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On Writing a Southern Trans Male Teen: An Interview w/ 'A BOY LIKE ME' Author Jennie Wood

This week, I sat down with lesbian author and trans ally Jennie Wood to discuss her new YA novel, A Boy Like Me. The book is about a teenaged trans boy finding himself and love in a small Southern town.

Mitch: Hi, Jennie! Thanks for talking with me about A Boy Like Me.

Talking to you, I could tell immediately, from the twang in your voice, that you’re not from Boston. Are you from the same Southern area Peyton lives in?

Jennie Wood: Yes, but I created a fictional town because I think...it’s fiction. You get to create a world and make it come alive. I think if I had picked my own home town, that’s almost easier. But the imaginary town of Wiley is very close to where I grew up in central North Carolina.

The use of music stood out in this book; it gave the story a textured background. Everyone likes music -- Peyton, Tara, his uncle and his uncle’s girlfriend. And I know you’re a musician in real life, so you probably drew from your own experience. I think music worked well with the book’s theme of silence -- the way it allows Peyton and the girl he loves, Tara, to speak this language that isn’t words.

What were you aiming for with including all of the music in this book?

Music -- like romance and LGBTQ characters --  is in everything I write. I think I wanted -- because Peyton struggles so much with language, vocabulary, and finding the right words -- for music to be something he and Tara shared. Something he could express himself with, like when he plays the drums on her songs. He can show her how much he cares about her through finding the right drum part. And in the recording studio, you can shut out the whole world. He can own that world, control it.

Music is also a way that Peyton can feel accepted. For instance, Tara loves David Bowie, and David Bowie is all about androgyny and gender-bending; this showed that music is a place where Peyton could live. Where he could feel at home and find a place to be comfortable: in his uncle’s music shop, in the recording studio, in making music with Tara. Music becomes Tara’s way of communicating with Peyton too.

All the songs that are referenced in the novel, are actual songs that I wrote from Tara’s point of view. I recorded them, and while I was working on revising the novel, I had the dream that the book would come out with a CD in the back. But, 215 Ink is a small publisher and didn’t have the resources for that, so I just put all the songs on my website.

 Jennie Wood's A Boy Like Me, published by 215 Ink

I was struck by the role of male caregivers in the book -- Peyton’s uncle and Tara’s father. You didn’t make it so that all the adults in Peyton’s life didn’t support him. And Peyton moves towards becoming a male caregiver in the end. You made the moms the antagonists. What was your thinking behind this?

Well, I wanted Peyton’s struggle to be about him: his inner struggle to accept himself. I felt like it was more realistic if not everyone in his life accepts him, but not the other extreme: not everyone is against it. I wanted people to struggle to see him; Tara gets him, Tara sees him, but other people in his life, like his uncle and his uncle’s girlfriend, love him unconditionally but are confused about what he’s going through. But they’ve traveled, they’ve lived in other places; the uncle’s girlfriend is from Chicago. They definitely get the sense that he’s struggling with something, and they get that he loves Tara.

The struggle that everyone sees him as a lesbian was what I felt like would happen in a small town like that. But I didn’t wanted this to be a story where Peyton just met external obstacle after external obstacle, and no one supported him. I think it’s more interesting, and also more realistic, in the world of that small Southern town, that there is some unconditional support, especially since its set close to the present day. And that there’s some physical obstacles and danger. Because that’s realistic too. I wanted the story to be bittersweet -- and the biggest obstacle to be internal, especially as told in the first-person. Even if he has a hard time communicating with himself.

Peyton does face a lot of external obstacles, though I could sense that you were trying to balance them out. You don’t want to write a story where his life is total crap because he’s trans…

...right, I didn’t want to write that story. But I also didn’t want to make it too easy for him and have it be unrealistic. You know, I had some people say to me as I was writing, “ Well, I hope it doesn’t have a happy ending.” Or, “I hope it’s not easy for him, because it shouldn’t be.” And I was like...balance.

Writer & Musician Jennie Wood

Peyton does go through a lot of those common trans youth struggles that teens face who aren’t accepted by their parents or their schools. It’s hard to see trans kids going through this hard stuff that happens afterwards, even though it’s realistic. Did you struggle with the thought that he goes through too much hardship?

Right, right. I struggled with both. That’s why I tried to stay as true-to-life in that small town, in that small, conservative world, and I tried to make it bittersweet. This also goes back to the fact that you can’t please everybody [as a writer]. Your book isn’t going to resonate with everybody...and it shouldn’t. That’s okay. I did struggle, though.

In revision, actually, I did pare down the two fight scenes. It’s a young adult novel. And I didn’t want it to be a “miserable trans boy” story. We don’t need that. Even though you don’t want to think about the audience too much -- you want to be true to the characters -- I did go back on the last revision and took away some of the violence. I don’t want anyone to be depressed [after reading the book]. There’s so much work to do; I wanted people to walk away understanding some of the struggle -- even though everyone has their own individual struggle -- but to be uplifted.

We’re at this really unique time, I think, in trans representation in popular culture where homelessness, depression, mental health issues, instability-in-general are still so very real and need to be talked about, but we’re aware that they’ve dominated “trans” stories for years and years. 

And we’re now finally at a place where we’re seeing some really positive representations of trans folks in pop culture, and there’s this new pressure -- at least, I feel it, within trans and trans-ally communities -- to only focus on the positive. Because we’re trying, in some sense, to overcompensate for the years and years of too much negativity. As a writer, you might feel a pressure to push the negative stuff away. But there are consequences for that too. Anyone who’s working with trans characters right now is going to have to reconcile that tension.

Right.

This was an important conversation to have. Thanks for talking with me today!

You're welcome. Thank you.

 

Author photo courtesy of Dead Darlings writing blog.

*Tips for Trans Teens*: Binding the Trans Male Chest

Puberty brings a growing self-consciousness about our bodies that can sometimes be a mentally difficult experience. Many young transgender males see changes in their body and feel the need to bind their chest to make it look flatter, more “masculine.”

I thought my son, James, would never need to worry about binding because he was taking hormone blockers. We were sure the breasts would never grow. The problem wasn’t that he grew breasts, but in his pre- and early-teens years he had a chunky build. Both he and his big brother had what they called moobs ("man boobs").

Since his brother had them too, he was a little less self-conscious than he might have been. But in our society, a society that gender scholar Judith Butler has termed heteronormative -- or, in other words, a society where heterosexual norms, including those about "correctly" masculine men and women -- people become hypersensitive to what is “normal” for each gender.

When he got to be about 12 years old, James started to lose weight. He worked hard to lose fat and build muscles, especially in his chest area. But even with the weight loss, muscle gain, and hormone blockers there was still some fatty tissue in the chest area. James was becoming more interested in girls by then, and increasingly self-conscious about his body.  He did some research and tried different tips -- such as doubling up his t-shirts -- which I'll share with you now.

~~~

Wearing two t-shirts is the first tip in The Hudson’s FTM Resource Guide on binding. This worked for James sometimes, but he would get hot easily, and in the summer two shirts was too much. He insisted we get him something to wear under his clothes, something made for transgender bodies.

In other words, his next step was to try a binder. A binder is a specially-made tight undergarment, sometimes referred to formally as a "compression shirt," that flattens th eupper body. He found a company in Taiwan called T-Kingdom.  We purchased the lower-end model tank top that cost around $46.

We went for the tank top style he wanted to hold his tummy fat in. But if all you need is the top / chest binder they cost between $30 and $36.

T-Kingdom's sizes run smaller than the average Western sizing, so I would recommend a size larger than you would usually purchase. We had to exchange the first one and it cost us an extra fee because of the international shipping.  James was a medium for most things, but the T-Kingdom products were tight, and it was hard to breathe, so he went with the large and they worked great until he grew out of them.

~~~

James’ biggest concern his binders was the stiffness of the fabric. He is very private about being a transgender male and felt the stiff fabric was too obvious. Nobody could tell just looking at him, everything was bound down pretty flat, but he was concerned that if someone patted his back or accidentally touched his chest they would notice he had something stiff under his clothes.

James also mentioned that the other reason it was better to get a larger size binder, he felt, was because if the binder was too tight the fat bunched up around his armpit, and he worried that it looked like he was wearing a bra.  Mentally he felt better and it helped his self-confidence, but he was still nervous that someone might touch him and ask what he was wearing.  While T-Kingdom makes a good quality product, James was frustrated that the company is international and it took weeks to receive the products.

Today, as a teenager, James is quite fit. He is still doing blockers, and he started testosterone last year so his body shape has changed, and he doesn’t need to bind his chest anymore. However, for transgender males who feel the need to bind, he said he would recommend TranZwear over T-Kingdom. Their products are less expensive. Binders run as low as $12 and are custom made for your individual body type.

~~~

In addition to these products, some sites, such as the Wikihow, have other practical advice to offer.  The Wikihow site has easy step-by-step directions and easy to understand explanations for binding. They also offer practical safety tips.

As a mother, I must emphasize my concerns with the health and safety of binding ones chest.  The Go Ask Alice site also has some good safety advice, as well as helpful tips and links.

I have yet to meet anyone -- whether transgender or cisgender (non-trans) -- who is completely happy with their body exactly the way it is. We all have something we wish we could change. We may not always like it, but we still have to live in it. So please, whatever way you might change or manipulate your body, please educate yourself, and be safe.

 

Photo courtesy of Aidan Jones / Flickr.

 

LGBTQ Youth Bookshelf: Some Mind-Expanding Trans* Reads

Transgender people's lives are rich, unique, and complex. Once you get past the "Trans 101" nuts-and-bolts of terminology and medical/legal transition-specifics, there's a whole world of trans* lived experiences to explore.

Today, I took just a small sampling from my own bookshelf of books on trans and gender-nonconforming stories that I've enjoyed, and have made me think. This list isn't in order of "best to worst", by the way -- they're all tops on my list for different reasons.

it's worth noting, too, that some of these are "harder" reads than others -- more difficult subjects or more dense language. But reading is, in part, about challenging yourself to grow, and I've always felt deeply rewarded by pushing myself outside my limits.

So I hope you pick up a book and enjoy!

~~~

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You
S. Bear Bergman

Trans writer S. Bear Bergman's essays humorously address issues from women's spaces to the old boys' network, from gay male bathhouses to lesbian potlucks, from being a child to preparing to have one.

"The Nearest Exist May Be Behind You" by S. Bear Bergman

Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism

Viviane K. Namaste

Trans scholar Vivane K. Namaste calls readers to think critically about transsexual politics in relation to feminism, with particular focus on intersectionality and de-centering the American trans experience as the universal "trans" experience.

"Sex Change, Social Change" by Vivivane Namaste

Visible: A Femmethology (Vol. 1 & 2)

Jennifer Burke (editor)

Visible: A Femmethology, the only two-volume anthology devoted to femme and feminine identity, calls the LGBTQI community on its prejudices; celebrates the diversity of individual femmes (including trans women & men); and challenges conventional ideas of how disability, class, nationality, race, aesthetics, sexual orientation, gender identity and body type intersect with each contributor's concrete notion of femininity.

"Visible: A Femmethology" (Vol. 1 & 2) edited by Jennifer Burke

 

Self-Organizing Men: Conscious Masculinities in Time & Space
Jay Sennett (editor)

Self-Organizing Men explores the he roles of paradox and incoherence in the construction and maintenance of the masculine self through poetry, visual images, essays, and humor.

"Self-Organzing Men" edited by Jay Sennett

Transgender History

Susan Stryker

Trans historian Susan Stryker's concise, chronological history covers the transsexual, transgender, and cross-dressing communities in the years following World War II; trans radicalism and social change through to the early 1970s; the mid-’70s to 1990—the era of identity politics and the changes witnessed in trans circles through these years; and the gender issues witnessed through the ’90s and ’00s.

"Transgender History" by Susan Stryker

The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard

Tom Leger & Riley MacLeod (editors)

The Collection represents the depth and range of tomorrow’s finest North American writers chronicling transgender narratives. 28 authors showcase the future of trans literature and the next great movements in queer art.

"The Collection" edited by Tom Leger & Riley McLeod

Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (editor)

Nobody Passes confronts and challenges the very notion of belonging. It explores and critiques the various systems of power seen (or not seen) in the act of “passing." Trans writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore sets out to ask the question, “What lies are people forced to tell in order to gain acceptance as 'real'?"

"Nobody Passes" edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us

Kate Bornstein

Gender Outlaw is an exploration of gender theory, interspersed with Kate Bornstein's personal anecdotes, and closes with the full text of Bornstein’s two-act play, Hidden: A Gender. Part coming-of-age story, part mind-altering manifesto on gender and sexuality.

"Gender Outlaw" by Kate Bornstein

Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme

Zena Sherman & Ivan E. Coyote (editors)

Sherman & Coyote's collection aims to resist simple definitions and reductive stereotypes of butches and femmes. Persistence gathers leading voices in contemporary queer writing whose hearts pounded the first time they read or heard the words "butch" or "femme."

"Persistence" edited by Ivan E. Coyote & Zena Sharman

Trans/Love: Radical Sex, Love & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary

Morty Diamond (editor)

Exploring the crossroads of gender and sexuality, Trans/Love offers honest, engaging narratives that depict dating, sex, love, and relationships among members of the gender variant community.

"Trans/Love" edited by Morty Diamond

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

Julia Serano

Feminist writer Julia Serano shares her experiences and observations—both pre- and post-transition—to reveal the ways in which fear, suspicion, and dismissiveness toward femininity shape our societal attitudes toward trans women, as well as gender and sexuality as a whole.

"Whipping Girl" by Julia Serano

 

Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness, and Becoming a Man
Thomas Page McBee

Trans writer Thomas Page McBee's short, lyrical piece of creative nonfiction maps a journey toward self-realization as he suffers the post-traumatic anxieties of two pivotal events: his father’s sexual abuse of him as a child, and his near-death encounter with a mugger.

"Man Alive" by Thomas Page McBee

Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves
Zander Keig & Mitch Kellaway (editors)

I'd be remiss to not list my own co-edited anthology! 27 trans men discuss their social transitions and roles as male community members: fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, friends, and mentors. Their essays address many topics, including birthing and raising children, gay male sexuality, facing racism, and finding solace in deeply held religious beliefs. 

"Manning Up" edited by Zander Keig & Mitch Kellaway

When's the Last Time You Saw a Queer Trans Man Onscreen? Time to Re-Watch 'ROMEOS.'

Editor's Note: This article contains movie plot spoilers.

I usually have to brace myself before taking on a film about trans life. Partly because there are so few stories with trans characters, but also because such narratives likely inform many peoples’ views about trans folks.

Further, how often do you see depictions of men who are not only transgender, but gay? If you’re in the right crowds, you can get to know such amazing folks, but representations of queer transmen in mainstream media are few and far between. Here to raise one hand, thankfully, is Romeos (2011), a light-of-touch yet gritty drama featuring a twenty-year-old German trans man named Lukas.

When Lukas goes to a gay club one night and realizes he’s attracted to a cis man, Fabio, the feeling turns out to be mutual. Their relationship goes on to blossom like any other, sweetly, bit by bit, as they get to know each other. Nevertheless, Lukas constantly covers his still-full chest. When he’s reluctantly taken to a lake to swim, he remains fully clothed, visibly anxious, worried that he might reveal he’s trans. Lukas only goes into the water when Fabio pulls him in. 

Lukas, like many marginalized people in real life, is antagonized by forces bigger than any one person. When he is outed as a trans man before he’s ready, Fabio reacts crudely and transphobically, saying he isn’t into “trannies.” This reaction hits the core of many trans peoples’ fears: that we’ll be rejected and remain unloved because of ignorance, fear, and cultural hangups.

Granted, not everyone reacts this way, but when it happens with someone you like or maybe even love, it can be extremely painful. There’s no easy way to deal with this. In time, though, as increasing numbers of narratives emerge, trans people will become more and more visible. Eventually, one hopes, transphobia will become less of a barrier to connecting with people. 

While Romeos feels a little like Trans 101 at times, addressing medical transition in a tone that assumes one is not familiar with the process, the film is ultimately is the story of a young man's personal growth. Lukas doesn’t stand in for all trans-masculine experiences, but he does wear the tribe’s emblem.

For many people, this movie will be a partial mirror in a world with very few sensitive, complex reflections. For many others, it will expand their sphere of empathy to include a new understanding of how a person can be.

Lukas reconciles with Fabio in the last part of the film, but the movie doesn’t end by focusing on their relationship, avoiding the implication that his self-worth hinges on a cis man’s “magical” validation. Instead, in the final take, we see Lukas at a beach before a camera, presumably held by a friend or a lover — maybe Fabio, maybe someone new. Our hero Lukas smiles, shyly taking off his shirt to reveal he’s had top surgery. Then, lifting up his arms in triumph, beaming like the happiest guy on earth, Lukas runs over the dunes to the far shore, alone.

Ultimately, Lukas — as a trans man, as a man — is more than enough.

Trans*? Want to Be a Parent? Society Might Say 'No,' But Ignore the Haters.

Transgender and gender-variant people desire families, just as our not-so-variant peers do. But when I was first considering whether I might be a transgender man when I was in high school, my dreams of one day having a family practically flew out the window.

Somehow, I thought that if I was trans, that ended the possibility that I could one day have the family I wanted. But I couldn't have been more wrong.

A lot of trans people worry that we won't find a partner or won't be able to have children; some who dream of getting married or having a biological tie to our children think that these dreams are over once we start transitioning. But that's simply not the case. Today, I'm a husband planning my own future family. It was my personal desire to be partnered and my choice to become married (not everyone has to do these things), and I know now that I can become the father I've always dreamed of being.

But as a teenager, it was easy to believe that I couldn't have any of that. Why?

~~~

Part of the problem, as I see it, was that I didn't experience a lot of images of trans or gender-nonconforming girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, or parents around me -- not on television, in art, or often in the wider world.

And part of the problem was that society was sending me a message that being trans meant I was unlovable or unattractive or unfit to experience life fully. I also somehow internally received the message that being trans would mean I would be "harming" my future children. I've heard a lot of other trans people tell me they've had similar thoughts.

If you're thinking that as a trans person you won't find love or raise a family, I suggest considering where those thoughts come from (and I admit, this is easier said than done...it takes time, and often reading or talking it out with others). Are they the truth, or did you assume that based on negative portrayals of trans people you've seen around you?

If this is the case, no need to feel ashamed that you believed society's fears about trans folks -- it's just time to actively resist those thoughts.

Because the truth is, messages that we, as trans people, are unlovable or less capable as parents are based in transphobia -- the fear of transgender people. Society is often afraid of what's different than the "norm," and the people around us fall in-line and repeat those messages because they're afraid of being seen as different too.

But the reality is, as trans people, we are 'different,' in some ways, from the 'majority' -- but that's a good thing. Yes, we're the 'same' in the sense that we're men and women too, but we're men and women with unique life experiences. Those experiences means we get to "look behind the mask" of these distorted social messages -- and all the other narrow ones about what it means to be a "real man" and a "real woman" -- and see where they've led us wrong.

~~~

When I started doing this kind of thinking in college, I started to see the "bigger picture" of why I was only getting these negative, limited ideas about being a transgender person.

Part of it was that “transgender” identity is still contested in its definitions -- and for too long those definitions haven't been decided by trans people themselves. Among doctors and scientists, for instance, homosexuality was de-classified as a mental disorder a long time ago, transgender patients continue to receive a psychological diagnosis of “gender dysphoria”. While feeling dysphoric is real for a lot of trans people who feel their body and mind doesn't match, the medical practice of coding transgender people as socially and medically 'sick' or 'deviant' because of it has led to stigma and discrimination.

A lot of trans people, over the years, have felt too stigmatized to even come out to their doctors as trans; or if they did, they felt too stigmatized to admit they wanted help in building a family. So, for decades and decades -- long before my birth -- transgender people were generally absent from public and scientific conversations about parenting and families, except in references to mental illness.

Our invisibility and marginality (that is, the fact that our experiences are shuffled off to the side and therefore rarely discussed) have led to inaccurate assumptions about trans people and our desires around having children and the fact that trans people are just as suitable parents as non-trans folks.

So I say: don't listen. If you want to be a parent, that's your right. Some people might resist, but but they don't define who you are. Don't give up on becoming the woman or man you need to be, which includes becoming a mother or father if that's what you know you want. I haven't given up, though sometimes it's felt hard-- and it's helped me see the full potentials of my life. It all started with me questioning.

If it feels right to be a man, why should I accept anyone else telling me it's wrong? If it feels right to want to be a father, why should I accept someone telling me I can't?

 

Photo courtesy of Glyn Lowe Photoworks / Flickr.