by Rachel Gold
They say that whoever you are it’s okay, you were born that way. Those words don’t comfort Emily, because she was born Christopher and her insides know that her outsides are all wrong.
They say that it gets better, be who you are and it’ll be fine. For Emily, telling her parents who she really is means a therapist who insists Christopher is normal and Emily is sick. Telling her girlfriend means lectures about how God doesn’t make that kind of mistake.
Emily desperately wants high school in her small Minnesota town to get better. She wants to be the woman she knows is inside, but it’s not until a substitute therapist and a girl named Natalie come into her life that she believes she has a chance of actually Being Emily.
A story for anyone who has ever felt that the inside and outside don’t match and no one else will understand…
In this new, expanded version you will find:
Lex’s Reviews - This was a very well written, emotional read. I think this is the kind of book that members or friends of the LGBTQ community should try to read. There is a reason why the original book won awards. While I have read books with transgender characters before, this is the first I have read about someone before transitioning that is from their POV. I think that is what made a big difference. This was a really good read that I would recommend to everyone.
Pin’s Reviews - There are a lot of interesting and well-researched facts about trans people and transitioning nicely incorporated into the story. The author succeeded in writing a very good and interesting story at the same time celebrating diversity and creating empathy without being overbearing or preachy.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Being Emily —
Winner, Dramatic/General Fiction.
Moonbeam Children's Awards
Being Emily —
Gold Medal, Young Adult - Mature Issues.
Lambda Literary Awards
Being Emily — Finalist!
Young Adult Services Library Association
Being Emily 2013 Collection Recommendation
The Magpie Librarian
Speaking as a teen librarian, Miss Ingrid writes, "Gold, however, is incredibly adept at making the reader understand what life is like for Emily,who is navigating the world in a body that just doesn’t feel like it’s hers. She’s got some allies, like her girlfriend, but has so many more obstacles preventing her from being comfortable, let alone happy and fulfilled."
I couldn't put it down... It’s not a sad or angst-ridden story at all. Instead it feels incredibly honest, and there are moments of joy, anger, and sorrow, laced together in a way that will make you cry and laugh along with the characters. It doesn’t shy away from the hardship but it also doesn’t make the claim that this hard stuff is all a trans person’s life is ever... All in all, I think this is an excellent book that captures an honest, painful, but ultimately hopeful and joyful story of a young trans teen.
I'm With Geek
It is filled with raw courage and emotion, and it is a genuine page-turner that will have you gripped until the very last word... Teenage life is hard enough as it is, but through reading Gold's work, you forget your own experiences and become inexplicably in tune with Emily and how pained every day is for her to portray herself as a teenage boy. To not be able to look in a mirror, to be unable to be free. -- Olivia Grey
Lambda Literary Review
Engrossed...Enchanted... Rachel Gold has crafted an extraordinarily poignant novel in Being Emily... The unique mechanism of depicting Emily’s speech as computer code is striking, defining the character distinctively. The careful and deliberate spacing of Claire’s chapters are extraordinary; resulting is a pacing of action that is gripping. There is definitely gold to be found in this well-constructed novel.
It's rare to read a novel that's involving, tender, thought-provoking and informative... What's impressive is Gold's delicacy in handling the physicality of Emily's story. She smoothly navigates the more intimate parts of Emily's transformation. And the author can bring you to tears as you read about Emily's struggle with gender identity.
My Life in Neon
...Rather than being a rehashing of tired tropes with no resemblance to actual experience, Emily’s story is instead too familiar to the journey so many of us embark upon to make for a comfortable read... Gold’s storytelling dances deftly along my rawest nerves, which tells me she took the time to really learn more than just the superficial fluff that often characterizes stories about trans people. If it were comfortable to read a story so eerily similar to my own, then I don’t think I could have enjoyed it as much as I did.
The back of the book lists Being Emily as “Fiction: LGBT/Young Adult.” I agree that this is a fantastic YA novel – for the Emilys of the world and for the Claires of the world. But, more than that, it’s a book for parents. It’s a book for teachers. It’s a book for peers. It’s a tool for teaching or it’s a tool for self discovery.
This is the book.
I’ll start again. There isn’t just one book that explained me to myself—there never has been, and my gender, my embodiment, are far from the whole of me. Also, Emily is in high school. I was already a grown-up when I came out, to myself and to my loved ones, not just as someone who had feelings about gender, who once thought they might be trans, but who well and truly was.
And yet. This is the book: the book where I saw the part of myself, for real, full-on, that I had only seen in profile, or in half-light, for so long. This is the book that said to me, in fiction, what I had waited to hear, and strained to hear, and sought and not quite found, in other books, and in real life: yes, you’re a girl. Or: yep, you’re supposed to be a girl. Or: Okay, you wished you could be a girl, consistently, for most of your life; you resented, and wanted to alter, whatever marked you as a guy; you’re already a girl in some ways, and you can be a woman in the others, if you want. You’re not alone. You won’t lose everything. It’s not too late. Some people—people you are going to want to meet—already understand.
Maybe you know somebody who needs that story too. Maybe they’re just like Emily, or not like Emily; maybe they’re 12, or 18, or 68. Maybe you are that somebody. Or maybe you’re looking for a good story about some teens who aren’t like you. Rachel Gold has now told a few pretty great stories about teens and people not long out of their teens. This is the one that comes first.
Like all Gold’s novels, Being Emily shows us trans and queer young people trying to live with one another, and maybe to undermine patriarchy together, finding and building better lives. More than the others, though (with the partial exception of Nico & Tucker), Gold’s first published novel clearly and centrally belongs to the genre of the what-to-do YA, the information-bearing, instructional, linearly plotted novel that shows readers what we might do and how to get help if we see ourselves, or our friends, in its characters.
When the first edition of this book appeared in 2012, that kind of instruction was not only achingly needed (it still is) but—especially for younger readers—shockingly hard to find.
Being Emily is far from the first book—or first YA book—with trans girl characters, but it appears to be the first novel in English (it’s surely the first YA novel) with a trans girl’s voice at its center, the first one you could give a trans girl and feel good about the idea that she’ll see herself in it. (As I did; as I do.) Earlier novels made trans characters into magical helpers, or obstacles, or problems, or (at best) grown-ups who had already learned to inhabit particular urban queer subcultures. Emily is none of those things: she’s a problem for other people, but in the way that all of us can be problems for friends or families. She is not A Problem, but a person who seeks love and makes decisions herself.
That’s in part because we see through Emily’s eyes. Teachers warn beginning writers not to start with their narrator before a mirror since that’s a clichéd way to show us a narrator’s face. But Emily looks in the mirror and sees…nothing: “I refused to look at myself.” There’s only “the version of me that didn’t really exist,” the male version named Chris. It’s a joke, and more than a joke, about how we see ourselves—or try to see ourselves—in stories, as well as a point about what trans people (in this case, trans girls) weren’t seeing, and need to see.
Three chapters later she does see herself. In her locked bedroom, through the clothes she’s chosen rather than the body that she has been given, Emily “slowly became visible.” By that point we know we are inside a novel made so that trans girls can see ourselves: and it gets better. I reread Chapter Four this year (that’s the one with the duffel bag) in a coffee shop with Grimes’s “Flesh without Blood” blasting out of the ceiling monitors: I had to try hard not to get up and dance.
Emily also sees herself in roles created by works of art, works that she can share with other characters. When Emily-as-Chris and Claire are “flopped out on her bed together reading a poem and talking about it, I forgot that I had to play a boy and got to be a person for a while.” That’s why she has to come out, but also why she doesn’t want to come out: “I couldn’t risk losing that.” I’ve been there too.
What’s better than poetry, if you need a body other than the body that the world has insisted you have? Role-playing games, of course: Emily is a reader, she saw herself first in the Oz books, but she’s also, deeply, a gamer. Gameworlds allow her “to step into a world fully female.” Gameworlds, too, are spaces we can inhabit “where you yourself are never quite yourself/And did not want nor have to be,” to quote the great cisgender (non-trans) poet Wallace Stevens. Gameworlds are like ours, but not; novels are like our life, but not quite our life; we can escape into them, or learn from the analogies we find in them, and if they are good enough, we can do both.
Being Emily can let you do both. It can also show you what it’s like to change your mind about what’s possible. Claire tells Emily (whom she knows as Chris), “It’s not like you can turn into a girl or anything.” Maybe this Claire doesn’t know; or forgot, that trans people exist, which is plausible for a bright high school junior in exurban Minnesota in 2008. The Claire of 2018 might say the same words, but mean something else. Maybe: “it’s not like you can turn into a girl.” Trans people might already exist, for her, but elsewhere, as exotic grown-ups, on TV.
And it’s important to know what Claire knows. For every reader who sees herself in Emily, there is at least one who sees their own picture in Claire (possibly because their Emily gave them the novel). Being Emily says to the Claires, and also to the dads, that we know they are trying; that they are not bad people because they can’t do everything Emily wants, make every recommended adjustment, at once. “Could she ever stop thinking of him as ‘him,’ she wondered?” Maybe she could, but not without forgiving herself for having to try, and for sometimes getting it wrong. As for the sexy parts of their connection, Claire doesn’t know if she wants to stay with Emily; she doesn’t know what she wants. And that’s okay.
Nor does she know what God wants. People who insist, because they’ve been hurt by religion, that religion as such is hurtful or homophobic or transphobic or exclusionary or useless, are almost as wrong as people who call all bicycles evil because they were hit by a bike. That said, there are a lot of bad bicyclists: a lot of us have been hurt by what living humans think that long-dead humans, and the God or gods that they worshipped, enjoin or forbid. Claire doesn’t just model how a cisgender friend, or lover, accepts coming out as trans (gradually, patiently, with time off for herself); she models faith. “Her work was to have faith, and not be a blaming jerk like Job’s friends.”
Most novels have characters who behave like readers. Emily is one, and Claire is another: she has to learn to read Emily correctly, almost as cisgender readers learn to read—and learn about trans people from—Being Emily. Natalie, however, is more like an author: she already knows what many readers will learn; she invites the reader-figures on a journey, and her invitations drive parts of the plot. She’s there to help answer—but cannot, on her own, answer—the questions we ask. Now that I know who I am, and have some idea where I might be going, will my loved ones come along? Will I be physically safe? How will I know? Can I trust the professionals who say they have my interests at heart? “What’s it like taking the hormones?”
The general answer to all of those questions is: unless you try, you’ll never know. And Emily—with help—learns how she can try. She tries to become herself, which means that she tries to be seen as herself, not only in her own eyes but also in the eyes of others. If you don’t care how you’re seen in the eyes of others—if you’re resigned to a life where nobody sees the real you—maybe you need to find other others. Maybe you need to find your Natalie: someone who has been a few steps ahead, or shown others a way.
If you are an Emily, unless you are very unlucky, coming out as trans will let you make new friends, and the pretransition friends (and colleagues and maybe lovers) who stick with you—your Claires—may take a while to learn that you won’t abandon them, that you can (and you will) run out of hours in the day, but you will not run out of love. The Claires of this life have done a lot for the Emilys, especially early in the coming-out process. If you are an Emily, remember to give your Claire their own space and time for self-discovery, hours or days or months when he or she or they can be the protagonist and you can be the ally. That’s a novel I’d like to read too.
But I’m me—I’m an Emily; I cried all over a Kindle screen when I realized how thoroughly I am an Emily—and thank God, or thank the gods, or thank the forces of chance, or the good fortune that comes from Minnesota, because exactly when I needed them I found sentences like this one: “It was like sitting in a dark room for months and then suddenly having the sun fall through an open window.” That’s not about hormones, or winning a legal battle, or making irrevocable decisions; it’s about how it feels when somebody else sees you as girl for the very first time. (It’s important enough that Gold nearly repeats the scene: I, too, was surprised when I learned how good it felt when a store clerk called me “Miss.”)
Part of growing up is learning how much other people are like you; part of coming out (as anything, really, but especially as trans) is realizing how most other people are not. “There had been so many years of pretense that I guess I didn’t realize how different it made me to always be pretending”: that’s in Emily’s teen voice, but it’s a sentiment that fits the lived experience of many adults.
That good fit makes for one reason so many older readers stay with, or return to, or discover, YA. The rules and conventions of YA fiction have evolved to fit the experience of coming out, of becoming yourself, at whatever age. Those rules and conventions also make YA, in general, antitragic—its endings can be inconclusive or clear, but they are rarely grim tableaux of characters resigned to the way things are. (Could things have worked out worse for a real-life Emily than they do in the novel? Of course they could—but we have newspaper stories for that.) It’s also a genre that finds it easy to fold in concise and practical instructions: how to handle therapists, what to expect when you first buy makeup, “things you can do before your parents know.” Reading this novel is, itself, one of the things you can do before your parents know.
There are other things you might be doing, things many parents would rather not know; Emily and Claire have a deeply loyal, realistically and sometimes uncomfortably sexualized, romance that looks just right to me. “It was easier to be sexual without the constant reminder that my body wasn’t right.” They’re also gamers: games, role-playing, fiction, “often felt more real than my real life.” That feeling may, or may not, go away. (For more on the merits of gaming, and more on trans and queer sexuality, consider Gold’s later novels, especially Nico & Tucker and My Year Zero.)
I have been describing the reactions, ideas and feelings that I had while reading Gold’s first novel for the first time, and, also, the way I felt while rereading it. There’s another feeling I had after reading it: it’s the feeling the great literary critic Eve Sedgwick described in her essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” which is—despite the title—possibly the first really thoughtful treatment of trans or potentially trans kids and teens in the academic literary world.
It may seem a bit dated; bear with me. Sedgwick’s 1991 essay addressed the now-bizarre, distressing, not-quite-there attitude many psychologists and psychiatrists took, in the late 1970s and 1980s, towards gender-divergent kids: they wanted to show that gay male adults were okay (when earlier psychiatry called gay men sick), without seeming to encourage gayness. Those psychologists and psychiatrists therefore decided that masculine adult gay men were healthy, while femme-acting men and boys (some of whom were no doubt trans)—well, they were the real problem; they, or we, were sick, and needed a cure. (In other words, Being Emily’s Dr. Webber.)
These unprofessional adult professionals were not only (as we would now say) erasing trans people; they were saying, tacitly, that they wanted “the dignified treatment of already-gay people” (Sedgwick’s words), but that they did not want there to be any more. Against this kind of nonsense, Sedgwick (writing in 1991!) described “many people’s felt desire or need that there be gay people in the immediate world.” (Later she might have said “queer people.”) Sedgwick, and her favorite authors, did not simply want us treated justly; she wanted and needed us to exist.
And that—for the first time, though not the last, in YA; for one of the first times in all of American fiction—is the way that all of Rachel Gold’s novels, starting with this one, treat trans and gender-divergent people, especially young people. We are not a problem, or a conundrum, or a failure that somebody needs to fix, or a population (like stray pets) our parents and teachers are obligated to protect, now that we (alas) exist: we are one of the reasons that the world is good. If the world we inherit doesn’t recognize that, we’ll fix it or build a better one. And fiction—especially fiction written for young readers—has to be one of the tools we can use.
Most parts of Being Emily address the feelings that come up when you come out, and the feelings (including Hulk-like anger) that come up when you are not permitted to be who you are. Other parts address particular arguments we can have with ourselves, or arguments that we might encounter from others (who are, sometimes, just concern-trolling), against coming out. Is coming out, or transitioning, selfish? No more so than any other life choice that isn’t entirely self-sacrifice. Why do you care how other people see you, whether and where you get to wear a dress, whether your breasts will ever be real? Because it’s terrible to go through the day or the year with the feeling your body is wrong; because most of us learn to see ourselves by thinking about how other people will see us; because that kind of feedback loop, powered by our brains’ mirror neurons, won’t go away. Is it consumerist to go to a mall and drop cash on makeup? Is it consumerist to buy—or, really, to want—anything at all?
Emily knows what she wants; she just doesn’t know how to get it, or what it will cost, or how long it is likely to take. It’s okay if you, yourself, are not yet sure. It’s also okay—and you can still learn, or see yourself, in Emily’s discoveries—if who you are and what you want does not fit into any familiar boxes. Some trans people (me, for example) are binary: we are women, even though the world said we were men, or the other way around—the world put us in the wrong box. Some of us are deeply nonbinary: neither box fits, and both of them hurt. Some of us know we’re trans (we’ve been in the wrong box) but aren’t sure what kind of trans (what box or set of boxes might be right): we have to move between the boxes, try out various places to stand, climb up, jump around, and see. (If you’re genderfluid, no one box will do: I know people who feel very male on a given day, very female on the next—they have friends who understand how they feel, too.)
There’s now a short stack of books—including some joyful books—about all those kinds of motion and labels and boxes. Being Emily names a few of them, and Gold has written a few more. I’d now add the novels of April Daniels, the essays of S. Bear Bergman, and a whole box-within-the-box of poetry, by Cat Fitzpatrick, Cam Awkward-Rich, Trace Peterson, TC Tolbert, and many others. There are even anthologies and magazines devoted to trans poetry, like Peterson and Tolbert’s ample Troubling the Line and H. Melt’s great new Subject to Change. All of these writers might help you, too, get out of the wrong boxes, or imagine the right ones.
Gender, moreover, is only one set of boxes, one category around which we organize, not just sexual, but social life. We live, all of us, in other boxes too, affinity groups or institutional categories created by things like taste (science fiction, or science fiction conventions), age (11th grade or senior citizens), race, ethnicity, profession, future profession, locale. In categorizing people, we place them in groups; we try to see who belongs together, and we hope we can feel we belong. “How could I make my way in the world,” Emily asks, “if I couldn’t stand up for myself?” But no one should have to learn to stand up on their own; we find our people, real people and fictional characters, along with our organizations and our safe physical spaces and our games and our alternate worlds that help us with the real one.
Being Emily, as much as any one book of prose, has been that help. It also moved me to tears—before I started hormones. (Now scrambled eggs, stoplights, and bad jokes about superheroes also move me to tears: that’s what it’s like being on hormones—and it feels marvelous.) Someday this novel may feel like a historical document, a moving story about how a girl and her allies confronted antagonists that no longer exist. Until that day it’s going to be a source of hope and possibility, as well as a source of practical advice—and, in the very best possible sense, it is likely to make lots of other girls cry.
Belmont and Cambridge, Mass./ Harvard University
The noise of the alarm cut through the peaceful darkness of sleep like wind heralding a winter storm. I reached over to smack the snooze button and hit the bedside table. I’d been up half the night so I’d moved the alarm to my dresser to prevent snooze abuse. Once I’d lurched across the room to stop the grating sound, I was upright and might as well shower and get it over with.
I refused to look at myself in the bathroom mirror. During those first foggy minutes of morning I could keep being the person I’d seen blurrily during the late, dark hours when I was alone and safe. I wanted to be myself for a little while longer.
Under the hot stream of water I kept my eyes closed. It felt like I was washing someone else’s body. Even after sixteen years I had moments where I couldn’t understand how I got here or how such a mistake could’ve be made. I knew what I was, and this tall, angular body was not that.
As I scrubbed, I flip-flopped on my decision to talk to my best friend and sort of girlfriend. “Sort of ” because Claire was dating the version of me that didn’t really exist. I liked her enough that I felt bad about deceiving her, maybe more than anyone else, and I guess that’s one reason why I decided to tell her first. I’d tried to tell two other friends, years ago, but one stopped talking to me and the other laughed so hard I said I’d been kidding. Maybe I should’ve stopped trying to tell anyone, but the truth welled up in me so thickly I couldn’t hold it back much longer.
Like every other morning that winter, it was dark outside when I woke up and the window barely hinted at light when I got out of the shower. Time to confront the dozens of outfits that I could wear but didn’t want to. Worn down by years of dressing up as a boy, I’d pared my clothing options down to three basic outfits: jeans and T-shirt, jeans and sweater, jeans and button-down shirt (for days when I was supposed to look dressy).
But what do you wear to tell your girlfriend that the boy she’s dating is really a girl inside? Grandma Em had sent me a cashmere sweater two Christmases ago that I hoped would give me some courage. I loved the softness of it, even if the olive color wasn’t one I’d pick for myself; it made my skin look gray. I put it on, ran my fingers through my hair and went down to get cereal.
Dad leaned against the wall by the door, pulling on his massive, thickly lined boots. Barely taller than me, but inches of muscle wider, Dad’s dense body was wrapped in a gray flannel-lined shirt and heavy, brown Carhartt jacket. Dad was a Carhartt junky and wore their work pants in olive or tan every day, even when he wasn’t on a job. He owned four of their fifteen-pocket vests: two in “moss” and two in “shadow.”
“Lookin’ good, Chris,” he said. “Swim meet?”
“Last of the season,” I told him. “Claire’s coming.”
His eyes went unreadable. I wasn’t sure if he liked her or not, but I think he was glad I had a girlfriend this year. He nodded, waved and slipped out into the snow.
In our house, the kitchen is to the left of the front door when you’re coming in, and to the right is the living room, which turns into a den at the back of the house. The kitchen opens into an eating nook, big enough for a table of four. The house used to be a three-bedroom until Dad and his buddies built the addition over the garage that’s my bedroom. That gave him and Mom one bedroom for paperwork and crafts.
On my way to the kitchen table I grabbed milk and cereal and mumbled a “good morning” to Mom, who stood at the counter assembling sandwiches. Her turquoise skirt suit was the wrong color for her skin and gave her a pale, tired sheen. Or maybe she was tired.
At the table, I poured milk into a bowl and then dumped a few cups of Cheerios on top. I don’t know why people pour milk over cereal, that makes it get soggy so much more quickly than if you put the milk on the bottom. Mom finished making our lunches and set the two bags on the table as my nine-year-old brother, Mikey, blew into the room. His short brown hair stuck out in all directions, not that he cared. He grabbed a bowl, snatched the milk from in front of me, and poured it over his heap of cereal until the whole mass threatened to spill over the side.
Mom tried to fix his hair while he ate and managed to get the worst bits to lie down. “I’ll probably be working late today,” she told us. “But your dad will be home.”
“I’m going to Claire’s after the meet,” I said.
“Dad’s not cooking…is he?” Mikey asked.
Mom smiled. “No, there’s lasagna in the fridge. Chris, what time are you coming home?”
“Eightish,” I told her.
“You make sure you get your homework done, okay? I don’t want you playing computer games all night or whatever it is that takes up all your time.”
“Is Claire’s mother going to be there?” she asked.
Claire is the only child of a divorced mother, which worries my parents for reasons I could not begin to imagine. I think they assume that Claire and I spend every spare moment we’re alone at her house having sex and smoking pot while selling illegal weapons via the Internet.
“Yeah,” I told her, though it was a lie. Claire’s mom usually got home around six or seven at night. “She gets home around five.” As I said it, my stomach tightened. So much of my life was a lie, I hated to add to that pile of deception. But I’d hate life more if I didn’t have the relative freedom of being at Claire’s house.
I finished my cereal and looked pointedly at the clock on the microwave. “Gotta run.” I grabbed the lunch bag and stuffed it in my backpack, kissed Mom’s cheek, and made for the front entryway.
Winter in Minnesota is its own creature. Like a wild animal, you have to treat it with respect, which includes wearing a down coat and huge boots from November through March. I toed the line on those items because I refused to wear a hat if the temperature was above zero. With a little bit of gel, my dark brown hair held its natural curl, which I loved. Thanks to the popularity of Orlando Bloom and the long hairstyles in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I’d persuaded Dad that it was okay for me to keep it a few inches long, even touching my collar in the back. A hat inevitably crushed the cute little curls, and so the hat spent most of winter on the closet shelf.
I looped a scarf around my neck twice and tucked the ends down into my jacket. Then I threw my backpack over my shoulder and pushed out into the wind.
February is bleak the whole month. The days are short and cold, the nights long and frigid, the snow is feet deep and the wind has a razor’s edge. I’d turned sixteen last spring and Dad insisted on getting me a car. His passion in life is restoring classic cars. He offered me a Mustang, which I managed to dodge by pointing out a ’56 Chrysler 300B in bad shape that we could restore together. Granted I had to spend the summer working on a car with my dad while he called me “son” every five minutes, but on the bright side, I got to drive a tri-toned, candy apple red, classy, chromed-out car, rather than a dirt-ball, I-watch-pro-wrestling mobile.
The car definitely helped my reputation around school as a cool kid, and Claire reminded me weekly how lucky I was. I was a good-sized kid for my age, a little above average for the guys in my class and much too above average for the girls, while Claire described herself as “a runt.” She’s five-feet-four and skinny. I tried to tell her that if she’d stop dyeing her hair goth-black she might have better social standing, but she accused me of not understanding girls. Girls, she explained, are mean. If it wasn’t her hair that stood out, the rest of the girls would find another reason to harass her.
“I’m an outcast,” she said. “They’re like wolves; they can smell it on me.”
My car was an ice block when I started it, and I sat in the driveway for five minutes, freezing my butt off while it warmed up. I could’ve gone back in the house, but Mom would try to have a conversation with me about school or Claire. She and Mikey would be out in a few minutes so she could drop him at the elementary school on her way to work. She’s the secretary for a financial planning office. Most days she works from nine to three, but once or twice a week they keep her later.
When the car had warmed up enough, I pulled out of the driveway and pointed it toward school. Like a well-trained horse, it knew the way and drove itself while I listened to the radio. In Liberty we get four stations, two from the Cities and two Christian stations. That meant my choices were “Top 50” and “Hip Hop/Dance.” I chose the latter.
Liberty-Mayer High School served parts of three counties west of the Twin Cities and had about five hundred students in a long, low, tan brick building. Being in outstate Minnesota we had about twelve students of color and the classes were, for the most part, equally colorless. I pulled into the student lot and slogged across three hundred feet of trampled snow to the front doors. A blast of hot air hit and made me peel off the scarf as I headed for my locker.
A couple of the guys on the swim team shouted greetings and I yelled back with the automated voice program that takes over as soon as I get to school. I hardly have to think about it anymore. My larynx is programmed with all the appropriate responses, and I don’t even pay attention. It’s like I wrote all the code years ago and now my brain just reads it:
/run: greet teammate
1. speak: “Hey man, how’s it going?”
2. joke about: a) sports, b) cars, c) weather, d) class
3. make inarticulate sound of agreement
4. run line 2 again
5. make gesture: a) grin, b) shrug, c) playful hit
6. repeat 3–5 until bell rings
My mornings are drab. I start with science, a scheduling glitch that is an offense against all night owls, and then go to American history. Between history and study hall I usually pass Claire in the hall and she tucks a note into my pocket.
That day the note said: “Hey boo, are we on after the meet? Mom’s working late. I’ll see you after school.” One tiny piece of notebook paper and my heart started racing again.
Sitting in the library for study hall, I tried to concentrate on schoolwork, but I had to figure out how to talk to Claire. I had plenty of “friends” from the guys on swim team to various kids I had class with, but Claire was the only person I felt excited to see on a regular basis. With the other kids it was too hard to keep up the pretense of being Chris all the time. My life could be worse, and if I lost my relationship with Claire, it would be. I didn’t know how much worse I could handle, but if I didn’t talk to someone soon there wouldn’t be any of me left at all.
Claire breezily described herself as bisexual and she was the weirdest person other than me that I knew. But she’d never had a relationship with a girl…well, other than me, but I didn’t really count because I looked like a boy to everyone. What if she didn’t like girls as much as she thought she did? What if she stopped liking me?
I stared at the distant gray sky outside the library window. What was the worst that could happen? She could dump me and tell everyone at school and my parents. Then I’d either have to lie and say I made it all up as a joke, or run away.
I had to do this right.
There was no way I could use the library computers to research anything to help me come out. I’m sure the school monitored our computer use, and some other kid would probably walk by. All I needed was for one of the swim team guys to see COMING OUT AS TRANSGENDER in huge letters over my shoulder.
Opening my math book, I made my eyes focus on the hardest problems. That distracted me until the bell, and then math class itself kept me occupied until lunch. Unfortunately, Claire pulled fourth period lunch this year and I had fifth, so I sat with the swim guys or did homework at the table.
After lunch the tiredness from being up half the night caught up with me. Could I sleep through my sixth-period psych elective? The teacher was cool, but we’d been talking about schizophrenia for most of the week and I was over it. I leaned back in my chair, preparing for an eyes-open doze, when Mr. Cooper wrote two alarming words on the board: “Sex” and “Gender.”
“Can anyone tell me the difference between these two?” he asked.
Mr. Cooper was a tall man with messy red-brown hair that my dad would call much too long, even though it only covered his ears and the back of his neck. He had super pale Irish coloring and a case of ruddy windburn on his cheeks, so I couldn’t tell if this subject was making him blush as much as it made me. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his small gut pushed out, and shifted his weight from left to right and back again. But his eyes swept over the class calmly.
I could answer his question, but no way was I opening my mouth. A football kid in the front row volunteered, “Sex is what you do, gender is who you’re doing it with.”
Laughter all around.
Jessica, the blond girl who sat next to me and I think had a crush on me, rolled her eyes. “What a jerk,” she whispered.
“For the next two weeks we’re going to study different aspects of sex and gender,” Mr. Cooper said. “I’m going to hand out permission slips you need to fill out in case any of your parents don’t want you to hear about sex, as if that will stop you. We’ll be talking about normal and abnormal sexuality, and we’ll have speakers coming from OutFront Minnesota, an organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer equality.”
I contemplated putting my head down on my desk and crying, but that would probably give me away as being the wrong gender. I pushed the permission slip into the front of my psych book. I’d forge the signature in study hall tomorrow. That was one conversation I didn’t want to encourage with my folks.
Mr. Cooper spent the rest of the hour explaining how sex often referred to a person’s physiological characteristics, while gender pointed to the psychological, cultural and learned aspects. I could have taught the class. Instead I sat very still and felt like someone had wrapped one hand around my heart and with the other hand crushed my throat.
English saved me. I had a chance to recover while Ms. Judson lectured on nineteenth-century British writers. Claire met me outside the classroom door afterward and gave me a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. She was in the black knit sweater with textured lines down the arms that I liked.
I must have held her too close because she peered at me searchingly and asked, “You okay?”
“Long day,” I evaded.
“I’ll see you at the meet,” Claire said, pulling her backpack strap up higher on her shoulder. “I’m driving over with the yearbook staff so we can have our meeting on the way.”
Despite her protests about being unpopular, Claire was on the yearbook committee, in the drama club and in a poetry workshop that I sometimes attended. She said she got in the habit of extracurriculars in junior high when her mom wouldn’t let her come home early and now she was hooked.
Liberty-Mayer High School didn’t have an indoor pool, so we swam at the city pool after school most days until 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. It was a great way to avoid being stuck at home with my family. I’d get home in time for dinner, eat, and then go up to my room for homework until bedtime.
Tonight was the last of the boys’ swim team’s regular competitions, and our last chance to qualify for sectionals. I wasn’t the only one on the team convinced that we didn’t stand a chance. We competed against a lot of bigger high schools with their own pools and a larger student base to draw from. Plus our team wasn’t particularly competitive, which was another reason I stayed on it. Our coach always emphasized beating our own personal times over beating another team, though that may have been a tactic to keep us from getting too depressed over our competitive futility.
I didn’t mind being in the boys’ locker room any more than I minded using the boys’ restroom at school. I could robot through it. At least the locker room didn’t have the same level of disgusting graffiti as the boys’ restroom. I don’t know why guys are so obsessed with their junk that they have to draw it all over the stalls. I lucked out in terms of not being embarrassed because I’m not attracted to guys, so the only awkward part in the locker room was changing into my swim trunks. I turned into my locker and did it quickly.
Our team trunks resembled black biker shorts with the school symbol on the front of the right thigh and our colors up the sides. After pulling them on I shoved my clothes into the locker. Then I turned and smacked my shin into the low bench between the rows of lockers.
Ramon turned around a few lockers up and shook his head. “Again, Hesse?”
I had a reputation for knocking into things or tripping over my own feet just about every practice session. I did it at home too. Downside of being a robot. My shins, knees and feet always had two or three bruises on them.
“It’s for luck,” I told him. “Part of the ritual.”
He laughed. A junior, Ramon was in the running for team captain next year and already swayed decisions about the team. He took a liking to me last year when I said I’d swim the 500 freestyle. It was the event no one else on the team ever wanted to swim and he’d been stuck with it. He had curly black hair, inches longer than mine. Add his deep tan skin, big masculine chin and the best muscles on the team, and at least a dozen girls at school had crushes on him, according to Claire.
I put on my swim cap and rested my goggles up on my forehead. Then I wrapped the big towel with our school emblem on it around my shoulders like a shawl and followed Ramon out to the pool.
Unlike football where most of the team is on the field, the swim team spent most of each meet sitting by the pool stretching and bullshitting. There were twenty guys on the team but at most we had four competing at a time. Those of us out of the water only fell silent during the races. Each guy swam two to four events. I only swam two: one leg of a relay and then the 500.
The 500-meter freestyle was the longest solo swim of the meet—more than double any other. Ten laps in the pool covers about a third of a mile. I actually liked it, but the guys never believed me when I said that. Of all the events, it was the one where pure muscle strength was less important than pacing, endurance, breath control and strategy. I had to manage how fast I swam the first six laps so that I had the right energy available for the last four.
It was also the most boring event of the meet. Watching guys flash through the water racing against each other for up to two minutes is exciting—watching that same thing for about five minutes really loses its thrill.
Our relay came early in the meet, and then Ramon and I sat on the side of the pool and stretched. The 500 was always one of the last events, which gave me time to recover before I swam again.
“How’s it going?” he asked and jerked his chin toward where Claire sat in the bleachers.
In her black goth clothes she looked like an inkblot on a bright painting. Three colorfully dressed girls from the yearbook committee sat with her in the middle of a larger, spread out grouping of family members, friends and girlfriends of the team. Shrugging, I rubbed my big toe around one of the tiny octagonal tiles that covered the floor.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
I examined his face but couldn’t read his half smile. Ramon got around, we all knew that, but he wasn’t one of those guys who bragged about it. At least not more than usual. I knew he’d had sex with two girls already this year, so he couldn’t be asking how I liked sex with Claire, could he?
“What?” I asked.
“Being with the same girl that long,” he said. “You’ve been together like, half a year?”
“Just over,” I told him. We’d passed the seven-month mark two weeks ago, but I didn’t want it to seem like I paid too much attention to that. He waited for me to say more. I had to split my mind into two halves—one half held all possible real answers to his question and the other half pretended to be Ramon and scanned the answers to find the acceptable ones.
/error scan: boy test
for each answer string (item in list)
if item sounds like girl—discard
1. test “I feel at home with her”
3. test “I don’t have to do as much work”
5. test “I like the emotional intimacy”
6. discard—major boy fail
7. test “she’s a sure thing”
“It’s easy,” I said. “I mean, I know what she likes so I don’t have to work at it. And she’s a sure thing.” Guilt lurched through my gut. My relationship with Claire was so much more than that. With her I felt more myself than I did with anyone. Sometimes when we were flopped out on her bed together reading a poem and talking about it, I forgot that I had to play a boy and got to be a person for a while.
That’s what made me think I could be a girl with her.
But I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t risk losing what I already had.
“You don’t get bored?” Ramon asked. “Or look at the prettier girls?”
“Pretty girls are a lot of work,” I said.
They called the 500 and I got up, leaving my towel next to him. When I started on the team, Ramon was swimming the 500 and he told me the trick to it: have two songs cued up in your head. The first song has a good steady pace and the second song is a little faster.
I didn’t have a waterproof MP3 player, but I listened to my songs whenever I did strength training. When I hit the water, I started Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” in my mind. The upbeat R&B rhythm of the song gave me a moderately fast pace.
The problem was I really wanted tell Claire. How bad could it be? No, that was a terrible question to ask because it could be awful if I misjudged and she told everyone and stopped speaking to me. What if I was replaceable to her? I couldn’t tell her.
By the start of lap five I was trailing badly. Obsessing while swimming was a terrible strategy. I switched to my second song early. “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne.
That is what I wanted—to be Claire’s girlfriend.
Hitting the second to last lap, my lungs burned and a dull fire ran along my arms and legs. In the water, feeling my whole body didn’t bother me. The soft pressure reassured me of my reality. The water didn’t judge. I pushed hard into the pain.
Fifteen seconds behind first place. Not bad. The coach slapped me on the back as I climbed out of the pool.
“Good swim, Hesse, you really picked it up. That’s your best meet time.”
I stumbled back over to Ramon, sat against the bleachers, and tried to catch my breath. My time wasn’t good enough to go to sectionals. Even the guy in first wasn’t going to do well against the stronger teams from the Cities. But the time was good for me and all the effort had cleared my mind.
I had to tell Claire.
* * *
“Go chill at my place, I’ll be there in less than an hour,” Claire told me when the meet was over. I was glad she didn’t drive with me because I didn’t know how I’d manage small talk when I had something so important to say.
Unbeknownst to any of our parents, Claire had given me a duplicate key to her house for days when her extracurricular activities went longer than my swim practice. Her house was on the other side of town from mine, all of a mile-and-a-half apart, but she thought it would be silly to have me go home for an hour and then meet her at her place, so she’d copied her key.
Her house was nothing like mine. First of all, it was tiny and in the well-to-do part of town that bordered on our one lake, and therefore more expensive than my family’s larger house. Secondly, it was obsessively neat. At our house, Mikey or Dad always left junk around in the living room and kitchen, and Mom complained periodically and instituted weekend cleaning times, but it was never finished and tidy. Claire’s house looked like a furniture showroom. Even the bookcases were designed more as works of art than functional pieces; each shelf held a few books and then some small statue or knickknack or a picture turned at an angle for effect.
Her mom worked at a flooring and countertop store, helping people pick out expensive tile and granite for their fancy houses. This house had simple wood floors, but the kitchen did boast the yummiest counters I’d ever seen: black stone flecked with reflective bits of other colors. Claire’s mom made a good living and still got money from Claire’s dad, who lived in St. Louis, so Claire rarely wanted for anything. She didn’t have a car, true, but she did have her own TV in her bedroom and a Mac G5 desktop with a blazing-fast Internet connection and a monthly online game subscription to World of Warcraft. She let me have three of her character slots. I logged on and fired up my level 85 mage, Amalia.
Sometimes these online games got tedious for all the monsters a character had to kill to get to a new level, but that was more than made up for by the great gear I could buy and make, and the cool spells I could cast. Claire didn’t have the patience to play magic-users, but they were my favorite. I admit, the fact that they always wore robes figured into that preference.
When I logged into the game and selected Amalia on the character screen, I turned her 360 degrees to admire how awesome she looked. She always had beautiful hair. Sometimes I got it styled in one of the game’s barbershops, but right then it was flowing free all down her back. Her robes hung gracefully around her figure in violet and gray hues with gold tracery. I pushed the button to enter the game as her and got to step into a world fully female.
While I moved her around the city, I felt what it was like to be in her body. Some of the characters in the city were other players like me, but the computer created all the shopkeepers and city guards. They called me “m’lady” and simple as it was, that made me grin.
I was shopping for a new mage’s robe when I heard the key in the door. “Hi honey, I’m home,” Claire yelled from the entryway. I immediately started sweating while my skin went cold. That didn’t seem fair. My body should have picked one or the other, but instead I ended up a damp popsicle.
I heard the thomp of her boots coming off. Claire had three pairs of thick, black boots that she rotated through in the winter. Each pair made her at least two inches taller, but when she appeared in her bedroom doorway she was her usual petite self. Today she wore a bunch of silvery bracelets around her right wrist and a silver cross hanging down the front of her sweater. Her entire wardrobe was black. She once told me she started it when other girls teased her about trying to be fashionable in the eighth grade. Not only could she avoid those taunts, but this style let her get away with wearing an ornate cross and no one knew if she was serious or not.
She was very serious about her own brand of radical Christianity. From time to time she came up with surprisingly contextual Bible quotes. The one she liked to give people who hassled her about her all-black, heavy eyeliner look was: “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” That shut people up fast and was pretty fun to watch.
I gestured toward the computer screen. “Amalia’s got a new robe,” I said, trying to sound normal while my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. “Plus 120 Intel.”
“Sweet, and it shows off her cleavage. She’s hot,” Claire said, trying to trip me out, like I’d care. Wow, was I about to test her true coolness factor. With a silent prayer, I logged out of the game.
She put her arms around my shoulders from behind and kissed the side of my face. “Mom’s not coming home for a few hours,” she said quietly, running one hand across my chest.
Our relationship had been getting more sexual over the last few months, and I had the distinct impression that Claire liked it a lot more than I did. To be fair, I’d like it a lot better if I had the right equipment. We hadn’t gone “all the way,” but at this point we’d done a lot of other things, some working better than others since I had trouble connecting with my body. She’d been sexual with a couple of other people and said I was the least selfish guy she’d ever met, which I suppose was a compliment.
Claire spun my desk chair around to face her and sat down on my lap. It would’ve been a lot easier to let her talk me into fooling around, but I had to have this conversation with her and if I waited, I was only going to feel worse.
“Can we talk about something?” I asked.
She ruffled my hair with her fingers. “Whatever pops up,” she quipped.
I don’t know what expression I had on my face, but I suspect it was an echo of the crushing feeling in my chest because her eyes opened all the way and she stood up. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “What happened?”
“Sit down,” I said, which was stupid because her eyes got even wider.
She perched on the edge of the bed across from where I sat. “Are you sick?”
“No,” I said quickly.
“There’s someone else?” Those bright golden-green eyes narrowed.
“You’re gay,” she declared, leaning back on her hands and kicking my shin lightly. “I knew it. Of all the luck.”
“No. Claire, let me talk.”
She sighed and flopped all the way back on her elbows. Claire had this fantastic mass of black hair that spilled down her back. I loved playing with it. Unfortunately, what she didn’t know was that half the time I was thinking about what it would be like to have hair like that. She complained about it a lot: how long it took to dry, how hard it was to keep it from frizzing out, what a pain it was to dye it goth-black when her natural color was a mousy brown, but she never made a move to cut it off. Lying back on the bed with her hair spread out behind her, she looked like a pixie with small bones and big eyes. I offered another quick prayer to anyone who was listening that she could understand what I was going to tell her. My brain kept coming up with things to say, but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate because everything sounded so idiotic.
“You’re sure you’re not gay?” she asked while I struggled. “I mean, it’s okay if you are, though I’ll be upset ’cause I like fooling around with you.”
“I like girls,” I said through my constricted throat.
“And me in particular?” she asked. “Did you screw around on me?”
“No, again no, give me a minute.” I couldn’t breathe, but now that I’d gone this far, I had to keep going.
“Chris, you’re kind of creeping me out here,” she said, but then stared up at the ceiling. “I’m shutting up.”
Time stretched into an infinite plane. I thought about running, standing up and going for the car, driving until I got to Minneapolis and never coming back. Then I considered telling her I was gay after all, but I’d lose her and gain nothing. It wasn’t too late, I told myself, just jump her, she’ll eventually forget the whole thing. But she wouldn’t. Claire was not only smart, but she remembered entire conversations weeks after they happened. You could not get anything by her.
Claire sat up straight again and opened her mouth. I didn’t want to have to bat down another false guess.
“I’m a girl,” I blurted. It wasn’t the elegant explanation I’d intended, but I had to start somewhere. As soon as I said it, I blushed and couldn’t look her in the eye, so I stared at the left side of her jaw.
Claire cocked her head and blinked at me, her eyebrows drawing close to each other. Her mouth opened and closed and opened again.
“What?” she said with a sideways shake of her head.
The iron fist in my throat eased now that I’d started. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve known I was a girl,” I said. “But I got stuck with this body. I thought God made a mistake, and I kept waiting for Him to fix it.” I ran my hands down the front of my chest. “This isn’t who I am.”
Her face was white enough that I worried she was going to faint, but she reached toward me and laid one hand alongside my cheek. Then she traced her thumb down the line of my nose and across my lips. She put her fingertips between my collarbones and ran them down to my sternum.
“How?” she asked.
I didn’t know if she was asking how I knew or how I planned to fix it, but I wanted to answer that first question, so I did.
“When I was about seven, Grandma Em sent me a set of books for Christmas,” I began.
I told her how the set included The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and especially Ozma of Oz. The first book was cool, Mom rented the movie and we watched it, but the second and third were a revelation. In them a young boy, Tip, escapes a wicked witch and goes off on an adventure to find the missing Princess Ozma. At the end of The Marvelous Land of Oz it’s revealed that Tip is Ozma—that the princess had been bewitched into a boy’s body and now would be restored to her rightful self.
I told Claire how the first time I read that scene an electric shock traveled from the hair at the very top of my head down to the soles of my feet. In the scene, Glinda asked the witch, “What did you do with the girl?”
And the witch said, “I enchanted her…I transformed her—into—into a boy!”
At first Tip protests but Glinda says very gently, “But you were born a girl, and also a Princess; so you must resume your proper form, that you may become Queen of Emerald City.”
Claire listened, mouth half open, as I said how I’d read the scene over and over again. How I’d searched everywhere in my life for the magic to turn me back into my rightful self. I knew I was born a girl, and I wanted so badly to resume my proper form as Ozma had. Claire closed her mouth and her eyes turned down at the corners.
“How old were you again?” she asked.
“Seven or eight,” I said. “But I knew I was a girl before that. In kindergarten, I kept lining up with the girls when it was time to come in from recess and the teacher would make me go over and get in line with the boys. Before I was five it didn’t really matter if you were a boy or a girl, but as soon as we started getting divided up, I knew I should be with the girls.”
“So what…what happened next?” she asked.
“I tried harder to be a boy,” I said. “I thought maybe I’d just missed something, that maybe everyone has to work at it, so I had Dad teach me about cars, and I went out for the swim team, and I hung out with guys and did what they did. And after about six years of that I started to think that I’d become a very good fake.”
“But you’re one of the sweetest guys I know,” she said. “I always thought you might be gay. You’re so…” She trailed off.
“…different from the other guys,” she finished. “I mean, there’s the cars and the swimming and stuff, and you look like a really cute guy, and your parts work—” She gestured at my crotch, causing me to reflexively cross my legs. “But you don’t talk like a guy. At least not when we’re alone.”
“Talk like a guy?” I asked.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s different. The only time you really talk like a guy is when you’re mad, otherwise it’s a little like talking to my girlfriends.” She pressed the heel of one hand to her temple. “I think my brain is scrambling.”
She stood up from the bed and moved into the open part of her room, between bed and closet. I watched her gaze travel up and down my body a few times.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t understand how you can be that way.”
“There are some good websites that explain it,” I said and wrote a few on the pad of paper by her computer.
“How are you going to be able to live like that?” she asked.
“It’s not like you can turn into a girl or anything.”
Her voice sounded distant and she was still standing across the room, away from me. How upset was she? Was she in shock or was she taking this relatively well? I couldn’t afford to let myself hope and so my answer came out harsher than I intended. “I can get a sex change,” I said, the words hanging in the air like icicles.
“You’re kind of tall for a girl.”
I stood up. “I should probably go.” I wanted her to contradict me and tell me to stay. I needed to know she was going to be okay with this revelation.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”
My heart clenched. I went into the living room and put on my boots and coat. She followed and watched me.
“Does this mean we’re going to split up?” I asked before I could stop myself.
Claire’s face was still paler than usual and at first she only stared, as if I hadn’t been speaking in English. “What?” she asked.
“Are we going to split up?”
“Chris, don’t ask me that. I don’t know.” She sounded angry, each word bitten short.
“Well tell me when you make up your mind,” I said and stepped through the door into the freezing air.
By the time I’d started the car and driven halfway to my house I wanted to turn around and take that back, but I was afraid I’d find her still standing in the living room and staring after me in shock.
When I got home I had no appetite, so I told Mom I didn’t feel well and I was going to bed early. Up in my room I set my alarm for four a.m. and then lay down and stared at the ceiling. The conversation with Claire played over again in my head until I finally fell asleep.