Cris Beam: Interview

By Jeff Walsh

"Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers" tells two stories, the story of young minority trans girls coming to terms with themselves in Los Angeles, and author Cris Beam's journey from being someone who ran away from her own mother at a young age who becomes the foster mother of Christina, the main subject of the book. Cris and I recently chatted about how she started writing this book, what it taught her, and what she hoped people could learn from it.

The thing that was interesting to me in the book was... as much as I work with youth, it's all online, so there's a built-in distance. And reading your book, there was no way I would have been able to deal with everything. It was way too much drama for me.

Yeah, there was a lot of drama.

Was that something you had to learn to deal with, or do you just have a better tolerance than me?

There was a lot of drama, for sure. When Christina came to live with us, I was certainly overwhelmed a lot of the time, and made a lot of mistakes. So, it was definitely tough. I got used to it gradually, I think, because I was teaching at the school. So, I acclimated in a way.

So, when did this switch from a volunteer thing to get you out of the house to being a book project?

I taught at the school for two and a half years. Maybe about a year and a half into it, I started thinking about doing sort of a book project thing. I did a magazine article about one kid for Teen People magazine. We were creating magazines in the school, and kids really wanted to see themselves represented.

At that point, there were no images of transgender youth anywhere. Now, there's a lot more. But then, there really wasn't anything. So, they were saying 'Why isn't there anything out there? Why can't we make a trangender Seventeen? Why isn't there anything out there that looks like us?'

So, I pitched story ideas around to all the teen magazines, and I wanted to do sort of an 'As told to' piece, so editors couldn't come in and stick in creepy psychologists that would say, 'this is gender identity disorder,' or whatever, so I could have some more control over the story.

I wanted to do a first-person 'as told to' story. And all the magazines turned it down except for Teen People, which at that time, this was in 1999, was more radical. So, at that time, they let me do it. And we did an 'as told to' story of one transgender girl. That was great, and the kids really liked that. They got a lot of letters. Then I did a public radio piece on some of the kids, and that was also really useful and I got a lot of feedback.

So, I thought, there really isn't a lot out there. Maybe I should think about doing a book. So, by that time, I had gotten to know a lot of people in the community, and just put the word out there that I was researching for a book. At that point then, I pitched a book project where I was going to do a series of essays, maybe first-person essays I thought at the time, along with photographs of kids.

So, I pitched that out and nobody bit, nobody wanted it. Then I didn't know what I was doing. I was just running tape on dozens of kids for many years, and was not sure what the book project would be. Then Christina came, and ended up living with us, and I thought, 'Well, she can't be in the book. I've lost all journalistic integrity here. I have no objectivity with her. So, she's out.' But then, I slowly realized, she was the book.

There seems to be some sense, reading about some stuff online, where people think they're going into a journalistic, non-fiction book about these kids. But, I know you were quick to call it a memoir at the San Francisco event. I mean, it is not an objective book.

It is absolutely not objective. There's nothing objective about it. It's more of a memoir of my time with these kids. There's a lot of history and research folded in, for sure, but it's a really personal account. And the stories they tell are very personal and very real, and based on real time I spent with them. It's not like I was a neutral observer coming in and doing an anthropologic account. It was really my time as a parent with Christina, and my time as a close friend with these other kids. So, it becomes much more of an intimate story, really.

Before you started teaching there, what was your interaction with the transgender community? Were you really up on it?

Not so much, honestly. Embarrassingly. I came out in the late 80s and early 90s, in San Francisco and then in Santa Cruz. And at that time, it was really identity politics. I went to school at UC Santa Cruz, and it was all about women-only space and a lot of dialogue of who counted as a lesbian, who could be in lesbian-only space, and trans women were sort of vilified at that point as men trying to co-op women's space.

And, while I didn't necessarily believe that, I listened to it and was sort of steeped in that culture. So I had to unlearn, by the time I got to Eagles (the school I taught in), a lot of that damage that I had been fed. And learn that women is a broad term, and not every fits that narrow definition that I had learned.

In as much as you were telling their stories, how much has interacting with the transgender community changed the way you view your own life?

That's kind of interesting because, at first I thought I was really connecting with this community because we're all queer and I had grown up gay and had my own struggles, so this is why we're connecting. Then I realized with this particular community, and this particular subset of the transgender community, all these kids had been thrown out of their homes, and had real troubles with their parents.

Again, I'm not trying to speak for all the transgender community, but just this particular group of youth that I was connected with. Now, it's sort of obvious armchair psychology and I could look back and say, 'Duh! This is why this happened!' But I don't have any contact with my biological mom. I left her house when I was 14 and never saw her again. More than 20 years later, and I still have no contact.

So, here, I connected with this group of motherless kids, and I think in a way I had to do my own healing around that. You know? I also had that deep loss. So there was a real human connection there that went beyond transgender and gay and all those other terms. That was what it was really about. There was some deep connection, I think, around loss.