We welcome Sam Morris to YA Wednesday today! Thank you, Sam, for helping us to understand how to incorporate transphobia awareness into our teaching of YA Literature.
Dr. Morris is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. She is also the program coordinator for the B.A in English, with Secondary ELA Licensure. Her current research focus is the role that YA can play in encouraging adolescent empowerment and agency.
Transgender Awareness Week: Mourning, Empathy…and Maybe Even Some Joy by Dr. Sam Morris
I discovered that I was trans later in life. Ironically, I may never have discovered this truth about myself had it not been for a certain YA author’s remarks during the summer of 2020. As I move forward in a world that grows stranger and more hostile every day in a body that grows finally more familiar and comfortable every day, I realize that I am the only trans person that many of my colleagues and students know.
Although that reality is rapidly changing! According to the UCLA Williams Institute, there are 1.6 million folks over the age of thirteen who identify as transgender in the United States; one in five are adolescents between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. When I think about Transgender Awareness Week, I think about the joy that results in finding out who you are, and I think about how important empathy is in all of our lives. In The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick provides several axioms that she argues are central to understanding queerness; the first of those axioms is, “People are different from each other” (22). If you are happy with the sex that you were assigned at birth, there is no requirement for the person next to you to be similarly happy. But that’s only one piece of what it means to be trans.
Nicole Maines played Dreamer, the first transgender superhero, on CW’s Supergirl (2015). A few years before appearing in Supergirl as well as cowriting Dreamer’s comic-book debut in Superman: Son of Kal-El (2021) and starring in the vampire film Bit (2019), Maines and her family were the topic of Amy Ellis Nutt’s book Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family. The book is an account of Maines’s realization that she was a trans girl and her family’s fight for Maines to receive appropriate medical treatment and social acceptance.
“If there is an inner distress,” Nutt writes about transgender children and adolescents, “it arises from knowing exactly who they are, but at the same time being locked into the wrong body and therefore being treated by others as belonging to one gender when they really feel they are the opposite. The dysfunction arises not from their own confusion, but from being made to feel like freaks or gender misfits'' (29). Nutt’s work helps to frame both how damaging and confusing ill-informed narratives about being trans can be and how helpful YA novels that feature trans characters will become.
Cemetery Boys (2020) - Aiden Thomas
Yadriel is a member of a Latinx community of brujx, who value traditions, many of which involve gendered roles and spaces. When Yadriel begins to live as a boy (i.e., transmasc), he is denied the ritual induction for a brujo. Yadriel is convinced, however, that he deserves to be blessed by Lady Death as a brujo. Should it take multiple demonstrations of magic and saving an entire community from destruction to be gendered correctly? Perhaps not, but that is the quest that Yadriel must undertake. Thomas’s message of community echoes a common theme in YA that features trans protagonists: the concept of being enough to occupy certain spaces. Parents, family, friends, teachers, classmates, pastors, lawmakers, career professionals, and virtually every other person on this planet can be a source of contestation for transgender adolescents. The site of confusion and denial most common amongst trans youths? Themselves.
Trans youths need allies because figuring out how to be trans at the same time as figuring out how to be you is difficult enough without anyone else making it more difficult. When adults cease trying to restrict and legislate trans youths out of existence, the real work of an empathetic and access-oriented society can truly begin.
An irony of being a trans child, adolescent, or adult is the assumption that all trans people understand what it means to be trans. On the one hand, transphobes are so sure of their position; on the other, the journey to understanding what it means to be trans for each individual can take a lifetime. While many trans people may find their truest self at the other end of a traditional binary, many find who they are at a point somewhere else on the gender continuum. Others still find their identity to be an ever-shifting conception of gender—a further “queering” of gender. This process of discovery comes under even greater scrutiny in childhood and adolescence, when adults are eager to reduce young people’s decisions about identity to “phases” that aren’t worth serious consideration.
The opening scene of Salvatore’s Can’t Take that Away demonstrates the instability at play here. After Carey, a genderqueer adolescent, makes an interpretation of Holden Caulfield that involves a comment on “the plight of the straight cisgender bro,” his antagonist responds, “You don’t know shit. Are you gonna let he/she/it talk to me like that, Mr. Kelly?” (4). In this opening chapter, Salvatore collapses multiple complex debates about identity into the experience of a single adolescent. What readers must remember is that every trans child or adolescent has to negotiate these debates every day. The transphobic classmate, meanwhile, has no complexity to negotiate; even the teacher, who must negotiate between supporting LGBTQ+ students and keeping his job, only has the one complexity to negotiate.
Carey is not sure who he is, just that he is not part of the traditional gender binary. This uncertainty should be perfectly fine if adolescence is truly a time to wrestle with questions of identity. The central conflict of Can’t Take that Away is what happens when Carey is cast as Elphaba in the high school’s production of Wicked. Salvatore explores the issues that being genderqueer can present, but not at the expense of queer joy.
Victories Greater than Death (2021)/ Dreams Bigger than Heartbreak (2022) - Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders’s Unstoppable series is a showcase of what empathy looks like when it is valued or devalued. Tina is no ordinary human; she is the reincarnation of Captain Argentian of the Royal Fleet, a legendary intergalactic war hero. Whisked away from Earth and forced to choose Tina’s human body or Argentian’s alien body (and memories!), Tina begins to wonder whether she is truly trapped in the wrong body or not. Meanwhile, while the Royal Fleet may see the definition of “the right body” differently from the transphobes on Earth, they still lack empathy for those who do not look like them–i.e., alien species who do not possess humanoid-shaped bodies. Anders’s work of science-fiction and fantasy is an educative experience in intersectionality.
“To be trans,” Lester writes, “you have to be surer than you’ve ever been, because being trans is what you are when you’ve exhausted every other option” (42). When Tina brings some of Earth’s “best and brightest” onto the ship, she meets Elza, a transfemme girl. Elza, having been exiled by her parents and then by a hacker collective, finds community, friends, and love in the midst of a galactic war. In the sequel, Dreams Bigger than Heartbreak, Elza becomes one of the narrators. Now that the reader can experience Elza’s point of view, they can see that, even in space, the trauma of Earth and its many transphobes does not suddenly go away. Learning to live in one’s body is difficult enough; it is a victory to be celebrated, not demonized.
Nicole Maines provided Nutt with these thoughts at the end of Becoming Nicole: “I do not go through life thinking, ‘I’m trans, I’m trans, I’m trans,’ on repeat. I love bingeing on Netflix, I’m obsessed with food and video games, and I can’t stand weather below freezing. I don’t want to say my life is just like any other eighteen-year-old girl’s, though” (qtd. in Nutt 263). During this Transgender Awareness Week, I’ll be thinking about why a trans girl’s life—or the life of a trans boy, a nonbinary adolescent, a genderqueer adolescent, or an intersex adolescent—has to be different than any other adolescent’s life. One thing I know for sure: those trans adolescents? Whether you know it or not, they are students in your classrooms right now.
Anders, C. (2022). Dreams bigger than heartbreak. Tor Teen.
Anders, C. (2021). Victories greater than death. Tor Teen.
GLAAD. (n.d.) Transgender day of remembrance. GLAAD. https://www.glaad.org/tdor
GLAAD. (2022). Transgender awareness week. GLAAD. https://www.glaad.org/transweek
Lester, C.N. (2018) Trans like me: Conversations for all of us. Seal Press.
Nutt, A. (2015). Becoming Nicole: The transformation of an American family. Random House.
Salvatore, S. (2021). Can’t take that away. Bloomsbury YA.
Sedgwick, E. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. University of California Press.
Thomas, A. (2020). Cemetery boys. Swoon Reads.
Williams Institute. (2022) How many adults and youth identify as transgender in the United
States?. UCLA School of Law Williams Institute. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/