Saturday, July 14, 2012

Being Emily: Third person disguised as first

"Being Emily" is a new young adult (YA) novel by Rachel Gold which tells a year in the life of a mostly pre-transition trans girl living in small town white bread Minnesota. It joins such other recent YA titles as "I Am J" by Cris Beam, and "Almost Perfect" by Brian Katcher which also dealt with the experiences of trans teens. It's being marketed with the tagline how it's the first YA novel to be told from the specific perspective of a trans woman character and, compared with "Luna," the best known work in this niche (which is completely told from the trans girl's sister's viewpoint), it's somewhat true...  but more about that later.

No Johnny come lately
Gold is a cis lesbian who has a unique connection to trans issues. She was the former girlfriend of a trans woman who was well known in 'the community' from the early 2000s... an academic named Emily Hobbie (her nom de plume) who was later briefly seen in the film "Beautiful Daughters" being interviewed by Eve Ensler. Together, Gold and Hobbie founded an online forum for younger trans women called "GenderPeace." To many trans women it was like a second home, albeit a wildly dysfunctional one which, along with the love and support, was often filled with screaming matches, hissy fits, heartbreak, sexual creepiness and middle school drama. It finally self-immolated back around 2006 and eventually morphed into a another site which was also geared towards younger trans people called "TrueSelves" (which Gold and Hobbie have no connection with). So, much like Cris Beam, she is an LGBT member, has a deep personal connection to trans issues and people and is someone who is highly motivated to help and understand trans teens... and 'get it right,' all wonderful characteristics for an ally and partner. The question being, how does this background translate into someone who can necessarily get into the first person perspective of a trans teen?

Rachel Gold with her favorite YA book

The book centers around two characters. Emily (whose assigned birthname is Chris) who's a 16-year old trans youth still completely closeted and living in boy mode, on the school swim team. Stuck living with a dad, mom and little brother, Chris/Emily's main gender outlet is playing World of Warcraft as female characters. The other central figure in the novel is Claire, Chris' cis girlfriend. She's an outsider who wears all black, is bad at doing the girl thing and is a kind of rogue Christian into the Gnostic Gospels rather than Young Life. The story accelerates when Chris can no longer keep painful trans issues to herself and confides her pain in a believably clumsy way to Claire. At first, Claire is shocked and has serious questions about whether they can stay together. She wonders what it says about her sexuality and is skeptical about ever seeing her athlete boyfriend (albeit a sensitive one) living as a convincing woman.

Reflections of a trans girl?

Geek therapy
Shortly thereafter, Chris is carted off to a rather blasé male therapist to deal with his issues of depression (but still not out to the parents). Still reeling with regrets about revealing 'the secret,' Chris doesn't trust the confidentiality of these sessions and stays clammed up. It all changes when the regular shrink has a family emergency and his colleague, a woman therapist named Dr. Mandel takes over the session. Surprise, surprise, she's a gender therapist member of WPATH. (That these two therapists would, in any way, be connected or even in the same building seemed wholly implausible, but...) Within one session, Dr. Mandel coaxes the truth of her client's situation wryly using World of Warcraft analogies to gain trust, and she will continue to see Chris as a client (inexplicably, almost immediately accompanied in these sessions by Claire).

Events further heat up when Chris (a frequent visitor to GenderPeace under the online name of Emily) links up with Natalie, a trans girl who lives in the classier northern burbs of the Twin Cities. She's living as a girl 24/7 and has been on hrt for several years. Chris drags Claire along to meet her and they're both blown away by Natalie's 'normalcy' as a teen girl and develop an ongoing friendship with her and her very accepting mom. In short order, Natalie also shares some extra 'mones with Emily who clearly idolizes her and sees in her a possible future manifested. Emily becomes motivated to make surreptitious regular forays into wardrobe building and female presentation with the assistance of Natalie, Natalie's mom and Claire, all done behind Emily's parents' back.

The mall rat blues
In the best scene in the book, Emily, presenting as female (including a wig she was gifted by Natalie's mom), goes by herself to a mall in another town and walks around empowered by her seeming ability to pass. This explodes when she is caught going into a woman's restroom and is harassed by a neanderthal security guard. For me it was the scene which most captured the vividness, sometime absurdity, potential humiliation and heightened awareness of transition and one's awkward first steps out. It very nearly reads as a separate short story within the larger novel.

Boo hoo, Kristy McNicol, where are you?
Not to give too much away, but once Emily's transness is inadvertently revealed to her parents, one parental unit is fairly neutral while the other goes ballistic. Emily's life is immediately under clamp-down. Her ties to Dr. Mandel are severed and she's given over to her initial shrink who is revealed to basically be a clueless reparative therapist. At no point does the book fall down the "Emily runs away to Minneapolis, becomes a street kid and starts turning tricks" hole, nor is there a heart-warming school assembly where she gets a standing ovation ala ABC Afterschool Specials or gets voted prom queen (as a trans girl in Canada just did). Being Emily mostly takes a very "wait, be patient, listen to the therapists, plan ahead" kind of mindset to literary transition.

So is Being Emily an convincing portrait of being a trans teen? I give it mixed marks. Gold, for all her love of gaming culture, doesn't really seem able to capture the teen brain nor voice. It feels as if it's written by an adult and one who hasn't been around the online trans community for quite a while (Gold has stated in an interview that the bulk of the book was written around 2004). There were numerous speeches which read as coming from grown up people, not teens. Claire, who while a highly intelligent and thoughtful teen girl, at one point has a theological discussion with herself about being trans which, I felt, totally dropped any pretension at portraying a young person and sounded like something a theological post grad would write. There are bizarre dumps of Trans 101 exposition and references in the book which sounding more like statements a middle-aged transitioner would say (referencing Joan Roughgarden??) The teen's speech, other than some stiff World of Warcraft mentions, has little reference to other teen cultural phenomena and, in this, feels generic and even stilted in a way which did remind me of AfterSchool Specials.

Whoopsie, my bad!
Perhaps more bizarrely is how many trans faux pas were in the book. At several points the teens talk about 'sex changes' and refer to trans women as "T-Girls" (a term I've never heard a trans teen girl use to refer to herself). The word 'transgender' much less 'trans' or 'trans*' is never mentioned... it's always transsexual. Rather hilariously, Emily meets a trans woman group facilitator who "transitioned 20+ years ago" and "went to Europe for 'the surgery.'" Whoa, this is speech directly from the post-Christine Jorgensen era nor is it at all factually likely. The endocrinologist reads a letter from Dr. Mandel and right off the bat proscribes both Spiro and Premarin to Emily (an hrt which is virtually never prescribed anymore). No mention is made of blockers nor of putting her on anti-androgens first. I can't believe this manuscript was actually reviewed by anyone knowledgable about transitioning in 2012 as a young person and often felt like a twisted time travel back to 2002-2003. An awful lot has changed since then, even in small town Minnesota.

Warning: possible spoilers

There are bizarre lapses in the story... at one point teenager Claire makes and pays for a therapy appointment for Emily with Dr. Mandel. Claire is even brought into Emily's earliest therapy sessions—which is just absurd... that a therapist is going to trust another teen with confidential highly sensitive matters about their client was a jolt of unreality, the kind that teen readers notice in a second. The right-wing security guard believing or caring that Emily was in the women's room of the mall as a "swim team prank" and that parents weren't notified is likewise completely unbelievable. These and other unfortunate events were a distraction.

As to the book actually portraying a first person account of a trans girl, I'm afraid Being Emily didn't quite work for me either. I never felt Emily's voice truly expressed the profound highs and especially low lows of what it's like to be a transgirl teen in the midst of male puberty. I can recall a number of moving posts on GenderPeace from such girls which, in several paragraphs, contained more anguish, obsessive detail, small joys, euphoria, sexual frustration and raw power than I read in all of Being Emily. Moreover, while I understand Gold is coming from her viewpoint as a partner and friend to trans women, there is, IMO all too much of Claire in the book.

Claire: theologian, black wearer, outcast, girlfriend

Move over rover, let the cis girl take over
As with so many other trans books written by non-trans authors, there always seems to be a need for that cis person character who's fighting the trans person's battles and interpreting what being trans means. One who's ultimately more articulate about trans issues, stronger and more mature than the trans person. So by this, we're basically saying how non-trans readers, at heart, really can't connect directly with a trans experience and require a 'folks like us' character to relate to. Moreover, the cis Claire is given more of a real and full-blooded persona than the trans Emily whose personality can be largely summed up as "a boy who wants to be a girl." 'There is no there there' (thank you Gertrude Stein). This is where I found Brian Katcher's book, "Almost Perfect" a better written, rounded and, ultimately more perceptive and gripping view of a trans girl's life (even if she isn't the main character). Go figure, and it was written by a cis, straight man who didn't even run a trans forum!

Opening a door
Does that mean Being Emily shouldn't be included in the library shelf (or e-reader) with the growing list of YA trans-themed titles... absolutely not. It's still an important addition to school and public libraries as a possible open door to the subject matter for those trans, trans-curious and wannabe allies who don't like their YA fiction too down and dirty. A fast flowing read, it's ultimately a much more optimistic work than the harrowing, intense (and more literary) "Almost Perfect" or "I Am J" where trans kids are tossed into mental health facilities or homeless shelters. There is an important place for books which make transition not seem like a living hell, and viewed as something which is attainable and can ultimately save lives and bring true groundedness and humanity. Ultimately, as I've concluded in far too many other reviews in this blog, Being Emily is yet another earnest yet somewhat misfired attempt to represent a trans life but it doesn't compare to trans people, especially youth, speaking out themselves. For those wanting to learn about trans issues first hand, you'd do better off looking through the hundreds of trans teen videos which proliferate on YouTube. In all their messiness, sometime bitchiness, youthful narcissism, insecurities, joys and trans OCD, it's first person trans girl real style not cis style.