Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgendered Teenagers by Cris Beam, is categorized in libraries and bookstores as nonfiction, not a memoir. A nonfiction study of transgender teenagers is what Beam had intended the book to be when she started doing her research. To draw information for her book, the author decided to volunteer as an English teacher at Eagles Academy, a high school for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students in Los Angeles. But when she became so close to one of her students that Beam decided to legally adopt her, Transparent turns on its head and Beam becomes one of the main characters in her own book. I became acquainted with Beam shortly after Transparent was released, when I took a nonfiction writing class of hers at NYU. Through her teaching style I was able to see firsthand how this woman could become such a positive influence on her students.
In Transparent, the author illustrates her serendipitous journey. Beam, a freelance writer, is looking for a way to spend her days in Los Angeles while her wife studies to get her Ph.D.. Beam stumbles upon Eagles (short for Emphasizing Adolescent Gay Lesbian Education Services), which at the time was nothing more than a couple of sparse classrooms, a few ornery students, and barely any teachers. Beam is put to work immediately, serving as the school’s sole English teacher without so much as a glance at her résumé.
Before she can make up a lesson plan, Beam is hurled into a wild cast of characters—her students. Some of these teens regularly change their gender pronouns at the drop of a hat, asking to be referred to as “he” one day and “she” the next. Other students enter the classroom as a woman in a wig on Monday, and as a man in a white t-shirt on Tuesday. Several don different names on different days, while others expect to be called the same name every day, despite their differing appearances. Throughout Transparent, Beam treats her students’ transformations with the ultimate respect. Not only is she able to provide the correct pronoun and name for her ever-changing cast of students (did I mention some of these students, who mostly come from broken homes, only attend class once a month?) on paper she treats them with an earnestness and a compassion that some students, gay or straight, male or female, may never get the chance to experience.
I wish I had been exposed to a book like this ten years ago, as there are no cut-and-dry gender rules in the transgender culture. When I was in high school I flew to Massachusetts to visit a friend named Eric who had just moved there. He introduced me to Michelle, a short, pixyish boy with spiky bleached hair and glitter eye shadow. I thought he was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. The three of us went out shopping for makeup, which Eric and Michelle seemed far more interested in than I was. I picked up a bright pink nail polish from the rack and handed it to Eric.
“He’d look really great in this,” I said, pointing to Michelle. Both of their necks snapped around to face me, their eyes bugging.
“She,” Eric corrected.
“Damn straight, I’d look good!” Michelle said, giggling and changing the subject. But I could see a glint of sadness in her eyes. If she felt like a woman inside, why did she have to be constantly reminded she wasn’t?
It was several years after writing Transparent, just as it was finally published, that Beam became my creative nonfiction teacher at NYU. Most teachers I’d had in college taught in a bubble—they told me what I needed to know in order to pass the final or write the paper, and that was it. Cris, however, was determined to personally give every student in our class the resources to become a journalist—or any type of writer that we desired to become. It was one of the few classes where I actually saved all the handouts, because they were more like cheat sheets for life. Not just for college life within the bubble, but for real life. Most of my teachers were working professionals who had an attitude of “If you succeed, maybe you’ll get lucky enough to do what I do.” Beam, on the other hand, told every person in the class that they could succeed, explained how she had broken into the freelance world, and helped us reach our dreams as soon as possible. By the end of the class, every student had a finished piece that was ready to submit to a magazine or newspaper. Beam wasn’t just teaching a room of nineteen-year-olds. She actually cared to give us the right tools and encouragement because she treated us seriously. Like equals.
With Beam’s care and respect, it’s no wonder that in Transparent a few of Beam’s students stick to her like glue even after she has stopped teaching at Eagles. One male-to-female transgender girl named Christina (although she sometimes goes by Geri, inspired by Geri Halliwell from the Spice Girls) takes a particular liking to Cris, and the two begin going out together for weekly dinners. This is the only stability Christina has in her life at this time as she is living in a youth shelter and is estranged from her parents. Although Beam begins her one-on-one relationship with Christina by interviewing her for Transparent, the friendship evolves into something more. Beam becomes a maternal figure for Christina, as she is the only adult providing a positive example in her life. When Christina is kicked out of the shelter for fighting and must either find a legal guardian to live with, or go to juvenile hall, Beam opens her heart and steps in.
Beam and her wife, Robin try to give Christina a stable home. They create a established routine for Cristina that is kind and nurturing. They have family time every night by sitting in candlelight and drinking tea together. They wake Christina up with music every morning. But Christina, who has been burned too many times before by her parents and friends, can’t accept the love of her two new guardians without fighting them every step of the way.
The sad news is that most transgender kids know that any family or living situation will be temporary. Many parents will explode if they see their son wearing a dress. Other parents will seem accepting for a little while, but eventually pressure their little girl to dress more like a female, or demand their teen boy to act more masculine. Even worse, family members will assume their child is gay simply because they are transgender—they don’t separate gender and sexuality—so the family assumes that because their son feels like a woman inside, that he is attracted to men. Fights, violence and misunderstandings about gender and sexuality are what cause transgender teens to run away, and to stop trusting any semblance of a family for good. Beam explains that even when transgender kids are treated with respect, most will have trouble accepting it.
Beam’s story made me realize how much I had to learn about the psychology of transgender individuals. The book, which starts as a character study of transgender teenagers, slowly transforms into a transgender parenting handbook, showing Beam’s versatility writing both journalistic nonfiction and personal narrative in the same book.
Transparent gives an in-depth education on the history and underground life of transgender people, including street hormones and industrial silicone that is pumped into the hips and breasts of the young teens who are looking for added fullness. It reminds the reader of the devastating stories of transgender hate crimes like Gwen Araujo and Brandon Teena, who only wanted to be loved and love back. But most of all, Transparent tells the tender and heartbreaking story of two women doing everything they can to help these troubled teens understand that they deserve love, compassion, and to be taken seriously.
Books mentioned in this column:
Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgendered Teenagers by Chris Beam (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)
Lindsay Champion’s short stories and personal narratives have been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney’s, Fray Quarterly, SMITH Magazine, and Common Ties. She has written hundreds of articles for numerous internet publications. She earned her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. She lives in Los Angeles with an albino goldfish named Betty White. Contact Lindsay at her web site, New York Words.