Sunday, April 27, 2014

What We're Reading: Transgender Teens

Beyond Magenta:
Transgender Teens Speak Out,
by Susan Kuklin

Transgender is a general term that refers to a person whose gender identity, expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which he or she was assigned at birth. As the author explains, “Gender is one variable in a person’s identity, and sexual orientation is another variable. The two are not connected.” It is a popular misconception that transgender teens are gay. Some are, and some are not. This book consists of six first-person narrative accounts by contemporary transgender teens about their experiences growing up. It is edited by Susan Kuklin, and accompanied by photographs of these teens (in some cases showing “before” and “after”) taken by the author, all presented in an artfully designed package and accompanied by an appendix that includes an informative interview on transgender issues with Dr. Manuel Silva, director of the clinical Health Outreach to Teens program of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York City. The supplemental material also includes a glossary of terms and a list of nonfiction and fiction books and movies, as well as noting some of the major service, advocacy and legal organizations that deal with issues related to transgender teens.  

Beyond Magenta is, of course, a book that will be of interest to transgender teens. They will find here that they are not alone, that there are other teens who have had feelings and experiences similar to what they are experiencing, and they will perhaps get some ideas about how to deal with their own challenges and be inspired by the teens who tell their stories here. But certainly the other audience for this book is all the rest of us--parents of transgender teens who are trying to understand their child will find this book invaluable, and those of us who want to understand what has for so long been a hidden and taboo subject will not finish Beyond Magenta without gaining some enlightenment and a sense of empathy. This is, as one reviewer has described it, an “informative, revealing, powerful and necessary” book.

There has been, recently, a greater interest in transgender teens, especially in young adult fiction and from GLBTQ advocacy groups. Earlier this year, the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award for Young Adult Literature was awarded to Kirstin Cronn-Mills for Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, a book about a transgender teen. In nearly all of this fiction, the transgender characters  have been created by authors who are not themselves transgender, and while they have introduced readers to sympathetic and sometimes engaging characters, the narratives lack a certain note of authenticity. That authentic voice of transgender teens is what you will hear in Beyond Magenta--getting that down is the major achievement of this book. Just as importantly (and unexpectedly), this book will challenge our preconceptions about being transgender, as it did for the author, because the six stories told here all relate a nuance and diversity of experience that challenges our natural inclination to simplify, categorize, and define.

Perhaps this diversity is what lies at the heart of a broad interest in the subject of being transgender that seems to be out of all proportion to estimates of transgender people in the population. (While there is some controversy about the figures, most estimates of people in the United States who identify as transgender appear to be less than one percent.) The frequency with which books about transgender teens circulate at the library would suggest that the young adult patrons are reading them not so much because they are trying to ease some personal sense of gender dysphoria, but rather because this is a time in their lives when they are exploring identity issues across a wide spectrum. Some reviewers of this book have remarked that they think there will be a limited audience for Beyond Magenta, but a story of “transgression” of traditional boundaries is a subject that is of general interest to most people, and one of particular interest in this case because it lays bare what is a fundamental and ever-present tension in our existence. Human beings tend to name things, to define and categorize and group things. Maybe it is just a convenient fiction, making us feel that we know things when we do not perceive them in all their diversity, complexity, and nuance, yet it seems a useful and necessary habit, a kind of shorthand that has served us well enough and allowed us to navigate the world. But this endless naming and division has of course its darker side as well. Stereotyping is a tool that has been used to take power, to oppress races, religious minorities, sexual minorities, and women. Gender, both biologically and socially constructed, is one of the most basic and primeval distinctions we employ. 

Opposed to this social habit of categorizing and delimiting is the freedom each of us craves, to be able to define ourselves, to discover or construct our own individual and authentic sense of self-identity, and to have that known and respected by others. This book, and this subject, is engaging to us because it speaks to the desire we all have for that fundamental freedom. Those who feel compelled--in their quest for personal identity--to explore their own sense of gender are asserting a right to that freedom. It is a right for which in our secret hearts we have an abiding and universal empathy. As Kuklin writes, “My subjects’ willingness to brave bullying and condemnation in order to reveal their individual selves makes it impossible to be nothing less than awestruck.” This is, in the end, a book not just about being transgender, but about freedom and courage. It ought to be an inspiration to us all.

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