post from Megan Honig's blog. Megan expresses her disappointment in Almost Perfect by Brain Katcher winning the Stonewall Children and Young Adult Literature Award. She was disappointed because she felt that while Almost Perfect did some things well is giving a voice to transgender individuals, ultimately it played right into the stereotypes that surround trans men and women. Her point was that acceptance is not enough. I have not read Almost Perfect so I can't judge, but it made me realize that I knew pretty much nothing about transgender individuals, and if I was going to be able to truly review a book about a trans boy then I better start doing some background reading ASAP. So I did.
Luckily for me, Megan Honig had a number of helpful links from the above post I could explore, and I picked up the book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Women on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, which was kind of amazing. Through it I was able to gain a better understanding of trans men and women. None of the "man trapped in a woman's body" stuff. People are assigned a gender at birth, and luckily for most of us that assigned gender matches our subconscious gender (these people are referred to as "cisssexuals"). It doesn't work like this for everyone, and when it doesn't there is a feeling of dissonance and wrongness. Serano talked about her own transition, but also looked a femininity itself and feminism. I'm not going to explain it all here, first because I want to focus on I am J, and second because I don't think I'd do her argument justice. And so with mildly better understanding than before, I read I am J.
J has always know that he was a boy. It doesn't mater that others might not see him that way. For most of his life, J was content to hide under multiple layers of clothing, hardly ever speaking so no one would hear his voice. But now, J is finding this isn't enough. He wants others to see him as a boy, and he wants his body to match who he knows he really is. J is afraid to share these thoughts with anyone else. He fears how his parents and his best friend Melissa will react, but J can't hide any more.
So without even getting into the portrayal of a transgender character, I thought this was pretty great. I was hooked right from the start and didn't want to stop reading. It was good story telling. I wanted to know what J was going to do next, how he would handle different situations, shaking my head when he did something stupid and teenagery (like running away from home).
An issue that Honig had with Almost Perfect was that the trans girl said about herself "I'm really a girl." This isn't accurate. J is really a boy, even though he was gendered female at birth. J never thinks of himself as a girl, he knows he's a boy. So I think it's a positive that there were never any messages about transgender individuals that their assigned birth gender is their "true" gender.
Based on my reading of a few web sites and one book, the stages that J went through were realistic and true. After puberty, J couldn't bare to look at his body any more. His body went against everything he felt and knew to be true. He dressed in many layers of clothing to hide his shape, and rarely spoke so his voice wouldn't betray him. It made him happy when someone in a store referred to him as "sir" and filled him with anger when his parents or a neighbor called him a girl or his given name of Jenifer.
This isn't enough for very long. J wants other people to see him how he sees himself. His parents don't. His best friend Melissa, who J has a crush on, doesn't. Melissa is mad at him because J kissed her. J reacts negatively when he's referred to as a lesbian. This seems to be less out of homophobia and more because being called a lesbian is equal to being called a girl.
The next step J takes is to make himself a chest binder, and then start going to places where no one knows him. He wants to see if other people will see him as a boy. He meets some girls, one who seems to like him, who see him as a boy. J keeps going back to see them, skipping school completely, so he can continue to have this feeling. Serano talked about how she felt like she was living two lives at one point during her transition. The life where everyone thought of her as a man, and then the people who knew her as female.
When J learned how other trans individuals can go on hormonal therapy, he's filled with joy and hope. He thinks it will be easy. He'll just walk into the clinic and get a shot and everything will be better. Of course, he finds it doesn't work like this. First of all, he isn't 18 yet so he needs parental permission. Also, he has to undergo three to six months of therapy before he can begin on testosterone. This is accurate. Serano talked about this, how people must have psychoanalysis to make sure they are the right contenders for hormone therapy. Unfortunately, historically therapy was more about "protecting" the cissexual population, not about helping the trans individual find peace of mind and help them with their transition. Many times, only those who would be about to acceptable "pass" were able to move forward with their transition.
Luckily for J, the clinic he finds is not like that, but actually has people who really want to help him. He's encouraged to go to a group with other trans men, which he at first resists, but when he finally goes, find it comforting. Here are people like him who have similar issues, seemingly simple things like deciding which bathroom to use. J enrolls in a school for LGBTQ kids to finish out his senior year. J expects everyone to be really accepting, but this is not the case. The gay kids think bisexuals are gross and unnatural. The trans kids stick together and so on. This also rings true. Serano expressed anger and disappointment that in the different communities they all have their own prejudices. Lesbian groups won't let trans women be part of their gatherings, or trans groups that exist only in their small "safe places" and don't try to make the rest of the world a better place for themselves.
J's parents have a difficult time accepting him. He ends up living with Melissa and her mother for a while. His parents want him to try harder. They say maybe it's just a phase. Both Melissa and Blue (the girl J meets who likes him) confuse transgender with intersex and at first think J is saying he has both male and female genitals. Is this a common confusion? I'm not really sure.
So again, with my very limited knowledge, it seemed to me this book did a pretty good job portraying a teenage trans boy going through a transition. The only flaw I was really able to pick out is that the transition was highly accelerated, which I can understand for the purpose of the book. J wasn't even in therapy for three months before he was able to get his first testosterone shot.
I hope there will be reviews from people who knows this experience far better than I do. It seemed to be a respectful interpretation, I hope it really is.
I am J comes out on March 1st.