Transgender Teens Take Center Stage

by flickr user celesteh

Earlier this year, TIME magazine made history by putting Laverne Cox on its cover, declaring that America is in the midst of a “Transgender Tipping Point.”  While many would argue we’re not quite at that point yet, given the long way we still need to go to achieve the equal rights, protection, and respect transgender people deserve, there is no denying the definite increase in visibility and support of the this community. Indeed, the past year alone has seen Laverne Cox not only on the cover of TIME magazine but also the first openly transgender person nominated for an Emmy, Barney’s unveiled a trail-blazing spring ad campaign featuring 17 transgender models from all walks of life, and Comic Con had its first panel devoted exclusively to transgender issues…and that’s just in popular culture.

On the legal front, Washington state just opted to provide transgender-inclusive healthcare for all public employees, the Department of Labor is now including transgender workers under its non-discrimination policy, and Maryland passed the Fairness for All Marylanders Act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Progress indeed and heartening news for anyone who advocates for and supports equal rights and social justice.

As someone who works with youth, it’s equally exciting that this increase in visibility extends to young adult literature. Indeed, YA has been ahead of the curve. Luna, the first YA book to feature a transgender protagonist, was published over a decade ago to wide critical acclaim.  In the ten years since then, the number of novels with transgender characters have been slowly but steadily increasing (for a well researched list of titles, see Talya Sokoll’s booklist published in YALS and Malinda Lo’s list on her tumblr “Diversity in YA”.)  Which leads us to 2014, where in YA as well as larger society, there is a noticeable shift in terms of sheer visibility and volume.  That said, I’ll focus the rest of my post on recently published and soon-to-be-published books that feature characters of all genders.

Recent Titles

I was lucky enough to attend the Stonewall Awards Brunch this year at the ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas and saw Kristin Cronn-Mills BeautifulMusicforUglyChildrenaccept her award for Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults). She spoke passionately about the need for allies, about the power of music to transcend differences, and the need for cisgendered people to take the initiative to educate themselves about the transgender experience. (Interestingly, hers was the not the only book focused on gender identity issues to win a Stonewall Award this year, Lori Duron also won for her memoir Raising My Rainbow.)

If you haven’t read Beautiful Music for Ugly Children yet, the book tells the story of Gabe, who is in the early stages of transitioning, much to the dismay of his family. He finds solace in his passion for music and with the help of his close friend and elderly neighbor, John, becomes a DJ on the local radio station. His sudden rise to local fame as a DJ results in a number of confrontations that result in both tragedy and redemption. What I enjoyed most about Cronn-Mills’ novel is the fact that it does not solely revolve around Gabe’s gender identity. It’s obviously at the heart of the novel but, equally so, is his passion for music. In that sense, he felt more fully developed as a character–lending the novel a depth often lacking in other books about trans teens. 

beyond-magentaSusan Kuklin’s ground-breaking book Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out delves into the lives of six transgender or gender-neutral teenagers from a variety of backgrounds. Kuklin spent four years working on the book with the intent to do justice to these young people’s unique and inspiring personal journeys. Through candid interviews and vibrant photo essays, we come to understand the many struggles, heartbreaks, joys, and successes each teen has encountered in their quest to become their truest self. This book is the first of its kind and well worth an in-depth read…it captures such a complexity of experiences and does so through intimate first-person portraits.

Kristin Elizabeth Clark unusual novel in verse, Freakboy (2014 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults), released last year is notable in that it explores freakboygender identity from three different perspectives. The novel follows three intersecting lives: Brendan, a young wrestler struggling with his gender identity which doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any category; Vanessa, his devoted girlfriend who is the only girl on the wrestling team; and Angel, a trans woman who works at the local LBGTQ center. The focus on gender fluidity is apparent and provides us with valuable insight into the wide range of experiences that exist. Part coming out story, part coming-of-age, the novel is particularly successful in conveying that there is often no simple solution or answer but that there are always a number of paths and support to be found.

Upcoming Titles

Further proof of the shift in sensibility towards transgender people and their experiences can be found in this fall’s line-up of non-fiction books focused on the transgender community. That publishers have moved beyond fiction and are embracing the real-life stories of transgender teens and their unique stories is testimony to the fact that both the industry and the prospective audience have changed.

The romance between Katie Hill and Arin Andrews was big news last year when they were featured on a segment of TV show 20/20. The two met in a support group for transitioning teens and fell in love. Although now broken up, the two remain close and have each written a memoir about their experience to be released simultaneously in September.

some assemblyArin Andrews’ memoir entitled Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen follows his often heart-breaking journey from childhood to adolescence as he attempts to make sense of his gender identity. A failed suicide attempt convinces his mother of the gravity of his situation and with her support, Arin underwent sex reassignment surgery as a high school junior. As Andrews says, the book “gives me an opportunity to open the hearts and minds of those that just don’t understand and inspire those that do. It’s a story of acceptance, love, triumph, and standing up when you’ve been knocked down.”

Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill is an honest and moving account of one young woman’s struggle to live in a body that matches her gender identity. Hill recounts her numerous suicide attempts and the accompanying realization that she wanted to rethinking normalsurvive and thrive. As she says, “I don’t want this book to just appeal to transgendered people or their allies, I want all kinds of people to read it and to find some way to relate to it. I want people to understand that there really is no such thing as ‘normal.”

Both memoirs are excellent coming-of-age stories that will speak to transgender and cisgender teens alike in their exploration of what it means find your voice, to navigate falling in love, and to become the person you know yourself to be.

Finally, although not published specifically for a YA audience, the upcoming book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth is too important a text to leave out of this post, particularly as it was written with older teens in mind as a potential audience. Operating as a manual, an encyclopedia, and a resource guide, this anthology of essays written by transgender people for transgender people covers a range of issues from social to legal to medical. Certainly the most comprehensive book of its kind, this will be a must-have for all libraries seeking to serve not only the transgender community but the families, friends, partners, social workers, and health professionals who support them.

Looking Ahead

In researching this post, I was both heartened and dismayed by what I found. I was thrilled to see the growing number of books featuring transgender characters but still found that there are surprisingly few books out there that reflect the full spectrum of the transgender identity. Thankfully, the recent trend in publishing seems to be trying to address this and, better still, extends beyond YA to picture books and adult books. As the We Need Diverse Books campaign states, “embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.” Here’s hoping that as transgender characters becoming more common in YA literature, we see teens of all genders feeling increasingly valued, heard, and accepting.

~Alegria Barclay, currently reading Love Is the Drug

One thought on “Transgender Teens Take Center Stage”

  1. Kristin Cronn-Mills has a nonfiction book, Transgender Lives: Complex Stories, Complex Voices, coming out on Monday. In November, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky comes out. In January, Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman comes out. Just a few more titles for people interested in books about transgender and genderqueer teens.

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