Thursday, October 29, 2015

Transgender Voices Breaking the Silence

"The Traits of Both" by Soraida Martinez



by Jackson Wright Shultz
author of Trans/Portraits: Voices from Transgender Communities

I distinctly remember the first time I ever read an entire book without help.

Shortly after my third birthday, I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed as they bustled back and forth through the doorway connecting their bedroom to the bathroom, preparing for the day ahead. I read slowly and methodically, practically shouting the words into the bathroom to make sure my parents could hear the groundbreaking story of the freckled, red-haired boy’s trip to the park.

I had successfully blundered through several pages, but when at last I arrived at a word I didn’t recognize, I wailed for someone to come read it to me. My mom, a reading teacher, ignored my plea for help, but called mechanically from the bathroom, “Sound it out!”

With no small amount of indignation, I formed the sounds of each letter slowly with my tongue. I struggled to make sense of the noises I heard myself producing, but an ever-stubborn child, I kept at it until the disparate phonics morphed into recognizable syllables. When I finally made sense of the text, I bellowed the offending word into the bathroom and continued my recitation with newfound vigor.

Jackson Wright Shultz
I don’t remember which seemingly difficult word became the source of my triumph; I don’t remember where we were going that day (although, I know it must have been an important event because I was wearing a rather formal dress with several scratchy layers of crinoline); and I don’t remember much about the book, save for its orange and green cover. Yet, I do remember the empowerment I felt when I finished the book.

Later, as we drove to whatever event dictated that I wear such an uncomfortable dress, I peered out of the car window, calling out the words on every street sign. After twenty miles of my commentary on mile markers and speed limit signs, my elder sister implored me to stop. (I steadfastly refused.) From those road signs, to the entirety of the children’s section of the local library, I began to read everything I could find. In retrospect, I think I was searching, in vain, for the smallest indication of a character to whom I could relate.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally found the character I had been searching for. As I read Leslie Feinberg’s lesbian cult classic, Stone Butch Blues, I turned each page with a combination of unbridled excitement and dread. The novel details the coming of age story of Jess, a young butch lesbian who, after a lifetime of ridicule, begins taking cross-gender hormones to more closely align her physical appearance with her masculine identity. Although Jess is never specifically labeled as transgender, the trajectory she follows resonates with many transgender and nonbinary individuals.

While this was not the first transgender narrative I had encountered, it was the first story in which I found critical pieces of myself reflected. For the first time in my life, my voracious reading had led me to a protagonist with whom I could wholeheartedly identify. Like Jess, I didn’t necessarily identify strictly as a man; however, transitioning seemed like the next logical step in the progression of my own gender identity. I came out as transgender shortly after finishing Stone Butch Blues.

By virtue of navigating my body away from the gender I had been assigned at birth, I fell under the broad umbrella of “transgender” and found myself a part of a vibrant community of individuals who identified and expressed their genders in fathomless ways. The more I talked to other transgender and nonbinary individuals, the more I realized that there are so many important and recurrent gender narratives that have somehow been omitted from the current body of work on transgender issues. I set out to write Trans/Portraits to tell the stories of transgender and nonbinary people in their own words in an attempt to correct this egregious erasure.


In conducting my research for the book, I didn’t know exactly what I would find, but there were certain themes I expected to encounter—medical and workplace discrimination, familial strife, and encounters with prejudice—but there were other discoveries I hadn’t predicted. Of the many dozens of transgender and nonbinary individuals I interviewed, I was surprised to learn that nearly all of them were involved in activist endeavors.

One of the men I interviewed, pseudonym “Greg,” aptly summarized this phenomenon: “I feel that a lot of trans folk become activists, not because they necessarily want to, but because there is a certain amount of need. […] As you deal with prejudice on a daily basis, you start picking and choosing which battles are the most important to you and then you start educating the people around you. Even if they never intended for it to happen, I believe most trans people become accidental activists.”

I was also surprised to find that I was not alone in my childhood literary pursuits. “Wendy” told me, “When I was a kid, I learned to read at a really early age. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Even though I didn’t consciously realize it, I was desperately searching through literature to find any glimpse of other people who were like me.” Several other interviewees, including “Catherine” and “Erik,” echoed this sentiment.

Learning that there were others out there searching for the faintest glimmers of themselves in the literature crystallized my desire to find and archive stories that broke the narrow mold of how transgender identities are usually conceptualized. My intent was to tell stories, like mine, that were not often expressed in transgender literature.

It was critical to me that this project provide a platform for voices that, even within transgender spaces, are often left out of the conversation. As “Bella” pointed out, transgender history has often been whitewashed, and the stories of trans people have frequently been left out of the conversation. “Our voices have been silenced long enough,” she told me, “It’s about damned time that somebody let us tell our truths.”

Ultimately, writing Trans/Portraits was a labor of love. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to connect with so many remarkable trans and nonbinary individuals and that I was able to provide a platform that allowed each of them to share their incredible stories. Although I began writing this book with mild uncertainty about what I would find, the positivity and diversity I encountered in collecting these stories allowed me to finish this project with hope that others who are still searching for their truths might find themselves amongst these pages.