By Jeff Walsh
In Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (read excerpt), Cris Beam delivers a compelling glance into the transgender underbelly of Los Angeles, where primarily black and Latina trans girls (biological boys who identify as female) struggle with their identity, their families, their lack of money, and ultimately themselves as they pursue what to them feels natural.
When I started reading the book, my impression was it was going to be a non-fiction book in the tradition sense, where Beam becomes a fly on the wall, like a nature documentarian observing her subjects from a close enough distance to know their essence but not affect their natural patterns. This isn't that book. Beam herself refers to it as a memoir, to dispel any notions otherwise. From the very beginning, Beam plants herself in the book, first as a volunteer teacher at a run-down school for gay youth in Los Angeles, and through the book as a gatherer of their stories, their mentor, friend, and ultimately, one of the girls' foster mother.
It's personally hard to imagine being in these surroundings for an extended period of time. As much as you want to help, the girls are abandoned by their families, taking black market hormones, dressing up and clubbing as often as possible, and turning tricks to fund the lifestyle, with the youngest girl on the block always making the most money and being the most desired.
Even the girl's names are largely taken from pop culture, a disenfranchised army of Christinas, Britneys, Ariels, Parises and the like bringing Oscar Wilde's famous quote (We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars) to a tragic, bittersweet reality.
Beam seems to have amazing boundaries, although they were constantly being tested. She takes a harm reduction approach to her surroundings, bailing the girls out when they need it, helping out where she can, trying to keep them focused on their future, while at the same time knowing they are turning tricks, doing drugs (in addition to their hormones), and making bad choices that are often impulsive and not grounded in any sort of reason.
The main story of the book is the story of Christina, who Beam first meets as Eduardo when she first volunteers to teach at the gay high school. The arc of Eduardo from a silent, withdrawn teen in baggy clothes to his transformation to Christina (yes, after Aguilera, after initially trying out the name Geri, from the Spice Girls) as an outspoken, vibrant woman is the reason you keep reading. You root for her and want her to succeed, despite her occasional setbacks.
Beam and her partner Robin eventually become Christina's foster parents, giving the book title its double entendre, and showing why this is clearly a memoir and not a fly-on-the-wall view into the transgender youth scene in L.A.
The book also reflects one of my core beliefs, which is that your thoughts dictate your future. Christina made it through because her ultimate vision was one of making something of herself, doing good for the community. Other people with less defined goals end up in prison, or compromising their dreams in various ways.
It was definitely interesting to be immersed into this subculture which is so different from my life. It has its own structure of drag mothers and interesting terminology. But ultimately, as you read, the book becomes about simple more universal things: defining your identity, acceptance, self worth. The book becomes less an issue of how someone was born or what's in their pants, and more about their character and what's in their heart.
Lessons that should be obvious, but are sometimes worth a refresher course.