By Terri Schlichenmeyer, December 2017 Issue.
The first memoir I ever read that was written by a transgender individual was Mirror Image: The Odyssey of a Male-to-Female Transsexual by the late Nancy Hunt, in the late 1970s.
Until a few years before the book was written, Hunt was a man’s man, twice married, a veteran and a father, and well into adulthood when he realized why he was terribly unhappy. He’d been cross-dressing for some time, but it wasn’t enough and though his second wife reportedly wanted him to remain a transvestite, Nancy instead took steps to do something she felt strongly was overdue: she had surgery to fully become a woman. At that time, the number of transgender people in the US could only be estimated – and the estimates were pretty small.
Even so, the fact that there were transgender people who were willing to be identified and to speak out about their experiences then meant that change was in the wind. Now the change is here, as evidenced by the huge number of recent memoirs that’ve been written by transgender men, women, their families and allies – not to mention the number of books that are on the horizon.
Yes, up until recently, books by or about transgender individuals were few, relatively speaking. Even the word is new-ish and still causes some confusion: for some it’s an “umbrella term” that encompasses many states of gender and for others, it’s used in an incredibly specific way. To that end, and perhaps because people are opening their eyes to the rich spectrum of human gender, transgender people are telling their stories, loud and openly.
In honor of Transgender Awareness Month, we’re featuring a few titles that recap the experiences of several transgender individuals as we celebrate the T in LGBTQ.
Raising the Transgender Child
Raising the Transgender Child by Dr. Michele Angello and Alisa Bowman. Seal Press, 2016 | $17.
Your preschooler has always had an active imagination. Flights of fancy and dress-up fill his days. She’s rough-and-tumble, a scrapper in her mind. Make-believe has always been a big part in your child’s life but now you’re hearing something you know in your heart is not pretend, and in the new book Raising the Transgender Child by Dr. Michele Angello and Alisa Bowman, you’ll find guidance for it.
In retrospect, you might’ve seen it coming: your son told you once that he was really a girl, or your daughter cried when you wouldn’t let her get a buzz-cut. You’ve suddenly realized, or your child has told you, that zie is gender-diverse. Either way, Angello and Bowman point out that few parents are immediately 100 percent prepared for raising a child like yours.
And so, you’re not alone. Others have raised transgender children before you and have “blazed trails” already. Your feelings are normal, so is worry, and confusion about gender dysphoria will “burn off.”
Dysphoria. Now, there’s a word you might have seen while doing research in print or online. There are, in fact, many terms you’ll want to know when raising a gender-diverse child, starting with the difference between “sex” and “gender.”
Alisa Bowman (top) and Michele Angello.
And by the way, as for shaky “studies” and internet myths, set them aside. There are many theories on “what leads to gender diversity,” and a lot of unknowns. Again, put arguments away and ignore negativity; all kids are different, and so are their gender experiences.
Is it worth obsessing over? Probably not, because you love your child regardless, so prepare yourself for a toe-dip into “social transition.”
Talk with teachers, neighbors and take steps to make relatives aware of new pronouns and appearance. Educate yourself on public bathrooms, team sports and other legalities. Know when to ask for help, both financial and emotional. Remember that grief is common, and that your child may experience issues, too.
Finally, dare to dream again. Zie will grow up one day and, as the authors say, will eventually fall in love with “Someone wonderful and amazing…”
As a parent of a transgender child, you may think that all this is common-sense stuff you’ve heard before – and that may be so, but there’s a certain calmness inside Raising the Transgender Child that can’t be beat.
The other thing that sets this book apart is that is its comprehensiveness: Angello and Bowman seem to have thought of everything mom, dad or caregiver could possibly need to know about present issues and what’s to come. It’s all easy to comprehend, too, and it covers children from small toddler to older teen.
Particularly vexed parents will be happy to see that the authors even tackle unpleasant situations and emotions that may need to be heeded along this journey.
Whether you need it now, or you sense that you might later, this is a good book to have in your parenting bag of tricks. For questioning children and families with questions, it’s more helpful, perhaps, than you can imagine.
This Is How It Always Is
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel. Flatiron Books, 2017 | $25.99.
You must not tell. You cannot breathe a word to anyone who doesn’t already know. That Which Cannot Be Spoken must remain buried, put away, frozen, lips sealed, or in the closet.
You cannot tell because, as in the new novel This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel, secrets change everything.
In the beginning there was Roosevelt, known to his loved ones as Roo. Not long after he was born, Ben entered the family. Then the twins, Orion and Rigel, arrived. So Rosie Walsh, still hoping for a girl baby, did everything the Talmud recommended she do next. Months later, she and her husband, Penn, welcomed Claude.
And that was OK. Another boy in their raucous, rowdy family of boys was fine and Rosie and Penn loved them all. They were happy in their big, rambling, open farmhouse just outside of Madison, Wis. Rosie loved her job. Penn worked on his novel. And Claude dreamed of being a girl.
It started when, as do most parents, Rosie told Claude that he could “be anything” he wanted to be someday. Claude was three years old and loved dress-up; it didn’t seem odd to let him wear dresses at home. But soon, home wasn’t enough and Claude tantrumed until he was allowed to wear dresses to preschool, though he was told that he’d have to use the nurse’s station bathroom and his teacher was “not happy.”
Still, Rosie and Penn were willing to do what it took to make Claude feel secure. With his dresses and pink, he was a confident child; without, he was sullen and sad. None of his classmates seemed to mind his clothing and his brothers never even gave it a second thought. Claude was simply Claude, until he asked his parents to call him Poppy.
And that was fine, too, especially when the family moved to another state and it was easier to keep quiet – until it wasn’t. Until Poppy started growing up, the world became a vicious place, and secret-keeping couldn’t last forever.
Laurie Frankel. Photo by Natalia Dotto.
And so, here’s the thing: once you’ve started reading This Is How It Always Is, you might as well just clear your schedule. Cancel all appointments. You won’t want to do anything but read, so just give in. Blame it on the book.
Part of the appeal, I think, is in the way that author Laurie Frankel writes: there are no airs, no try-to-impress-you words, nothing uppity. Her characters are normal people with everyday lives, trying to maintain that normalcy and Frankel writes like they might talk: with down-to-earth matter-of-factness and a fast dash of humor that winds its way through a serious topic. And on that topic, you’ve perhaps heard it before (or something similar) but not in a voice like this, and not quite as enjoyable.
One more thing: be sure to read Frankel’s after-notes, which brings her novel full-circle and will make you smile. But don’t peek; instead, start “This Is How It Always Is” from the beginning and savor it properly. It’ll make you want to tell everyone.
Transitioning Together: One Couple’s Journey of Gender and Identity Discovery
Transitioning Together: One Couple’s Journey of Gender and Identity Discovery by Wenn and Beatrice Lawson. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017 | $19.95.
Your hair has more grays than it did back then. You’ve both packed on pounds here and there, too. A few wrinkles surround your smiles, but that’s OK – you’re not fresh-faced kids anymore. You’ve aged, you’ve softened and, in the new book Transitioning Together: One Couple’s Journey of Gender and Identity Discovery by Wenn and Beatrice Lawson, you’ve changed quite a bit.
Long before they met, Wendy and Beatrice had a lot in common: both came from families of similar sizes. Both had fathers that “didn’t have a head for figures” and mothers who ran the family businesses. Wendy and Beatrice are both on the autism spectrum. The main difference: Wendy was a married woman.
They met one afternoon when Wendy, her husband, and their four children were living in the home of a “well-to-do” family that had just hired an au pair. The shy young woman didn’t speak English and Wendy didn’t speak Swiss German, but when Wendy was asked to help the girl to settle in, Beatrice proved to be a quick study. She easily learned a new language and she and Wendy forged a close friendship.
Both seemed only a little surprised when that friendship turned into love.
Wendy, who’d had health issues most of her life, never considered falling in love with another woman, but it felt right. Beatrice had an inkling that she was a lesbian but she shunned the word, afraid that it would “be an embarrassment” to her family. Even so, she settled into a relationship which was tender, and fragile from the start.
Wendy and her family moved from England to Australia as her abusive marriage was crumbling. Beatrice was unable to make the move with her beloved, due to Australia ’s immigration laws. They ultimately figured out a way to be together physically; once Wendy’s divorce was final, they knew they’d be together legally as well.
But even after their wedding, Wendy wasn’t happy. Never comfortable in her body, she felt sure that something was missing, so she sought her “tribe” before understanding that she needed to transition to become the man he’d always known he was. And that was something Beatrice wasn’t sure she could handle…
From its very beginning, “Transitioning Together” is a tough read. There’s a lot of preliminary to wade through to get to the start of the actual story here, and then there’s a lot of confusing set-up that identifies authors Wenn and Beatrice Lawson by their relative ages, rather than by name. While it’s helpful, later, to have a change in font to delineate who is weighing in, you might continue to be baffled by the semi-linear nature of what is mostly Mr. Lawson’s version.
Yes, tenacious readers who can bear with this dual memoir will get a double-edged peek at the emotional process of transitioning for both partners, through the added, unique perspectives of autism and age – that alone is worth your patience.
Self-Made Woman by Denise Chanterelle DuBois. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2017 |$26.95.
Your own two hands, that’s what it took. Plus a bit of paint, pencil or pen, rouge and ribbon and rickrack to make that of which you are proud. You did that. You made it with your own two hands. As in the new book Self-Made Woman by Denise Chanterelle DuBois, it takes a lot to craft a new life.
It began near a lakeside cabin in Wisconsin. DuBois says she was four then, a curious little boy who loved the water – until he fell in and nearly drowned. Once fished out, he was dressed in girl’s clothing while his dried, and he was enchanted. He fought his mother’s demands that he give the clothing up. That was the beginning of DuBois’ lifetime journey toward womanhood.
Though his parents were both abusive alcoholics, it was the Catholic school nuns who showed DuBois that sexual stimulation could come from humiliation. In grade school, he preferred playing with girls because he was a girl himself, but teachers and nuns forbade it. When embarrassed in class, he felt stirrings; he asked playmates to spank him, and he learned to welcome negative attention.
This led to petty theft and a secret life: DuBois began sneaking into his sister’s closet to wear her clothing. He broke into random buildings to steal panties from strangers, and he lost a babysitting job when he was caught wearing his client’s lingerie; the ensuing humiliation only enhanced the experience. He dabbled in domination by being a slave to women who wanted his money, experimented with drugs and alcohol, had were run-ins with the law and even became suicidal.
Denise Chanterelle DuBois.
And yet, there were bright moments in his life. DuBois fell in love with a woman who went along with fetishes that had grown into full-blown obsessions. He made friends – albeit, friends who were into drugs – he got married and he started learning what it would take to be the woman he always knew he really was.
Self-Made Woman is a lot of things: It’s sad, poignant and scary. It’s also TMI sometimes and, at just over 200 pages, it’s a bit too long.
From Wisconsin childhood to womanhood in Bangkok, DuBois tells readers of a multi-city, lifetime self-search, in an account that feels overly detailed and overstuffed. Reading it is akin to being held captive by someone who really needs to tell all, including unabashed details about the world of submission and female domination. Those details are titillating for those who share DuBois’ fetishes, but cruelty and graphicness make them wince-worthy. Add in memories of drug and alcohol abuse and an account of imprisonment that seemed rushed and you could have a mess of unreadability, were it not for the overall uniqueness, vulnerability, and the truthfulness in this tale.
When the story itself lags, those are the things that redeem it. They’re what make this matter-of-factly-told memoir one that sets itself apart by its brutal honesty. It’s what will make you want to put Self-Made Woman in your hands.
More Trans Titles
Surpassing Certainty by Janet Mock.
Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings.
Dear Mom and Dad, You Don’t Know Me, But … by Georgia Lee McGowen.
“You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!” And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions About Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People by Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, and Laura A. Jacobs, LCSW-R.
The Pants Project by Cat Clarke.