Though we often think of sexual orientation as being all about the type of people we are attracted to, who we are in relation to the people we are attracted to is just as important. Not everyone who is attracted to women is a Lesbian, only women who are attracted to other women exclusively. In order to define our sexuality in a socially understood way first we must possess a stable gender identity.
The process of identity building that takes place during the teenage years is hard for everyone and twice as difficult for individuals coming into a socially unacceptable sexual identity. But the struggle to build identity is harder still when a teen figures out he or she is actually a different gender than the one they were brought up as.
In Transparent, journalist Cris Beam tells the stories of several male to female transgendered and transsexual teens living on the streets of Los Angeles. The book is divided into two parts, each written in a slightly different tone. The first part is pure social science. Beam explains how she came up with the idea of writing the book while teaching at Eagles, a high school for gay and trans kids. She follows the lives of some of her favorite students, each chapter focusing on a particular aspect of their lives: school, family, body image, and love. Part two turns into a memoir when Beam and her girlfriend agree to become the legal guardians of one of her former students from Eagles. She explores the many unique challenges presented to parents of trans teenagers.
This was another one of those awesome books that made me feel as though my brain were physically expanding as I read. One aspect of trans life that Beam highlights throughout the book is the astounding amount of sexism and trans-phobia her subjects deal with not just from friends and strangers, but from public institutions like schools, hospitals, and courts. She notes there are currently no laws protecting trans workers leaving them vulnerable to discriminatory hiring and firing practices, not to mention on the job harassment, sexual and otherwise. One woman tells of being forced to use the bathroom on a floor of her office building that was being remodelled when the men and women she worked with told management they were uncomfortable with a trans woman using either the men’s or women’s bathrooms on the populated floors.
When one of Beam’s former students, Domenique, is incarcerated she looks at the many ways the penal system short changes trans folk. Transgendered individuals are housed according to genitalia and male to female transsexuals placed in all male wards are often harassed and assaulted. Domenique is housed in the Sensitive Needs Yard, a unit for inmates who require special protection. But even there she isn’t safe, reporting instances of harassment by other inmates as well as guards. She fears for her safety so much that she avoids socializing or engaging in any recreational activities. The only way to protect herself is to stay isolated. Domenique’s story depicts a truth that Beam highlights early on, that the system simply hasn’t been set up to deal with people whose gender identity falls outside the binary.
Beam is a deft storyteller who effortlessly weaves queer and gender theory, history, and sociology into her personal recollections. The memoir aspect is what gives the narrative real bite. Without it the book would be purely informative, providing statistics and ruminations on people and situations far removed from the reader’s safety zone. But by including her own trials and tribulations as the parent of a transgendered teenager she engages the reader through the ever relatable experience of motherhood. Beam’s daughter is a typical teenager in so many ways, from her stubborness to her rebellious streak. But the normal butting of heads that occurs during those years is magnified by the unique challenges of trying to raise a healthy and happy trans child.
Transparent is a beautifully constructed introduction to the social and emotional hurdles of growing up trans in America. By exploring the world of ambiguities that exist between male and female, Beam highlights the one thing we all know but are often unable to accept, that we’re all human.