Have you ever had a book change your life?
While I’ve had many books that I’ve thought about or returned to throughout my life, only a few have really shaken me to my core. The first time this happened was with Girl Mans Up by M.E. Girard. Girl Mans Up is a coming-of-age novel about Pen, a teen who struggles with her gender expression both internally and with her family and friends. She doesn’t identify as trans, but she also doesn’t exactly feel like a girl or like being treated like one. The story follows her character arc with finding ways to be proud and confident in her masculinity, and navigating family that didn’t exactly approve. The first time I read this book I was nineteen and traveling for school with people I didn’t know in a country I had never been to, and to me this book was like coming home. Before I finished that trip, I had reread it two more times.
Even though it’s one of the most personally meaningful books I’ve ever read, in retrospect it’s not exactly what I would call a great book. I don’t know that I would go out of my way to recommend this book to anyone anymore. But at that time, when I was still unfamiliar with the concept of being gender nonconforming or transmasculine, Pen’s conflicts gave me words to describe the internal struggles I was having. They reassured me that I was allowed to explore my masculinity without knowing quite the right label, and that new freedom to explore would later help me feel more confident when I eventually was ready for labels.
Girl Mans Up wasn’t the only book that changed my life and my understanding of my gender. Memoirs like Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place by Jackson Bird did, too. I read Sorted not long after I started to question my gender, and it was one of the first exposures I had to trans men sharing their own experiences. Bird’s story of transitioning as an adult defied what I thought I knew about trans people: that they always automatically knew from a young age, and that they had to transition young or they wouldn’t end up happy with their transition. His happiness is part of what reassured me it wasn’t too late for me either.
Even more influential, I read Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender just a few months ago, shortly before coming out to my family and colleagues. It was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be confident in my identity, as I was about to share it with the world, but I found myself drowning instead. Felix Ever After felt like my life preserver. Another coming-of-age novel about a young man finding his identity, Felix goes from being confident he is a binary trans boy to wondering if that’s the right label for him, questioning if he is nonbinary, doubting himself, and eventually settling on the label demiboy, often used by transmasculine people who don’t identify with being 100% binary. And while I don’t personally use that identifier, Felix’s evolving search for labels that fit him, even after previously being confident, resonated with me exactly the way I needed at exactly the time I needed it. It reminded me that discovering my gender is allowed to be a journey, and it won’t always be a straightforward one.
As I write this to kick off Pride month, I can’t help but think of a question Felix asks in Felix Ever After: “how do we find and cultivate pride for each other and ourselves when we’re in a world that seems like it doesn’t want us to exist?” These books helped me find and cultivate my pride. They acted as mirrors to reassure me that I’m not alone, windows into different types of trans exploration and experiences, and more than anything, they’ve been catalysts for change. These books, along with supportive friends and a good therapist, gave me the tools I needed to change my own life. And what more could you want from a great book?
And stay tuned for later this month, when we talk about cultivating Pride with parades each June (or October in Ashland!).