Occasionally there is a concurrence of news items that just nest together so well that it’s impossible not to comment on it.
First off, let me say that Wednesday night I finished reading the Kindle edition of the novel I am J, written by Cris Beam. The book was Amazon’s Best Book for Young Adults for the month of March. I’ll be back later with my thoughts on the book.
That was certainly timely, what with Josh Lehrer’s plea for funding at Kickstarter to create a sequel to his highly successful photography series from last year, Becoming Visible. Josh’s website is here. The $30,000 goal for the project has already been reached, but anything extra you would like to contribute will go to stipends for the homeless transkids who are his subjects.
The words that started all this swirling in my head were from an article by Donna Nebenzahl in the Ottawa Citizen, entitled Life in Transition: Gender identity crisis can be the beginning of a long, lonely journey, about the lives of transgender youth in Montreal.
In these cases, it’s not just, ‘I think I’m gay.’ It’s ‘Oh my god, I really don’t want to have these body parts.’ It’s about hiding them and sometimes feeling so ashamed and sometimes absolutely disgusted.
–Rhonda Buckland, Head and Hands
Which brings me to my review of I am J. Now some people might be a bit leery of a novel about a young transman which is written by a non-transperson. But further investigation would reveal that the author has some cred in this regard. Cris Beam has a gender-variant partner, and they are fostering a young transwoman who happens to be one of the central characters of Beam’s previous book, Transparent, a non-fiction offering about the lives of some young transwomen in Los Angeles, most of whom attend the alternative school, EAGLES (Empasizing Adolescent Gay and Lesbian Education Services) Center. Beam became a faculty member there while writing her books.
EAGLES Center (Emphasizing Adolescent Gay/ Lesbian Education Services), founded in 1992, is the LAUSD continuation high school that serves students who have dropped out or are considering dropping out of their own schools because of the extreme social pressures they must deal with because of their sexual orientation. EAGLES Center provides a safe and accepting environment for these youth who wish to continue and complete their education. “It’s remarkable to see these youth making something of their lives, rather than taking their lives,” comments teacher and founder Jerry Battey.
If you are interested in assisting the efforts of Eagles Center, call (310)427-2613 or email Eagles Ctr@aol.com.
Excerpts of Transparent: Love, family and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers are available at Google Books (the link).
Beam concentrated on the young transwomen in that book and saved the story of young transmen for her novel. I am J is the journey of a seventeen-year old self-described Jewto Rican (his father, Manny Silver, is Jewish and works in the subways and his mother, Carolina, is Puerto Rican and works in a hospital) towards self-discovery and self-determination. At the beginning of the story, J sleeps in a corner of their living room in the Bronx. They don’t seem to have much. We learn that is because they have been saving for J’s college education since the birth of their child. J is attending PS 386 with not many friends other than Melissa, whom J is enamored with. Although Melissa and J are friends, the feeling is not mutual. J had once considered pursuing a career in computers, but now has a deep interest in photography. Melissa is a dancer…and a cutter.
J suffers many of the offenses leveled at gender-ambiguous teens, such as being called a dyke, queer, a freak, etc, and generally being hassled by “normal” kids. Melissa stands up for J when nobody else cares. J was a swimmer until puberty arrived, but then quit because of the body changes.
J dresses in baggy pants and shirts…sometimes 3 or layers of shirts…and multiple sports bras, to hide the fact that Manny and Carolina’s child was born a girl.
As with most transpeople, J struggles with the fact that nobody else can recognize that he is really a boy…and almost a man. By surfing the web, he discovers what he really need is the magic elixir, T…he naively thinks that (a) he will be able to get someone to give him shots of T with no problem and (b) that the changes it will bring (lowered voice, no period, facial hair) will occur immediately.
Eventually J takes all his earthly belongings (some clothes, his camera, and a couple of hundred bucks) and leaves home for southern Manhattan, near the docks. There he gets a room which costs half his money for one night…and meets an aging transwoman, Marcia, who is apparently a prostitute who lives in New Jersey. Marcia directs him to a shelter for GLBT youth in Manhattan. Things don’t go well there either, but J learns about an alternative high school in Manhattan, where he enrolls.
By this time, he has also met a girl, Blue, who believes that he is a guy. But in leaving home, he interrupts his contact with her, which causes her to wonder what is wrong with him. Eventually she follows him to the LGBT school, and she believes the problem is that he is gay.
J also locates a group of transmen that holds regular meetings. The group is run by a post-operative transman and J is fascinated with Zak. But he’s also not yet 18, so would have to have parental consent to get hormones.
He gets a therapist named Phillip and makes friends with a fellow student, Chanelle, who is a transitioning 20-year old transwoman.
Chanelle “writes a poem” (okay, she steals lines from really old poems, by Whitman, Shakespeare, and others) for J to send to Blue, but it’s pretty bad and eventually J breaks up with Blue.
Being trans wasn’t special. It was just good and bad and fucked-up and very human, like anything else.
The rest of the book is about the good and the bad and the fucked-up…with lots of anger directed here and there (especially at his parents) and a few good times, like his birthday. His mother finally sends him permission to go on ‘moons…after he turns 18 and doesn’t need permission anymore. By this time, he’s living with Melissa and her mom, Karyn, who is in school, majoring in psychology. Unbeknownst to him, Carolina is paying Karyn to let J stay there to keep him away from Manny, fearing it would destroy their marriage. But it eventually becomes knownst and J becomes very angry.
The high points are when J finally gets a shot of T (Chanelle, Zak, and Melissa show up at the clinic to help him celebrate), when he has a showing of 5 of his photos at Melissa’s dance recital, and when he gets accepted into a university as a photography major…and they even know he’s trans!
The book is well written and, if I may say so, not only for young people. I’d hope anyone who thinks they are or would like to become an ally would enjoy it and should benefit from it.