Tuesday, November 13, 2018

#TransAwarenessWeek: Transgender Biographies & Memoirs: Part Two

In honor of Trans Awareness Week, I want to shift gears for a bit and put the focus on the people, the lives, and the stories of the transgender community. Step away from the fiction and the fantasy and recognize those who have not only lived authentically, but been brave enough, bold enough, confident enough to share their stories.

I kicked things off yesterday with a selection of my favorite titles from nearly a decade here at Bending the Bookshelf. Today we are pulling from the pages of my columns in Frock Magazine.

Confessions of a Transvestite Prostitute by Chris Burrows: As stories go, there is definitely a lot of fantasy and fetish here, so much so that a casual reader could be forgiven for wondering how much of it is real. However, the more you read, the more you realize why that is - Samantha, unlike many of us, seized upon her fantasies early on, not only accepting them, but embracing them. Her story reads like a fantasy because it is one - it's a fantasy she has brought to life, and that is something truly remarkable. What is perhaps most remarkable about Samantha's story is what it reveals to the reader about the customs, prejudices, and attitudes of Asian society. There is such a cultural and religious stigma associated with transcending gender in the West that the simple concept of such public acceptance is hard to grasp. In the end, Samantha's story is a great one, and Chris does an amazing job of not only bringing it to us, but of packaging it so well.

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock: Janet's story has all the hallmarks of the trans experience. She recalls being caught and scolded for wearing a dress at the age of thirteen. She remembers telling her mother that she was gay, unable at that age to separate gender identity from sexuality. With no concept of a trans identity, the idea of a thirteen-year-old boy becoming a girl was nothing more than a fantasy. More than anything, Janet’s story is one of triumph. She acknowledges the challenges, the disadvantages, and the issues she faced, but never dwells on them or lets them dictate her story. There is some darkness to her tale as well, particularly surrounding her life as a prostitute, but she owns that life, owns her choices, and almost justifies them as a means to an end. She doesn’t try to make herself out to be the perfect woman, and makes it very clear she never set out to be any kind of role model. Instead, Janet shares with her past, invites us to reminisce, and promises a brighter future – something to which we can all aspire.

From Darkness To Diva by Skye High: Standing over seven feet tall (in high heels), the aptly named Skye High is one of Australia’s leading drag queen media personalities. Hers is a story that peers behind the glitter and the sequins, strips away the pomp and pageantry, and takes a very human look at the universal struggle against rejection and insecurity. Yes, it is partially a story about a drag queen, but the grand debut of Skye High upon the stage doesn’t even happen until halfway through the book, and she really only gets a handful of chapters. Leading up to that we find an inspirational tale of coming to grips and finding self-acceptance as a gay man, but even that is only part of the story.  More than anything, it is a story about being human.

Tea and Transition by Nicola Chase: Of all the transgender stories I have come across, Nicola Jane Chase’s may be the most fascinating. Not only is it a story of acceptance and transition, but one of recognition. Here is a woman who does not remember ever questioning her gender identity as a child, not even in a momentary innocent or playful manner. There were no doubts, no questions, and no discomfort with her gender. By all accounts, Neil was a happy child and a well-adjusted young man, traveling the world as a professional DJ and radio announcer. She does not remember what prompted it, but her journey began with crossdressing around the house. There is a lot of sorrow to her story, especially with the cold rejection of friends as well as lovers, and her mother’s initial mourning over a lost son. Overall, however, it is a story of optimism and hope, punctuated by far more humor and happiness than sorrow.

Stuck in the Middle With You by Jennifer Finney Boylan: Anybody who has ever given it even a moment’s passing thought knows that it is not easy to step outside the so-called ‘norm’ and embrace a gender identity or expression that lies beyond the traditional gender binary. When there are children involved, however, the situation gets even more complex. Fortunately, Stuck in the Middle with You does a wonderful job of exploring the role that gender (and gender change) plays in parenting, and demonstrates that the health and happiness of one’s self and one’s children can coexist peacefully. That’s not to say it’s all fluff and laughter – there are some deep thoughts and some painful tears involved, but time, love, and caring heal most wounds. While not as ground-breaking as her first two books (I'm Looking Through You is my most well-traveled book, lent to friends and family), this is a welcome addition to the shelves upon shelves of parenting books out there, and one that offers a unique perspective for all genders.

Men Can Wear Dresses Too by Catie Maye: A true story and a cultural exploration of what it means to be a transvestite, this is a story that explores the parallel lives of the cross-dresser, hiding the truth from others, lying to protect that oh-so-necessary form of self-expression, and battling the depression that takes root from the need for deceit. The entire book is largely an autobiographical tale, but one that’s intertwined with the studies and theories. Risks and secrecy are a recurring theme, but it’s sobering to realize how strong the need to express ourselves is, regardless of those risks. Where the story gets really interesting is when Catie talks about taking his cross-dressing public, and about learning to pass as a woman. Rounding out Catie’s story is that of his wife, her discovery of his secret, and how they’ve come to terms with that aspect of his life. So, if you have ever wondered, questioned, debated, and doubted, believe that Men Can Wear Dresses Too.

My Transvestite Addictions by Jack A. Shelia: This is an extraordinarily candid look at the life experiences of Jack/Jacquelina, alternately amusing and horrifying, cautionary and inspiring. The story begins with the harsh contrast between a 10-year-old lying in the comfort of his own bed, full of innocent prayers for God to turn him into a girl overnight, and 47-year-old laying on the cold floor of a jail cell, tortured by questions about what left him broken and bleeding . . . and where he goes from there. Over the course of the story, we see Jack & Jacquelina battle for supremacy, with both controlling aspects of his life, but neither representing the whole of who he is. Jack’s is a difficult story, full of as many highs and lows, and one that may be seen to have a rather open-ended, happy-for-now ending. Like so many of the great stories of addictions, this is a story of a long, winding road-trip through the emotional and sexual psyche. There’s no promise of eternal bliss, no easy answers provided to the question of gender, and no definitive declaration of what makes a transvestite versus transsexual. Instead, it’s simply the story of a journey – one that is not yet complete – and the lessons learned along the way.

Frankly Kellie: Becoming a Woman in a Man’s World by Kellie Maloney: Kellie opens her story with talk of pacing her small holiday chalet, anxiously waiting for her story to come out in the Sunday Mirror, and wondering what the world’s reaction will be. It’s day of extreme anxiety, but also one of unbridled joy at the freedom to do away with the pretense and discard the illusion that was Frank Maloney. From there, Kellie takes us back to the beginning, to the life of a 5-year-old boy who lives as a girl inside his dreams. As we walk through Kellie’s life, experiencing it alongside her, it’s hard not to see it in terms of unending conflicts. There are so many opportunities where, if society had provided her with the tools or the acceptance to come out, you can see how different Kellie’s life might have been. More than once she reaches a point where the truth is on her lips, but where she can’t allow it to escape. It’s almost tragic the lengths to which she goes to outrun the woman inside, even if we’ve all felt it, and all had at least a taste of that struggle. While Kellie’s story may not get the press that Caitlyn’s did, there’s no question that it’s just as dramatic, or just as important that she has shared it so publicly. By coming out on her own terms, she gets to be an April Ashley for the next generation, but without the baggage of that earlier time.

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