Gender Queer: A Memoir
Maia Kobabe, Oni-Lion Forge Publishing Group
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out
Susan Kuklin, Candlewick Press
When the doctors confirmed that I was intersex, I thought, Wow, I’m that whole other gender! It proved what I had been feeling all along. I was not only emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually both sexes; I was physically both sexes too. This is who I am. My mom was still in denial. She kept asking why I didn’t have a boyfriend.
from Beyond Magenta
The quest to be oneself
Books have the ability to take us to strange new places: into the realms of science fiction, or into past ages, or cultures very different from our own. Sometimes books challenge us, stretching us beyond our comfort zones, even to “where no one has gone before”—only for us to find that we are late-comers to the party, and we’re playing catch up to the spirit of the times.
Reading about transgender or non-binary people was a new experience for me. (Gender Queer is one of the books selected by the Longview Library’s “Book Club for Our Times.” See end note.)
Like a graphic novel, it’s a memoir told in illustrations and text. Born female, artist-writer Maia Kobabe describes growing up with the inner sense of really being a boy. As a young adult, Kobabe discovers the work of Patricia Churchland, adjunct professor at Salk Institute of Biological Studies. Churchland’s book, Touching a Nerve: Self as Brain, explained the influence of hormones on fetal development, including instances where the “masculinizing of the brain does not follow the typical path … you could have male genitalia and a female brain.” This information produces both relief and a new self-acceptance in Kobabe: I was born this way!
Beyond Magenta has the advantage of telling the stories of six trans teens, reflecting the diversity within the trans community. Through interviews, we hear their different voices:
“Transsexual. Even the name sounded weird to me. It was like I’m not born who I am; I have to transition to be who I am.”
The young people have very different stories, capturing the confusion (called gender dysphoria) they have lived with (“This has always been my worry: Am I going to look real?”), the early, tentative explorations in search of their true self (“Everyone knows what gay is. Nobody knew what trans is.”) and then their individual decisions on how to integrate their physical body with that true self. (“I could be so much more if I could just be myself.”)
Some of the teens are making a healthy, smooth transition to their new integrated identities; some are having a difficult time. Not surprising, a lot depends on the understanding and support they receive, or don’t receive, from their families and friends.
They talk about their various therapies, such as hormonal blockers; some discuss their decisions for surgery. Because counseling is a necessary component of any gender therapy, they share the insights and new perspectives they’ve gained.
“When I first started my transition, I wanted to be complete, from one side to the other. But now I’m embracing my in-between-ness. I’m embracing this whole mix that I have inside myself. And I’m happy. So forget the category. Just talk to me. Get to know me.”
They describe trying to adapt to our culture’s gender expectations: “I like to think that I can fend off society’s male expectations pretty well. Society wants all kinds of things from the boys. They want us to be masculine and to wrestle, to swear, and to be aggressive and assertive. To some degree, society wants us to be misogynistic.”
They discuss their attempts to change people’s ways of seeing them (and facing the dreaded pronouns): “I want people to use the pronouns them and they when referring to me because I consider myself both male and female. Since most people don’t understand that, I just tell them to use he. For years I was she, so it’s time to switch. I don’t like being a girl. I gave it a run. It didn’t work.”
Reading their stories, one can’t help but admire the courage of these young people fighting to discover, and then to live who they are. (“I enjoy life from a different perspective. I can see the world simultaneously from a male and a female perspective.”)
Part of their ongoing challenge will be a society that doesn’t understand, many who won’t even try to understand—If you think three genders is overwhelming, check out the 72 gender classifications at MedicineNet.
Both books testify to the mystery and complexity of what it means to be human, how varied we are, what wonders we are. It is something to celebrate.
Book Club for Our Times: Discuss books that are shaping today’s world.
Daytime Group—Kelso Public Library, 2nd Wednesdays, 11:30 am
Evening Group—Longview Public Library, 1st Mondays, 6:00 pm.
Check library websites for upcoming titles.
This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15, 2023.) Reprinted with permission.