Trans Memoir
Credit: Andyborodaty/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Books
12 min

The evolution of the trans memoir

Six new memoirs by trans authors show the genre is growing far beyond its once-stifled roots

I used to think it was a horrible idea, to move somewhere new
as a way to escape your problems.
But now I know that sometimes you can run, that sometimes
you can get away, so long as you keep your mouth shut.
—Time Is the Thing A Body Moves Through, T Fleischmann

The story is a dream of healing, but it is not healing in and of itself. The spirit must heal itself.
—I Hope We Choose Love, Kai Cheng Thom

When I first explored trans-authored books a decade ago, I found oceans of memoirs from the past half-century fitting a hero’s journey mould: The author was young and felt wrong; they realized they must transition; they transitioned and it was hard, but they were now (somewhat) at peace. One such woman was Christine Jorgensen, an American whose life story was sensationalized by a rabid and often unkind press: “Ex-GI becomes blonde beauty,” read a 1952 New York Daily News headline about her (her own 1967 autobiography, charming and entertaining, sold 450,000 copies). There was much curiosity about her life, but it did not translate into direct support of trans people.

The arrow of these memoirs, flying across decades, attempts to explain trans existence to an unforgiving world. “I present my uncertainty in cryptic terms, and I see it still as a mystery. Nobody really knows why… it happens at a young age,” Jan Morris writes of transsexualism’s origins in the outset of her 1974 memoir, Conundrum. “What I have come to realize is that no matter how much light one attempts to throw on this condition,” Jennifer Finney Boylan echoes in 2003 at the end of She’s Not There, “it remains a mystery.”

The prose quality of these books vary—Boylan’s has funny moments, Morris’ classically trained style has its pleasures—but I read more for information than recreation, and they don’t enchant me in the same way an awe-stricken reader might say, “I gotta get back to my book.” As I became a writer myself, I grew retrospectively moody at their narrow focus, espousing Harry Benjamin philosophies (“It happens at a young age”) and their focus on justifying trans existence as opposed to exploring trans life.

I don’t really blame the authors for that—media gatekeepers insisted for decades on a very specific trans story, and still, these memoirs had their share of transphobic detractors. Nora Ephron once sneered in Esquire that Morris was “perfectly awful at being a woman.” As recently as 2012, outlets like Maclean’s wrote this off as ol’ Nora just not jiving with the PC crowd. Despite my own quibbles with the books, I do enjoy memoirs and personal essays; I always thought the genre had so much potential for trans writers. In particular, Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness busted the game open, following the contours of the linear transition memoir while revolutionizing its content. She wrote strongly and wisely about growing up as a Black trans woman from a working-class family in Hawaii, deftly speaking to the wider communities and politics in which her story was situated. It was a turn from the insular well-off-white-lady memoirs of olde: It was well-written and debuted as a New York Times bestseller upon its release in 2014.

Mock’s memoir landed amid the flourishing of trans cultural production that the 2010s have been blessed to witness. Trans people have always made art, but fiction, poetry, music and television have all been privy to a particular wealth of work by openly trans artists about trans life, backed by publishers and producers’ dollars and covered by outlets with enormous reach. (This isn’t to say transphobia isn’t present in those genres and that trans artists don’t still face enormous challenges; it is only to say there exists a playing field where, for decades, the lights were out.)

I ripped through a new spate of trans memoir writing this year—books of which there is now an astounding number—with that flourishing firmly in mind. I wondered: Where’s the genre headed now in a world where rich, three-dimensional examinations of trans life are not anomalies?

First I tackled Luna Ferguson’s Me, Myself, They: Life Beyond the Binary. Ferguson is a non-binary activist and filmmaker whose complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal led Ontario’s to become the first government in the world to allow for non-binary gender designations on birth certificates. I had mixed feelings about the book: Their story of non-binary trans life was compelling and the format was refreshingly new, with chapters divided by the themes of their life as opposed to a linear timeline. “As natural as listening to a friend on a long drive recount the harsh and beautiful tales of their life,” I wrote in a review of the memoir for the Hamilton Review of Books. But the writing wasn’t up to snuff. As opposed to books where you can tell an eagle-eyed editor tried their best but couldn’t spin straw into gold, Me, Myself, They feels like a pro with a red pen worth their salt could’ve sliced up these sentences and brought Ferguson in for another kick at the can.

Unlike Ferguson, Kai Cheng Thom took a spin with the essay collection format—a form that has roots in trans memoir, such as Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaws (1994) or S. Bear Bergman’s The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You (2009). In I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, Thom’s essays revolve around thorny issues of queer community: How we love ourselves, challenge ourselves and betray ourselves regarding issues like sexual assault, suicide and substance use. (Some of the essays were first published by Xtra.)

Thom’s book is urgent in the best way. While it is also excellently written, darkly funny and provocative in its wisdom, urgency feels like the primary adjective. Her writing weaves lamentation, analysis and personal history together but always ends with thoughts on how to move forward. The book’s title essay begins, “I’m not a big believer in justice,” and moves through critiques of social justice culture before concluding, “I do not have much faith in justice, but I have no choice but to believe in it”—subsequently offering her own working definition of what justice might entail.

The essays also feel cut from the cloth of a particular corner of the trans internet hidden to most cis people. I kept thinking of the early writing of Katherine Cross and Elena Rose blogging as little light—fellow trans women of colour who came up writing on the internet and whose posts were full of desperation, gallows humour and calls to arms of wisdom and insight. “You will be grateful, every moment,” Rose wrote to her 17-year-old self in one of her last posts. “That your prayers will not have been answered. For the trials and struggles and losses. I won’t pretend it won’t hurt, kid, because it will tear you to pieces.” It all added up to writing that gently beckoned a reader into their home and said, in effect, please, if you can, listen to me.

There’s another popular, if paradoxical, tradition of trans memoir: The kind written by a cis loved one. Amanda Jetté Knox’s Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family was a summer Canadian bestseller about a cis woman whose 11-year-old child comes out as a trans girl—and then so does her spouse. Knox is a good writer, charming and funny, nimbly mixing her family story with her own life of bullying and mental health struggle…

“HOLD THE PHONE!” you, gentle reader, may be remarking. “Isn’t this essay about books by trans people?”

Yes, to both, and I must admit my armoured default is to look skeptically, at best, toward cis creators helming trans stories, because they’ve fucked it up many, many a time. Work about trans partners is a particular rankle for yours truly, and a self-involved, woe-stricken variety of which abounds and has inexplicably had a really bang-up decade in The New York Times. This genre inevitably uses the language of grief and death to describe the (very much alive) trans person in question.

But in Love Lives Here, Knox generally avoids the troublesome tropes I associate with this genre, such as misgendering, using deadnames or bemoaning the “death” of the person they “thought they knew.” There are many passages that show Knox is aware of this, gamely tackling and questioning the tradition from which her book springs.

That alone wouldn’t a good book make, and Love Lives Here becomes a success both through strong writing and the crackling feeling on the page that she genuinely loves the shit out of her trans family. Those aforementioned woe-is-me NYT-bait pieces? They get my goat because they insist on the cis person’s pain that this person is transitioning. It’s a central function of cissexism. This book does the opposite. When Knox’s kid comes out, terrified and crying, the chapter ends with her two parents on the bed telling kiddo that she’s loved, that it’s okay if she’s a girl, that they just want her to be happy. Friends, I haven’t read a lot of stuff like that, and it made me a bit weepy.

But it’s also not lost on me who’s getting to talk about this book (hint: not trans people), and it’s not lost on me this book is a certified best-seller (other books in this essay are not). In a vacuum, the book is good. And in the world in which it has been lauded and purchased—a world where transgender voices and work are pushed to the side in favour of cisgender praise and money—its reception is wearily familiar.

Fighting for recognition is also a central theme in Kristen Worley’s Woman Enough: How A Boy Became A Woman and Changed the World of Sport (co-written with Johanna Schneller), which came out this summer. The memoir explores Worley’s early life, transition and her subsequent fight with—and victory over—the International Olympic Committee. Worley, who escaped a rough childhood by subsuming herself in sport, is a professional cyclist who was barred from competing in the 2008 Olympics because of the particulars of her hormone therapy. She took them to court and won—not in time for herself to compete, but changing the world for all trans athletes who will follow her.

The book is a quick, clean read, and sport is a world I know little about, so Woman Enough held plenty of fascination and intrigue for me. There’s definitely no doubt Worley’s work has had a huge impact on trans athletes, and I thank her for that. But her book is frustrating, for two reasons.

First, many of Woman Enough’s facts are questionable, at best, and irresponsibly wrong at worst. She says Canadian trans rights Bill C-279 was “guttered” in February 2017. That’s true, but a new iteration of it passed four months later as Bill C-16. She also recounts a story of her New Zealand birth mother travelling on a ship to Los Angeles and then on to New York through the Suez Canal (?!). She extols “brain-sex science” wherein gender identity and sexual orientation are “encoded in the brain” at birth. The idea that we are “born this way” is not a universally supported concept among queers or scientists, and leaves no room for those who aren’t male or female, or for those whose gender and sexuality are more fluid.

More seriously, she claims that Dr. Pierre Brassard’s trans surgery clinic in Montreal—until recently, one of the only places where trans folks could receive gender-affirming surgeries in Canada—was firebombed by “haters” who “did manage to find it” in 2016. That’s true, though the real story is still grim: A trans patient dissatisfied with her surgery was the culprit. I remember clearly when I learned that fact, as a former patient of that clinic myself, and I remember myself and other trans women being deeply unsettled for all the reasons you can imagine. To claim it was a target by “haters” who ferreted out its location (while physically unassuming, the building’s address is not private) is inexcusably sloppy fact-checking, and I just can’t help but think: Trans people have enough to worry about. False and frightening claims about hate violence don’t need to make their way, unadorned, into bookstores and libraries courtesy of the nation’s largest publisher.

My second frustration: Woman Enough’s narrative voice holds too much in common with the less desirable traits of the memoirs of olde, particularly in its overt navel-gazing. Some might say that memoir writing is navel-gazing by definition, but I wouldn’t. Good memoir writing contains a broad empathy, an understanding of the communities, messy souls and larger worlds that surround the narrator. Memoir writing can bring us into those worlds even when the camera is focused behind one set of eyes. This is all, of course, irrespective of how the writer conducts themselves as a person—but it’s the artistic inability to communicate that empathy which hampered many of those old books I mentioned earlier. I’d hazard this is just another building block of the revolutionary force with which Mock’s Redefining Realness scrambled up the genre earlier this decade.

And it’s a big part of what made Mock’s second memoir, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, released last year, such a pleasure to read. In many ways, it is a continuation of Redefining Realness’ project: Bold, crisp writing about racism, poverty and sex work that threads the political implications of Mock’s life through the text. She gives testimony to her story while holding empathy for everyone else who came with it. This is a bread-and-butter non-fiction writing skill akin to hitting a baseball: Any old turkey dabbling in the sport thinks they can do it, but extraordinarily few can do it legitimately well. (Thom also excels at this.) From when Mock is on the verge of a promotion at People, but her Vietnamese-American boss who wants to hire her is held up by her superiors:

“HR recommended that I widen the search because they felt you would be a risk for me as someone with little management experience,” Thanh confessed. “They told me you came off as a ‘diva’—their exact words—in your interview. I was taken aback by their assessment. It didn’t align with your productivity, your hard work. It felt charged.”

Neither of us uttered the words racism, or sexism, but those words loomed. We spoke in code, because that was what we had learned to do in order to navigate these spaces. What human resources assessed was that Thanh, an Asian-American woman, one so often seen as a hard worker but submissive and not a natural leader, could not supervise—or control—a young Black woman. I would run over her.  

Surpassing Certainty also spends a lot of time on the beauty and trials of Mock’s first marriage, as well as her experiences in college and her subsequent move to New York City. It’s an entertaining, sometimes sad (her account of sexual assault is wrenching) and illuminating read for those, like me, who have been interested in her career. It doesn’t quite have the same passion and crackle as Redefining Realness, and the parts about her marriage do drag on toward the end (perhaps this is akin to the experience of a flagging marriage, but it doesn’t translate excellently on the page). Yet Surpassing Certainty is still worth the time for the intelligence, kindness and wisdom it carries.

The last book I read was T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, a mixture of memoir, essay and art criticism. It’s a book that moves, as you might expect, without a completely firm grasp on time, drifting between personal observations and experiences of sex, queerness and adolescence, shifting between Tennessee, Brooklyn and the lake by Chicago, discussing the complications of being asked to speak on trans issues at an institution, after which they…turn to a 17-page-long digression of the Public Universal Friend. And friends, it works.

As I read Fleischmann, I kept thinking about Thom. I Hope We Choose Love, in its pointed, clear urgency, is in some ways stylistically opposite to Fleischmann’s drifting, murky thoughts. Both share radical politics, and both are concerned with the lives of contemporary trans women, but my experience reading them was otherwise diametrically different. I think, though they are the two out of this pile that will stay with me the most—the books that passed the “I just wanna get back to my book” test as I walked around with them in my bag.

Yet, looking at these six books as a whole, what’s striking is how dissimilar they all are in tone, content and form, and how difficult I’ve found it to compare the work they’re doing, perhaps precisely because they’re all so different. As I finish this essay, I’m thinking of the books I didn’t discuss, like Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men (which was a best-seller!), or the edited Lou Sullivan diaries We Both Laughed in Pleasure, edited by Zach Ozma and Ellis Martin. It’s a joyous thing to consider.

On the less joyous side, I did wonder more about what goes on behind the scenes. Publishing is a fraught, emotional, chaos-ball of a business at the best of times, and, even when benevolence and good intentions are operating at peak, it’s unfortunately a fantasy to posit that every book gets an equal amount of consideration, care, insight and funding. Are trans writers served with the same level of care received by their cis counterparts? The cases of Ferguson and Worley stuck out enough to make me wonder. It also makes me wonder what else goes on behind the production of trans books we don’t see.

But back to the joyous. A decade ago, I felt like I’d read most of the trans books on offer, period, and was dissatisfied with many of them. Now I can’t keep up. Sometimes I’m asked, “What patterns do you see in trans literature today?” I rarely know how to compose my answer, so I’ll try it here to end this essay: We all write from such varied places, we have such different weirdnesses and interests. And there are so many of us now with more platforms than what we were once allowed. The quality ranges like every other genre; I’m into some books more than others, but there’s no universe in which the plethora ain’t a beautiful thing.