transmen

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.

Trans & Cis Manhood: Not As Different As Society Wants Us to Think.

When I sought chest reconstruction surgery as a transgender man, I had to jump through a lot of hoops, including what bugged me the most: My therapist and doctor had to write letters approving me.

My insurance company wanted "proof" that I was really transgender and really a man from "experts" who had examined me. But all I could think was: Who's the best expert on my life -- them or ME? If you're transgender and know you need to medically transition (or even if you don't), there's probably a point where you'll feel like this too.

I should have been taken at my word that I'm a man. I should have been allowed to access healthcare to align my body with my identity without being sent messages that others doubted me, or that I would somehow regret my "decision." I know that now, but sometimes all those messages add up to make us feel, as trans people, that we're not allowed to be the experts on our own lives. When that happens to me, I like to start doing my own research.

Because in this situation, my instincts and past experiences told me that the way doctors were seeing my gender was a bit hypocritical. They were acting like my manhood was suspect, and like there was no room for self-exploration in my gender -- that I had to have always known I was male and never change my concept of what my manhood means to me and never, ever express any self-doubt.

But that's not reality of the way we live gender in society. They were holding me to a standard they didn't hold cisgender [non-trans] men to. Because the truth is: All kinds of men, both trans and cis, do work to express their manhood, no matter the shape of the body they were born with. All kinds of men sometimes feel doubt and have to explore their manhood. And still, at the end of the day, all men are the ones who should be trusted about what their manhood looks and feels like.

~~~

So I started trying to find places where transgender and cisgender men talked about their experiences of maleness together -- and it turned out, there were very few. It seemed like people are afraid to ask themselves what it would mean if cis manhood and trans manhood were the same in essential ways. When I was able to find conversations that went there, they were most often were research studies and interviews by sociologists (i.e. people who study social behavior), and they seemed to say what I suspected.

Trans men and cis men often relate similarly to manhood.

Despite what society may tell us, cis men often don't feel like they have it "all figured out" just because they were assigned "male" at birth, and trans men's reasons for seeking out clothing, hormones, or surgery to align their body and mind are often rooted in desires to be seen authentically that all men share.

I was particularly struck by research conducted by a transgender sociologist named Elroi Windsor. His study had an intimidatingly long name that I'm glad didn't put me off: “Regulating Healthy Gender: Surgical Body Modification among Transgender and Cisgender Consumers.”

In his research,. Windsor specifically explored the reasons both trans and cis men seek surgeries that alter their body's shape to be more traditionally "masculine" or that help others more quickly perceive them as "manly" or "male." For the trans men he interviewed, this was often chest ("top") reconstruction and sometimes genital ("bottom") reconstruction; for the cis men he interviewed, this was often chest reconstruction/reduction or surgeries that shaped the torso or face.

~~~

Reading about the thoughts and feelings of the cis and trans men Windsor interviewed, I was struck by just how similar the stories and reasonings are between men who are assigned "male" at birth (cis) and men who undergo gender transition (trans): Both knew themselves as men, and simply drew on surgery to further display that in social spaces.

When the cis and trans men expressed their motivations for seeking surgery, most repeated a narrative of enhancing the inner self through modifying the body, as well as enhancing their access to social spaces and acceptance through appearing more traditionally masculine. In other words, they desired to, on a personal level, feel more like themselves and, on an interpersonal level, to “blend in” and be allowed to carry on with their work and other pursuits without being ridiculed or dismissed (see pg. 16).

Despite the fact that trans patients, similar to my own experiences, were required to attend therapy prior to obtaining masculinizing surgeries (whereas mental health assessment is not required for cis men), there were also near-equal displays of emotions and motivations from both the trans and cis interviewees: Pre-surgical distress, ranging from low to extreme, as well as even amounts of desire and energy put into considering aesthetic/physical results when selecting a surgeon (see pg. 106).

Moreover, Windsor found that many cisgender men experienced body “dysphoric” feelings akin to those transgender men had -- the same feelings that had earned the trans men a mental diagnosis (called "gender dysphoria"), yet the cis men were never required to seek therapy prior to masculinizing surgery (see pg. 100). In other words, for expressing similar feelings about their gender, trans men were scrutinized, questioned, and, to a certain extent, pathologized (i.e. treated as psychologically 'abnormal'), whereas cisgender men were not.

While there's nothing wrong with encouraging therapy to help people deal with their emotions around gender (among many other things!), it seems like for trans men therapy is too often used as a tool to express doubt in their manhood, rather than as a positive tool to help them cope with the pressures everyone faces to live up to society's ideals. (And maybe some of these cis men could benefit from therapy too. No shame in that.).

~~~

So what does this all mean?

For me, I took away a message: Even while society tells both cis and trans men that surgery is an act of deception – either trying to be a younger person, a better looking person, or a differently gendered person than one is “naturally” – men's own words showed that masculinizing surgeries are just another avenue, like picking outfits and haircuts or drawing on body language and voice, to do what we all are trying to do. That is: express the "Me" we see inside to others in the hopes they'll truly see who we are.

Society may tell us some limited, negative stories about why men seek masculinizing surgery: Transgender men are traumatized by their bodies, while cisgender men are trying to be socially perceived as more "manly." Yet the reality, at least according to my reading of Windsor's study, is that many cisgender men actually seek surgery because they feel haunted by their body's limits (ex. many were sad to gain weight or lose definition as they aged), and many transgender men seek surgery to ease social interactions. 

That is to say, male relationships to manhood -- both trans male and cis male -- are simply not as different or as simple as we've been told. 

And that means, in the end, cisgender and transgender men do not have to be understood as possessing fundamental, unalterable gender differences based on the fact that some were assigned "male" at birth and others were assigned "female." Rather, trans men and cis men are simply variations of men who are all expressing their manhood as best they can with the tools provided.

Granted I could go on a separate rant about how we need to expand those tools and alter their meanings, but for now this is enough to sit and ponder.

 

Top photo courtesy of igor putina / Flickr. Signage photo courtesy of jay chilli / Flickr.