lgbtqteens

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.

What Adults Can Learn from LGBT Youth

Recently, I attended a conference for the LGBT community. It was an enlightening experience and I encountered LGBT people of all ages and from all circumstances, including differences in race, home life, religious beliefs, and more.

I was most impressed, though, by the LGBT youth I met there. This is you

You are so strong and so bold to be living your life as authentically as possible. I suppressed my feelings about being a lesbian for many years and came out as an adult. You, however, have chosen to branch out, find yourselves and express your true self. It was simply inspiring to see such a strong group of young people.

I also met family members who fully supported their LGBT children of all ages in their life's journeys. I hope this is the case for you, too: that your loved ones treat you with respect and love you just as you are.

~~~

Let me share a few things I, a lesbian adult, learned from you, an LGBT teen, at my recent conference visit.

1.   It’s okay to believe in who you are.

You’ve inspired me to be me and believe in that. I am a strong individual who can be like you and love myself. 

2.     I don’t have to be closeted and alone.

I watched so many LGBT youth at the conference interacting and forming new friendships. Not that you were in cliques, but you were loving and accepting of each other. I saw you being “out,” coming together, and making connection so you don’t have to be alone on your journey.

3.     Strength comes from within -- and it's infectious.

So many of you exuded strength beyond anything I have possessed. You encouraged and showed others how to be strong and how to share that strength so others can feel and grow from it.

4.     I can live happily in the LGBT community no matter how old I am.

I was so impressed how comfortable you were in your own skin. I loved watching your happiness and how it spread. It showed me that in my journey as an adult, I can be happy just the way I am ,and that many of you already are living happily just as yourselves.

In the end, I found that you, as youth, are a driving force in forging the LGBT community's way forward. You are strong, new pioneers opening up the way for many others to express their sexualities and gender identities.

You are the new generation who will lead and create a brighter future for us all.

 

Photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley / Flickr.

Must-See TV For LGBTQ Youth: 'RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE'

I was embarrassingly late to the party with RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I finally arrived on a visit to Toronto to see my best Canadian friend Shih-Ming Yao. We were lying in his bed, recovering from a big night out.

“Let’s watch some Drag Race?” he suggested. I knew of RuPaul’s Drag Race -- the reality TV show hosted by drag icon RuPaul -- but I’d never invested any time in watching it. Ming, though, had several seasons ready to go on the hard-drive of his MacBook.

I was hooked from the first episode.

~~~

Drag queens are entertainers, so it’s fun watching them do anything. Ming jumped around the various seasons, showing me some of the best episodes, the most sickening lip-syncs, and the fiercest death-drops.

When I got home I was on the case, catching up on all the seasons (except Season 1, which I’ve only seen glimpses of); I even watched the spin-off series Drag U. By the time the most recent season of RPDR came around (Season 6, won by Bianca Del Rio) I was a total aficionado. I'd watched nearly every episode, the Untucked behind-the-scenes companion piece, the YouTube updates, and even the AfterBuzz panel discussion following each episode. RuPaul’s Drag Race is simply great TV.

But RuPaul’s Drag Race is a lot more than just a zany reality show. It takes you behind the scenes, behind the make-up, the wigs, the costumes, and the huge personalities that go into being a drag queen -- which is one of the toughest jobs in the entertainment industry.

There is a lot of drama, a lot of tears, and personal stories shared, but ultimately the show’s message is one of empowerment, self-belief, and self-worth. One of RuPaul’s many mantras is: “If you can’t love yourself - how in the hell are you going to love somebody else!”

It sounds straightforward enough, but if you’ve ever tried to analyze what went wrong in a failed relationship then you’ll know that looking in the mirror is the first place to start.

~~~

The winner of RPDR Season 3 was the uber-stylish Raja. Towards one of the final episodes of the season, each of the contestants was asked what winning the competition would mean to them. For me, Raja’s answer perfectly encapsulated everything that I had been feeling for years but never found a way to express:

“In winning this competition, I would like to be a role model for all those little boys who are teased, who are bullied, who don’t know how to express themselves creatively yet. I wanna tell them, ‘It’s okay to say f*** you, and do whatever you want to do.’”

“The power of ‘f*** you’” said RuPaul, nodding and smiling.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has become so successful that the contestants from the show are now some of the biggest names in entertainment - world tours, sold out shows, guest appearances at Pride events all over the place.

Entertainers. Role Models. People. The queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race are the living embodiment of the power of “f*** you.”

 

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

What Makes a "REAL" Man? Does It Really Matter?

by Joshua Shane

 

When I was young, I liked to play with my sister's Bratz dolls. 

Even more clear in my memory than playing with the dolls, though, was the reaction my parents and other family members had to me expressing my interest in female-assigned activities. I was told: "Real men don’t play with dolls."

This has always confused me. Even if I stopped playing with dolls, I would always desire to play with dolls. Would that not make me something other than a real man? I remember thinking, How could I have been wrapped in a blue blanket at birth, but not be a ‘real man' now (unless I identified as a transgender woman)? If I’m not a 'real man,' and -- since I identify as male -- cannot be a 'real woman,' what am I?

The answer, I've learned is: I am not unreal, I am just different. Our gender identity, or the gender we define ourselves as, or who people perceive us as is completely subjective. Subjective means "it's all in the eye of the beholder," rather than a hard, factual truth

Which means, for one thing, we cannot choose how other people see masculinity and femininity. And quite frankly, I think, it should not matter.

~~~

Subjective perceptions of gender -- what we think makes something truly "masculine" or "feminine" -- are placed on almost every activity, behavior and trait. These ideas and meanings have simply been attached by society over the course of human history. However, these rules have never applied to everyone. They aren't the truth: there is not one, single truth when it comes to gender.

My advice: do not let other people control how you perceive and present yourself. You are your own agent.

It is time to look deeper into our perceived perceptions of what makes something "manly" or "womanly." Removing gender-biased tags can open up a world of new possibilities, for both men and women. 

Just because we have been told that, because we're a "boy" or a "girl," that we are not "made" to think a certain way, dress a certain way, do a specific activity, or pursue our dream jobs does not mean we need to suppress our desires. In fact, I think it means just the opposite.

 

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Every Gay Guy I Knew Wanted to Be Someone Else...And That's Not OK.

I'm coming up on 30 years of age.

With that milestone, comes some thinking about life and love and relationships. A little self-reflection as I reach this life passage. And with that in mind, I turn my thinking to the body image issues that have come to define a good portion of gay culture.

It seems we are always striving to be someone else.

We want to be skinnier, we want to be more muscular. We want to be hairier, we wish we weren’t so hairy. All this lies in the thought that if we aren’t these things, if we don’t fall into these categories, or look a certain way, we will not find the connections we want so badly. We will be outcast, set aside, and live a life of loneliness.

The truth is, though: Everyone is different. That’s for sure. But of course, not everyone thinks this way. I look at some of my friends, and I see a lack of confidence in who they are. I've seen it consistently over the years: in boyfriends, in acquaintances, in countless others.

~~~

In New York City, every gay guy I knew wanted to be someone else. You walk into the bars, and it’s a sea of up-down looks, men sizing each other up, and deciding if you were good enough for them to deign to speak to you.

We don’t respect ourselves enough.

I think that’s the thing. Gay men put these prerequisites on each other, these pillars you have to reach. You aren’t heavy enough for me, you aren’t skinny enough for me. If you want me to like you, you’re going to have go to the gym and get that belly toned. You need to change the way you dress. 

And we don’t just do it to our partners, we do it to our friends. We constantly compete. We're constantly judging each other. It’s rampant, and in fact, it’s toxic.

What’s the goal? What are we running to? What do we get out of this? What is all this really doing for us?

I would argue it is doing very little. It’s squashing our self-esteem, it’s killing our confidence. We walk on eggshells, as that is too often the only life we know.

~~~

Think about how you are in your friend groups. Are you guys talking about real issues, really trying to understand each other? Are you arguing, debating, sharing your passions? Or do you spend more time fixated on clothes, and bodies, and the surface of it all?

Look at your relationship. The guy you’re dating -- does he love you for you, or is he constantly asking you to change things about yourself?  Is he glad you’re with him, or is he looking elsewhere?

This is, of course, a larger issue, but it’s worth beginning that dialogue. Be who you were born to be: that’s my advice to you you. If you don’t like it, then by all means, change it. But ask yourself why you are changing. And ask yourself who are you really changing for.

Is it the man in the mirror? Or is that guy you’ve been dating for three months? Or is your friends who don’t believe enough in who they are?

If you love comic books, cargo shorts, and science fiction, then love it, and don’t make any apologies for it. If you have a couple extra pounds on you, who cares? Love your body as it is.

Everyone wants to be noticed, to be loved. I think we can all agree on that. But that doesn’t mean you have to change. The guys I know, the ones who don’t worry about their bodies, they are the ones who are the most secure.

Love your body. Love who you are. Love the things you like. Change if you’re not happy. But don’t change for a guy. Don’t change for anyone but your own self.

 

 Photo courtesy of Ming Lee / Flickr.