I Am J
Little, Brown: 326 pp., $16.99, ages 14 and up
When individuals identify with the opposite gender instead of their biological sex, it is often misunderstood, vilified or worse.
Although transsexualism is often confused with homosexuality, it is really about being born with body parts that don’t match an individual’s gender perspective. It is a situation that sometimes leads to gender reassignment surgery. Invariably, it’s fraught with conflict, as transsexual individuals wrestle with their self identity and struggle to fit into a society that prefers clear-cut gender roles.
The new young adult novel “I Am J” by Cris Beam is a wonderful addition to the few novels that have dared to tackle a subject that has long lived in the cultural margins. Transsexualism is a natural if unusual subject for young-adult literature, geared as it is to teen readers whose bodies are already forcing them to think about budding sexuality. “I Am J” is a tender, surprisingly relatable story that is at its core about a girl who is struggling to figure out who she is.
Her life is just more complicated than it is for most 17-year-old New Yorkers. The only daughter of a Jewish father and Puerto Rican mom whose dreams for her include college, “a white dress and a three-tiered cake,” J was named Jenifer by her parents, but she knew from age 3 that she was really a “he.”
“He had been surprised whenever anyone thought he was a girl,” Beam writes. “He was clearly a boy; everybody else was just wearing the wrong glasses.”
Referred to as “he” throughout the book, J wears multiple shirts to disguise the breasts that “pushed forth from his ribs like animals, fisting their way up from beneath.” He suppresses his appetite hoping it will stop his period. But nothing works to deny his biology as effectively as his mind. His brain is male. It’s only his body that isn’t.
J hasn’t told anyone he is trans. The unfortunate side effect of that decision is that everyone who knows him knows him as a girl and thinks he is lesbian because he is romantically interested in women and dresses like a guy.
An altercation with his best friend prompts J to skip school. Confronted by his mother over the truancy, J then runs away from home. Both, it turns out, are positive steps toward reconciling the realities of his female physicality with his self-identification as a male. He meets a woman he suspects was once a man who tells him about a shelter for homeless youth. That shelter helps enroll him in a school for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens and gets him counseling so he can begin the process of physically transitioning his gender, including testosterone injections. J’s desire for the substance he calls “T” is “made from equal parts shame and need.”
J is ashamed to tell his parents he is transsexual or to take more active steps to become more male. He fears he will be disowned by a mother and father who have made no secret of the financial sacrifices they have made for him throughout his life. When he finally does reveal his transgender status to his mother, she says he is selfish, but she arranges for J to stay with a friend because she doesn’t think J’s working-class dad would be as understanding as she is.
Beam wrote 2008’s “Transparent,” a nonfiction book for adults about transgender teenagers. In her author’s note at the end of this book, she said she wrote “I Am J” to speak to transsexuals, not about them, in a manner that voiced their emotional, rather than historical, truths. Beam said she was inspired by volunteering at a continuation high school in Los Angeles called Emphasizing Adolescent Gay/Lesbian Educational Services, also known as EAGLES, and the teenage transsexual daughter she adopted as a result.
Beam’s deep understanding of the emotional truths of transsexualism is clear. She writes with such intimacy and affection for the subject that, on some levels, reading “I Am J” feels voyeuristic. It is certainly eye-opening as to the gender-bending social order within the LGBT community and the challenges of transsexual individuals, such as which public bathroom to use.
“What was a person anyway? The sum of the parts? Some of the parts?” J asks himself. “Was a person just the things he said he was, or also the things he denied?” These are some of the larger questions “I Am J” raises in an empathic story that humanizes what has long been demonized.