What happens when you identify as an adolescent male on the inside, but the outside world—including your conventional Puerto Rican and Jewish parents, your classmates and sometimes even your best friend— see you as female?
Author Cris Beam was “inspired to write I am J more than ten years ago while researching her first book, Transparent, about transgender teenagers in Los Angeles,” according to her Author’s Note. While Transparent was a non-fiction text, Beam longed to use fiction to tell “an emotional truth” through the character of a transboy. That vision eventually became the character of J in Beam’s newest novel, published by Little, Brown in May.
In J’s earliest memory, he is two years old, running through a sprinkler with no shirt on. When a neighborhood mom tells J’s father Manny that his son is cute, Manny replies, “That’s my daughter,” with embarrassment. The shame J absorbs from his father’s response is repeated in a number of encounters as he matures into a gangly seventeen-year-old. Whether he is at school, on the swim team, chopping off his curly pigtails or fighting bullies, J continually encounters a “world [that] seemed confused and backward to him.”
Beam describes J’s lifelong dilemma in a somewhat overused but effective metaphor: “He was clearly a boy; everybody else was just wearing the wrong glasses.” When J makes a move on his best friend Melissa, she sees him as the girl she has always known, and distances herself. Rejected by the one person J though he could trust, he decides to become the “freak” that he’s been labeled. He binds his chest, begins walking the streets of New York as a boy and strikes up a flirtation with an intriguing female artist named Blue.
As J begins his transformation, he skips school and starts staying out all night to avoid his awkward and claustrophobic home life and practice the mannerisms and speech of his new gender identity. He also expresses himself through photography, taking pictures of found objects.
One photograph is an arrangement of J’s shadow being pierced by a jackhammer found at a construction site. It’s an image of power, violence and inevitable change for J.
J finally runs away from home, attempts to get testosterone shots without parental consent or a therapist’s assessment, and finds a measure of safety at a shelter for GLBT youth. He is also told he must return to school, but he can attend a “gay school” that “looked like a rainbow threw up on itself.” Here J learns that sometimes he is the one wearing wrong glasses when it comes to judging character and friendships.
When J tells his mother his identity and his desire for “T,” she rushes him off to Melissa’s house to protect him from his father’s reaction. This provides a needed opportunity for both Melissa and J to explain themselves and to become more honest with each other. The friends display their passions through art—Melissa in an original dance and J through his photographic record of his awakening.
There is much to celebrate in Beam’s writing—a detailed, visual style, a knack for capturing the innocence, arrogance and desire of a teenage transboy and an underlying theme that being true to his gender identity is integral to J’s survival. And any teenager, gay or straight, should be able to relate to the scenes of continued conflict between J and his “normal,” hard-working parents. They want him to stay in school and get into college, but J needs to become a man first. It’s the age-old “You don’t understand” divide between old and young, with a transgender twist that makes readers root for J and his not-so-impossible dream.
—— I Am J
By Cris Beam Little, Brown and Company Hardcover, 9780316053617, 339pp. March 2011