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Reflecting on T: “I am J” on being Transgendered

A few weeks ago I noticed on Queerty that California schools are going to include GLBT-themed books in their curriculum.

The news bit included the cover of two of the books on the list, Totally Joe and I am J. I own Totally Joe – and while it’s been awhile since I’ve actually read it, I remember coming away thinking it was a perfectly fine book, the kind of book that I wished had been around when I was in elementary or middle school (I guess it’s aimed at younger teenagers, but I was reading way ahead of my grade level, so it probably would have had a greater impact on me in fifth or sixth grade).

The second book, I am J, I’d never heard of. Queerty noted that it was “a novel about transgendered teens.”

Although I’ve known several transgender people, I could not recall ever having read a novel featuring transgender individuals. Surely they were secondary (or tertiary) characters in a novel somewhere, but I honestly cannot think of a single example of one in a book I’ve read.

So I decided to order a copy of “I am J”—surprisingly easy, thanks to Amazon, and read it.

My main problem is that the book is entitled “I am J” – and, consequently, I expected a first person voice. I expected J, who turns out to be FTM, to do the talking. I expected J to tell me what he was going through. I expected to see the world through his eyes. Instead there was a narrator doing the talking, providing perspective, and telling the story. I fully realize that this is probably not an issue for most readers, but for me I ended up becoming really annoyed with the book through the first third because the narrator seemed so detached from the situation.

Face it: it’s a teenager at war with their own body. He wants to be a boy, but he’s going through a girl’s puberty and the consequences thereof. We’re told in a distracted way about chest binding. The narrator explains that J makes something to bind his chest and wears it. I would have preferred it had J told us about how he made it and what it felt like to wear it.

Beyond the third person narrator, the story is certainly though provoking about what it’s like to be a transgender teenager – a transgender person of any age – and the challenges that come along with it, like, for example, going to the bathroom. The book is set in New York City, a city that is, I suspect, fairly Transgender friendly – but even there at a support group meeting, transgender teens complain about the difficulty of finding a place to pee.

Surprisingly the book’s author, Cris Beam, isn’t transgender, although her foster daughter is and her partner is gender variant. Perhaps this is why the book ends up being written in the third person because Cris, herself, isn’t able to give a first person perspective of what it is like to be transgender. I cannot help but wonder why, though, she didn’t try to put the book into first person, especially considering that the target audience are transgender teenagers. Surely her experience working with transgender teens plus her transgender foster daughter should have given her enough insight to pull it into first person and give J a much stronger voice and impact.

I do not want to diminish the contribution that this book makes: there are few books aimed at transgender teens that seek to give voice to the transgender teen experience – and every single book helps, but I wish that Cris had gone that extra step and put it into first person. The target audience, I suspect, would find the book that much more powerful and helpful.

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