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Book review: Cris Beam’s Transparent

Trans kids living the life in LA

TERRIBLE TEENS. Despair and defiance brought boldly to life.

Cris Beam is a journalist from New York City who had relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1990s when her partner was in graduate school. Looking for something to do, she ended up volunteering at Eagles, a high school for gay and trans teenagers. Her major motivations were curiosity about what a gay high school might be like and boredom with Los Angeles, but she very quickly got a lot more than she bargained for.

The majority of the students were trans girls aged between 13 and 17, and most of them moved from shelter to shelter or moved in and out of their parents’ homes, at times onto the streets. Some lived full time as girls but most lived a complicated and fractured dual life, beginning their day as adolescent boys but then making the transformation into their girl selves when circumstances permitted.

The first sections of Beam’s book Transparent: Love, Family And Living The T With Transgender Teenagers offer a whirlwind tour of teenage trans life in Los Angeles: the pathetic state of social services available to kids who have been kicked out by their parents for being trans, their views on hormones and sex reassignment surgery (most of them have no desire and certainly don’t have the cash to give up their dicks) and the pressing reality of teenage prostitution.

Along the way, Beam offers a brief history of trans life in general and a very detailed look at how the subjects of her book live the life. The strength of the book is in the details: the clothes, the music, the language and the peculiar mix of typical adolescent angst as it plays itself out in the very complicated circumstances of teenage trans life.

If most teenagers spend their time thinking about what they’re going to do when they finish high school or what they’re going to do on Saturday night, the average trans kid is worrying about whether they can go to the corner store and not get beaten up or thinking about how they’re going to tell the boy they’ve been dating that they aren’t the kind of girl that he might be expecting.

Beam succeeds in telling the stories of the kids she connects with and at the same time telling her own story. She is very clear on why she becomes deeply involved in the lives of Christina, Domineque and Foxx. But the focus is on them not her. She acknowledges that much of her motivation to become involved with Christina (to whom she and her partner Robin become quasi-guardians) has to do with her own experience of maternal abandonment.

Beam dramatically describes the turning point in her relationship with Christina which took place after the teen was kicked out of her group home and was on the verge of being sent into a juvenile detention centre where she would be housed with the boys. Beam fully confronts the inadequacies and injustices of a social service system that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of trans kids and cannot accommodate them in any way. She finds herself frustrated and enraged by the systemic failures.

“I cried for the parents who threw their kids out to the streets,” she writes. “I raged for the system that was blind to them, too, that didn’t have enough beds, that sent them to parole schools, that arrested children for having sex with grown men so they could eat food at night. I cried for black-market hormones and for HIV and for the fact that every single trans kid I cared about had tried to commit suicide, and I cried for meth and crack and H and smack and crank, and I cried that gender was at first more crucial and then more meaningless than I ever thought it could be because really the only vital life force is love and that seemed to be what was in such short supply to begin with.”

This book is heartbreakingly sad in some ways as it details the many ways that trans kids are failed by a rigid culture that insists on two gender choices. It also demonstrates the incredible resilience of some kids who are able to thrive despite everything.