Grey Weinstein (he/they)
This summer, I buckled in to work my way through a daunting reading list of political theory as research for my senior thesis. And then… I didn’t. In my defense, I was living just a few blocks from my local library, which was well stocked with much of the trans literature I’d been longing to read over the school year but simply hadn’t had the time for. So, in lieu of presenting my thesis advisor with a well-researched literature review, I am instead publishing this piece: a comprehensive review of all the queer books I read for enjoyment.
It should be noted that this article is not at all topical; many of these books came out years ago, and I am admittedly quite late to the game. It could also certainly be argued that several of these books are so vastly different from one another in genre that they have no business being compared to each other. To that I offer this counterpoint: reviewing these books is fun and I’m having a good time.
With the exception of the lowest-ranked book, I greatly enjoyed each and every one of these works, and would unhesitatingly recommend them to anyone looking for an enjoyable read!
10) “Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family” by Amy Ellis Nutt
Reading this book is like talking to your overly-enthusiastic cisgender relative who proudly proclaims to be a “trans ally” and then goes on to misgender you three times in their next sentence. It offers a biography of Nicole Maines, a transgender woman who began her transition as a young child. However, the book is written by a cisgender journalist, clearly for a cisgender audience; its ultimate goal is to make trans people legible and palatable to cis people in a way that I found utterly uninteresting at best, and a bit offensive at worst.
Overall, this book is packed full of appeals to the supposed normativity of trans people. The author repeatedly makes reference to Nicole’s attraction to boys as proof of the authenticity of her gender, employing a heternormative trope that reckons back to the idea that womanhood can be defined by attraction to men. (Until reading this, I’d thought that the myth of heterosexuality as a criteria for determining who was a “true transsexual” had been left behind in the 1960s. I certainly didn’t expect to find it in a book published in 2015!) The narrative constantly returns to the small-town lifestyle and traditional values of Nicole’s family– her father’s military history, her mother’s work with police departments, their conservative family values– in a way that seems to scream, “See, these transgenders aren’t all crazy leftist hippies! Some of them are normal red-blooded Americans just like you and me!”
The book also offers an extremely shallow examination of gender and sex. It presents a typical (surface level and very cis-centric) definition of sex as a biological fact and gender identity as an internal sense of self, but doesn’t explore the was in which gender and sex are socially constructed at all. Ultimately it lays out a very novice understanding of the biology behind trans identity; the author seems most interested in asking, “What could be wrong with someone’s brain to make her feel like a girl despite having been assigned male at birth?” Framing transness in this way positions cisness as a natural condition in need of no scrutiny, while categorizing any deviation from cisgender identity as unnatural and in need of explanation. More interesting and important questions (ie, “How is gender performative and socially constructed for everyone, cis or trans?” or, “How are our conceptions of manhood and womanhood rooted in racism, colonialism, and patriarchy?”) are set aside, and the existence of nonbinary genders is completely disregarded.
I could go on and on about how much I loathed this book– it refuses to question the gatekeeping Nicole clearly experienced as she insisted that she was a girl and therapists continued to question whether she was really a “confused gay boy,” it continues to refer to her by her given name and he/him pronouns for a significant portion of the story even after establishing that she was presenting socially as female, it offers no critical thinking about the role that well meaning cis people play in the systemic oppression trans people face– but I digress. Suffice to say that this book is certainly not the tirade of a transphobic bigot, but it rests upon the foundational assumption that trans women are women as long as they perform white, middle class, heterosexual normativity.
9) “Filthy Animals” by Brandon Taylor
“Filthy Animals” is far better than “Becoming Nicole” by leaps and bounds. I came into it with low expectations as I am not a huge fan of short stories, but this book greatly impressed me. Set in the present day across the Midwest, “Filthy Animals” offers a snapshot of the lives of several different queer people navigating life as teens and young adults.
This book has beautiful prose, and it really excels at characterization, painting a sometimes-unflattering vision of neurotic, complicated, frightened, confused, and passionate queers trying their best with what life has handed them. Its focus on the messiness of interpersonal relationships and the (at times, isolating) experience of being gay in the Midwest rang true to my own experiences. Through the eyes of multiple different characters, it also offers an insightful look at the lives of gay people of color navigating majority-white queer spaces and various cultural relationships to queerness.
Where this book failed to capture my interest is its plot. The stories are far from action-packed, and most of my criticism can be summed up by saying, “Nothing really happens in this book.” This is clearly intentional– the book is more concerned with giving readers an impression of queer life in the Midwest, of imparting a general sense of the character’s hopes, disappointments, and senses of longing– and it accomplishes this goal well. Personally, I find that these types of short story collections leave me wanting more; I kept waiting for the vignettes to connect to impart some greater message, which is simply not the aim of this type of work. Although as a matter of personal taste it wasn’t my favorite, if that’s the sort of writing you enjoy then “Filthy Animals” is an outstanding piece.
8) “The Seep” by Chana Porter
I found the premise of “The Seep” to be absolutely brilliant. The novel begins with Earth’s invasion by a bacteria-like alien organism called the Seep, which infects the planet’s water supply. The Seep seems to act like some sort of drug, giving Earth’s inhabitants a euphoric high and unforeseen powers like the ability to shapeshift and heal illness. A post-capitalist utopia ensues, where human beings live in a state of harmony with nature and one another. The book follows the story of Trina Goldberg-Oneka, an indigenous trans woman who is devastated after her wife Deeba decides to use the powers of the Seep to be reincarnated as a baby, leaving Trina feeling abandoned.
While the setup of this science fiction near-future is fascinating and rich with possibility, I was rather disappointed by the follow through. Trina’s story about learning to let go of loss and move forward in the face of immense grief is touching, but she is the only character whose complex inner life is fully explored. The other figures in the story seem under-utilized, as does the intricate utopia the author introduces. The world-building in the beginning of the story seems to offer up a great many questions– how are our experiences of transness shaped by capitalism, and what would gender look like without those constraints? In a world where everyone’s material needs are provided for, what does care look like, and what do we owe to each other? Ultimately this book does not get the chance to delve into these questions.
I suppose my main complaint with this book is that I wanted more! At only 200 pages, it seems almost like a waste of such a genius concept; readers only get a taste of one small corner of the utopia Porter has constructed. I also wish that the novel had taken the time to explore how the main character’s transness informs her experience of the world and her relationship with others, as it is only mentioned in passing a few times. While the execution leaves a bit to be desired, I would gladly consume an entire series set in this world.
7) “Future Feeling” by Joss Lake
Much like “The Seep,” this novel engages in some very clever world building but left me a bit disappointed with the plot. In another near-distant future, this one a bit less utopic, trans people must pass through “the Shadowlands” as they attempt to find stability and self actualization. The Shadowlands is a physical manifestation of the uncertainty, low self esteem, discomfort, and outright terror of early transition; it is a combination of the struggle of navigating internalized transphobia, the bigotry of a transphobic society, and the ordinary fear of making a major life change, made tangible in a physical location. The novel follows Penfield, a young trans man; Aiden, the trans Instagram celebrity whom Penfield jealously attempts to send to the Shadowlands with a magical curse; and Blithe, the trans guy who is accidentally hit by Pen’s hex. As Pen and Aiden attempt to help Blithe through the Shadowlands, they are aided by the Rhiz, a bureaucratic agency overseeing trans life and presumably run by and for trans people.
I adored the metaphor of the Shadowlands, a wasteland through which trans people wander on the journey to becoming their authentic selves. The imagery of Pen, Aiden, and Blithe stumbling through a literal desert of their longings and insecurities is at once both so touching and so funny, and rang painfully true as I read this book about nine months into my own transition. I also loved the way in which this book portrayed Pen’s relationships with women, capturing the sometimes-troubled and complicated connection to queerness that so many transmascs who are attracted to women feel. (As a side note, I don’t this book had nearly enough t4t sex! That’s not a serious criticism– I don’t believe that any one trans book has the moral obligation to capture the experiences of all trans people– I just simply cannot relate to any character who seems to only want to sleep with cis people.)
This novel is definitely making commentary on important issues. It criticizes the commodification of transness for social media content, which encourages unrealistic standards and parasocial relationships. It examines the unnecessary loneliness and isolation of white transmasculinity specifically, and the tendency of many white transmasc folks not to build community. (Ouch, this one hit me where it hurts.) While I really appreciated everything this book had to say, at points the major themes seemed to come at the expense of the plot. The characters did not always have clearly articulated goals, and for stretches of the book seemed to wander about aimlessly while things happened to them, rather than making any decisions themselves. (Again, this does not make the book objectively bad, but it felt frustrating to me, and often made the pacing feel slow.) The fictional institution of the Rhiz, a seemingly-benevolent organization which nonetheless remains fairly mysterious throughout the book, also felt like a missed opportunity. The Rhiz’s surveillance of trans populations and its lack of transparency seem to offer the potential for a critique of data collection, privately funded and undemocratically conducted organizations, and the wider nonprofit industrial complex within queer communities. However, the book falls short of a coherent argument, portraying the Rhiz as a harmless (if not somewhat unknowable) source of good.
Despite its shortcomings with the plot, I greatly enjoyed reading this book and would wholeheartedly recommend it.
6) “Little Fish” by Casey Plett
Featuring much less fantasy than the previous novels, “Little Fish” tells the story of Wendy Reimer, a trans woman living in Canada whose extended family is Mennonite. Wendy is drawn into a mystery when a woman contacts her with information about her late grandfather, who may himself have been a gay man or a closeted trans woman. While the crux of the plot revolves around Wendy’s attempts to piece together the truth of her Mennonite grandfather’s identity, the book also paints a picture of her day to day life as a young woman coping with transmisogyny while firmly rooted within a trans community.
We’re now entering the territory where I have very little criticism to give about these books; I really enjoyed reading “Little Fish.” The challenges Wendy faces– from alcoholism to the suicide of friends to abuse from her clients in her capacity as a sex worker– offers a poignant window into the unique vulnerability many trans women experience. At the same time, the book skillfully avoids becoming trauma porn intended to titillate or shock a cis audience; far from being a hypervictimized stand-in for all trans women, Wendy’s character has agency, dignity, and wit. The constant harassment Wendy is subjected to by strangers runs in the background throughout the book; this manages to convey the exhaustion of receiving an unrelenting tide of transmisogyny, without coming across as preachy. Wendy’s relationships– with her alcoholic but well-meaning father, with her lovers, and with her friends (most of whom are also trans)– are at times both contentious and loving. In other words, she is allowed to be messy, complex, imperfect, and human, rather than being pigeon-holed into the role of the perfect, suffering trans victim.
5) “Nevada” by Imogen Binnie
I know, I know– I’m pretty late to the conversation on this one. “Nevada” is a classic work of trans literature, proclaimed by some to have kickstarted the genre, and it’s been around for several decades. (Although it did just recently get a reprint, so in some ways I’m right on time.) I was slightly (although not very) surprised to find that “Nevada” one hundred percent lives up to the hype. It tells the story of Maria Griffiths, a trans woman working as a bookseller in New York City. After breaking up with her girlfriend, Maria embarks upon a spur-of-the-moment cross country trip and ends up in Nevada, where she meets James. Recognizing the signs that James might themself be a repressed trans woman living in denial, Maria sets off on an ultimately-disastrous attempt to convince James to transition.
“Nevada” is excellent in its bitingly humorous examination of queer punk subcultures and its portrayal of complicated and sometimes-unhealthy queer relationships. Much of the story centers on Maria's struggle to define her sense of self outside of her transness. Having endured the cruelty of random strangers at the beginning of her transition when she was very “visibly trans,” she has come out the other side of medical transition with little understanding of who she is, besides someone who constantly reacts to and against transphobia. At its heart, however, it is a story about trans community, and the ways in which we sometimes hurt each other despite our best intentions. There is very little I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll leave it at this: reading this book reminded me of how deeply grateful I am for the trans people who have made me feel supported and loved throughout my transition. I am looking forward to rereading it in several years, when I reach the point in transition where Maria finds herself at the beginning of the story.
4) “Manhunt” by Gretchen Felker-Martin
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not brave enough for horror stories, but this was the exception. “Manhunt” is set in a post-apocalyptic world where testosterone turns people into vicious, bloodthirsty creatures bent only on rape and murder. Men– and anyone else for whom testosterone is the dominant hormone in their endocrine system– have become mindless monsters who pursue violence against anything that moves. The novel centers on Beth and Fran, two trans women who scavenge for sources of estrogen, and Robbie, a trans man who survived the plague by going off testosterone. The trio struggle to survive as militant armed trans-exclusive radical feminists (TERFs) hunt for them.
This book has some of the most gorgeous imagery I’ve ever read, not just in its depiction of the ravaged landscape of a desecrated America but also in its characterization of scenes of extreme violence and kinky queer sex. (Body horror is also an infamously transgender genre, and “Manhunt” does an exquisite job capturing the feeling that one’s own body has the potential to turn against oneself and become something monstrous.) Although fast-paced and full of action, the themes of this story are heavy. Felker-Martin seriously engages with the rhetoric of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, and her exploration of the brutal TERF death squads is a stark portrayal of the fascist ideology that animates transmisogynistic TERF rhetoric. “Manhunt” is also something of a transfeminist response to the “gender plague” genre as a whole; there is a vast proliferation of books that imagine the utopia of a world without men while grouping trans women in with those men. (“Y: The Last Man” comes to mind.) “Manhunt” criticizes the cruelty of a worldview that positions patriarchy as residing in “male” bodies, cis women as incapable of perpetuating harm, and trans women as male imposters, all tenants of the ideology behind both “gender plague” novels and trans-exclusive radical feminism. Anyone not intimately familiar with the rhetoric of TERFs will almost certainly miss out on some of the nuance and care that “Manhunt” puts into its allegorical take-down of transmisogyny. However, if you’ve ever been enraged by the inhumanity of such self-proclaimed “feminists”– whether you’ve read Janice Raymond’s “The Transsexual Empire” or J.K. Rowling’s Twitter feed– you’re sure to enjoy this book.
3) “Dead Collections” by Isaac Fellman
Romance, fandom, and Jewish transmasc vampires; need I say more? “Dead Collections” is much lighter and more fun than a lot of the other novels I’ve read, and the elements of horror in its vampiric themes are less scary and more silly. The story follows Solomon Katz, a trans man, archivist, and vampire who spends most of his days in the underground archives avoiding sunlight. When Elsie, a queer recent widow, brings her ex-wife’s documents to the archive, he and Sol embark on a romance as they navigate Elsie’s changing relationship to their own gender and Sol’s relationship to his vampirism.
This book was absolutely delightful in part because I am certainly its target audience, not just demographically but also culturally. Fellman is clearly writing from a perspective that is rooted firmly in a specific early-2000s Internet-based subculture, complete with references to fanfiction on AO3 and to specific slash pairings popular among the fan base of the TV show “Supernatural.” Although I would personally characterize my experience of transitioning on testosterone to be more werewolf-inducing than vampiric (after all, I’ve found myself increasingly hairy and hungry), vampirism alternates between a clever allegory for both transness and HIV/AIDS. Elsie’s burgeoning understanding of themself as a genderfluid person (whose pronouns alternate throughout the book) is a touching subplot that is beautifully woven into Sol’s experience grappling with his own dysphoria and his complicated relationship to attempting to pass as a cis man. The relationship between the two characters showcases the diverse and varying ways that transmasculine people can experience gender– again without being preachy– and reads as a celebration of the intimacy that comes with t4t love.
2) “Something That May Shock and Discredit You” by Daniel M. Lavery
“Something That May Shock and Discredit You” is a memoir by Daniel M. Lavery, a trans journalist and one of my biggest celebrity crushes. This book serves as a subversion of the traditional “transition memoir,” a genre that tends to feature trans narrators speaking directly to a cis audience about the trials and tribulations of gender transition. Lavery is utterly uninterested in attempts to convince a cis audience of the authenticity of his gender. He doesn’t appeal to the stereotypical “born in the wrong body” narrative that marks many transition memoirs; when he does talk about his childhood, it is not to establish the legitimacy of his manhood through the image of a tree-climbing tomboy. This book also noticeably departs from many transition memoirs in the author’s refusal to use trans stories for shock value; written as a collection of essays, Lavery’s experiences are never tokenized to extract pity or horror through the figure of the Suffering Transsexual.
This book really shines in its dry humor, cutting wit, and recurring motif of evangelical Christian imagery that testifies to the author’s religious trauma. From chapter titles like, “Captain James T. Kirk Is a Beautiful Lesbian and I'm Not Sure Exactly How to Explain That,” to in depth discussions of the intense t4t energy of Morticia and Gomez Addams of “The Addams Family,” this book makes it clear throughout that it is speaking directly to queer and trans readers.
I reread this book several times. The first time I read it, I came away thinking, “Wow, I really have never had an original thought in my life, huh?” (Did I read a story about a white guy whose main dilemma while transitioning is his own internalized transphobia and go, “Oh hey, that’s me”? Admittedly yes, absolutely.) Some of the chapters in this book could have been taken from my personal journal, they so closely mirror my own experiences with medical transition and transphobia (albeit in a much more well-written manner). In particular, Lavery’s cutting commentary on the everyday transphobia he experiences felt like a brilliant examination of many of the things my trans friends and I discuss daily. This book will hold a special place in my heart for a long time.
1) “Summer Fun” by Jeanne Thornton
This book is hands-down my favorite I’ve read in at least several years, maybe ever. It is written in the form of letters sent by Gala, a trans woman working at a New Mexico hostel, to Diane, another trans woman who led the hit band the Get Happies decades before. Alternating between Gala’s life in the present and Diane’s life in the 1960s, the novel pieces together Diane’s turbulent career as she attempted to transition in an era and industry hostile to trans women. Gala is searching for answers as to why the Get Happies disappeared, what happened to their much-anticipated but never released album “Summer Fun,” and how she can use witchcraft to bring them back.
Every chapter of this book is intensely infused with longing, both Diane’s longing for the safety and support she needs to live openly as a trans woman and Gala’s longing for connection to others like her. Gala’s decision to turn to the past, to search for the story of Diane’s life and her transition, felt intimately familiar to me– the desire to find evidence of other trans people throughout history, to ground oneself in the knowledge that we have always been here, that there is a “we” to belong to in the first place. For Gala, this almost painfully sharp desire is tied up in a fandom-esque culture around the band the Get Happies. Gala’s recounting of Diane’s life– a confused and painful boyhood around an abusive father, a crumbling marriage to a transmisogynistic cis woman, violent transphobia and assault at the hands of her music producer, all amidst the Get Happies’ rapid rise into wild success and subsequent fall from grace– makes Diane’s character remarkably real and well-developed despite the two characters never meeting. Diane’s story depicts the brutality of transmisogyny in a manner that is raw and gut-wrenching; the book’s moments of intensity are tempered by the magical realism of Gala’s band-reviving witchcraft. The experience of reading this book hurt in a way that felt good. Even if you’re not a literary masochist, I can’t recommend “Summer Fun” enough.
Thus concludes my brief foray into literary criticism. Honorable mentions go to the books that I loved but had too little (or too much) to say about, namely “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg, “Normal Life” by Dean Spade, and “Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters. The next time that classes slow down enough for me to have the chance to pick up a book for casual, pleasurable reading, I’m looking forward to delving back into the world of trans literature.
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