Two Minnesotans are among the tiny group of authors breaking the last taboo in young adult (YA) fiction — transgender protagonists.
Rachel Gold and Kirstin Cronn-Mills have each written a novel featuring transgender youths as central characters. Both books are up for a Lambda Award, the most prestigious prize in GLBT literature, to be announced at a ceremony in New York on Monday.
In Gold's "Being Emily" ($15.95, Bella Books), a rural Minnesota teen named Christopher struggles for acceptance as a girl because "her insides know that her outsides are all wrong." In "Beautiful Music for Ugly Children" ($9.99, Flux), Cronn-Mills paints a realistic portrait of a teen DJ at a radio station (modeled after 89.3 the Current) who calls himself Gabe, even though he was born Elizabeth.
"Sharing stories is the way we understand the world, and if you never see a story about you, about how you see yourself, that's not very life-affirming," said Cronn-Mills, a 2010 Minnesota Book Award finalist who teaches at South Central College in Mankato. She hadn't intended to make Gabe a transgender character at first, she said, but after reading a book of short autobiographical statements by trans men, "the ideas smashed together, and all of a sudden I had this kid."
Only a small percentage of YA literature focuses on GLBT issues as a central theme, and the subcategory of transgender is tinier still. Just six titles, including these two, were published in 2012, but the addition in March of the transgender-themed book "I Am J" on the California Board of Education's recommended reading list points to growing acceptance of the subject matter.
"As a culture, we're slowly moving toward a greater awareness of the transgender phenomenon," said Vanessa Sheridan, a Minneapolis-based business consultant on transgender issues in the workplace. "But young people tend to get lost in the shuffle because the focus has been on adults."
Sheridan said that trans books for a young audience are especially important because "kids tend to know they're transgender much earlier than they know they're gay or lesbian," Sheridan said. "Gender identity, our internal sense of who we are, becomes apparent earlier in life than our sexual attractions do."
Both authors did extensive research to ensure their characters would come across as authentic. Cronn-Mills sat in on sessions with a trans group at Reclaim, a small Minneapolis agency that provides mental health services to GLBT youths.
"I heard them say things like, in kindergarten you are told to line up with the girls or boys, but your head is telling you to go to the other line," she said. "They were deeply aware at a young age that they didn't fit in."
The books aren't only for teens who feel they are on the trans spectrum, but for anyone who would like to understand transgender issues better, said Gold, a former journalist who lives in Minneapolis. Gold has a friend whose twenty-something daughter coincidentally came out as trans just as Gold was beginning to write "Being Emily," her first book. It turned out to be helpful to the friend's younger daughter's understanding of what her sibling was going through, she said.
Unlike a child telling parents he or she is gay, announcing that you feel you're a different gender can make loved ones feel like they're "losing" someone they know as their son or daughter, Gold said. "Families often go through a grief process as they try to picture their son as a woman or their sister as a man."
Two other Minnesota authors are also up for Lambdas on Monday: mystery writer Ellen Hart for "Rest for the Wicked" and Molly Beth Griffin for "Silhouette of a Sparrow," a YA historical lesbian novel published by Milkweed Editions.
Reclaim, the mental-health agency for GLBT youths, is organizing a summer reading project inviting gay/straight alliances and other groups to read one or both books and host or join discussions about them. See www.reclaim-lgbtyouth.org for more information.