When I first started reading about transgender subjects, I was discreet. I would only read late at night, on my computer at home, clicking around on blogs in a web-surfing haze. I’d come to in a bit of a panic, with an impulse to clear my internet history as if this would erase my own gender questioning.
The move from the web to books felt bold. “Research,” I’d say to the librarian as I picked up my stack of books on hold – History of Transsexuality in the United States, Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, Transgender History, Gender Outlaw, and many others – catching up on this undiscovered corner in LGBTQ writing. When I started buying books for my own personal library, I stopped sending my Amazon packages to work. I still had the sense that my research needed to remain private.
And I was conducting research. In addition to reading or at least flipping through almost every trans book published in the past few decades, I consumed medical studies, theoretical papers in peer-review journals, and messy diaries and obscure zines stored in museum archives. I was researching for my own writing project, and I was collecting the information that would allow me create my own place, my own identity. I was researching the possibility that I might be transgender.
This was a scary prospect, and the books that hit closer to my terror – The Testosterone Files, Becoming a Visible Man, and Stone Butch Blues – made me fidgety and anxious. I’m not sure I read these books as much as I tortured myself with them. “Are you trans? Are you trans? Are you trans?” each page yelled at me. I held these stories up like a poorly angled mirror, looking into them for my reflection. Unable to find myself fully in the stories of others, I wrote my own.
After my book came out, I continued to read trans writing in print and on the web because this subject matter was now my domain, a focus of writing and speaking. Because media is a powerful shaper of public opinion, social progress, cultural awareness, and how we understand ourselves, I was excited to stay in the conversation and keep myself up-to-date through books by Dean Spade, S. Bear Bergman, and the fiction that came through the new trans publishing house Topside Press.
But I also found that reading trans work had become less of a personal necessity and more of a chore. Regardless of whether I read essays, memoirs, short or long fiction, the same themes and issues arose – yes, bathrooms are uncomfortable, doctor’s offices challenging, family varying degrees of difficult, relating to our bodies hard. While transition and transgender experience may not have been the premise of many of these books, even the third-gender humans in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi story developed a new batch of gender-neutral pronouns.
I had, I think, reached complete burnout on all things trans. I continued to pay attention to (i.e., read) trans literature, but without my former zeal. I wondered if I had passed through an obsessive phase, tied to my own self-discovery, that had, finally, come to an end.
In the next few weeks, I’m headed to a handful of East Coast colleges to read from my trans memoir and speak about my own personal experience, as well as address whatever comes up in discussion with faculty and students – my favorite part of these events. In preparation, I read two newer memoirs, and I found myself thinking a lot about where trans literature is going, and how I relate to the material as I move further away from transition, and my trans identity is no longer at the forefront of my daily existence.
First, I read Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. Just the title itself says something to me about the kind of book that this is, a story-based argument against the age-old invalidation that trans women and trans men are not “real” women and men.
Mock presents a childhood of femininity suppressed, and a series of steps – hormonal and surgical that allow her to embody the woman she understands herself to be. While she problematizes the concept of “always knowing” her true gender, claiming that such clarity was a necessary form of defense, and acknowledging that it erases nuance and the confusing process of her own self-discovery, that is still the narrative she presents.
This type of narrative is the very kind of story that threw me off my course for a long time, enforcing my mistaken belief that the definition of transgender including “always knowing” on some level that your gender does not match your sense of self, along with a childhood that contained clues to this effect. In Mock’s case, wearing dresses, make-up, and exploring a female persona.
As a trans person, I now find a transition story unremarkable. And yet, the details of her story – divorced parents, raised in both Oakland and Hawaii, a trans companion in high school, transition at such a young age, sex work, financial struggles, familial support, the inspiration of black feminist writers, outting herself to men on dates – held my attention, especially everything she shared about the culture of Hawaii.
In her transition story, I related to her perseverance, her at-any-cost attitude, and her willingness to go it alone. It got me thinking about the long-term effects of my own transition, the ways I still rely only on myself, and my lack of trust that others, especially potential lovers, will want me once they know that I’m trans. I was right there with Mock, feeling her fear, any time she was about to disclose her trans status in a romantic situation.
From an activist perspective, she does something that nobody else has done before, or not with her level of skill. (Jamison Green did it in a different way, from a different angle). She situates her story — which is her story, valid and true — in the greater context of contemporary trans issues.
At every moment available, she widens her lens and explains basic terms like cisgender and transgender, provides her thoughts on “passing” and disclosure, tells us when an experience converges or diverges from that of other trans folk, trans women, low-income trans people, and trans women of color. She shares her unique and individual story, but always considers the impact her words may have on someone new to trans experience and identity. She reframes the dialogue, even as she shares parts of a transition story that are not new (like surgery and hormones), and in doing so, she offers something much larger than her own personal story.
This is not a navel-gazing memoir, but a story with the intention of serving a higher purpose of social change and empowerment (especially for trans women of color) that is apparent on every page. It’s not a surprise to me that Mock is a highly sought after trans speaker. Her book is an outstanding mainstream (as in “Trans 101” educational) memoir.
People will call Mock courageous for the bold actions she took to become herself. I’d point people instead to notice the courage, not in her transition, but in the personal work, the self-inquiry and unflinching self-reflection to find such an honest, wise, and compassionate voice. I think it requires going through a whole lot of other not-so-pleasant emotions to arrive here.
The other memoir, Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive, I pre-ordered to arrive immediately after release because I was just that excited for it. A rather short book, I forced myself go slow, re-reading pages and passages again and again to absorb the full effect of the figurative language. This is a book where not a word is wasted and the structure creates an urgency, a heart-pumping, reading-on-the-edge-of-your-seat quality.
I hesitate to call Man Alive a “trans memoir” because this book breaks out of transition convention (a good thing), and I think the phrase could limit the audience for what is a real work of art. While there is little explanation or context or hand-holding on anything trans, a mainstream reader would never notice. This is a story about looking demons (or ghosts) in the eye, which McBee handles so deftly I get the chills just thinking about it. The only benefit to calling it a “trans memoir” is that I can say it’s the best one I’ve ever read.
The back-cover asks the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” and the story is McBee’s attempt to answer the question in relationship to two men – his abusive father and a mugger who nearly killed him — as he considers transitioning from his position in the middle ground of gender to manhood.
I read this book as being less about “manhood” per se, and more about embodiment, about three people who learned to vacate their body, to disappear, and the one who taught himself to come back. It is about the reclamation of a body, and the truth that it speaks when one is present enough to pay attention.
That the people who hurt and ultimately liberate McBee are men matters in the sense that gender (especially male power and violence) is so culturally entrenched it has to play a role. But we all have the reasons, the traumas – some tiny and some huge – that knocked us out of our skin. The choice to come back is a universal endeavor.
Another thing that blew me away about this memoir is the vulnerability of McBee, and the generosity and compassion he extends to the two potentially “bad” characters in his story. But then again, this is the root of his inquiry, the question of what makes people turn, what makes their eyes-glaze over and do horrible things. By searching for the humanness in these people, in his characters, he seems to find his own humanness.
The process of watching this journey is almost gut-wrenching in its realness, painful in its truth. It is McBee’s gift of language which made me feel his experience (very different from my own) so viscerally. I noticed that reading this book brought me back into my own body – my heart in my throat as I worried for him and also knew that he could care for himself.
In reading these two memoirs, I discovered a resurgence in my excitement for trans literature, and the belief that trans stories – previously niche or sensationalist – do have appeal.
McBee’s is a trans memoir that, finally, has literary beauty. And Mock is the first trans women of color to reach such a large audience. As she writes in her book, the genre of trans memoir has been dominated by white trans folks. It is those of us with access who have been able to tell our stories. Her book is either evidence of a shift or the brick breaking the barrier. I see her memoir as just one tool in her arsenal as a guiding leader at the forefront of the trans movement. And I know that she is doing all of us, even privileged trans guys like myself, a great service.
My Other Favorite/Most Inspirational Trans Books (Apparently I don’t love memoir or fiction. Weird.)
Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law by Dean Spade
Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word) by Thea Hillman — Okay, so it’s way more intersex than trans, but it’s super queer and goddamn it’s good.
Transgender History by Susan Striker
Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation by Eli Clare
The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman
Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman
Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green