What Can a Trans Memoir Do?

What Can a Trans Memoir Do?
Image:Penguin Random House

Jacob Tobia’s new memoir is both timely and “oh so needed”—at least, that’s what the author tells us in the opening pages of Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story. “This book is a rebellion against a mainstream, classical trans narrative that’s, quite frankly, gotten a little repetitive,” they write, describing that “classical trans narrative” as humorless, reductively binary, predicated on trauma, and written with a cis reader in mind. “Through diagnosing the classical trans narrative—and detailing how my own story and worldview differ from it—we can come to a deeper understanding of why this book is a timely and oh so needed challenge to people who believe that there’s only one trans story to tell,” Tobia argues (italics theirs).

Tobia’s critique of the trans memoir isn’t particularly novel; nearly every author of a trans memoir has leveled a similar critique at the genre, whether or not they state it outright (You wouldn’t write a memoir if you didn’t think you had something new to say, right?). The irony of Tobia’s stated mission—that calling for the new is nothing new—highlights one of the major problems with Sissy, a book that promises a literary “rebellion” without ever trying to pick up the first brick. Nobody was killed at Stonewall, but Sissy did produce one casualty: the time I spent reading it that I’ll never get back. May she rest in peace.

Part of the book’s failure to live up to its author’s revolutionary claims could be attributed to the fact that Tobia doesn’t really seem to know what they are rebelling against. In unpacking “the classical trans narrative,” they cite stories in “national news outlets, documentary films, fundraising materials, and Facebook posts,” but neglect the most obvious forebear: the trans memoir.

At its most expansive, the genre encompasses more forms than I could ever list here: from oral traditions to Twitter threads, zines, and long-lost letters. The best-known examples of the trans memoir, however, come to us by way of mainstream literary publishing, where the genre has long served as one of the few avenues available to trans writers. Some of the best-known examples of the trans memoir could perhaps be reclassified as celebrity memoirs, serving as a means of commodifying their authors’ fame and notoriety so that they and their publishers may profit off of pre-existing public interest.

Unlike Janet Mock or Jan Morris, both of whom worked as journalists prior to writing their respective memoirs, writers like Christine Jorgensen or Caitlyn Jenner landed their book deals because they were all over the tabloids and the curious cis public wanted more. They weren’t writers; they were just famous. This could explain why the structure of the trans memoir is typically so formulaic. The average trans memoir follows its author’s life chronologically, from their “gender dysphoric childhood,” as Jonathan Ames writes in the introduction of Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs, to “the move to the big city and the transformation” that follows. “The third act to these stories… is the aftermath of the sex change,” Ames notes. He compares this three-act structure to that of the bildungsroman, a literary genre that’s centuries old.

The result of this focus on celebrities’ stories is a body of trans literature that’s as formally conservative as it is homogenous in perspective. “[It’s] just regurgitations of the same old story that makes us boring and dead and safe to read about,” writes Kai Cheng Thom in Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir’s equally confabulous foreword. “[I]f you’re good and brave and patient (and white and rich) enough, then you get the big reward… which is that you get to be just like everybody else who is white and rich and boring.”

It’s also barely treated like literature—instead, the trans memoir is usually treated as a litmus test for an imagined narrative of progress. In her review of Sissy for The New York Times, Sarah McBride of the Human Rights Campaign celebrated Tobia’s memoir for “sow[ing] the seeds of progress.” Progress towards what? Who knows. None of this would be nearly as frustrating if the big publishing houses would invest in trans novelists, poets, journalists, and essayists the same way they invest in trans celebrities like Tobia, who has been able to spin their 78,000+ Instagram followers into Pride month #spon, Uber propaganda, and now a memoir. (Though maybe it’s all just a means to something bigger. “[L]et’s hope that the whole ‘turning this book into a TV show’ thing works out!” Tobia writes in Sissy’s acknowledgments.)

Sissy suffers from Tobia’s habit of telling rather than doing, the most egregious example being the faulty “rebellion” claim that frames the book from its outset. It’s true that Sissy diverges from the linear gender narrative found in books like Morris’s Conundrum or Caroline Cossey’s My Story, which both follow their protagonist from point boy to point woman. Instead, Sissy presents something closer to a full circle as its nonbinary narrator returns to the expansive gender expression they enjoyed in their youth. While this structure doesn’t incite a rebellion, Sissy’s narrative arc does set it apart from a lot of other trans memoirs, pairing nonbinary content with an arguably nonbinary form. But the author bases their revolutionary claims on the fact of Sissy’s nonbinary content, which isn’t really anything new or exciting in and of itself. Kate Bornstein wrote about being a genderqueer transsexual in Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us in 1994.

Bornstein’s memoir was also really funny, despite Tobia’s claims that the “classical trans narrative” is “not funny.” To be fair, I could accept the argument that Gender Outlaw is nobody’s “classical trans narrative,” but even Christine Jorgensen has jokes. “I decided I wanted a drink,” she writes in 1967’s A Personal Autobiography. “Irmy suggested a Bloody Mary. I wasn’t sure what that was, though the name was intriguing and, at that point, rubbing alcohol would have been welcome.” I find that line funnier than any of the self-deprecating, voicey late-aughts blogger-style asides that pad Sissy’s pages. Take, for example, a passage toward the end where Tobia describes spotting Bruce Springsteen, whose daughter was in Tobia’s graduating class at Duke University: “How much are you allowed to crush on your classmate’s dad? Like, at what point, if any, is that acceptable? Because damn, Bruce ages well. If you’re reading this, I’m sorry, Jessica, but it has to be said: Your dad is still fine. I’ll have what he’s having.” The last line is a reference to the scene in When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan’s Sally fakes an orgasm in the middle of a diner and another customer tells her server, “I’ll have what she’s having.” I don’t know what it’s doing here either.

Ever contradictory, Tobia bemoans toxic masculinity yet consistently centers men’s feelings, writing that “[t]his book is particularly for them.” They say they’re “exhausted by the limits of the cisgender imagination” and all the cis “gatekeepers” who impose those limits on would-be trans authors, but Sissy’s acknowledgments are filled with shoutouts to agents and editors, most of whom appear to be cis—at least according to a quick, debatably problematic Google search. Tobia writes that it’s “time for low-income and rural trans people to guide the narrative,” but which narrative? It’s unclear, though it’s definitely not Sissy, which is guided by Tobia.

They state upfront that they “refuse” to turn their life story into trauma porn for cis readers, promising to cut away from any particularly tense moments with some kind of punchline or funny aside, which is understandable in theory, given how heavily cis cultural production of trans stories relies on our pain to produce content. But it feels more like an anti-vulnerability stance, which isn’t very helpful in a memoir. It’s also a stance that they drop at bizarre moments, like the nine pages Tobia devotes to losing an election to serve on Duke’s board of trustees. “It only took twelve people to rob me of something so important, to cause an identity crisis the likes of which I’d never faced before,” they write. “I won’t forget it because I, along with every other oppressed person on the planet, am owed.” Tobia’s opponent, for the record, was a South Asian man, a fact they downplay while explaining how “the heterosexual, cisgender masculine guy” didn’t “have to do anything” to win.

In Tobia’s defense, it would be unfair to expect their memoir to incite a “rebellion.” That’s just not the function of books published for profit. There are, however, other works of trans-authored autobiographical nonfiction that are doing something inherently more exciting with the genre.

Mock and Thomas Page McBee explore subject matter beyond transition in Surpassing Certainty and Amateur, respectively, while Vivek Shraya uses her transition to examine her shifting relationship with male violence and affection in I’m Afraid of Men. Thom uses the “classical trans narrative” as inspiration for her 2016 novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, authoring a trans memoir for “dangerous girls” that its fictional narrator could have never committed to the page without putting her safety at risk (were she ever to have the opportunity to do so).

There’s also T. Fleischmann’s Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, published earlier this year, which rejects chronology and lazy identity shorthand to recount its author’s experience in and out of New York over the past decade as a hormonally transitioning nonbinary trans femme. They don’t even use the word “trans” until page 18 (“There is Another Trans Poet at the party, a stranger to me.”), challenging themselves to first say what they mean when they say that they’re trans. “I have never properly lived in Brooklyn, but spend time here every season or two,” Fleischmann writes “I come to see the doctor who gives me the hormones that make my body different.”

In one passage, they recount meeting a child who asks them if they’re a girl and then if they’re a boy. The author says no to both questions, which prompts the child to then ask if it’s possible to be neither. Fleischmann says it is, to which the kid responds by sharing that they live in a house with a door. “Isn’t that so beautiful?” Fleischmann writes. “I had shared some information about the world and then the kid wanted to share some information about the world.”

It’s an almost stupidly simple exchange that taught me more about life and gender than any of the insights found in Sissy. Does Tobia live in a house? Do they have a door?

Harron Walker is a staff writer at Out and Jezebel contributor. Her work has appeared on Buzzfeed, Vulture, Vice, Mask, and Them.

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