skidmore
NYU Press
Softcover $27.00 (272pp)
978-1-4798-7063-9
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Dynamic, compelling, and wholly original, True Sex is an invaluable addition to LGBTQ studies.

Emily Skidmore’s True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century is a fascinating addition to LGBTQ historical discourse.

Refreshing in its exploration of the rural trans experience, True Sex delves into the lives of eighteen trans men who lived in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Negating the common misconception that LGBTQ individuals always sought the sanctuary of large urban hubs, Skidmore’s research focuses on the appeal of small, rural communities to trans men who wanted to pass completely as male.

Surprisingly, in many cases, when the individuals’ “true sex” was discovered by or presented to their chosen community, they were still accepted, both socially and professionally. Interesting historical, sexual, and racial parallels are drawn to show how rural Americans responded to the Other, making for a well-rounded exploration.

Meticulously researched, True Sex highlights a woefully understudied portion of American history. Language is clear, concise, and accessible. Skidmore’s research takes a holistic approach, examining the eighteen cases both independently and within the confines of their contemporary societal and cultural trappings. Within this framework, great meaning is imparted.

By humanizing the narratives of trans men during this time, True Sex manages to make a case for the seemingly implausible. Despite countless historical instances of institutional homophobia and the denial of human rights to the LGBTQ community, the text also chronicles the outright acceptance of trans men, both during their lifetimes and through their legacies. The exploration of this anomaly is where Skidmore’s research really shines.

The second chapter, “Beyond Community: Rural Lives of Trans Men,” is an exceptional example. It shares George Green’s spellbinding story, including his marriage to Mary Biddle. The pair sought out rural communities, finally settling in Ettrick, Virginia, where George was never seen as anything other than a hardworking husband. The discovery of his “true sex” was met not with denunciation, but rather with approval because he had lived such a conscientious life. That sentiment was echoed by national publications, shedding new light on the conceptualization of queer history.

Dynamic, compelling, and wholly original, True Sex is an invaluable addition to LGBTQ studies.

AMANDA ADAMS (July 26, 2017)

Beyond Trans

Does Gender Matter?

Book Cover
Heath Fogg Davis
NYU Press
Hardcover $25.00 (208pp)
978-1-4798-5540-7
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Time and again, Davis shows the importance of understanding transgender rights as a matter of all rights.

In Beyond Trans, Heath Fogg Davis tackles topics of gender theory, LGBTQIA+ activism, and deeply ingrained social perspectives.

Davis uses four provocative contemporary case studies on gender-segregated aspects of society—identity documents, public bathrooms, single-gender universities, and sports—to show that such segregation is unnecessary and often harmfully reinforces a rigid separation along binary lines.

The male/female binary leaves no place not only for those who identify as trans, he shows, but for anyone who is androgynous or nonbinary, as well as for many others in the LGBTQIA+ community, and even cisgender people in some cases.

While the tone of Beyond Trans is academic, the topic is very personal to Davis, a biracial trans man who struggled with appearing neither precisely male nor female at times during his transition. The moments where his personal story comes up offer an organic and refreshingly intersectional perspective on sex identity.

The book assumes some prior knowledge of gender and sex identity topics, and the occasionally dense language could be a deterrent for those less well versed.

In a controversial move, Davis pointedly departs with the current transgender civil rights strategy to focus on the “assimilation” and “accommodation” of transgender people into male or female categories. It is eye-opening to see such a conscious shift in the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights—from advocating for amendable sex markers on identification to doing away with the sex markers altogether.

This alluring and compelling scientific approach is at its most captivating with Davis’s dissection of all-woman colleges, which he recognizes as a welcome respite for the historically underrepresented sex. Davis critiques these sex-segregated institutions and recognizes that there are reasons they exist, while also proving that their feminist missions must necessarily include trans women, even though that could seem problematic for a technically “single-sex” school.

This book takes a perhaps seemingly singular topic and makes it approachable through passionate and relevant analysis of modern issues. Davis time and again shows the importance of understanding transgender rights as a matter of all rights, and does so in a challenging, memorable, and accessible way.

PAIGE VAN DE WINKLE (July 26, 2017)

A Boy Like Me

Book Cover
Jennie Wood
215 Ink
Softcover $12.99 (270pp)
978-0-692-23806-6
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

This story of a trans boy falling in love with a girl in high school is delightful and heartwarming in all the right places.

A Boy Like Me, by Jennie Wood, is the story of a trans boy, Peyton, and the girl he’s been in love with since middle school. Peyton faces and overcomes fear and derision from his peers, his community, and himself. He grows up, and grows into himself, even as he falls deeper in love with Tara Parks. It is a bewitching love story, fueled by Peyton’s insecurity, Tara’s fiercely flaring anger, and their undeniable chemistry together.

It begins on the first day of eighth grade, the first day of “Katherine’s” first period, in the girl’s bathroom where he is hiding from the world. Tara Parks is the beautiful new girl who befriends him, swapping his dress for her clothes—her brother’s hand-me-downs. She decides then, “Your name should be Peyton.”

Wood perfectly captures the intensity and immediacy of adolescent ups and downs. Peyton is portrayed with just the right combination of insecurity and interpersonal cluelessness to galvanize the plot and his frequently unsuccessful attempts to get on the same page with Tara. Typical to the usual romance plot line, misunderstandings cloud their decisions, and other recognizable relationship foibles take place. Yet the story is delightful and heartrending in all the right places, so the plot can be forgiven an occasional cliché.

Many trans narratives are brutal, gritty, and devastating—this story is remarkable in that it offers a happy ending through all the pain. Peyton’s high-school experience is difficult in a way that many LGBT teenagers can relate to, and some of his experiences, like his mother kicking him out, are the stuff of nightmares. However, the overall tone of the book and the message of the story is that life is not all bad. This book may mark the beginning of a new era of LGBT lit—where the story of a trans boy in the south can be a run-of-the mill romance, and the reader can expect to giggle, gasp, and eagerly turn the pages for the next kissing scene.

EMERSON M. FULLER (November 27, 2014)

The Gender Quest Workbook for Teens

Activities for Exploring Your Gender Identity

Book Cover
Rylan Jay Testa
Deborah Coolhart
Jayme Peta
New Harbinger Publications
Softcover $16.95 (168pp)
978-1-62625-297-4
Buy: IndieBound, Amazon

Warm and interactive, this wholly unique workbook fills a gap in the support structure for teens and young adults exploring their gender identity.

The Gender Quest Workbook—by real-world counselors and gender experts Rylan Jay Testa, Deb Coolhart, and Jayme Peta—provides a safe space and an insightful process into exploring gender identity. The workbook itself is for teens and young adults who are questioning their gender identity, for those who are more certain and are looking for help in navigating social situations, or for friends and family members who are looking for ways to understand and be supportive.

Between useful definitions of scientific and social terminology, anecdotes, and thought experiments is space for the quester to fill in answers to questions, make observations, underline important quotations, and draw pictures. After prompts that take the quester through outside-world observations about what gender looks like, the prompts get more personal. Activities gently help the quester build a description of their feelings. There are interview prompts like “Ask a woman you know over 50, ‘what has changed for women in your lifetime?’” There is also a guide for experimenting with gender, like wearing nail polish or men’s cologne, using girls’ shampoo, wearing boys’ underwear, binding your breasts, wearing a stuffed bra, or cutting your hair. This section comes equipped with a “scary scale” to help questers determine their comfort level with each of the experiments.

In addition to working on the vital intrapersonal aspect of the gender quest, this workbook also covers more public things. There are prompts and activities on navigating the choices of names and pronouns, sex and dating, and how to find and evaluate prospective confidants and support providers. The authors make sure to cover numerous aspects of a person’s identity, because gender is only a part of who we are. The workbook explores intersections of gender with race and ethnicity, and safely explores sexual “turn ons” and “turn offs.”

Testa, Coolhart, and Peta break down the exciting but sometimes overwhelming task of exploring gender identity and expression into fun, manageable pieces. This wholly unique workbook fills a gap in the support structure available to teens and young adults facing these questions, and it is a valuable resource to anyone looking to be there for them along the way.

EMERSON M. FULLER (November 27, 2015)

Hannah Hohman

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