Tag Archives: Lambda Award

16. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

21 Apr

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

Janet Mock is a transgender woman who began her transition in high school and lived as a woman in New York City in her 20s, working media jobs. This is her memoir, and it’s a fascinating story, especially since it cleverly starts with Mock revealing her gender identity to her straight-man boyfriend, whose response the reader eagerly awaits for the next 300 pages.

Everyone’s lurid questions swirl around these issues—How would a straight man feel to discover he’d been sleeping with a former man?  Did Mock have an obligation to disclose? Can a transwoman really pass that effectively? And while the eventual answers are interesting, Mock’s story is much more than that, and she knows it, and uses the hot topics only as a frame.

Mock is half black, half Hawaiian and grew up in poverty bouncing between residences with a grandmother, a neglectful mother, a crack-addicted father and a cast of siblings, half-siblings and de facto step-siblings. She was sexually abused as a child, though she says her gender nonconformity came first. She makes a compelling case that contrary to the stereotype (that abuse causes gender dysphoria) the abuse was the result of her gender, since the abuser sensed she’d keep silent because of her difference.

Despite the obvious flaws of her family, Mock drew on their positive qualities, loved them, and used them for the support they were able to offer. Her gentle treatment of them shows true kindness of spirit. And, in a way, the multiple homes and not-so-benign neglect allowed her to take the reins with her gender in ways that a more policed young person would never have managed. (For example, she started taking off-label hormones and growing breasts in high school… and her mother didn’t notice.)

It’s a page-turner, and a great story.

The book and the generally excellent writing suffer, however, from the sense that Mock is trying to win a cultural argument for trans people through framing her life in the right way. She tends to spell out the political lessons of her experiences. Passages like the following are encrusted with lingo and feel like dogma 101:

The stories of my early expressions of femininity echo many people’s lived experiences with exploring, experimenting, and expressing gender. I’ve read and heard stories of trans people from all walks of life who remember playfully exhibiting their preferred gender behaviors and roles at age three or four without anyone’s prompting. …the majority were discouraged from experimenting outside their prescribed gender roles and behaviors. This contributes greatly to self image… Most cis people rarely question their gender identity…. This makes it difficult for the majority of people—including parents of trans youth and those close to trans people—to grasp the varied identities, needs, and determinations of trans people.

What’s the difference between a “lived experience” and an “experience”? What does “determination” mean in this context? Do we really know how parental discouragement of gender non-conforming behavior affects self-image, or is this a party line, a truism that everyone accepts because it seems to make sense? And “most cis people rarely question their gender identity”…. uhhhm, that’s probably not true, especially in childhood, whether you end up cis or end up trans. Most of this passage probably is accurate enough as common sense, but it has a false science-y quality that I object to.

I suppose the point is that the book is Dogma 101, Mock is quite specifically writing the book as a work of advocacy, using herself as an example to teach a general readership about trans issues.

The most interesting part of that to me was that as an advocate she struggles with the desire to pass as a woman (be a woman), as has been her deepest urge since childhood, verses the rising tide of calls to stand with her sister trans-women, which involves a fair amount of not-passing. It’s a conundrum and Mock doesn’t have the answers, but she has obviously responded to calls for her help with the same kind of generosity she has shown in other parts of her story. I admire her for it.

 

 

 

 

32. In the City of Shy Hunters, Tom Spanbauer

30 Aug

In the City of Shy Hunters, Tom Spanbauer

Here’s what Rob Hart from Litreactor has to say about Tom Spanbauer:

I’ve been planning to write this for months, and I’ve done everything I could to put it off. The reason for that is because I am afraid to write it. No matter what I write, I’ll never get across the thing about Tom Spanbauer’s writing that touches me so deeply.

The sensation of reading his books is that, while you’re reading them, it’s like he’s placed his hand on your chest, the warmth and pressure and intimacy of it reassuring you that you are alive, and you are not alone.

That doesn’t cut it. It gets close, but it’s not there. The best I can do is approximate.

I think Rob does get pretty close. I’ve written about Tom before. His latest book, I Loved You More, was one of my favorites of 2014 and just won a Lambda Award for gay general fiction. In the City of Shy Hunters is his AIDS classic, about New York in the early days of the epidemic. The hero, Will, is a Spanbauer stand-in who shares many points of his biography. He’s a gay man from Idaho who has come to the city to search for a lost love, a Native American named Charlie Two Moons. Charlie is a drop-out from the writing program at Columbia, and as the novel progresses and Will doesn’t find him, we begin to fear that he won’t, and that Charlie, like nearly everyone else, is a casualty of the epidemic.

Spanbauer makes a beautiful use of refrains, like his hero having “my mother’s nerves” (she killed herself) and “language my second language” when he’s nervous. One of the best is when he takes moments with people he’s loved and lost to AIDS, and claims the moment is still ongoing.  (In the below, “the monster” is AIDS.)

The monster’s heavy footfall.

I had to sit down right there on the curb, my head between my knees, my sensible black shoes on New York City pavement.

Big sobs, snot running out my nose, my chest up and down, up and down.

Who knows how long I sat there. I’m still sitting there.

I can’t think of a more generous and ongoing way of keeping a person in our hearts. Even the dead are not alone, thanks to Spanbauer’s wonderful humanity.

The book is more than just a tragedy, though it is that. It’s also a great old-time NYC book, evoking days I caught the last edge of when I moved to the city, when the East Village was alternative and Thompson Square Park was frightening. Will works as a waiter in a midtown restaurant that he calls Cafe Cauchemar and makes me think of Cafe Un Deux Trois (who knows if that’s even still there). The extended scenes of restaurant politics and after-hours partying deserve their own book. Here’s a scene of him at an alt performance space:

I felt I belonged there in my seat. Things had meaning and purpose. Fiona and Harry were my friends and they were up there on the stage and the audience was waiting—you could feel the anticipation, the hope of theater to lay bare the human heart. And I was there, I wasn’t in Jackson Holeewood or Boise, I was avant-garde in Manhattan in a basement theater on the Lower East Side.

The New York one can write things like this about has vanished as well.