J is 17 and a senior in high school, the same age and grade as my son. A theme of gender identity has run through the many issues Derek has talked about throughout his years in school -- from kids calling other kids "gay" in middle school to kids too scared to come out as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender or questioning in high school. The conversations I have had with Derek about these young adults have been heart breaking, but always at the peripheral. I Am J provides an in depth experience into the life of a young adult who is transgendered.
I use the word "experience" to describe how I felt reading this book because Cris Beam's writing allowed me to feel the full range of J's emotions -- confusion, anger, frustration, fear, sadness, betrayal, longing, desire. At one point in the story, J gets the courage to finally tell his mother, Carolina, that he is transgendered:
Carolina paused. "But you're still a kid, J. You don't know what you are yet. One day you want to be a veterinarian; the next, a photographer. How can you say you want to be a--a boy?"
"Mami--" How could he explain? It was like explaining the blood moving through his veins, It was constant, definite, nothing he controlled or chose. You could put all kinds of muscle and skin on top, and then add clothes and tattoos and makeup and hats, but nothing would change that blood.
Later in the conversation between J and Carolina, he tells her he wants to start the process of physically becoming a boy. Carolina responds:
"Oh, God, J!" Carolina stared to cry. "Why would you do that to yourself?"
J stared at the water. There was no answer to that question, really, none that his mother would understand. He wasn't doing anything to himself at his core; he was simply staying alive. But saying that was too dramatic, he felt; he didn't want to scare her. Carolina dug through her purse for a tissue. "J, you don't understand what this is like," she said.
"What what is like?"
"To have your baby change?" Carolina practically shouted. She sat still for a long time, and her words seemed to echo around the quiet car. Then she put her hand on J's knee. "I'm sorry for yelling."
I think these two excerpts aptly capture the turmoil that J's mother feels about his decision and how J feels about himself and his mother's response. It is hard enough when someone you love doesn't approve of something you've done, but it is heart breaking when someone you love doesn't accept you for who you are. Yet, Carolina's response is completely understandable, and I think, one that many parents would have in the same situation.
Yet, I Am J is also hopeful story. J lives in NYC and is able to transfer to a high school for LBGTQ students and has access to a clinic with counseling and medical care. The author, Cris Beam, writes in the author's note:
And yet this outside world is changing--especially in the urban areas of this country--amazingly fast, and it's becoming a somewhat more forgiving, and definitely more dynamic, place. There are more out and visible young transgender men than ever before and their growing ranks are bolstering the courage of the generation behind them (and in queer terms, a generation can be just a few years along) at an exponential rate. Definitions of masculinity and femininity are expanding every day, and adolescent transboys are finding more creative ways to discover, and be, themselves.
Cris Beam states that "J is not me." He writes from his experiences working with transgendered boys and his daughter is transgendered. He hopes that as the ranks of transgendered boys grow, their teen aged friends will want to learn more and understand them. Reading I Am J provides one source.
Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke, published by Zest Books and available June 1, provides a nonfiction resource for teens and adults. This is a very accessible, straightforward book that answers many questions that teens and adults have about LBGT issues. The table of contents follows:
1. The "Q" Word: Am I Queer?
2. Embracing Your Queerness: Coming Out
3. Navigating Your Queer Sphere: Finding Your People
4. Rising Above: How to Overcome Queerphobia
5. Making your Move: Queer Dating
6. Getting Together: Queer Relationships
7. The Big "S": Queer Sex
I Am J and Queer are two books that should be in high school and public libraries across the country to help teens and adults understand and support the gender spectrum in our society.