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Did He Just Call Me a Monster?

Invisible MonstersLord knows I appreciate a title that has a little pizzazz and controversy, but it stops short when I and my demographic are referred to as “monsters”. Specifically, Invisible Monsters. The title was used by hard boiled author Chuck Palahniuk, a darling of the Maxim crowd with a nearly unpronounceable last name. Seriously, can someone tell me how to say that? The Wikipedia pronunciation guide spells it out in Cyrillic, something I also don’t know how to pronounce correctly. Not that I’m much better in English. Seriously, if you ever have the misfortune to hear me speak, I guarantee you come away confirming my suspected idiocy.

Invisible Monsters, without giving too much away because some of you may rush out to download it to your Kindle, is the tale of 2 social outcasts. One is the narrator who was shot in the face and had her jaw blown off. Her companion is an alleged transsexual, who unlike any trans woman I have ever met, decided to go with the very drag queen moniker of Brandy Alexander. Then again, Pala… Palahuk… whatever, has a habit of naming characters after liquor, so maybe it’s just that. Oh, it gets worse. Much worse. I’m reasonably sure if the fundamentalist right or RadFem debased themselves to read this, they would nod their heads and say, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Now is the part where I’m going to give some stuff away, but not the big shocker of a twist ending. If you want to stop reading and go devour the novel before coming back, I totally won’t hold it against you. Seriously, I won’t even know. My contract with the NSA just went sour. The evolution of a young runaway into (not kidding here) The Queen Supreme, is worthy of any given troll on a website comments section. By the way, is it too much to ask to have trolls here at Michellelianna? Instead I get all these lovely, well thought out and reasoned comments that never seem to inspire a rage and bile chunked vomit of responses. I digress.

Brandy’s story begins with a young gay male who is sexually molested by both his father and a policeman. I can’t believe he didn’t manage to work a priest in there, but this was drafted before that whole ball of evil came to world consciousness. After running away, he is eventually taken in by 3 drag queens who adopted the performing name, The Rhea Sisters. I remember one of them going by ‘Dia’ and another by ‘Gona’. Get it? Ugh. Under their care, young Brandy is convinced to transition with the sister’s paying for all the operations and somehow circumventing WPATH all together. Now here is the real kicker. Brandy went along with this even though she doesn’t consider herself transgender! She’s simply looking for a new identity because she doesn’t care for the old one. Holy shit.

To put all the pieces together, transsexuals are the result of child sex abuse and homosexuality, who have been influenced and cajoled to transition by other trans as a means to adopt a new identity. Is it possible that Chuck Palooka.. [whatever!] and Shelia Jeffrey’s are really one in the same? I understand he’s a writer who likes to push the edges, which is fine, but his portrayal is akin to me writing a book about cabal of Jewish elders in cahoots to poison wells, steal Christian children for their blood and openly gloat how they managed to off Jesus as they polish their horns. I believe strongly in free speech, but some things are just not cool. Sure, it was the first thing he wrote and the public was still very much in the dark, but he just released a remix of the work without any tweaking in this area.

Should we rise in protest? Write angry letters to the publisher or even the author? Um, no. Our time is much better served educating the public on what the truth really is rather than nitpicking with someone who is only going to claim artistic license or character-specific, non-global circumstances. I just thought you all should know in case you were browsing for literature under the keyword ‘transgender’ and in for a nasty surprise. One of his other works, Rant, I found to be both very clever and entertaining, so go figure.

Stuck In the Middle With You

stuck%20in%20the%20middle%20with%20youAfter I begged for a review copy of Jenny Boylan’s 10th anniversary edition of She’s Not There, I received a pleasant surprise in the box. Also included was a hardcover copy of her newest offering, Stuck In the Middle With You: Parenting in 3 Genders. Now, I’ve come to notice that my book reviews are about as popular as my mother-in-law when she cracks open a can of sardines on the plane, but I can’t let this go without saying something about it. After all, it was pretty fantastic.

The format of Stuck (what I’m going to call it in lieu of the usual convention of using the acronym SITMWY:PI3G for economy of letters) ran a little differently than She’s Not There in a few ways. For one, instead of a strictly linear narrative, there are interviews with several personages of greater or lesser note on the topic of parenting. I thought these were good additions to the topic, but I’ll speak more on them later. The rest was a direct continuation of the first work, though this time with names reverted back to original to unprotect both the innocent and directly affiliated. Fortunately she explains this well enough that even the most easily confused among us can follow.

I’m going to start with a huge positive about this work. For those of us who have been through, are in the middle of, or contemplating transition, the Jenny we met in She’s Not There was the cats ass in the transgender world. While suffering the same dysphoria most of us are familiar with, she still managed to survive, marry and stay with her partner, and worked her way into stellar career as professor, departmental co-chair, and author. Add to this that she seems to have achieved total passability microseconds after kicking off transition, and got to go on Oprah. In Stuck, however, we get to see a different side of Jenny that I found far more gratifying and endearing.

In her new work, she is willing to show her vulnerability in issues outside of transition allowing the reader, or at least myself, to have a far easier time identifying with her. Aside from living what would appear to be a picture perfect life in a very non-Stevenkingesque Maine making delicious sounding pizza all the time, she recounts struggles that many of us are well familiar with. Children who bring us to the edge of insane rage, the feeling of having one’s heart walking around outside their body and seeing it crash into a gully, and even the temptation breach years of celibacy out of a yearning to finally test drive the new equipment. Where we admire and seek to be like the Jenny from She’s Not There, we can feel like the Jenny in Stuck really is one of us.

The interviews I have mixed feelings about. Each of them explored a different aspect of the parenting experience and came from very different points of view. While each was enlightening in and of itself, I did feel that a few of them only had the most loose affiliations with the overall theme of the book. While gold in a general book about perspectives in parenting, some shown through as tarnished silver in a book that sold itself as being about parenting in 3 genders as the subtitle suggests. My favorite was the interview with Dr Christine McGinn, and I’ll be honest, I skipped ahead and read this first before anything else. I can also admit I’m biased here as she is going to be doing my surgery this fall, and any insight I can get about someone who is going to poking and snipping around in an area I’m super sensitive about is going to make me feel better.

Her writing, as always, is very engaging and continuously invites the reader to keep moving forward without resorting to hackneyed tactics like cliff-hangers. She paints a vivid picture with her words, and there is great clarity of what she is trying to convey. At the same time, the material is very thought provoking, allowing the readers to imagine themselves in her shoes, creating a minor conflict as whether to continue reading on or ruminate for a little bit. I like this because it’s suited for any mood; something harder to accomplish than commonly acknowledged.

This book is very much for you if you are transgender, transgender with children, or simply a parent of any gender demographic. The common experience translates across all. If any of these are you, I would highly recommend picking this up and having yourself an enjoyable and educational read. If you are confirmed childless, single, or either and cisgender, this may not hold your interest to the same degree as the aforementioned populations. It is not for me to say you will not gain anything from this as I think it would broaden your horizons and worldview, but I can’t guarantee the same level of enjoyment if the material is too foreign. I would imagine very few readers of this blog fall into that category, but still.

Review: She’s Not There – A Life In Two Genders 10th Anniversary Edition

She's Not ThereThe first time I picked up Jennifer Finney Boylan’s autobiographical work, She’s Not There; A Life in Two Genders, I was in a pretty terrible place. I hadn’t yet dared to use ‘the T word’ to describe myself, but I was starting to get very close. I paged through it in the Barnes and Noble parking lot while an early November snow began to come down. “This is either going to be so strange that I know I’m on the wrong track, or it’s going to be way too familiar and then I’m in big trouble.” I think you can guess where it landed.

For anyone unfamiliar, She’s Not There traces the author’s life from her time as a young child up to just after her full gender transition. Within she describes the strange disconnect between her body and spirit with regard to gender and the impact this had on her life. The first half encompasses her attempts to escape her innate feminine identity, while the second outlines her personal transition from a male life to a female one. While she spends time on the mechanics of transition, she frames the stages in the context of her personal life, her family and friends, and the overall impact to an existence that continues to progress independent of the changes she is making. The new edition includes an update to inform the reader what she has been doing for the past 10 years and the long term effect of her transition. Also included are afterwards by her closest friend, the novelist Richard Russo, and her spouse Deidre who appears as ‘Grace’ in the novel.

The first read, two and a half years ago, was fantastic for me. Someone was finally speaking my language, and in a way that was very easy to understand, even though the lingo was all very new to my experience. Funny, engaging, poignant, and a little heartbreaking; I identified strongly with every word right up to the point where she decided to go back to the therapy that culminated with, “That evening just before sundown, Grace was in tears, her heart broken in two.” It hit me hard; my own worst fear about this whole identity question business by far. Beyond my personal experience, the remainder for me became a “What to Expect When You Are Expecting to Transition” manual; a little peek into the future about what might be in store.

The 10th Anniversary edition came out and found me moved on considerably from that shaky, frightened male sitting in his car. Now a great deal of the book was very identifiable to my personal experience as I rocket toward my surgery date, and I was able to read it much differently. My original intention was to just read the updates, but after browsing the first chapter, I found myself pulled in again, now certain that I had probably missed much in spite of my highlighting and note taking from 30 months prior. I’m very glad that happened.

No longer hungry for basic knowledge about transgender life, I was able to appreciate how much of the work was devoted to impact her transition had on everyone around her. Most transition stories have a sense of very selfish self indulgence about them that is inherent to the process. She manages to transcend this and is cognizant how the people in her circle and periphery are affected on a very personal and emotional level while holding true to the very real necessity of taking action before the situation becomes unmanageable. This perspective gives readers unfamiliar with transition as well as those who may be embroiled within it a global view of the process.

This is clearly not a work that is intended to be a ‘how to’ for transgender people and the people in their lives. While it gives sufficient detail to impart clear understanding, it remains a biographical account. From my point of view, this makes it a much richer read as the story is character driven narrative within the broader context of fairly unusual circumstances. Much like the TV series Lost, the questions of why are far less important than what happens to the people we come to identify with.

The last chapter update, and the sole reason I originally intended to pick this up to begin with, would have made this worthwhile on a standalone basis. It can’t be easy to pick up where one left off in a work a decade prior, but she makes it seem effortless. I won’t share the details and spoil the ending (for the most part), but I feel it well conveyed the personal evolution she experienced after a full decade plus of female life. There were a few powerful moments that brought tears to my eyes as she revisited her childhood home, the Coffin House, but overall the message was one of hope for those with the tenacity to proceed in a generous and conscientious manner. I loved the last line, cleverly tied to a moment in her childhood, that simply reads, “He’s not there”.

I will stick with my original recommendation that this is an excellent read for anyone at all interested in gender transition, and for those who may not, but enjoy a well woven autobiography. Although not always true of most autobiographical accounts, the story alone is so well told that it would stand as a work of fiction and remain equally as compelling. I’m very looking forward to reading and reviewing her follow on work on the subject titled Stuck In the Middle With You that tackles the very difficult subject of parenting while undergoing transition and after.

My original review is here.

Book Review: The Collection from Topside Press

A few weeks ago I was asked to read and review the long awaited compilation of transgender themed short stories by Topside Press titled The Collection. OK, that isn’t quite accurate. I heard they were looking for reviewers and jumped up and down yelling, “pick me! pick me!” until they finally sent me a review copy in the mail. I’ll be totally honest here as well. Aside from the subject theme, much of my interest was rooted in the fact that I submitted a number of stories for consideration, all of which were rejected in the compilation process. Don’t get all snitty for me, they were right to do so. Yes, I was a trans woman, but none of my offerings had a trans theme as all were written back when I was still writing all male like.

After reading the choices that were included I was forced to wonder if I would have made the cut anyway. As with any collection, some were better than others, and a few were downright outstanding. Overall The Collection is a symphony of many disparate transgender voices that manages to come together with poignant harmony. Each story truly deserves its own review, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about general impressions.

I loved the mix that was selected for inclusion. I’ve noticed that an awful lot of trans literature tends to be a bit, well, dreary. This is reasonable since the trans experience in life often tips heavily toward the negative. There were a number of inclusions that had a very dark and pessimistic feel to them, but all were refreshingly bereft of the whininess I detest. Instead, many of these packed an emotional punch that only a well told story can. It’s not easy to attain emotional identification with characters in the short story format, but this was achieved multiple times, and often with characters the reader has almost nothing in common with.

I was also very pleased by the lighter offerings included. Aside from appealing to my own personal bent, they counterbalanced the heavier. A few even resembled superhero and ‘Buffy’ style fan fiction, though of a higher quality grade than often encountered in the sites dedicated to such.

As the content, the mix of authors and themes was inclusive to most of the trans community. Most. Equal space was allotted to trans women and trans men, with a few gender-queer offerings included as well. There was a notable absence of cross-dressers at least in terms of protagonists, but my understanding was that the focus was always intended to be transsexuals and GQs. I did, however, notice that for the most part, character representation was limited to those under 30. Some could conceivably be older as age wasn’t mentioned, but the work in general could be described as Millennial. This by no means turned me off, but I will admit that it will be harder for the over 40 crowd to see their own lives and experiences reflected.

My only other impression that isn’t absolutely glowing is the potential lack of accessibility to cisgender readers. While anyone trans will be pulled right into this and find it hard to put down, I’m not so sure someone cisgender will have the same experience. There is a good possibility that the contents may prove to be too alien and hard to relate to. I could be wrong; after all, what do I know of cisgender thinking? While this will surely be a huge hit in a ‘for us by us’ kind of way, a barrier may exist that prevents this from being propelled into the mainstream. I am hoping to get some allies to read this and give impressions, so expect a follow up.

My final verdict: if you are transgendered, you should definitely read this. You will identify with it and you will enjoy it. Lord knows if you are here on my site swallowing down my ramblings, this is going to be a big spoon full of sugar. If you are cisgender and looking to expand your horizons, this is an excellent read and a window into minds you probably don’t quite understand, but we love you for trying.

Finally, on a more personal note, I think supporting the work being done by Topside Press is important. It’s not always easy for us to get our voices heard, and the idea of a publication company devoted to transgender literature is both refreshing and an absolute necessity. Each time we are heard and perhaps understood by the world at large, it chips away at transphobia and other negatives we continuously deal with. Helping them helps us, plain and simple, and trust me, you get a bang for your buck here.

The Collection

Edited by Tom Leger and Riley Macleod
Topside Press – $32.95 hardcover, and 19.95 paperback

Also,  if you could go ahead and click the link above so they know I sent you, well, super appreciated!

A Game of You

This is probably going to really surprise a lot of you, but believe it or not, I am a huge geek. Seriously, it’s true. The reason I’m willing to disclose such an awful shocking truth is to explain how I was exposed to my first transgender comic character. No it wasn’t Jimmy Olson in one of his wacky psychedelic adventures from the 60’s; I’m talking about the 90’s when our favorite ginger lad was back to being as dull as corduroy slacks. I’m talking about Wanda from The Sandman story arc, “A Game of You”. To me, this made Neil Gaiman the best comic book author ever. (BTW, Annie, don’t read this until you finished the book. Jodi, Annie is reading a comic book and is a total geek as well.)

I see that blank look on your face and yes, I am just a little bit pissed. OK, just in case you were still trying to pull off a “cool guy” or “girly girl” façade back in ’91, I’ll explain a little bit. The Sandman was an edgy 90’s era comic book published by DC comics under the Vertigo imprint. The main protagonist was Dream of the Endless; one of seven eternal embodied concepts who all had names that began with a ‘D’ for some reason. This particular story line was about a shattered divorcee getting hassled by some dream adventures she had in the past. If you are interested in knowing more, you should pick up the trade paperback available on Amazon. What I liked about this story were the supporting characters: Thessaly, an extremely old but hot witch; Hazel and Foxglove, two butch looking lesbians; and Wanda, a trans woman too poor to get any medical intervention.

The role Wanda played in this story was that of Barbie’s, the aforementioned divorcee, best friend and confidant. It was a very positive portrayal, although I do have a few nitpicky issues. In one scene Wanda appears in her underwear, and naive neighbor Hazel notices and points out that Wanda has “a thingie”, to which she replies that it isn’t nice to point out a girls shortcomings. Clearly Wanda, or more likely the author, was not well versed in the art of the tuck.

The only part that genuinely irritated me was a scene in which the ancient witch Thessaly barred Wanda from participating in a moon ritual to take them to dreamland and rescue Barbie. Thessaly explained that Wanda wasn’t really a real woman as would be recognized by the elder powers that be. Grrr. It would be one thing if the words came from some doofus of a character with an opinion, but by having this one declare it, it was akin to saying that is truly the way it is. Many of us, self included, get a little bit prickly about such statements. It was, however, 20 years ago and hopefully the author has come around to recognizing a more enlightened status of things.

Toward the end of the story, Wanda, having been declared a phony-baloney girl, is left behind to watch the coats and purses as the “real” women traipse off to dreamland. This is doubly unfortunate as soon thereafter the building collapses, ending Wanda’s brief tragic existence. The epilogue deals with Barbie, grateful for not being crushed to death, traveling down south for the funeral of her friend. To her dismay she finds that Wanda came from holy roller caricature stock, and that the extended family considered “the boy” to have been living in sin. For the funeral, they cut her hair, dressed her in a suit, and insist on referring to her as her original name, ironically ‘Alvin Mann’. The family is mortified by Barbie’s wacky goth ways (she draws a black veil on her face using an eyebrow pencil) and shoo her off. Her last act is to use a cherry poppin red lipstick to cross out “Alvin” on the tombstone and write in Wanda.

The very, very end does have a redeeming scene in which the ghost of Wanda appears, and looks like a gorgeous cisgender woman. Why the moon goddess couldn’t see that and left her behind to cool her heels in a remarkably unstable building I’m not sure, but I was happy that it was made clear that her soul was female and no longer had to worry about displaying a package in her panties. For 1991, I have to say I was impressed at the decent treatment, even if there was a bit of misguided opinion thrown in.

As an addendum, I want to add that my other favorite part about this story line was that the positive portrayal of LGBT characters prompted the Concerned Mother’s of America to send in a pissy prissy boycott letter. What made me cheer was that the publisher saw fit to include the letter in the letter column of a follow on issue, and made great fun of it. The country having just emerged from the Regan Moral Majority era, was still a bit skittish about ruffling feathers, so it was a pleasure to see DC crank the mighty bird up in response.

Review: She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan

I went to Barnes and Noble on a cold late morning to look for something else all together. I was finally at the cusp of understanding myself and had ceased my avoidance of the topic. My preliminary research told me that True Selves was the best introduction to things transgender. I don’t know why I assumed they would have it. They did not. I did myself a favor by typing ‘transgender’ into the clunky store search engine that is heavily biased toward Nook offerings. The only thing in stock was a biography of someone I had never heard of. I picked it up anyway and cashed out.

I read the back cover again in the car and leafed through it, noting some basic similarities to my own life. I rationalized. Either this was going to hit home and I’d be driven closer to what I suspected but not quite ready to admit, or I would not be able to identify with her story and would broaden my investigation into my identity issues. In retrospect I can’t believe how dense I insisted on being, but it is important to the context in which I read She’s Not There; A Life in Two Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan.

I’ll speak to my bias first and get that out of the way. While no two lives are exactly parallel, the author’s experiences pre-transition and my own had enough similarity that I was able to immediately identify with her. Her easy, flowing writing style spoke directly to my preference that could have easily made this a one day read even if the experience wasn’t pegged to a voyage of self discovery. I’m sure exceptions exist, but it is difficult to imagine any American MtF transgender woman not responding favorably to this book and feeling a kinship to the author as a result.

What I enjoyed the most in the pre-transition portion, roughly the first half minus the first chapter, was the authors ability to convey her struggle in wrestling with a pre-aware transgender identity. This may also be bias, but her familiar attempts at self-correction were poignant but painful to read as she displayed a great deal of candor in describing the awkwardness, false hope, and self deception I was so familiar with. Many transgendered people, and myself included, face overwhelming temptation to take a revisionist approach to our pasts. In the comfort of the present, it seems nearly ludicrous to not have known ourselves and destination. The author pushed past that and managed to capture those moments true to form, as near as the reader can tell in any case.

Transition and after, the second half of the book, read just as smoothly. In the context I was reading, it was almost a guide of what to expect when you are expecting to transition. Hungry for information, it became less of a story than a manual for newly self discovering transsexuals. Reading it this way does her story a great disservice. I read it the first time in a mad grasp for fast knowledge, a second time to take notes for my therapist, but came back a third (unprecedented for me since The Hobbit back in fourth grade). On the third read I was able to come back to the overall story and read as it was intended. In this respect it was as moving and impressive as the first.

From a strictly transgender perspective, this work is wonderful in both providing a wealth of information in a very personal narrative. Because of that, it also brings a great sense of comfort. Jenny struggled, found herself married and a parent, and yet managed to transition and the world did not come to an end. I did find some of the physical aspects of transition to be slightly glossed over, but the capture of the emotional and social components well made up for it. It was gratifying to have her concentrate on the truly hard parts.

One of the reasons I picked this for my first review, other than sentiment for the first transgender work I read, was that I have no criticism to add. I do, however, have a small word of warning. The author, Jenny, is very passable. A trans reader should bear this in mind and consider some of her experiences may be atypical for those of us who were cursed with more stereotypical male features. This is not the authors fault as she tells her story as an autobiography and can only speak to her own experience.

I’m not going to bother with a scale based rating system in my reviews, but I will conclude by reaffirming that this book was excellent. In addition to speaking to my own condition of existence, I have found that it makes a superb introduction to transgender for cisgender people. I have loaned my copy out enough times that I bought a second. The feedback I received from my cisgender friends and family was overwhelmingly positive as both an enjoyable read and as real world validation of the experiences I have been trying to relate. I understand a 10th anniversary edition is coming out shortly with new material and I will be picking it up.

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