By Mary L. Fahrenbruck, Leanna Lucero and Tabitha P. Collins
This month we discuss adolescent literature that features coming out stories of transgender and gender fluid adolescents. Mary and Leanna happened upon this genre when they brainstormed ways to interpret a Crossing Borders theme in their undergraduate teacher-education classes. Tabitha, a doctoral candidate, focuses on children’s and adolescent literature that features LGBTQ+ characters as part of their research agenda. What follows in each discussion is a synopsis of the novel and excerpts from our conversations about multiple topics including believability (Tunnel & Jacobs, 2004), stereotypes, story patterns (Stott, 1978), supports in place for LGBTQ youth (particularly at school), and the authors’ calls to action.
January’s My Take/Your Take begins with a discussion of I am J by Cris Beam. Trapped inside a female body, J struggles to claim his male identity. As J’s female body begins to develop, he begins binding his chest and hiding underneath layers of clothing. J desperately wants, needs, to take T (testosterone) so that his body will reflect his true identity. But because he is only 17, J needs his parents’ consent. J will have to come out to his parents as FtM (female to male) transgender. Beam’s novel portrays the struggles of a teenager trying to come out to family and friends so that he can live the life he was meant to live.
We began our conversation with a discussion about the believability of the story. We focused on J’s struggles as a transgender adolescent and on the ending of the novel.
MARY: Let’s start with the ending. Leanna, you said that it was a happy ending and that wasn’t realistic.
LEANNA: It seemed like it wasn’t going to be a happy ending. I was a little hopeful that it wouldn’t be, but then the ending was almost too fake. It ended happily even though J went through these horrible things. Js circumstance is unique. People who struggle with these things don’t always have great recoveries, where everything is all squared away in the end.
TABITHA: Everything tied itself into a neat little bow… the end!
MARY: What would you say J’s struggles are? His biggest struggles?
LEANNA: He can’t be who he is because of the people around him. That consumes every thought. It’s harder for J to step over hurdles to be himself. It consumes his every thought because everyone else thinks he is Jennifer.
TABITHA: J’s gender identity and gender expression don’t match up with his biological sex. People are so focused on what his biological sex is that he’s having a hard time feeling comfortable in his skin. He’s not accepted by his family or his friends for the most part.
MARY: I liked the book. Would I recommend it? As an outsider, I wouldn’t be able to say that it’s an authentic portrayal.
TABITHA: I would say, yes, it is a pretty authentic portrayal. It’s difficult to say that because each person has a different authentic experience. But the emotions that the author describes, the coping skills, the ways of trying to ‘pass’ as male are authentic. I would recommend to a student because it’s well-written and the author is well-known. She’s written frequently about trans folks.
Our conversation shifts as we discuss elements of J’s coming out story as portrayed by the author. We wonder if J’s story contains stereotypes.
MARY: I couldn’t determine if there are stereotypes throughout the book, so I made a list: eliminating his female body by not looking at himself in the mirror, cutting his hair short, wearing layers of baggy clothes. I don’t know if those are stereotypes, strategies, or something else.
TABITHA: For many people I know who are FtM trans, they do use those strategies to make themselves appear more masculine–anything from wearing an undershirt with shirts over to flatten their chest to harmful things like using Ace Bandages.
LEANNA: I don’t think it’s so much stereotypical as much as it is educating. The author is trying to educate the reader about the struggles and coping strategies that trans people use to make their bodies match their identity prior to a full transition. Make sense?
TABITHA: Yes. Almost everyone I know who is trans does those things.
LEANNA: J creates a binder and then someone gives him a binder–that is one of the happy endings because a binder is expensive. I did see some stereotypes like when J has that confrontation with Blue (a classmate) about the poem. She thinks that he is gay, so the artsy stereotype of gay men.
Our conversation turns to possible story patterns of LBGT novels. Although we don’t mention Stotts’ (1978) article specifically, we base our conversation on story patterns he identified in children’s literature (e.g. home-away-home). For our conversations, we explore Time and Time Away as a story pattern in the novels we discuss for My Take/Your Take.
TABITHA: J is kind of spoiled, honestly. He is kind of arrogant. He doesn’t listen to anyone else when they talk to him, he has his own ideas. While I don’t think his parents are doing a great job of supporting him, I also don’t think that anybody’s parents do a great job of supporting them in certain situations. And being trans is a huge thing. As a parent you go from having a daughter for so long and then one day your daughter says, “So, I’m not a girl.”
MARY: But is it really, “and then one day”?
TABITHA: Usually in the stories and in people’s lives there are signs, but then there is one day where the person “comes out” and says, “This is who I am.” Think about the way that J knows he is a boy and spends months, weeks, and years being a boy to his mind and then he comes out. He has all that space and time to transition in his head. Then he needs his parents to accept him as soon as he comes out to them. It’s a huge thing.
LEANNA: J assumed his parents wouldn’t accept him. For sure, they aren’t overly accepting, but he never has to leave. That is never a suggestion. He never has to go to a hotel; he never has to go to this homeless shelter. He doesn’t have to do any of that, but it helps create the neat happy ending.
TABITHA: Yeah, things have to be bad so that they can get good. If he stuck it out with his family, I don’t know if they ever would have been exuberant, but they probably would have been better.
LEANNA: In the end, his parents are somewhat accepting. He doesn’t give them that opportunity.
MARY: You think then, what is created by the end of the story is that J’s parents have time to get to a place that he has already gotten to?
TABITHA: I think that’s what happens… if you’re trans or not part of the gender binary, then you spend a lot of time thinking about that and trying to figure out who you are, why you feel the way you do, why you don’t fit in to the normal (applicable even if you’re gay/lesbian). Then by the time you’re ready to share, you have had all this time, you know who you are, you know how you feel, but you don’t realize that others need an adjustment period too. J is a senior so he’s probably had these thoughts for years and he doesn’t give his parents and friends a chance to process in order to accept him.
LEANNA: They are accepting of him as a lesbian but this is different. It’s almost grieving the loss of Jennifer, the person they know and J wants acceptance to be instantaneous.
TABITHA: Often people see ‘signs’ that they can interpret–some sort of embodiment, hair, clothes, etc., that let them think you are gay/lesbian and you can come to accept that. However, moving from lesbian to boy is a bigger step.
MARY: Why don’t parents step forward and ask for time and ask their child to not do anything irrational like leave home. Are there books that talk about that?
LEANNA: I don’t know if there are books that talk about time and time away–not from the trans person’s point of view.
TABITHA: Not really–maybe Luna?
MARY: Wouldn’t that be more hopeful in a book? Time?
As former teachers (Mary and Tabitha) and an administrator (Leanna), we examine the role school plays in the lives of LGBTQ students. We are hopeful that schools provide not only safe spaces, but also support and education about LGBTQ to all students, faculty, and staff.
LEANNA: Going back to the ending, J’s now accepted to college, and everything is tied up neatly. It’s a great ending. But it goes along with the “It Gets Better” project. That is, now this time is over and J is going somewhere he can get a new start where people don’t know him.
TABITHA: Do we want to say anything else about his experiences in school? I think it’s reflective of a really crappy reality.
MARY: J’s experiences in school–the support that school gives, if any–the first high school is hell. J doesn’t want to be there and often doesn’t go.
LEANNA: In the alternative school, the academic level is not as high as J is accustomed to but the adults and his friend are supportive, his friend more so than the adults. But it doesn’t seem like a big theme.
MARY: Why is his school experience absent in this novel? Is it the author’s choice?
LEANNA: Yeah, school doesn’t seem that important to J.
MARY: Maybe that’s why the author makes him a senior, so school wouldn’t have to be a focus.
LEANNA: Maybe? One of J’s biggest fears is what will happen when he goes to college. He has those fears and anxieties about his name/dead name in school (dead name is the name a person is assigned at birth but no longer wants to be called). He does talk about school. It’s mentioned, but it isn’t a big focus.
MARY: What else is J worried about in college?
LEANNA: The roommate thing, the bathroom thing, the transcript would say one name while he goes by another.
TABITHA: Those are typical worries and concerns for people who are trans.
MARY: So, maybe as we read the other novels, we can watch for different ways the character is supported.
TABITHA: Or, like, what does support look like to the trans person?
Tunnel, M. T., & Jacobs, J. (2004). Children’s literature briefly. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Stott, J. C. (1978). Running away to home—A story pattern in children’s literature. Language Arts. 55(4), (473-477).
Title: I Am J
Author: Cris Beam
Publisher: Little Brown
Date Published: January 1, 2011
Winner of the Kirkus Best Book Award of 2011, the Amazon Best Books Award of March 2011, the Junior Library Guild Selection of 2011 and the Rainbow Book List for 2012.
This is the first installment of January’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the whole conversation, check the WOW Blog every Wednesday.