Vulnerability For Justice

Sarah McBride’s Tomorrow Will Be Different and 6 Other Trans Memoirs 

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You might know Sarah McBride a couple different ways. Maybe you watched the 2016 Democratic National Convention, when she was the first transgender person to address a political party at the national level. Maybe as the first transgender intern at the White House. Maybe you remember a trans woman taking a selfie in a bathroom in North Carolina after HR2 was passed in 2016 and it going viral

Part memoir, part introduction to the current state and process of trans politics, McBride’s recently published Tomorrow Will Be Different reminds us that when your community and your daily life are the politicians’ first punching bags, the personal is political and the political is personal. Telling your own story is one of the most effective political organizing tools there is.

A quick synopsis of McBride’s life: a politics nerd, McBride made her first forays into Delaware’s small-but-earnest political scene at a young age, working on campaigns for governors and, notably, Beau Biden, another Delaware hometown hero. She went off to the political hotbed of American University where she won the race for Student Body President (probably one of the harder universities in America to win that seat), then came out as transgender. She then: interned in the Obama White House, pretty much is responsible for the successful passage of a non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity bill in Delaware, decamped to the Center for American Progress, and now works as the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign.

In the middle of all of these achievements, she fell in love with a transgender man named Andrew Cray. They were married by the Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson four days before Cray’s death from terminal cancer.

To say this book is a series of ups and downs is to understate it. I did cry while reading it, several times, probably at least once a chapter. I cried about her husband’s illness and death; I cried when McBride sat in a legislative session, her humanity insulted to her face by Republican state senators with unfounded accusations about bathrooms; I cried when she was approached by trans kids after her speech to the DNC in 2016, tiny hands and voices promising that they were going to be the first transgender president, thanks Sarah.

“Telling your own story is one of the most effective political organizing tools there is.”

McBride isn’t afraid to spend a considerable amount of page space talking about her privilege as a white, able-bodied trans woman who grew up in relative comfort with political connections from a young age, contextualizing her privilege against the larger world of how America treats trans people and trans women in particular. She also connects the movements of working for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and trans rights, and draws the lines of how they all weave in and around each other in terms of solidarity and creating meaningful change for all groups.

There are a few themes to which McBride returns again and again in different ways. The first is that when trans people are granted the validity of their transition, it allows them the fullness of their dreams. As she says of her husband’s unfortunately shortened life: “hate had kept Andy inside himself for what turned out to be the majority of his life. None of us know how long we have, but we do have a choice in whether we love or hate. And every day that we rob people of the ability to live their lives to the fullest, we are undermining the most precious gift we are given as humans.”

Another theme of her work and life is the idea that vulnerability and storytelling can engender compassion in others, seen in her efforts to get a non-discrimination bill on the basis of gender identity passed in the Delaware state house. Like many trans activists, she first ran into the “common refrains we heard from legislators, both in support and in opposition, was that they did not have any transgender people in their districts.” (p102). So one of their first and ultimately powerful methods of persuasion was introducing state legislators to trans people in their own districts, to hear their stories. “The legislators had to see that transgender people are people. They had to understand our fears. Our hopes. They had to see our families. They had to feel the humanity of the issue.”

Trans people are people, too. It sounds simplistic and it is, but it’s also a fundamental point missing when people discuss the political decisions which affect trans people’s lives. The best way to prove something that no one should have to prove—the phrase “I’m a human, just like you”—is best accomplished through telling our vulnerable stories. In a sentence that reads like a Jedi mantra, McBride says, “Vulnerability is often the first step on the path toward justice. Vulnerability breeds empathy; empathy fosters support; support leads to action.”

I suppose in the interest of this review I should bring my own vulnerability into this. I, too, am trans, and I suppose the most meaningful passages of the book for me, as with all memoirs written by trans people, were the ones where McBride somehow gave voice to the unformed words of my feelings about my own transition. Oddly specific moments that are common to many trans people, but one rarely sees them written down and published. I mouthed along with her feelings as a youth: “And just as I had done as a young kid, every night as a teenager I would hope and pray that I would wake up the next day as myself.” I have personally forwarded to friends the passages where she talks about the reasons for transition, mostly so I don’t have to come up with the words myself: “I hadn’t come out to create a positive, but to remove a negative and to alleviate that nearly constant pain and incompleteness. Transitioning wouldn’t inherently bring me happiness, but it had allowed me to be free to pursue every emotion: to think more clearly; to live more fully; to survive.”

Memoirs by trans people are great for trans people to read and feel seen. But if you are not trans, they are equally important to read for a different reason. If vulnerability creates justice, then immersing yourself in the stories of trans people—humans just like you—is to create a world where justice for trans people can exist. Knowing trans people are people leads to acceptance, and acceptance is one of the most important steps in culture for trans people. As McBride says “While 41 percent of transgender people had attempted suicide, that number dropped by half when the transgender person was supported by their family. And it dropped even further when they were also embraced by their community.” It’s a heck of a lot easier to be embraced by your family and community when they know that you’re a person.

 

To that end, here are some recommendations for further memoirs by trans people, across a spectrum of identities and life experiences:

 

1) I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I like this ethereal memoir by Boylan because it really shows the simultaneous emotional weight and fragility of a childhood and youth as a trans person. If you’re reading (or recommending) a starter book for a cis person to learn more about the trans experience, though, grab her more famous memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders.

2) Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. A memoir from a courageous, ambitious trans woman who is out to live her life at all costs, Mock’s memoir is also a look into the life of a trans woman who didn’t have all those privileges on her side.

3) Gender Failure by Rae Spoon and Ivan Coyote

This double memoir by non-binary performing artists from Canada is one I read and re-read whenever I’m “in my trans feelings,” as it’s the closest to my lived experience. Both have some excellent things to say about the blurred lines and blurring the lines between butch, trans men, and non-binary masculine-of-center experiences.

4) Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man by Thomas Page McBee

McBee’s examination of masculinity as he decides to transition is a powerhouse of a memoir and shows one of the great parts of this sub-genre of memoir: trans people are often very good at looking at how culture creates and forcibly maintains gender roles. For a taste, here’s an essay by him about his amateur boxing career and masculinity.

5) Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Much as McBride blends politics and memoir, this memoir straddles the line between trans narrative and a straight-up sex, punk, and rock’n’roll with Against Me! founder Laura Jane Grace.

6) Life Beyond My Body by Lei Ming

This Lamda Literary award-winning memoir of a Chinese trans man shows how the same deep feelings work into a culture where men like Ming seemingly don’t exist.

 


 

KJ Gormley lives near the water, currently South America, sometimes Maine. In daylight hours they are a librarian. Featured writing in INTO and Brooklyn Magazine, among others.  More writing here. You can follow them on twitter.

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