Entertainment » Books

Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers

by Scott Stiffler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Feb 12, 2008
Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers

The next time you feel undervalued, unacknowledged or discriminated against for living each day as an out gay man, take mom's humbling advice and think about the many people in this world who would be grateful to have your "problems." Or, more to the point, think of those in our community whose struggle with gender identity, acceptance and expression is made absurdly difficult by a culture that renders them invisible, institutionalizes discrimination against them, or fetishizes them as sex objects. On top of that, when they're rarely acknowledged through TV, film or books, they've got to contend with the use of Trans as a cutesy, marketable prefix.

The title is the only thing (and even here, I'm nitpicking) that's wrong about Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers. Cris Beam's uncompromisingly revealing, respectful, meticulously detailed, often depressing but ultimately hopeful portrayal of Los Angeles transgirls charts the journeys of Christina, Dominique, Foxxjazell and Ariel. These are not the TV-friendly transgirls (born male but living as female) that show up on earnest Logo documentaries or elimination dating shows; they're the distressed and abandoned street kids that show up on exploitative MSNBC cable news specials that smugly revel in the grittiness of lives we'll never have to lead. But unlike her cable TV counterparts, Chris Beam writes with a sense of compassion and authority that neither condescends nor idealizes.

On a whim of volunteerism, Beam's teaching gig at Eagles (a Los Angeles "small, scrappy high school for gay and transgender teenagers" where "there's competition for men and money and good clothes and popularity") soon evolves into an intense bond with the girls featured in this book -- most prominently, Christina (for who Beam, along with her partner Robin, becomes a guardian angel and, ultimately, a guardian). On countless rescue missions, she nurtures Christina while pushing her into accepting responsibility for her actions -- which she does, and quite spectacularly.

But for every transgirl like Christiana, there seem to be more like Dominique -- who ends up doing serious prison time. Telling her story and others, Beam helps readers navigate through the variations of "trans" identity, the social, welfare and justice systems, discrimination from employers and the DMV, sex re-assignment surgery, black market hormones, the historical and cultural contexts of accepting gender variances, suicide and crime statistics, and the dos and don'ts of disclosing your birth gender to potential suitors (and that's only half of the ground covered).

Although the book has its share of humor and humanity, it's hardly a light reading; after the first few pages, you'll already be outraged by what these kids/girls/women must endure simply to realize their identity and have their worth validated. Consider that GDI, Gender Identity Disorder, is still considered by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder; that The FBI tallies sexual orientation hate crimes (1,406 in 2004), but they "don't have a category for anti-trans crime offenses."; that "Many transwomen are beaten or killed for such deception, or raped for revenge, though on a national scale, this in only anecdotal -- no one's officially keeping a regular count." Beam cites a 1997 San Francisco Department of Public Health survey that found "of 392 female transsexuals, 37 percent had suffered abuse within the past twelve months, and 59 percent reported a history of rape."

Many of these girls, abandoned by their families and abused by the system, survive by selling their underage bodies to men. Beam clearly despises this, but she never looks deeper into the matter of Johns who inflict so much misery upon these girls -- although after a few stories of budding romances or tricks that end in violence, readers will come to their own conclusions about the damage that men do. Beam doesn't let the girls off the hook, either -- but her conclusion is sobering and compassionate: "Their behavior had nothing to do with being transgender. It had to do with whether they had a constant loving family in their early years. . .The transgender kids that did the best were the ones who had in anterior well of confidence. . .formed somewhere before their gender was even initially articulated." The ones, like Dominique, "may have blamed their pain on being transgender, but the roots were nestled somewhere deeper. And no loving too late could take that hurt away."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.


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