How often can you say that something made you uncomfortable and mean it as a compliment? After all, when I learned that Being Emily, the first young adult novel written in first person from the perspective of a transgender teen girl, was written by a cisgender lesbian, I was expecting something along the lines of another Transamerica. That was a film that accurately portrayed all of the worst stereotypes of trans women in a single 103-minute faceplant into the pavement. So when I say that movie made me “uncomfortable”, it was because it gave a dated, cisssexist outsider’s view of what our poor, pitiful lives must be like, all in the guise of being an ally.
Luckily I met Rachel Gold at a conference in the run up to the book’s release, otherwise the bad taste still left in my mouth by that movie might have put me off even reading her book. It was there I realized she was someone who knew what the hell she was talking about, and most importantly I noticed how intently she was listening. So if there’s any fault for a cis person writing the first novel of its type, it’s on us for not beating her to the punch, because Being Emily hit the mark in every way Transamerica didn’t.
So this is where I say Being Emily was sublimely discomforting in the best way: rather than being a rehashing of tired tropes with no resemblance to actual experience, Emily’s story is instead too familiar to the journey so many of us embark upon to make for a comfortable read. Gold’s storytelling dances deftly along my rawest nerves, which tells me she took the time to really learn more than just the superficial fluff that often characterizes stories about trans people. If it were comfortable to read a story so eerily similar to my own, then I don’t think I could have enjoyed it as much as I did.
Being Emily tells the story of Emily, a high school student whose stable midwestern life is thrown into chaos when she begins the process of coming out as transsexual to her friends and family. When the rest of the world looks at Emily, they only see Chris, a sixteen year old boy on the swim team with a girlfriend, a little brother, and Catholic parents. But what Emily sees in the mirror is a body growing more visibly male each day, a body that she needs to save from the testosterone slowly poisoning her.
For Emily, puberty isn’t simply the more-or-less awkward time of waiting for one’s body to mature while worrying about test scores and crushes. What Being Emily captures so well is that for transsexual kids, puberty is the horrifying realization that no fairy godmother (or, in Emily’s case, Glinda the Good Witch) is going to come along and with a flick of a wand reverse the course her body is taking.
Emily differs from the typical LGB coming out tale because, like for so many trans youth, time is of the essence; when her parents react poorly, the message of “be patient, it gets better” is less than helpful advice. Her body isn’t waiting, and so neither can Emily.
Throughout the book, Gold remains mindful that her target audience is unlikely to be as familiar with concepts such as gender identity as her precociously educated protagonist. While some readers might find Emily’s knowledge distractingly improbable, I submit that yours truly knew more about sex going in to freshman sex ed than anyone coming out. (In fact, I would be in college before my Human Sexuality class caught up to my own autodidactism on the topic.) In short: when it is relevant to your life, you would be amazed by how quickly a person can consume all the available knowledge on a subject.
However, for the reader who is not personally affected by these issues, Gold weaves the necessary background information into the struggle of Emily’s girlfriend, Claire, to make sense of Emily’s transition. Some of these lessons feel slightly forced, but consider that whole books have been written to help explain the topic and still just barely scratch the surface. The few fact-heavy passages sprinkled in are easily forgiven in the face of Claire’s sincere realization that femininity isn’t a burden unfairly thrust upon Emily, but a truly welcome self-expression being denied to her. The idea that femininity is a gift and not a curse is a lesson that is rarely expressed with such clarity, even in the books in which it is a central theme.
What impressed me most was the way in which Gold captures the essence of the little, mundane aspects of life that take on a new, monstrous form when a person is a (closeted) trans girl: filtering thoughts to ensure sufficient masculinity before speaking them aloud, the need to pee forcing a person to choose between two wrong answers for which restroom to use, the way the choice of a character’s gender in a video game requires layers of justification to throw people off the scent. It was these moments in the story that rang most true, and the echoes of my own memories haunted me while I read each one. (Gold did miss one factoid that would not have escaped such an astute protagonist’s notice: spironolactone tastes like mint. It’s one of those pleasantly surprising discoveries we all make and no trans woman I know fails to mention it whenever spiro comes up. But I’ll let that one slide. 😉 )
While Gold does fall back on a few clichés, she goes to great length to dispel some of the more common ones (“X stuck in a Y body”, “just men in dresses”). The fact of the matter is, that is a battle she couldn’t have won to begin with. Many of these clichés exist not because they ring true for trans people, but because they’re the most about a trans experience that cis people can relate to. Beyond vague notions of “X stuck in a Y body”, or detailed neurobiological explanations of sexual dimorphism in the brain, there are precious few words to express with any success what it feels like. Because it doesn’t actually feel like being an “X stuck in a Y body”. I have no words to explain the physical discomfort I feel, or even how it differs from things like being dissatisfied with my weight. They’re absolutely different feelings, but when I try to put into words the way gender dysphoria feels, I know what cis people think because the next words out of their mouths are “Lots of us have issues with our weight/appearance/etc. Part of puberty is learning to accept it.” If that’s the dismissal, then speaking as someone who struggles with both weight and sex characteristics, I know for a fact you don’t realize I’m talking about something of a totally different nature. It truly is something that you can’t grasp unless you feel it, and if you do, you don’t need complex explanations or justifications to understand the difference.
The most important lesson, though isn’t the actual internal feeling of dysphoria. And as such, Gold only touches lightly on those aspects of the story. Instead, what the reader sees is a character who has an otherwise typical teenage life with this layered on top. What come through loud and clear is the very palpable fear and urgency that accompanies trans youth, coupled with the inability to put off either high school or transition. Adopting a “wait until you’re older and see” attitude isn’t a neutral choice*, because puberty doesn’t wait, and neither does graduation. Gold captures that urgency perfectly in the way small successes alleviate the burden for a time, but even minor setbacks to a typical teen can quickly become catastrophic for a trans teen, because until a person is on the right track, just holding ground is losing ground.
In the end, it is what Being Emily gets right that makes it such an uncomfortable experience for me. While it can be easy for hardened activists to dismiss it as yet another story about a trans person’s transition, it has none of the typical “freak show” spectacle nor does it elicit any of the “that must be so hard” pitying by the reader that so many do.
With good reason, Being Emily is now among the list of two books I have read in a single sitting. I highly recommend picking it up.
* The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) published in their 7th edition of their Standards of Care the following:
Refusing timely medical interventions for adolescents might prolong gender dysphoria and contribute
to an appearance that could provoke abuse and stigmatization. As the level of gender-related abuse
is strongly associated with the degree of psychiatric distress during adolescence (Nuttbrock et al.,
2010), withholding puberty suppression and subsequent feminizing or masculinizing hormone
therapy is not a neutral option for adolescents.