Monday, February 11, 2013

Diversity 101: The Transgender Perspective

Contributed to CBC Diversity by Cris Beam

I was honored when I was asked to write a Diversity 101 post about transgender identity. Honored and a little daunted. Because while I’ve written two books on the topic, I’m not transgender—and speaking about always ends up becoming speaking for. Which is part of the problem with gender representations in general: who gets to speak for whom? Especially in children’s literature where gender variance is, well, not so variant yet, I know I’m walking into hot water. The scarcity of GLBT (accent on the T) depictions yields strong opinions as to how we should talk—and write—about the few transgender characters we have. 

People used to say that transgender was an umbrella term to encompass all kinds of gender variance—from drag king to transsexual to the little boy who wears tutus to play with his trucks. While the umbrella concept’s fallen out of favor somewhat, the core idea is useful: there are a myriad of ways to express one’s sense of self.  Transgender is fundamentally an internal identity wherein one’s understanding of self is different from the body one was born with. The expression part is separate, and can range from wearing different clothing to undergoing medical procedures to doing nothing at all. The bottom line is, only transgender people can decide that they’re trans, and it’s up to the rest of us to support and celebrate that.

My Personal Connection
I wrote my two books (Transparent and I Am J) about very specific people in very specific places; I have a transgender partner and a transgender daughter and the books were, in a way, love letters to them. So whether you’re a teacher, writer or librarian looking to expand your understanding of trans issues, just know there are a lot of ways of looking at an elephant (and the elephant might not even identify as an elephant). I can provide one perspective, but the conversation is growing, mighty and loud. It’s very exciting to listen in, and there’s more to learn every day.

Whoo-eee, where do I start? Because I have two transgender family members, I’m hit with these every day. One of the most common lines I hear (and one that’s perpetuated by well-meaning books and documentaries) is that transpeople are “born in the wrong body.” (Or worse: they’re “trapped.”) Bodies aren’t wrong. While some transpeople may feel this way, others believe that men and women (and boys and girls) should be allowed to have different body parts even when they identify as the same, or similar, genders. In other words, it’s society that’s “trapped” in rigid, binary thinking.

Interestingly, I’ve found that kids—especially young kids--have an easier time with this concept than the adults. Adults tend to believe that there are two genders, male and female, and if you don’t feel comfortable in one, you must want to “switch,” entirely, over to the other. (Hence the obsession with surgery: I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me if my daughter has had “the surgery” to which I’ll politely query something about their own genitalia. Kids, thankfully, know that it’s rude to point at people’s underwear.) Children’s books, for instance, are replete with talking animals and time machines; I’ve found that kids routinely accept the boy who wants to be called Shemeka, and the character who “acts” like a boy but responds to feminine pronouns. (Remember Harriet the Spy?) And they can understand that some people feel like both boy and girl, or like something in between.

Because the truth is, there aren’t just two genders—there are many shades of expression and identity and the earlier we can support kids who experience this, the better. And they do experience it early. Unlike feelings of homosexuality, which tend to sneak up on us around puberty (I still remember those first terrifying crushes in seventh grade), kids start understanding their gender at around age two or three. This isn’t always the case, but often, I suspect because adults start parceling their world into “girl’s” clothes and “boy’s” clothes, “girl’s” toys and “boy’s” toys, kids this young know when they don’t fit in. And it hurts. This is why books like 10,000 Dresses are particularly important (and the more subtle It’s Okay to Be Different) for the younger set.

Unfortunately, there are far more books (and movies, like the lovely Ma Vie En Rose) about kids who are born male and express themselves in traditionally feminine ways than there are the reverse. This plays into the stereotype that there are more transwomen than there are transmen, which simply isn’t true. (The stereotype may be a function of misogyny: of course girls strive to be boys, but to act like a girl? Ewwww.) As we move into books for teen readers, we start to see stories told at a slant: many transgender narratives are told from the point of view of friends or family. In other words, how does a transperson affect everybody else? These are important but, when you find first-person perspectives (don’t forget the boys!) by all means, read them, teach them, share them far and wide.

What I'd Like to See

Because there isn’t yet a tremendous range of published children’s literature with transgender themes or characters, my hope is that teachers and librarians first incorporate the books that are available into their classrooms, but also integrate gender variance into everyday lesson plans. Does every anecdotal character need to be exclusively male or female? Can we challenge older kids’ assumptions about what it means to act like a sissy or a dude, a fairy, a butch, an intolerant fool? Because gender variance is like breathing—it happens everywhere, naturally, beneath and beyond our control. And if we treat it like that, the gender variant kids in our family rooms and classrooms will grow into adults confident enough to write even more stories of their own.

Suggested Reading
For Teen Readers:

I Am J by Cris Beam
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
Luna by Julie Ann Peters
Putting Make-Up on The Fat Boy by Bill Wright
Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis

Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws by Kate Bornstein
The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper
Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers by Cris Beam

For Younger Readers:
My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis, illustrated by Suzanne DeSimone
10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Rex Ray
William’s Doll by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by William Pene du Bois
It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
Wandering Son by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn

Cris Beam is an author and professor in New York City. She is the author of Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (Harcourt, 2007) and I Am J (Little, Brown, 2011). Her third book, To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, will be released by Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt in August, 2013.


  1. Thank you for an honest and insightful blog. I believe that children need safe spaces to explore issues like sexual identity and literature is a great place for children to do this. Encouraging students to read a diversity of books will not only encourage open-mindedness but also acceptance in many young readers. Thank you for your list of recommended readings.

  2. I think MY PRINCESS BOY kind of blew my mind - I was so happy to be able to suggest that one to a parent this past summer who needed books for her seven year old. I had no idea gender-relevant stories for the really young in transition existed. I appreciate seeing others listed I may not have seen before.

    Thanks for mentioning HAPPY FAMILIES, for your insightful comments, and for continuing the conversation on this topic.

  3. Wow thanks I like many hope to one day have srs but like many don't have the money and it's about being complete that's why we want so much

  4. There's a growing body of work within American Indian/Indigenous Studies about this. The phrase used is "two spirit." Prior to colonization, LGBTQ individuals were seen by many Native Nations as being especially significant to their communities because they had a larger view of the world than someone who was heterosexual. "Berdache" (a French word) was/is also used in the literature. With the overwhelming force of colonization, tribes embraced the church views, but I think that's going to change, and I hope we see Native writers write children's books with LGBTQ characters. For now, check out this video: Two Spirits.

  5. I have a sister that I'm tight with. She is my baby sister. Everyone freaked out when she came out,I did too. But who am I to judge I still love her and to me shes still my baby sister,People are put on this earth to love and have happiness. She has not changed she is still the same person. You don't change just because your gay.... Your still the same sister, daughter, friend that you have always been. Its just going to open your eyes to a different side of life...Thank you for the gender relevant books, I intend to get them for my nephews since they are still young and I want them to understand and except her and love her just the same.

  6. I'm curious to know whether Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher was intentionally left off the suggested reading list. I've read critiques which roundly condemn it, mostly for the fact that the narrator (a cisgender straight boy) says and thinks horrible things to and about the transgender character and never makes it far enough in his journey of acceptance. However, coming from an area close to the setting of the book, I think we have to recognize, however terrible and depressing of a fact it is, for a lot of people out there, the first step to loving and supporting a transperson isn't overcoming some discomfort, but not attempting to severely hurt or kill them. It might not be the book I'd give a transperson to read, but it is definitely one I'd give the teen who's never come anywhere near one and is surrounded by hateful message about them.

    I'd also point out that Free to Be You and Me by Margot Thomas and Friends includes many stories about non-traditionally-gendered behavior (including an adaptation of William's Doll). There is a 30th anniversary edition that includes some minor updates.

    Finally, Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature, edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel--while more of an analytical text--includes the full text of X: A Fabulous Child's Story by Lois Gould, illustrated by Jacqueline Chwast, about gender-neutral parenting along with other vintage unconventional stories.

  7. Thanks for writing this! I always worried about the idea that Transgender was almost a reinforcement of binary gender. It makes so much sense that social perceptions of binary gender is actually messing up our interpretation of Transgender.
    And of course the body is important, but it probably isn't important any differently than a cis-gendered girl's relationship with her body in regards to weight and shape. It seems that gender is always about being recognized in the way you want, and having the ability to recognize more complex categories than TWO is something people are entirely capable of. So why not?

    1. I just want to point out that exactly (one) of the books mentioned on Ms. Beam's list is actually by a trans person. Imagine if you had a similar list for gay kids and 12 out of 13 titles were by straight people?

      Also, yes, discussions of gender expression are critically important for children (especially for so-called 'femme boys' whose behavior is particularly verboten, often viewed shamefully and prone to ridicule and even violence). But it's not the same as really discussing the experiences of trans children and it's important to not conflate the two no matter how wide the 'umbrella' is made or not. Not all trans girl's lives revolve around dresses, the color pink and makeup.

      As to Brian Katcher's book "Almost Perfect," a key difference with this book is how it's very specifically about transphobia, and a straight boy's experience of it, not about the trans girl he encounters. Which makes for a very powerful book but unfortunately, might be too threatening for a lot of the audience which really needs to read it... straight, non-trans teen boys. I actually think it's by far the best written best trans-themed YA book but it also requires fairly sophisticated thinking to digest the issues the book discusses.

  8. If you're looking for more YA books that center around transgender peeps, Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher and Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde are pretty good :)

  9. Thank you for writing this article. Slowly we're paving the inroads in children's literature.

    For more YA, there is also the recently published "Beautiful Music for Ugly Children." Another one that has stood out for me is "Debbie Harry Sings in French" about a heterosexual cisgender crossdressing young teen, which I think exemplifies that "gender variance" is really one big umbrella.

  10. I'm really frustrated that the CBC did not ask a trans person to write this. Chris Beam acknowledges that writing about trans people as a person who is not trans is problematic, and then goes on to do it anyway. What she should have said is "I'd be delighted to refer you to some talented trans writers", and then done so. I don't believe that there is a single "Transgender Perspective" (reference the title) but what we get here is not a transgender perspective at all, it's a cis person talking about trans people. Again

    I believe the book lists suffer as a result, and again privilege people with cis privilege talking about trans people, rather than trans people taking about their own experiences.

    I would add the following:

    Teen Readers Fiction
    Far from Xanadu, by Julie Anne Peters
    Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
    F2M: The Boy Within, by Ryan Kennedy and Hazel Edwards

    Teen Readers Non Fiction
    One in Every Crowd, by Ivan E. Coyote
    The Last Time I Wore A Dress, by Daphne Scholanski

    Younger Readers
    Backwards Day, by Bear Bergman
    Tulip the Birthday Wish Fairy, by Bear Bergman
    Be Who You Are, by Jennifer Carr
    Rough Tough Charlie, by Verla Kay
    A Barbecue for Charlotte, by Marc Tetro
    Pugdog, by Andrea U'Ren

    Finally, again referencing the post, if the creature you think is an elephant is not an elephant at all, but a gazelle, its not that "the elephant might not even identify as an elephant" - there is no elephant there at all. There is just a gazelle and your poor vision.