"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Whenever I complain about the sorry state of sex ed books for kids or the paucity of books that explain trans identities for them, people get all excited and say, “Shekel, you should totally write one!”
So I did. I wrote one of the worst book explaining trans identities imaginable, as an example to those of you who might have easier access to book contracts than my self-effacing self. What follows is a page-by-page analysis of a terrible, terrible picture book, illustrated by one of my brilliant cabinmates. And lest you worry, you have an Official Transsexual’s Permission to laugh at the ludicrous bits. If you get the joke, that is.
First of all, to all of my trans friends named Jess(i)e: I love you! Really! Jesse is a perfectly lovely name! I’m not making fun of you! It’s just that there are so many of you with that perfectly lovely name, and the collective you possess myriad gender identities and embodiments, and the name is versatile enough to encompass all of them. So it’s kind of a joke, but I’m not laughing at any individual Jess(i)e. I would have chosen Aiden, but all the Aidens I know are trans-masc-ish folks so that didn’t work.
Back to the serious criticism—never ask “what” someone is. How they identify, perhaps or which pronouns they’d like you to use for them, sure, but never “what.” Also keep in mind that inquiring about a person’s pronouns doesn’t necessarily tell you what their gender is.
The theme of blue-is-for-boys and pink-is-for-girls will be repeated ad nauseum in this text, don’t you worry. I’m not going to get into a whole rant about how a) colors are not inherently gendered and b) even if you associate pink with girly stuff it’s femmephobic and misogynist to automatically demonize those things because femininity isn’t a bad thing unless it’s coercive. But let’s just say: using pink and blue to indicate male and female is boring and unoriginal and inaccurate. Even if you show a blue person morphing into a pink person or vice versa, or, like, the pink and blue male and female signs tangled together somehow that I’ve seen on too many books and pamphlets, just don’t do it. It’s binarist, restrictive, and reifies the very categories you might be trying to interrupt.
See what I did there? I said that the girl is a “normal little boy”! Because s/he’s trans! And therefore just like a normal boy! Same with the boy who’s just like a normal girl because s/he’s actually trans!
Aaaand, no. I was definitely not a normal little girl (I read too much and brought sushi for lunch) but I was also somewhat femme. I have too many happy memories involving various shades of pink nail polish and Barbie fashion shows to pretend that I was a textbook transsexual. I may have just been a textbook homosexual little boy, but I’ve always been attracted to women (and everyone else) so that pat explanation doesn’t fit either. There’s nothing automatically gendered about childhood play or fashion choices—some kids who play with trucks may be invoking a masculine identity, others might just be having fun rolling around wheelie things. A little kid in a frilly pink dress might be expressing a femme sense of self or might just like feeling fancy. And none of that fucking matters. Kids love to play, gender is fun to play with, don’t worry about what it means.
I’ve seen several books about femme-ish little boys (“The Sissy Duckling,” “Oliver Button is a Sissy,” “Max the Stubborn Little Wolf,” and “The Only Boy In Ballet Class) and one about a trans girl (“Ten Thousand Dresses”), and in all of them the kid in question has few if any friends. There are only a few books about butch little girls (“Tough Chicks,” “Princess Smartypants”) that come as quickly to mind, but the girls in those do all right socially.
If you’re scratching your head and wondering why, the answer is: Patriarchy! And misogyny! Not that those two can be disentangled, of course. “Tomboys” in books often have a pack of little boy friends they run with, and even if there’s some bullying or ostracism from other girls, they are portrayed as tough and unconcerned. But the trope of the bullied lisping faggot is alive and well both in literature and the world. These two pages just make this distinction painfully clear, and illustrate that girlhood is shamed and hidden while boyhood is celebrated, no matter who is enacting boyhood and girlhood.
More of the same misogyny and masculine privilege. Also, this page (and the whole book) furthers the oft-repeated idea that trans people know, unshakably and from a very early age, how they identify, and that they will state it in no uncertain terms.
This is no doubt true for many trans people, including several of my exes, but it’s not universally true. I knew that I was a weirdo, but figured it was because I was Jewish or smart or had an unusual class background or wasn’t a native of the state I grew up in. I didn’t imagine myself growing up to be a guy. Whenever I tried to imagine my future self, my future body, it felt like I was squinting at the sun—I could see a vague outline but could never fill it in with particulars that felt like they worked. That doesn’t make me less trans, and it doesn’t make my exes more trans. It just makes us all trans, and also different people. Unfortunately, more complex narratives like that aren’t as neatly encapsulated for young people. One key thing to remember is that kids don’t need things in neat capsules. They can grok confusing things because at those ages, everything is confusing.
Mostly I just liked using the phrase “complicated underwear.” Also, my first girlfriend was a softball butch whereas I’ve always been an effete intellectual, but I’m sure there are tons of trans guys who played softball. And for the record I have no problem with baby queers going to Hot Topic, that was totally the best store in the mall.
I realize that this is an inaccurately rosy portrait of growing up transmasculine. I know plenty of female-assigned butches, non-binary, and trans people who have been put under house arrested, abused, disowned, and abandoned by parents on the basis of their gender identity or expression. I know male-assigned femmes, non-binary, and trans people who maintain healthy, loving relationships with their families of origin. I hope this is taken as hyperbole, exaggeration, and commentary on the State of Things Today rather than an accurate picture of individual lives.
Because gender non-conforming kids are probably gay, right? Thank heavens there’s a doctor who specializes in these special snowflake cases.
“Normal.” I’m not going to argue that being queer or trans is normal. It’s not normal, and that’s good. Normal doesn’t do the world any favors.
Again, I know, the rosy picture of transmasculinity paired with the unending struggles of transfemininity, not necessarily accurate but not wholly false. Furthermore, it’s worth noting the ways that masculine-identified voices are heard over feminine-identified voices, and how men (and those aspiring towards manhood) are urged to tell our stories whereas women’s voices (and other voices put into that category) are pushed into chick lit or hysteria.
For all my feelings about the medical-industrial complex, and the ways that the medicalization of gender is super problematic, this seems like it’s going in a good direction thus far, right?
WRONG! A) “Transgendered,” not really a word. B) Binarism and the erasing of all those identities between and outside male and female. C) It’s not perfectly normal and that is just dandy. D) The next person to compliment me on my transsexual bravery is getting the most histrionic, tear-filled, discomfiting display of gratitude I can muster.
It would have been great if the doctor had reinforced his initial assessment of “there’s nothing to fix,” but actually his description of physical transition isn’t all that bad (except, again, for the binarist approach). When I explain hormone therapy to kids I usually do describe it as a special kind of medicine, and at least he didn’t make surgery seem compulsory.
“Aiden? Jayden? Caden?” This is probably my favorite page.
I wish my prescription had more exclamation points on it. And again, “normal.” For those trans folks who want to look normal, by all means. I definitely look pretty normal, I’m the first to admit. But I hate that so many narratives hold “normal” up as the ultimate goal, and as an end to be desired uncritically and unquestioningly.
Another frustrating thing about typical trans narratives is this idea of a happily ever after in your new body. Yes, physical transition can be a huge relief, and can free up all that mental energy to handle other life issues. But those issues are definitely still there—post transition you still have to pay rent, deal with your partner or bad first dates, take your dog to the vet, and deal with car insurance or losing your MetroCard.
Furthermore, for some people medical transition is a somewhat straight line with an achievable endpoint, namely, passing as cis. For others it is a more complex process that may never feel quite right, or that involves trying to be perceived as something outside of society’s general ken.
“What Is Jessie?” is a wonderful example of how to never talk about trans stuff, to children or anyone else. If you’d like to pick apart my language in these explanations, yell at me for conflating butches and trans men, or for not adequately exploring non-binary identities, or for not properly punctuating something, I’m not gonna tell you not to but I probably know everything you’re going to say. Sometimes one has to cede total inclusivity and precision for the sake of not writing a fifty-page blog post and getting home on time.