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July 1, 2011

Evenings Out

Beam hits a home run with TG coming-of-age story

Growing up gay or lesbian or bisexual can be difficult. The feelings that set you apart make you a target, and the topics of bullying and teen suicide are in the news as often as not over the last year or two.

Growing up transgender is another matter entirely. Yes, the feelings set you apart, but instead of just having an attraction that people are saying is wrong, the mind is saying that the body is wrong. What are these bits doing here? Why aren’t there other bits over there?

There is the same risk of rejection, but as it has been shown since the dawning of the Transgender Day of Remembrance 13 years ago, violence against transgender people is an epidemic, one that is seldom noticed or discussed.

Into this world comes the young adult novel I Am J by Cris Beam (Little Brown, hardcover, $16.99).

J is a young man at war with himself. Wearing multiple shirts to hide his breasts, feeling a longing for his best friend Melissa, everyone thinks he is a young lesbian, including his Puerto Rican mother and Jewish father. The truth, however, is that J is a typical teenage boy who doesn’t understand why his body and his consciousness seem so at odds with each other.

While searching for transgender information online, he discovers the possibility of taking testosterone injections as part of transitioning. Unfortunately, on the website it does not say anything about having to be 18 or have parental consent to get the shots, a fact J discovers when he runs away from home to live as a man.

A few nights in a seedy hotel, a vague romance with a girl in Greenwich Village and an estrangement from his family seem a simple enough price to pay, especially considering the number of transgender people whose families completely disown them, or worse. This is, after all, the age of fathers beating their toddlers to death for acting too “girly.”

Author Cris Beam has not only taught transgender teens in Los Angeles, she also wrote a non-fiction book about being young and gender-variant. This is her first novel, and as far as young adult books go, she seems to have hit a triple, if not a home run.

Without being condescending, she has brought the issue to an easily-comprehensible level; she has outlined some of the major pitfalls lying ahead of her protagonist. She has included a panoply of characters illustrating a variety of lives, including a transwoman, gay men, lesbians and other transmen.

It’s both amusing and saddening to think of the conniption fits that the religious right will have when this book starts popping up in school libraries. Apparently, they would rather have kids drink a bottle of Drano than realize that those strange thoughts in their heads might be pretty normal after all.

Of course, to counteract that, it is absolutely imperative to support schools, libraries and community centers that will offer truthful, balanced information on issues like this. If one in ten people who read the Gay People’s Chronicle bought a copy of the book and donated it to the Cleveland LGBT Center, the AIDS Taskforce, their local high school or public library, how many kids would that help? How many lives could it save?

Well, the only way to know is to try it.

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