Gender Choice: The Tsunami that Rocks the Community in Transgender YA Fiction 2004-2008
“Different? You make the different kids look normal!”
Why does gender choice send shock waves into a character’s community? The above quote, made by a schoolmate to the transgender character, Grady, in Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger, shows just how deep a disruption is caused by Grady’s choice to live as who he is. The young adult novels I examine will illustrate how gender choice can crash through unconscious gender assumptions and create a new landscape, where all people can be fully who they are.
I begin by honoring those who initiated the gender conversation: feminists, fantasy authors, and street queens. This paper highlights their successors in questioning gender: transgender youth and the authors who write for and about them. The new fiction is described in Hornbook Magazine as “the genre of gender” (Rockefeller 519).
Today’s beginning collection of transgender-inclusive YA fiction questions gender assignment, gender role, gender presentation, and gender identity. Its authors are breaking a literary silence about transgender youth culture, changing the assumptions and the terms of the gender conversation, and bringing greater understanding and acceptance of our gender-variant youth. While the quality of the literature is as bumpy as the changing voice of a prepubescent choirboy, it is educating readers with stories that challenge all of us to confront our own gender values and assumptions.
A writer tuning in to the conversation for the first time may benefit from preliminary mental stretches, asking: “What would it be like to walk down the street, go to work, or attend a party and take it for granted that the gender of the people you met would not be the first thing you ascertained about them? … If you could change your sex as effortlessly in reality as you can in virtual reality, and change it back again, wouldn’t you like to try it at least once? Who do you think you might become?” (Califia 277)
And, “Have you ever thought about what it might be like to be neither? For a day? An hour? One minute?” (Bornstein 105). Or imagine “… what it would be like to have been born with a perfectly hermaphroditic body; what growing up would have been like.” (Kaldera 25)
In this new fiction, the texts have in common a potent social impact resulting from gender choice, an impact that ripples out to families, peers, and the wider communities of the transgender characters. Every relationship the trans character has is affected and profoundly changed. Readers’ perspectives can evolve from participating along with the transformation of the transgender characters and their communities. In this way, the compelling effect on the community reaches out from fiction into real life.
The pioneering authors of this fiction each push a sharp shovel into unplowed ground at a different place in the terrain, none of these places reflected in young adult literature before. Taken as a collection, these novels excavate with questions and set with story a strong foundation for the emerging genre. In order to examine how gender choice catalyzes change and in what ways the community landscape changes, I will discuss realistic transgender-inclusive YA novels published between 2004 and 2008. The first four novels I examine confront gender choice as an either/or proposition, and the second four novels feature main characters whom I view as choosing gender fluidity.
Concepts, Categories and Gender Cages
For this under-studied body of literature, unfamiliar terms must first be clarified. Since the transgender movement is still defining itself, those I use in this paper may become outdated. As a writer, I attempt more to understand than to delineate in an absolute fashion. For purposes of this paper, I find Susan Stryker’s concept of transgender to be the most useful: “…people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that [birth-assigned] gender. Some people …feel strongly that they properly belong to another gender…others want to strike out toward some new location, some space not yet clearly defined …still others simply feel the need to get away from the conventional expectations bound up with the gender that was originally put upon them. In any case, it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place – rather than any particular destination or mode of transition – that characterizes the concept of ‘transgender’…”(1)
Transgender, as an umbrella term, includes all who take up questions of gender in the living of their lives, those who refuse to fit any one sense of self as a gendered person, and those aspiring to freedom from, and thus transgressing, the system of gender. The marvelous multiplicity of current perspective is underlined by Rudacille in The Riddle of Gender: “Transgendered and transsexual people today express a sometimes bewildering range of gender identities…. if gender-variant people agree about anything these days, it is about their right to express their identities and to label themselves (or not label themselves) in any way they choose.” (172-173)
Most often I will refer to transgender as an identity. I understand it as an identity embraced by some people for themselves that includes choosing to live as a gender different from that assigned them at birth, involving any combination of gender expression, hormones, or surgery; or an identity of those born with ambiguous genitalia who choose a gender for themselves. Transgender, as I use the term, is inclusive of transsexual, the medical and popular term describing persons who achieve sex reassignment through hormonal and surgical means, including female-to-male (FtM) and male-to-female (MtF) transsexuals.
The alphabetic shorthand used to refer to variance in both sexual orientation and in gender has grown ever more inclusive. From LGB for lesbian, gay, and bisexual, the initials became LGBTQ for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and/or questioning. Transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation (attraction to people of a specific gender). Therefore, transgender people may additionally identify as heterosexual, gay or bisexual. The essential transgender issue lies in the individual’s perceived and performed gender. When LGBTQ is incorrectly used as a synonym for gay, transgender people are erased.
In many discussions, the alphabetic designation has grown to include an I for intersex, which has emerged as the term of respect for those born with ambiguous genitalia. Kaldera states: “We are androgynes, hermaphrodites…third-sexed, two-souled…We are living proof that gender is not a two-sided coin…that there is a middle ground …a place of great power and transformation… We are not men. We are not women. We are both.” (19)
New heroes for gender-variant youth include, for example, the intersex teen in the award-winning 2007 film from Argentina, XXY, which portrays with great respect the family complexities as well as the teen’s resistance to surgical assignment.
Keeping up with identity politics is not my purpose; rather, I make the point that YA literature’s inclusion of gender identity themes (who you are) and sexual orientation themes (who you love) parallels the growing inclusivity of the alphabetic description. For example, Canadian librarians use a social justice resource guide with another form of the shorthand, BGLTT: bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgendered, and two-spirited; two-spirited addresses the unique, transgender Native American perspective. (Wexlebaum 30).
The Q (in LBGTQ) for queer and/or questioning has become a key to spring characters and readers alike, not only from the holding cell compartments assigned us within gender, but, some say, from the jailhouse box of gender itself. The perspective of Queer Theory sees gender, not as a question of category, but as a matter of performance. Kader describes “queer” this way:
…queer theory works to investigate the norms of identity, disturbing our most cherished preconceptions about the relations of sex, gender, sexuality and desire… To queer means to quiz, to spoil, to bend and to displace, a set of actions rather than a specific category of sexuality or gender.
It is the Q for queer/questioning that now pulls us through categories toward a new spaciousness of human identity. The Gender Spectrum website describes a child who may feel they are a girl some days and a boy on others, or may feel that neither term is accurate for them, as one whose identity is gender-fluid. I believe that questioning can carry us past categories to an ideal best described as gender fluidity.
For me, the writing of gender theorist and activist, Riki Anne Wilchins, unlocks the cage of the gender system. In my imagination, I stare out through the suddenly unbarred frame, as unwilling to risk freedom as one of the woodchucks I once trapped live for distant release. Everything not only looks different out there, but everything feels different inside my gendered body. Vertigo! Wilchins calls my confusion a sign of progress: “…a lot of folks … are completely aghast at this canyon … opening at their feet. Without an anchor to reality they feel like they’re spinning off into space. But for others – if you survive the initial vertigo—that’s the definition of freedom.” (161)
The Goodbye-Hello Option in Four YA Novels
Transgender-inclusive novels show characters expanding past previously ‘stable’ assignments of male and female. In the first four novels I discuss, the transgender characters use what Bornstein calls the Goodbye-Hello option. She describes people who subscribe to it as those who interpret and live transsexuality as a permanent move from one gender to another gender. August Atlas by Bridget Birdsall, Luna by Julie Anne Peters, Choirboy by Charlie Anders, and Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger all showcase protagonists who accept the cultural imperative that a permanent move is their only option.
Therefore, in these novels, the gender journeys tend toward a definite departure and a definite destination. August in August Atlas chooses to transition from intersex to female, Luna in Luna from male to female; though Berry in Choir Boy hasn’t decided for sure, he has already begun hormones that change his body from male to female; and Grady in Parrotfish, though he has postponed his decision about hormones and surgery, is positive about moving from female to male. In making their gender journeys, each of these teens demonstrates an unusual degree of courage in facing peer pressure, and each has powerful effects on their communities.
As reflected in these novels, hormones and surgical advances in recent decades have made gender choice a freedom attainable in a new sense. In the early 70’s, I was a feminist who railed against the imprisonment of gender. Now the youth, and the characters in fiction written for them, do more than rebel. Like August and Berry, like Luna and Grady, they take real life action regarding their personal gender identity.
Disruption on the Road to Freedom
August Atlas by Bridget Birdsall and Luna by Julie Ann Peters
“There is that sense of disruption that the trans figure brings,” states Rudacille, “that rupture through the social construction of gender, and the revelation of the new, the different, the other” (58). August Atlas and Luna are YA novels that poignantly illustrate the discomfort of disrupting gender assumptions.
In August Atlas, August was born intersex, that is, with ambiguous genitalia. She was assigned a male gender by her parents and has lived as a boy for thirteen years before she chooses to transition. She and her mother relocate after her father dies, and August presents herself in the new town as female. She must live as a female for one year before undergoing permanent surgery. August joins the varsity basketball team, and one teammate in particular, Pepper, bullies her, outs her, and challenges her right to be on the team.
In Luna, Liam/Luna is a male-to-female transgender who has for years counted on younger sister Regan (the point of view character) to help keep the secret. Only at night does Luna emerge, with help from Regan’s clothes and makeup. When Luna begins to come out from her cocoon into daylight, surges of disruption curl huge waves behind her.
Each of these protagonists has loved ones and peers who battle the protagonist’s choice with terrified contempt. Resisting most are close family members, such as August’s mother and Luna’s sister, and peers such as August’s teammate Pepper and Luna’s friend Aly. Some of those in the characters’ respective communities move through their resistance to an expanded view and a freer sense of their own possibilities.
In these novels, reader perception as well as characters’ perceptions plays a role in the disturbances raised by gender choice. In Birdsall’s August Atlas, the reader initially perceives August as a boy, but is led to change gender perception of the character, as August makes her choice clear: No one knows better than me—I am a girl. I need to be who I am! …How much more do I need to do, to prove to you what I already know! (24)
In Peters’ Luna, the reader perceives Luna through the point of view of Regan. At first Regan and Luna both accept society’s perception of transgender as shameful. When Regan watches Luna move away from shame, the reader feels how Regan remains trapped in society’s perception.
Gender perceptions on the part of the fictional communities lead to acute discomfort. The distress is experienced first by the trans characters themselves. In August Atlas, after being challenged by Pepper, August tells herself, “You can’t win, August. Give it up. When you were a boy, you weren’t boy enough. Now you’re a girl, you’re not girl enough!” (199). August’s discomfort arises from a source external to herself. In Luna we see another source of distress, an internal one; Luna views her own body as an unbearable mistake. What could be more intimately uncomfortable than to feel trapped in the wrong body?
The fictional communities experience the discomfort like a shock wave. In Birdsall’s novel, August simply being who she is disrupts Pepper’s assumptions of gender categories and thrusts her into a deep unknown. Pepper’s gender perceptions are like an intricate puzzle picture, so familiar that the borders of the pieces are no longer noticed. August’s presence crashes like a tsunami against Pepper’s gender picture, smashing its pieces apart. Pepper’s need to play ball on the same team as August for the state championship obliges her to behave neutrally towards August, but the author suggests that more time will be required for Pepper to restructure her gender beliefs into acceptance.
In Luna, Regan’s anguish about her brother leads her to behavior that veers from rescue and protection to blame and rejection: “He was always there, invading, interfering, ruining my chances for any kind of ordinary existence. It was always him, his needs his wants. What about what I wanted? … I wanted to be free of this secret, this lie, this brother who wasn’t a boy.” (172) When Regan’s anger emerges and she can name her anguish, her honesty with herself sets her on the road to resolving it.
But what is this anguishing unknown, this terrible discomfort the community experiences in the wake of gender choice? The awkwardness of any breaking of role boundary, anynew freedom? Any moving wider than previously sanctioned roles, presentations, identities? Yes, and, it’s deeper, because gender pervades like a culture with its own language and appearance and customs and rules, because gender frames our lives the way our skeleton holds our flesh, because gender underlies like steel girders invisible within a building.
Bornstein describes transphobia as “fear of crossing…fear of transgressing…fear and hatred of any kind of border-dwellers…” (75). In August Atlas, Pepper pours her transphobia into hateful behavior toward August. In Luna, Regan is afraid that by keeping the secret that Liam identifies as female Luna, Regan herself is transgressing:
“Sometimes I felt as if my brother and I shared one life. His. We were both disembodied hollows (25)…That clerk’s reaction [to Luna] made me feel like crawling into a hole…My ears burned (92)….as if we share one vascular system. One heart (106)….The whole time we were out, it felt as if people’s eyes were on us. Undressing us. Exposing her, and me.” (115)
Regan allows transphobia to affect her to such an unhealthy extent that, in order to guard the secret, she lets go of her own dreams – of singing, of dating, of friends.
Transphobia also cripples Luna’s dad, who does not struggle through the disruption he experiences. When he learns Luna’s secret, Dad shifts abruptly into rage, revulsion and outright rejection, and remains stuck there. “Dad’s lips receded over his teeth like a snarling dog. “You’re sick,” he hissed. You are sick” (222). And, “If you walk out that door, don’t bother coming back” (223). Luna survives Dad’s visceral disgust, the body blow Luna always feared. Dad forfeits the opportunity that Luna’s gender choice affords him to expand.
In Peter’s novel, Mom’s transphobia is even more insidious. She has always been aware of Luna’s gender and has kept the secret from Dad. Luna says, “That’s been the hardest part….Having this unspoken truth between Mom and me. Knowing it was ‘unspeakable’” (241). Like Regan, Mom is an enabler of Luna’s habit of deception. Mom’s long term cover-up makes her complicit in Luna’s suffering. Though Mom is not shown moving to a wider view, the possibility of a better future relationship between Luna and Mom is hinted at in the conclusion.
Both Luna’s and August’s choices rock their fictional communities out of fixed concepts, and, in the case of at least some of the fictional characters, into more flexible ones. In August Atlas, August’s most complex relationship is with Mom, and therefore the impact of August’s choice on Mom is likewise nuanced. At August’s birth, Mom had agreed with Dad, who wanted a son, to assign a male gender to August; and in a radical act, they refused to sanction the commonplace medical practice of “corrective” sex assignment surgery for baby August. Though SA surgery is still the standard, today it is protested by transsexual advocacy groups as intersex genital mutilation (Califia 266-267). The Intersex Society of North America estimates that one in two thousand births is intersex, and that five intersex babies are operated on each day.
Mom’s consistent response to August is over protectiveness, partially due to her guilt at having assigned the ‘wrong’ arbitrary gender. Like most parents, August’s mom resists releasing her into the wider world. But Mom’s normal parental concern is multiplied by her anxiety over August’s transition to a gender different from the one in which she was raised. Mom’s anxiety does not arise from transphobia, but rather, from her awareness that the world’s transphobia may hurt August.
Once her mother has made her peace with August’s choice, August becomes an example for her. Such acceptance may not be as common in the real world as Pepper’s panic, but Mom’s change feels true to her character, and it certainly provides hope to readers. The overall effect of August’s choice on Mom is a maturing and equalizing of their relationship. August leads her own mother toward the landscape of courage, much as Luna leads her sister Regan.
In Luna, the burden on Regan lifts when Luna makes the decision to move to Seattle to transition. With Luna’s authentic life about to commence, the sibling relationship can come to a balance point. The codependence between Regan and Luna morphs into mutuality, into interdependence. Regan becomes free to be fully who she is, instead of her brother’s keeper.
Aly, as the friend in love with Luna, experiences the reverberations of Luna’s gender choice along a continuum. At first she reacts with fear and anger at what she perceives as Luna’s dishonesty and betrayal. Luna’s choice catalyzes Aly to question her own identity. Regan narrates her conversation with Aly about Luna: “ ‘He’s still the same person you’ve always known. Just happier as a girl.’ She [Aly] opened her mouth, and shut it. Shaking her head at the skylight, she said, ‘But I’m not the same. What does this make me? A lesbian? I don’t think so.’ She broke away from me and stalked off. “(215)
Yet Aly doesn’t stay away. From her deep hurt and from her unconscious assumptions, she stretches into a broader gender perspective. She tells Luna, “I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to be okay with this” (230). Her presence demonstrates that she is willing to take that time. In Luna, the reader can observe Aly’s gender perceptions grow more fluid and change who she herself is.
In both Luna and August Atlas, there is an unconsciousness on the part of the characters that it is a gender system causing the suffering. Nearly every character, for example, blames Luna as if she did something to them. In both novels, the lack of awareness gives a realistic portrayal of the confusion accompanying transgender narratives in real life.
Perry Nodelman states in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature that literary texts are “expressions of a culture and a significant way of embedding readers in its values and assumptions” (69). Wilchins tells us that gendered bodies are also expressions of a culture; for example, someone like Luna who feels trapped in the wrong body, might, in a different culture, be able to present her gendered self in whatever manner she wished, and she might experience no need to change her body (230). But isn’t gender innate? Wilchins startles those who may not have considered this matter before:
Culture determines what my body means, and the meaning has to be completely one thing or another. Movement, mix and match, are strictly prohibited. This is like living in a straitjacket. So when people ask me if transsexuality is learned or genetic, I conjure up the strangest image. I see them moving around in their straitjackets, hopping about with great concern. Then, noticing me with my arms free, they ask, “Are loose arms learned or genetic?” (150)
Inner nature versus the nurture of culture is an important debate about the source of gender identity, but one with limited application in daily life. For August and Luna, what matters is the freedom to live as the gender they know themselves to be.
What, then, constitutes choice for these characters? Luna’s femaleness doesn’t feel like a choice, any more than August’s does to her, any more than my femaleness feels like a choice to me. Their gender choice is the choice to live the truth of their gender, as they experience it. Coming out as transsexual at first only shares the confused anguish that has for so long been borne by the characters. Yet the inference is that their transformation may catalyze transformation in the minds and hearts of those they love. After years of keeping the secret and denying her own life, Regan’s own story begins on the last page of Luna: “I felt myself expand, grow. The same way Luna must feel to be free….She’s freed us both. “(248)
We have seen that family members like Regan, being closest to the source of the tsunami, are likely to be affected most profoundly by the disruption the trans figure brings. Yet Regan can also be viewed as supportive to Luna. This ambivalent form of support plays out in August Atlas as well, when liberal Grandpa Stan, who has said he would be okay with August being gay, is upset. He ruminates, “Hmm, a person deciding whether they’re a boy or a girl. That’s too big a responsibility for a young fellow.” (54).
Less ambivalent about his support is August’s Uncle Grizzly. Even though he’s close to the disruption, Uncle Grizzly has reason to understand it better, and can therefore act as her guide. He is a gruff, silent biker whose way of being in the world embarrasses August, particularly when he drives her school bus. Something teen readers of all genders can relate to is August’s mortification about Grizzly. August’s way of being in the world, on the other hand, does not embarrass Uncle Grizzly: “August, when you’re different you need a thick skin or everything will rub you the wrong way and life will be too damn painful….The more aloof you are, the more they want to know. So they egg you on. Try to pry you open. Make you crack. It’s instinctive – a predator kind of thing….You’re right, I am fat. I’m different. You’re different, too. It’s just the way it is.”(199-201)
The choice lived by August in August Atlas and by Luna in Luna frees those people around them who are willing to struggle through the disruption. August’s Mom, Luna’s sister Regan, and Luna’s friend Aly make the giant effort to release and reorder their previous ways of understanding gender, and by doing so, they enlarge their own souls and become more open, compassionate human beings. As August says in Birdsall’s novel: “I trace my fingers over the graffiti. ‘Official queer Seat, if you’re a queer sit here.’ Queer. Aren’t we all queer? Different, odd, peculiar, strange, freaky, weird, imperfect? Don’t we all have something about us that’s on the fringe, not the norm?” (256)
My Pace, My Path: Can’t Take Gender for Granted
Choir Boy by Charlie Anders and Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
Fourteen-year-old Berry in Choir Boy and sixteen-year-old Angela/Grady in Parrotfish are characters who refuse to be coerced to go against their own pace and path. Their choices rock their communities, catalyzing their families and peers to wake up to gender awareness and never take it for granted again.
In Choir Boy, Berry Sanchez adores choral music and wishes for divinity in all things. Desperate to keep his beautiful treble from breaking, he takes hormones in order to continue singing in the boys’ choir. The plot twist is that Berry’s solution becomes his obstacle – he could get kicked out of the boys’ choir for not being a boy anymore. The hormones start him on a path of transition, and he finds he likes the way the change makes him feel. He realizes, “I’ve never really wanted to be a man but…. I don’t know what I want to be. Maybe there isn’t a word for it” (180). Confusion as the air an adolescent breathes has never been so palpable. Berry’s community demands that he choose, but Berry is not ready to name his rainbow of gender black or white.
In Parrotfish, Grady decides at the start of the story to come out as FtM (female-to-male) transgender. His sturdy and stable personality is contrasted with the calamitous and chaotic effects which his gender choice has on those around him. If Grady is a boat motoring steadily toward its destination, the impact of his choice is a wild whitewater wake behind him that pushes people in his life completely off balance. Every relationship Grady has is deeply affected, including that with his parents, his brother and sister, his best friend Eve, and his new friends, especially Sebastian, who says, “You change one little thing, like your gender, and suddenly all the idiots in the school are too clumsy to carry a tray across the room. Your change has affected everything!” (79).
Choice in transgender novels can have various meanings. In Parrotfish, Grady’s FtM change is not choice in the usual sense of the word. He experiences himself as a “typical, average, ordinary boy (9) and a “plain old heterosexual male” (21). “In my dreams I was a boy, but every morning I woke to the big mistake again” (19). Sitting in the principal’s office, Grady thinks: “What did he think was going to happen to me that was worse than lying all the time? I couldn’t go back to being a girl; even if somebody beat me up for doing this, I couldn’t.” (54) And then he continues out loud:
“I don’t really think I have a choice, sir…I am a boy. I can’t pretend anymore that I’m not. And I don’t want to.” (54) Grady’s ‘gender choice’ thus lies in choosing to live the gender he knows himself to be.
In Choir Boy, even though Berry’s questioning of his own gender never ceases, choice about gender is likewise not choice in the customary sense. Anders’ novel showcases choice as something the protagonist is not ready for and therefore fights against. He has taken steps to cross the road toward a female gender, out of an ulterior motive, and has halted in the middle of the road. For people around him, it is his not choosing that becomes intolerable.
In these works, most members of the fictional communities have vested interests in the protagonists’ choices, but some members have particularly high stakes. A discussion of those with vested interests must begin with parents. Most teens are united in feeling toward parents that “ya can’t please ‘em”, an observation evident in these novels. In Choir Boy, Dad and Mom are particularly threatened by Berry’s reluctance to choose a gender. They are types that want life to be either-or and ordered, everyone in their places, please! The crazier they feel about Berry’s wavering, the saner Berry seems in comparison with them. In Parrotfish, the parents heartily wish that protagonist Grady would not choose, but their vested interest is equally strong.
Moving on from parents, we see that Berry’s community, much more colorful than the staid Grady’s, includes Maura, a charming transsexual sex worker whom he meets in the doctor’s waiting room. Unlike Grady’s other friends, Maura experiences no shock wave from Berry’s gender transition. In this novel so much about straddling categories, Maura straddles the fence between friend and adult mentor. As she tries to show Berry the ropes of MtF transsexuality, she gives Berry a preview of what it’s like living outside of social control. Maura has as vested an interest in Berry transitioning, as Grady’s principal does in trying to talk Grady out of doing so. They both mean well, but in their own brands of self-righteousness, they both condescend. The principal thinks teens don’t know what their own good is. Maura wants to do for Berry what no one did for her, ease his way into the difficult MtF world, so he won’t waste teen years in the wrong gender like she did.
There is one vested interest that can lead to a sense of gender abandonment. The social effect of gender choice appears to depend, to some degree, on whether the person feeling the effect shares the gender destination, if any, of the transitioning character. When we see members of “us” become members of “them”, it not only makes starkly visible our binary paradigm of gender, but it can bring a tremendous sense of loss.
In Parrotfish, FtM Grady senses that the females in his life feel abandoned by his transition to male. “Did the women feel like I was deserting them by deciding to live as the opposite sex? Maybe for Dad and Charlie it didn’t seem strange to want to be male” (33). Grady is crestfallen when the self-acceptance, which feels so good to him, makes his mother sad. For MtF Berry, it is the males who exhibit more resistance to his transition. It seems to Berry that his Dad, in particular, views his taking female hormones as deserting their camp. This sense of abandonment seems to lie behind Dad’s physical bullying of Berry, and the choirboys’ harassment of him as well.
Peer pressure and transphobic bullying are large obstacles in transgender novels. In Parrotfish, Grady’s longtime friend, Eve, does not stand up for him when her new friend, Danya, calls Grady a sick disgusting freak, a pervert, and even a mutant. Grady becomes anxious and his self-esteem downshifts He stops meeting the eyes of other kids in the hall. He stops raising his hand in class. He jumps at every noise. It is not his public gender transformation that is saddling Grady with a burden of anxiety; it is the transphobia around him, epitomized by his friend Eve’s succumbing to peer pressure and betraying him.
Eve experiences shame by association. “They’ll think I’m crazy too,” she tells him (21). In reality, the shame that Eve must move through is birthed by ignorance and intolerance, not by Grady’s choice. As she traverses this most difficult terrain of peer pressure, she parallels Grady’s crossing, and she comes finally to a place of courage. There she is not only a better friend, but a better person. Transgender Grady widens her world.
At one point Grady overhears the bully, Danya, talking about him as an “it”, saying that if she herself “was like that, I’d go ahead and kill myself, I really would” (94). Her shock and loathing give a powerful impression of how uncomfortable Danya is in her own skin. Like Dad who bullies Berry in Choir Boy and Pepper who bullies August in August Atlas, Danya feels the tsunami of another’s gender choice crash against her gender assumptions, but she clenches against the expanded landscape that it could create within her.
In the face of transphobic bullying, Grady falters and doubts, but he continues to be independently reflective: “Maybe if people didn’t divide everybody up into just two groups, male and female…it would have been okay. (106) …. What made a person male or female anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other? And some of this stuff had to do with the way you were raised.” (132) Here, Grady echoes the view that gendered bodies are indeed expressions of a culture. Though he never doubts his own gender, he questions the concept of gender, beautifully expressing the Q for queer and/or questioning.
At the midpoint of Parrotfish, Grady moves from absorbing the transphobia directed at him to rejecting it, and thus begins to resolve the emotional component of his transition. He comes to understand that what Danya called ‘mutant’ can be seen the way his friend Sebastian looks at it: “You’ve got extra” (146). Grady transforms what some perceive as a deficiency into a doubling.
It is not inevitable that gender freedom catalyze change in a community member, but it always has the potential to do so. As we have seen with Danya in Parrotfish, Berry’s dad in Choir Boy allows transphobia to thwart what might have been an expansion of his viewpoint. Dad refuses the challenge to become part of a new world where his son and all people have the choice to be fully who they are, even when who they are is, like Berry, ambivalent. Choir Boy reminds us that as writers we need to do what Berry does, and Dad does not – keep our minds wide open. Those in the fictional communities of these novels who do open their imaginations experience a broadening landscape with far more room to live out their own lives.
In Parrotfish, many in Grady’s community become resilient enough to change their ideas about gender. Mom becomes proud of him, and Kita says that she “would be crazy about you no matter what gender you were” (250). Their change has been called forth by Grady’s choice to live his true gender. The title, Parrotfish, refers to a species of reef fish, in which “gender shifting occurs only when it’s necessary for survival” (209). For the parrotfish, then, gender ‘choice’ has a beneficial impact on the entire community. Grady’s choice, like the gender change of the reef fish, turns out to be beneficial for his whole community.
There is a point in Parrotfish when gender recedes from the foreground of the story, and Grady’s trans identity becomes more normalized in his community. This shift occurs when Grady’s love interest in Kita enriches the storyline. At this point, Parrotfish presages the trans normalization we will see later in Like Son. Grady can now take his new gender more for granted, the way his gender-sure peers and other nontransgenders always do. And when nontrans teen readers identify with Grady’s crush on Kita, the normalization of the character’s gender change can crash through readers’ previous prejudicial perceptions.
In Choir Boy, Berry refuses to be coerced. This obliges the community of people who love him to grant him the freedom to choose, not only gender, but his own meandering path to determine it. Compelled to witness Berry’s faithfulness to that zigzag process, his community is sprung from its cage of suppositions about gender.
Choir Boy comes to the only conclusion possible for a boy who worships music, an ambiguous ending regarding gender, yet an unequivocal one about what matters most to him. “And Berry knew then that he could keep singing no matter what, no matter what anyone did to him. And that his voice could fill any space, no matter how big or awful, even into the dullest acoustics of despair and ear-blindness, he could keep singing.” (308)
Singing is a way to express one’s very breath and being. Berry will not only keep on singing, but by implication, will keep on the gender freedom road, no matter what. Berry’s autonomy will continue to constrain his family and friends to let him define himself at his own pace.
Grady in Parrotfish also alters his community. First he realizes that he has been unrealistic about their reactions: “I’d just been thinking about it for so long, that I forgot changing your gender was not even a question for most people. They just took for granted being a boy or a girl. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be so sure of yourself.” (99) Yet his choice catapults his community into imagining what it would be like to not be sure.
Without Grady, neither his nontrans friends nor his nontrans enemies would question their gender certainty; just as without Luna, her friend Aly would not have questioned it. The landscape of their imaginations is thus altered, even if only with questions. This holds true across all of the novels under consideration, whether a binary gender choice is made or whether the character chooses gender fluidity. Transgender characters teach possibility.
Even though during the narrative, Berry refuses to choose, I include Choir Boy under the Goodbye-Hello Option, along with Parrotfish and Luna and August Atlas. I do so because Berry views his looming gender decision as a binary one, male or female as the only choices. Furthermore, just as being pro choice doesn’t mean a person must have an abortion, living with a sense of gender freedom doesn’t mean a person must make a choice. Berry is unique. So is Grady. There are as many ways to transgress the system of gender as there are transgender people, and each has a different story to tell.
In Parrotfish and Choir Boy, then, the protagonist’s communities are hurtled out of the waters of previously unexamined positions, where transpeople in the abstract are to be pitied or reviled, toward a landscape where real kids named Grady and Berry look them in the eye and challenge them with their examples of gender freedom. The Goodbye-Hello option employed by them in Choir Boy and Parrotfish never explores beyond the binary gender system, however, nor ever embraces gender fluidity. For example, August never considers the possibility of remaining in what some call the Third Gender of intersex, nor does Berry envision any destination except male or female. The Goodbye-Hello option was historically the only transsexual path.
Undermining the Binary in Four YA Novels
In the next novels, the protagonists do not accept the cultural imperative telling them that a permanent move to another gender is their only option. Bornstein points out that:
Now there’s a whole new generation of transsexuals who are assessing their journey, not as either/or, but rather as an integration, a whole. In bypassing the either/or construct of what has up to now been transsexualism, these new transsexuals are slipping out from under the control of the culture. (120-121)
These are stories that portray gender in ways far less categorizable than the first four. Each protagonist attempts to disentangle from the gender binary, going beyond male or female, and in some way living outside of male and female gender destinations.
In her graduate lecture, Lisa Doan spoke of the fluidity of humor, its diverging highway of social expectations and “the other road” held in the mind simultaneously. I see this as analogous to the fluidity of gender variance in the next novels. The Fool’s humor comes into frequent play, perhaps because these transgender characters take what Doan terms “an unmarked exit” from social expectations. In each of these next novels, the transgender character catalyzes their community into more truthful living.
No More Acting Small: Gender Transcenders
What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci
Absolute Brightness by James Lecesne
All the transgender characters discussed in this paper give to those in their sphere of influence an intoxicating example of freedom and a call to ‘crazy wisdom’. Yet Lani Garver and Leonard Pelkey’s questioning of gender is so fundamental that it also removes each of them from societal control, and invests them as their own sources of authority. Such authenticity is described by Stone as, “…Coyote- the Native American spirit animal who represents the power of continual transformation…” (Stone 230). Like Anansi, Raven, Roadrunner, or Br’re Rabbit, these are heroes who are jesters, a tricksters, Fools. Fools laugh at the rules, point out the lies of a culture, and generally create a flexibility in the midst of rigidity. Like jokers in the deck, Lani and Leonard are wild cards reminding those who come in contact with them, that identities are not fixed.
“The holy Fool,” says Bornstein, “must remain outside the binary, in some third space, a space that constantly shifts and changes” (97). Lani Garver and Leonard Pelkey, the characters who transgress gender in What Happened to Lani Garver and in Absolute Brightness, embody Bornstein’s holy Fool.
The foolish and fluid gender expression of these two trans characters dares their families and peers to live big. These who are least categorizable are also the two who rouse the ultimate resistance of murder. Like Lani, Leonard is seen as feminine; perhaps misogyny, the hatred and fear of women, lie deeper than, or within, the cultural imperative of the bi-gender system. Each of them, at any rate, sends giant ripples of inspiration into their respective fictional communities, ripples that travel wider than the influence in all the other novels discussed.
Lani in What Happened to Lani Garver appears gratingly mysterious to the viewpoint character, Claire, and to everyone else at school, because they are unable to determine his gender. Claire says of Lani: “He looked funny to me again — hair of a girl; shoulders of a guy; hands of a girl, folded across the chest of a guy; crossed, skinny legs, dangling army boots. It seemed strange that all these mismatched parts could be topped off with rosy, Indian-like skin and deep chocolate eyes. The sight stopped me cold…” (77-78).
Lani’s existence provokes in Claire what Garber named a category crisis (qtd. in Bornstein 97). Lani says, “You’re trying to stereotype me. Don’t do that. I hate it” (45). Even when Claire responds that, “There’s a difference between stereotyping and deciding where somebody fits in,” Lani comes back with, “It’s all for the purpose of passing judgment …” and goes on to say, “I don’t like being put in boxes” (46). Who is Lani? Even the school board, which we learn has written his dad that Lani is “gender confused” (158), doesn’t know. When Claire finally asks if he is a girl, Lani says only, “Oh! No. Not a girl. Sorry” (20). After that, Claire refers to Lani as male, but he never identifies himself as such. By the time Claire tells her dad, “I think he’s [Lani] fine with who he is. He takes serious offense if you try to tie him up with any adjective” (145), she has come to terms with her category crisis.
What Happened to Lani Garver is a novel that encourages speculation. Lani can be seen as intersex, as a gay male, as a transsexual female, and/or as Claire sometimes views him, as an angel. Since we are told neither his gender nor his sexual orientation, everyone has the choice to see Lani as they wish. This includes readers as well as those in Lani’s fictional community. I personally choose to read Lani as intersex.
The storyline is as simple as the character, Lani Garver, is complex. Claire befriends Lani. Lani is a gentle intellectual who helps Claire deal with her suppressed rage and her fear of recurring leukemia. When transphobic bullies attack them, Claire breaks free of the fishing net, but Lani drowns. Or does he? The murderers swear they see him afterwards, that he haunts them.
The storyline of Absolute Brightness is equally minimal. Leonard Pelkey is a ‘cousin’ Phoebe never heard of, the son of Phoebe’s uncle’s late girlfriend. He moves in with Phoebe’s family and makes himself a part of it, despite what his platform sandals and pink/lime Capri pants make him at the high school they share. He disappears, and Phoebe realizes how luminous an influence he has been. When his body is found, Phoebe’s boyfriend Travis is convicted of the murder. Phoebe is transformed.
Leonard is depicted as a flamboyant boy who refuses to respond to identity and orientation questions. Probably he is a gay male, but because of his feminine presentation, he is perceived as a transgressor, less of compulsory heterosexuality, than of the gender code. From the point of view of narrator Phoebe, Leonard seems to be “a loser… from Mars” (20-21) who lives gender-free. Magenta-haired Phoebe’s reaction to Leonard is, “Don’t get me wrong. I like different. I am different. But when different goes too far, it stops being a statement and just becomes weird” (15). Phoebe and her sister Deirdre both look at Leonard “like he was one of those people at the bus terminal who try to hand you leaflets about the afterlife—which is to say we tried not to look at him at all” (48).
By disassociating from the Fool, Phoebe resists becoming a Fool herself. “Whenever someone lobbed a word bomb like ‘queenie-boo’ in his direction, he acted as if there was a faint electrical buzzing in the air, one that had no discernible source to bother complaining about” (53). Phoebe doesn’t want to get a school reputation as a “defender of the local queenie-boos” (54). High school peer pressure is an ugly and powerful force. She keeps her distance.
Yet Leonard has a way of winning people over. Gradually, Phoebe too, becomes affected by Leonard’s efforts to bring out everyone’s best, even when the efforts sometimes backfire spectacularly. In an attempt to reconcile Phoebe’s separated parents, for example, Leonard secretly arranges with Phoebe’s father to show up for Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant where he first met Phoebe’s mother. When chaos ensues, Phoebe doesn’t criticize Leonard’s foolishness; she marvels at it, and is drawn into its charm.
Leonard helps people. He does this by truly seeing who they are, and by the example of his I-am-just-being- myself gender expression. Even the elderly salon clients where he works are influenced by him and feel grateful for his innovative suggestions for them. They look at themselves newly and ponder, how they might align their own identities with appearances. They perceive him as a teacher.
Lani in What Happened to Lani Garver helps people too. Claire is won over by Lani because he is the first human being to listen to her so deeply that he hears her into being, into hearing her own self. Claire says, “How is it you can take the very worst things about me…and make them into something good?” (175). He behaves as the kind of friend every reader would long to have love them. I believe it is Lani and Leonard’s gender fluidity that engenders in them such compassion, since they experience life from a place beyond binary thinking and judging. Transgender Halley Low comments on the gift of his own experience: “I think the heart of the trans experience is the ability to cross and go beyond so as to perceive and experience life from different perspectives….No wonder so many trans-people have held the role of counselor and healer in traditional cultures – this ability can open one to deep levels of understanding … and this understanding leads to compassion.” (qtd. in Kaldera 235)
I view their compassion to be, also, a result of their dealing with constant, angry reactions to their gynandrous appearance; that is, compassion is a practice they have had to learn in order to remain sane, and even, serene.
Lani in What Happened To Lani Garver helps more overtly than Leonard does in Absolute Brightness. When Claire confronts Lani about a rumor that he propositioned another boy, he tells Claire about Jung’s term, convenient recollection, referring to the scene between Toni and himself as being recalled “inaccurately to unconsciously protect against guilt, anxiety, or unwanted associations” (132). Surprisingly, this teaching moment, as well as Lani’s encouragement that Claire seek counseling, doesn’t come across as didactic. It works because we hear it from a character whose credible nature is that of a streetwise teen. Lani tells Claire, “People generally have to able in a lot of trouble before their versions of reality crack open.” Because Claire’s reality cracks open, she is receptive to Lani’s showing her the way out of her habitual denial of emotions.
In Leonard, Absolute Brightness author Lecesne has created a character who can fit in with various groups without ever merging with them. Leonard admits his outside-of- assigned-gender status by laughing first, before others can laugh at him, and he is forgiving when they do laugh. What takes Leonard outside of societal control is his immunity to humiliation. That freedom from the fear of humiliation is an example that enables those around him to explore and expand their views. It later allows his cousin Phoebe to step forward, after his death, into the Fool’s role.
Leonard exhibits a quality of transcendence, which, in another character, might be called denial. He “foolishly” acts as if the bad things at high school aren’t happening, and when Phoebe confronts him on it, he says he has more important things on his mind. Phoebe sits him down and attempts to explain the Fool out of him, saying the way he looks will get him hurt. In the fashion of a true Fool, Leonard says, “But I like the way they [his clothes] look. They make me feel good…I’m just being myself” (80).
When some toughs forcibly take a money clip that is a keepsake from his dead mother, Leonard breaks his oblivious routine, and asks for help. Phoebe startles herself by standing up for him. This is a Fool’s move on Phoebe’s part, even more so in hindsight when the bully later becomes her boyfriend, and later yet, Leonard’s murderer.
Leonard the Fool with crazy wisdom eventually breaks down like a merely foolish human, and howls over how it feels to “live surrounded by people who secretly hate my guts” (95). Immune to humiliation he may be, but he is not immune to the need for love. His vulnerability and his transparency endear him to Phoebe and soften her own edges. “…He was making it plain that all he really wanted in this world was to be included…But unlike the rest of us, he didn’t care that his need showed; he wasn’t embarrassedby his ridiculous desire to be liked” (143). Freedom from embarrassment is a hallmark of children and Fools.
When Leonard in Absolute Brightness disappears, his immunity to humiliation becomes permanent. The rest of the book can be described as a parable on the powerful legacy of the Fool. Phoebe takes a giant step past merely liking Leonard to publicly advocating for him. She recognizes Leonard’s role as a Fool in the morality play of good and evil in her town. At the support-our-troops rally, fearful for her disappeared cousin, she screams out, “Evil is here—right here in Neptune, New Jersey!” (186).
Phoebe describes Leonard’s effect on her to Travis:“… it’s only when a person leaves that you begin to feel just how much space they occupied in your life” (251). Neither she nor the reader yet knows that Travis is Leonard’s murderer. Phoebe thinks to herself, “How strange…it was Leonard who brought me and Travis together…He [Leonard] had found a way to give me a makeover after all, working from the inside out” (253). Even after he has physically disappeared, Leonard is still portraying the Fool archetype, by facilitating the liaison through which Phoebe’s healing will come.
Leonard’s body is found in the lake, and Phoebe grieves this way: “I crowded my mind with memories of the living Leonard, and flooded them in a light so absolutely bright, tragedy didn’t stand a chance.” (270-271)
The wattage of Leonard’s legacy as a Fool increases. Bornstein states that, “…Shamans …the channelers of truth, … traded in love” (157). Leonard’s brightness of spirit traded in love across the boundaries of age and class and gender, and thus reached out to affect a multitude of people, even beyond his immediate sphere. In the town of Neptune, his funeral brings a mix of mourners from every gender, generation, and class.
During the funeral Phoebe thinks: “He had simply been courageous enough to be himself, in the face of everything that had tried to persuade him to be something else…Leonard’s determination to live his life was a desperate act of daring, worthy of note, if not deserving of actual medals and a VFW picnic.” (289)
By speaking up at the funeral, Phoebe steps into Leonard’s role and accepts his legacy. She says unexpected things in the voice of a Fool, confessing to her bad habits, telling the town that she changed because of Leonard. Her words highlight his Fool’s nature: “I never met anyone who actually liked people as much as he did. People mattered to him, we all did, and he wasn’t making it up. I always thought this was a little weird, because if anyone ever had a life that could turn you against your fellow human being, it was Leonard…But…he was having more fun on a regular basis than most of us.” (293)
The last third of Absolute Brightness unfolds Phoebe’s character transformation toward the archetype of the Fool. Phoebe has learned from Leonard that, “Every life is worth something,” even Leonard’s murderer’s life. When she argues with her family against the death penalty for Travis, she moves fully into the Fool’s role, transcending an Us-versus-Them viewpoint. Lecesne shows us that, in her love for Travis, Phoebe has escaped societal control.
At the conclusion, Travis asks Phoebe to visit him in prison. Phoebe’s best friend declares that Travis is pure evil and tries to persuade Phoebe not to visit. But Phoebe goes anyway, no longer subject to the peer humiliation she feared at the beginning of the story. She has learned the Fool’s lesson well. Her heart has expanded, inspired by Leonard, so that she even finds herself able to forgive the boy who murdered him. Forgiveness becomes Phoebe’s crazy wisdom, the legacy of Leonard’s brightness.
Lani similarly influences Claire in What Happened to Lani Garver. One of the effects Lani has on her is described by Claire as “screwing up my pity party” (90). Self-pity often accompanies acting small, and when Claire’s pity party gets busted, she has room to grow a larger spirit. Along the way, Claire’s anger is released. “I spent my life being mad at no one, and all of a sudden I didn’t know who to kill first” (279), she thinks. She tells her parents off and calls them on their neglect. She whales into the bully, Vince, “with the strength of twelve years of guitar playing” (168). She becomes free to move past her anger instead of containing it.
Because of Lani, Claire’s begins to accept herself and enlarge her view. Catalyzed by Lani, Claire finds her authentic self: a proud, cancer-survivor musician. By the end, she can say, “I’m not afraid of my feelings, even the bad ones, and it comes out when I sing. I’m wailing sometimes, screaming, too, when it’s appropriate. Nothing feels over the top” (305).
Wilchins calls oppression “a question posed by life to each of us: will your heart grow larger, so it holds the universal hurt, or will it grow smaller, so that, in the end, it can contain only your own?” (86). Just as Phoebe heart expanded in Absolute Brightness, in What Happened to Lani Garver, Claire’s heart also grows larger. “Isn’t it weird,” she says, “how so much insanity could end up improving my life?” (306).
Neither of these are easy narratives to read. They are so well crafted that the suffering and rage jump off the page and steam into the reader, so credible that the terror, for example, of the torture inflicted upon Lani, can make a reader seek a place to scream. These are novels that shove bigger than life characters into the reader’s face, and shout out a clarion call to live large. That is also exactly what Lani and Leonard’s impact does. The tsunami effect of Lani on Claire and Leonard on Phoebe call them to the enormity of their own spirits. Leonard in Absolute Brightness and Lani in What Happened to Lani Garver are characters whose mode of standing outside the binaries has a tremendous impact on all those in their fictional communities.
Leonard Pelkey and Lani Garver are unforgettable. The plot point that Leonard and Lani are characters who are murdered, will hopefully no longer be necessary as time takes the genre of gender on down the road. Each character demonstrates an immunity to social control, and as such, I have taken the liberty to ‘read’ them as transgender. They are perhaps even better described as gender transcenders, that is, characters who journey beyond gender categories into the realm of Fools, leaving an indelible legacy in each of their communities – a call to stop acting small.
The Gossamer Construct of Gender: Normalized
What I Was by Meg Rosoff and Like Son by Felicia Luna Lemus
The final transgender-inclusive novels I will discuss provide some sharp contrasts and startling parallels. Their contrasts float on the surface. Frank and his lover Nathalie in Like Son are sophisticated young adults going about their contemporary lives in New York City. H and the boy he loves in What I Was are school boys on the cusp of adolescence in England, the story recalled by H in a memoir. The point of view in Like Son is through the transgender character Frank; the point of view of Rosoff’s novel, What I Was, is through the old man who loved the transgender Finn.
The parallels between these novels are what I find fascinating. The most significant parallel is that the gender identity of the trans character in each novel is peripheral, not central, to the plots of their respective stories. In Rosoff’s What I Was, the narrator H doesn’t learn until after their rustic idyll that the mysterious Finn, self-contained and nearly silent, is female-bodied. Frank in Like Son, urbane and tender, has rebooted his life to live as a man long before the novel’s inciting incident. Because it is not the story problem in either novel, gender choice is normalized.
The second, related similarity between the novels is that both deftly demonstrate gender itself to be the mere shifting and wispy construct that it is. If gender change has little bearing on the core relationship rendered in each story, and in What I Was, had been imperceptible, then gender is revealed to be a temporal construction, as slight and insubstantial as an exquisite spider web.
Like Sonis a crossover adult title read by young adults. One breath of fresh air in Like Son is that we finally see a transgender protagonist who is non-Caucasian, in this case, Chicano. Twenty-three year old Frank is described as a man who is “passably dandy in a punk sort of way” (105), but early on in the novel, transgender identity recedes. Frank narrates in first person point of view. His lack of comment on his transgender identity normalizes it, making it clear that it is no longer a major concern in his daily awareness.
In What I Was, Finn’s gender choice is normalized by being unnoticed by H, who writes the memoir of his intense relationship at age sixteen with Finn. H discovers Finn living off the land, completely on his own, in a shack on an island. We learn that Finn’s birth was never registered, and H is agog to imagine what it could be like to be so independent that one didn’t have to go to school and obey rules, so free that the government didn’t know one even existed. H, temporarily escaping from boarding school, finds Finn captivating. Only a fraction of the story takes place after H learns that the boy he loves is female-bodied.
H tells himself that he has met the person he wants to be: “He looked impossibly familiar, like a fantasy version of myself, with the face I had always hoped would look back at me from a mirror….He was almost unbearably beautiful and I had to turn away, overcome with pleasure and longing and a realization of life’s desperate unfairness.” (19)
Planning his second visit to Finn’s shack, H says, “It wasn’t even that I longed to see him so much as to be him – to escape the depressed sighs of my teachers, those exalted judges of my unexalted little life” (13-14). And when the school catches H’s absence and grounds him for a month, H says, “I often sat gazing out to sea like a sea captain’s wife” (53).
Though Finn keeps his birth-assigned gender secret, he never acts secretive. In fact, the quality that most attracts H is that Finn is so solidly grounded in himself and in his simple, quiet life, detached from H’s opinions of him. H notices this because he himself comes from a narrow and predictable middle class niche and has coped with boarding school troubles by means of a sarcastic, categorizing humor. H says, for example, “I had never in my life entered a room without instantly forming an impression of what everyone in it was doing and thinking” (106).
It is the unknown that pulls H away from his niche. “It was as if I had fallen through a small tear in the universe, down the rabbit hole, into some idealized version of This Boy’s Life” (21). Yet the deeper unknown is the transgender identity of Finn. I believe it is Finn’s experience of having lived in both genders that pulls H into wider waters, where he recognizes who he wants to be. Finn’s gender choice, even when H is unaware of it, tugs at H. like an invisible undertow.
In Like Son, Frank puzzles over an unknown as well, one passed down to him from his father. In the beginning of the story, Frank’s blind father, who has been out of touch for fifteen years, calls Frank to come take care of him:“My father had written Paquita, Birthday Girl across the front in fat marker. Reading those words was like accidentally chewing on a piece of tinfoil, but I said nothing to him about it. We’d spent time together nearly every day for months, and I’d come close to broaching the topic with him countless times, but it always felt forced. I mean, he was dying, for God’s sake. And we were in each other’s lives again. Insisting we have some sort of big talk about my gender seemed to miss the point completely. So on my birthday, I tried to focus on his intention, on what was, girl reference or not, a birthday gift my father had carefully chosen for me.” (28)
Frank’s reconciliation with his father brings a mystery gift from the past, a tiny portrait of Nahui Olin, a stunning woman who Frank learns had been his grandmother’s lover. Frank is swept away by the woman in the photograph. He realizes he has inherited his father and grandmother’s temperament of fierce devotion to and adoration of magnificent women.
Instead of revolving around his gender choice, the plot of Like Son threads Frank’s grandmother’s passion for Nahui into the fervor and chaos of Frank’s life with Nathalie in New York City, and into the way September 11 changes everything they have. Though the reader knows that Frank has experienced life as both female and male, only the latter is shown. His identity in the world of the novel is so clearly male that the reader is persuaded to forget that Frank is transgender. His mundane life as male becomes a testament to the innate capacity for gender freedom. We feel how fervent, almost fanatical, Frank is, as Lemus brings the reader in very close to this protagonist.
A comparably fervent flavor is demonstrated by the author of What I Was in issues of naming. Rosoff employs naming to both conceal and reveal. In her entire novel, H’s full name is mentioned one single time, and we learn it is a gender-ambiguous one: “I was judged by my peers …as a laughingstock. Good old Hilary. Guilty as charged” (184).
In another example of how Rosoff uses naming, H identifies with Finn so strongly that at one point H introduces himself to someone as Finn. “It was the only time I said it out loud” (207), H writes in his memoir; that is, the only time he voiced his internal identification with Finn, his ideal. Much later, when Finn is brought to the hospital, a parallel event occurs: Finn gives H’s name as his own. Though this can be seen as Finn’s attempt to stay off government records so his family can’t locate him, the using of one another’s names signifies much more. I believe that Finn sees H as his ideal, too. In how Rosoff utilizes naming, I read a suggestion that Finn longs to be as unquestioningly male as H. is.
In What I Was, gender choice doesn’t affect the narrator H’s world until after Finn’s sickness leads to discovery. H. cares for him, and an accident causes the death of a schoolmate who follows H to Finn’s. Once the authorities are brought in, the boys’ adult-free idyll is destroyed. Finn’s mother is located, and he is sent back to her reluctant care. Regarding Finn’s newly-disclosed identity as a female-bodied transgender boy, H says, “No one knew what to think, least of all me …They wanted us to be perverts so badly that the truth began to sag. Just tell us, they cooed, but underneath lurked the words held in readiness: faggot, pedo, pervert, deviant…” (201).
Before the revelation of Finn’s birth-assigned gender, H’s love for Finn transgressed the sexual orientation code. H’s schoolmates taunt him good-naturedly for his absences, circulating a story that he was servicing an old man in town. But after the revelation, the authorities and H’s school peers respond with prurient disgust – both Finn and H are now perceived as having transgressed the culture’s even deeper code, that of gender.
In Like Son, gender choice is not an issue for Frank’s lover, Nathalie, who never refers to Frank’s transgender identity. But Nathalie is there when Frank’s tattoo artist says, “Take off your shirt,” she said. She said it bluntly, just like that –like it wasn’t one of the scariest things she could tell me to do. I had to remind myself it was just matter of fact business, for her, anyway. Still, reflex reaction, I must have turned forty million shades of red. Stripping down to my bare chest in front of a stranger was not a pleasant prospect, but I took a deep breath and braced myself. ‘Sure,’ I said, trying to play it cool. Nathalie looked at me, her brow furrowed with protective concern.” (213)
In another narrative, this scene’s tension would read as gender shame. Here it is cast simply as the unwelcome necessity for a reticent person to reveal something intimate, akin to a forgotten birthmark.
H in What I Was likewise never refers to Finn’s transgender identity, though it is a novel that elicits reader questioning of all sorts about gender. Rosoff’s hypnotic and flawless voice underlies this lyrical love story like a melodic thread that pulls a reader deep into caring. We cherish the characters. Along with narrator H, it is not Finn’s gender we ponder, but the meanings of gender. The evocative questions persist into H’s memoir. At age one hundred, he is still tossing the riddle of their bond back and forth in his mind, still sifting through the implications of his passion for Finn.
Though the novel is H’s rhapsody regarding their early relationship, H’s bond with Finn continues in later years. H tells us that after their idyll is destroyed, several years of investigation and attendant shame intervene, but then, “For many years we had an arrangement. I traveled to see Finn, self-contained and poised as ever, with the same rare smile, still with short hair like a boy’s” (206). Rosoff infers that Finn remains mysterious and aloof to H, even after the physical facts of his anatomy have been revealed. Gender is small compared to what still draws H to Finn. What has become known is small compared to what remains a great unknown.
In this moving tale, love comes before gender or anything else. The effect of Finn’s gossamer male gender on H cannot be separated out from the effect of Finn himself, a soul wide and indecipherable as the sea. Finn’s effect on H has been twofold; first to engender humility in H regarding the insubstantial and mysterious nature of gender, and by extension, life itself; and second, to catalyze H’s courage to persevere in the pursuit of that unknowable mystery. H can’t stop his memories from drifting, drifting to the same shore of his sixteenth year, the year he met Finn, the person he wanted to be.
What I Was and Like Son both differ in one crucial way from the previous novels discussed. When gender choice is the story problem, the fictional community is rocked with tsunami shock waves. Gender choice in these novels can crash through unconscious gender assumptions of peers and family and provide the opportunity for family and peers to grow into their own potential. When gender choice in transgender-inclusive literature recedes as a fictional focus, the tsunami is spent. In What I Was and Like Son, the waves of gender choice lap much more gently upon the story shore.
In the new landscape where all people can be fully who they are, there is a blurring which opens boundaries. What I Was and Like Son will be read, not because of the transgender characters, but because readers will want to follow these two authors’ spellbinding voices, into Frank’s passion for Nathalie, into the profound bond H experiences with Finn. When transgender protagonists and trans-inclusive literature become as commonplace as coming-out stories are today, more transgender literature will move beyond issue-driven narratives the way these novels do. Fluidity itself will become the norm.
The Community Changes: Speculations and Responsibilities
It is the Q for questioning that makes me look and listen like an entranced captive in an opened cage. At a “Transmasculine and Soffa (Significant others, friends, family, and allies) Support Group” meeting in my local city, I hear a woman say, “My partner is a man now and I love him as I always have. And I am still a lesbian.” As I take in her meaning, steel bar categories in my mind suddenly lift. All my cavorting was inside an invisible, gender system cage? I peer out. What might I see, that I don’t need to categorize, in order to embrace? After six decades of living, I am about to learn a new freedom. I take courage in hand and amble out into an unprescribed world.
In my observation of the literary texts, that world is, at first, fraught with negative reactions from the community. What makes Pepper in August Atlas so afraid of August? What has made Luna disgusting to her own father? Why is Berry an object of scorn to the other choirboys? Why does Grady in Parrotfish get bullied when he was never bullied before? What is behind the murders of Leonard Pelkey in Absolute Brightness and of Lani in What Happened to Lani Garver? Why, exactly, is H in What I Was shamed for loving Finn? What would happen to Frank in Like Son if he couldn’t pass as well as he does, and why?
One answer to these questions may be a fear of one’s own opposite-sexed self (Califia 117). Another answer is a fear of recalling one’s own involuntary gender conditioning (Califia 275). A third reason for the shock waves that come crashing against assumptions when we encounter gender variance in life or literature was voiced by the facilitator of the local support group which I observed: “Our changed realities force others to face the fact that …all of us are capable of changing things we always believed were immutable” (Munson).
The novels I have discussed showcase transgender heroes, who, in spite of short-term negative responses, shape their community as much as their community shapes them. August changes her basketball team. Luna changes her sister and her friend Alyson. Berry changes the choir and his family. Grady changes his whole school. Leonard Pelkey changes everyone he meets. Lani Garver changes Claire and Tony and Vince. Finn and H change each other. I imagine these characters coming together, forming a Q Alliance to lead us into a new day, their queer questioning of gender changing our communities.
Short stories do not afford the space as novels do to demonstrate the long term impact of gender choice on the character’s surrounding community. However, they do reveal a new assumption of reader sophistication on the part of the authors. Examples in anthologies are “The Welcome” by Emma Donohue and “Boi” by Julie Ann Peters.
The notion of reader sophistication isn’t only in these recent short stories, but in newer novels as well, such as the 2008 offering, Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole. In this novel a minor character tells the protagonist he’s “a “boi who’s into girls” (46), and the protagonist responds with an urbanity that would have been impossible even a few years earlier, saying, “That’s cool. I’ve seen transgender documentaries. Are you transitioning?” (46) Our reading audience is ahead of us in taking up questions of gender in the living of their lives. It is time for authors to catch up and to ensure that no one will be deprived of the right to see their reflection in literature.
The increase in reader familiarity with trans issues can allow us as writers to forego explanation and justification plots, and to delve deeper into the human complexities explored in the best literature. Our ideal as YA authors must be to honor all people’s gender identity and expression. To do so, it will be essential to first discern the disruption of our own gender assumptions and to first dismantle our own caged views. In the same way we labor to unlearn cultural errors such as racism and misogyny, we must unlearn our old ideas of gender.
What kind of stories are needed? In a Cooperative Children’s Book Center online dialogue among librarians and authors, a challenge was issued for transgender books that will “keep stretching the range of the possible and make that stretch normal, healthy; and celebratory” (Chile-Colando). Along the way, a range of subject needs that are not met were enumerated, including, “books about having a transgender family member, books about transgender parents, books about gender-variant young children” (Silverrod). Elsworth Rockefeller hopes “for more books where a character just happens to be trans, and it’s not the focus of the book…. and I’d like to see fiction about trans youth who are sexually active in a healthy, affirming way.”
We have seen that August is nothing like Luna, Berry is utterly different from Grady, Lani Garver and Leonard Pelkey’s personalities sharply contrast, and Frank could never be Finn. Rather than fall under any single narrative category, our portrayals of new heroes for gender-variant youth must reflect the widest possible range of transgender people. I believe that current YA readers are the generation who will break out of the gender boxes in which we have all been restrained, the generation who will burst into more fluid ways of living on this planet in every regard.
May the Persian Sufi poet, Hafiz, remind us that we all whirl toward transformation:
We live on the Sun’s playground
Here, everyone gets what they want.
Sometimes the body of a beautiful woman,
Sometimes the body of a beautiful man,
Sometimes the body of both in one.
We used to play that kind of tag in the animal world too.
Now a mouse, now a tiger. Look! I am a whale —
I got tired of the land, went back to the ocean for a while.
What power is it in our sinew and mind that will not die,
That keeps us shopping for the perfect dress?
We have all heard the Flute Player
and keep dancing toward Her. (122)
copyright Susa Silvermarie 2008
Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA Thesis
Advisor: Rita Williams-Garcia
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