Radical Reading: Trans Like Me
CN Lester’s Trans Like Me, out this summer in the U.S. from Seal Press, adds another strong voice to the growing chorus of trans authors writing about the trans experience from their own, uncompromising perspectives. Written in an accessible style, but heavily backed up by research, this book is not a trans memoir, but it does blend Lester’s own experiences as a non-binary trans person with observations on media, culture, medicine, and the law. Though the book jumps between a number of topics, I found a cohesive theme throughout around the question of who controls the trans narrative—and what they choose to keep or leave out.
Early in the book, Lester talks about how media representation of trans people may be growing, but often doesn’t include trans voices in its simplistic transition narrative. Later, they come back to this theme in talking about history, and who gets left out of the story in our obsession with describing everything trans as the “first,” or as a flash-in-the-pan trend. They address some common truisms—that sex and gender are not the same, that gender and orientation are not the same—and complicate them by providing more nuance to the story.
I’ll admit that when I was learning about queerness in the 90s, and then coming out (first as bisexual, then gay, then trans and queer) in the first decade of this century, those truisms were at the core of my understanding and my explanation of sex/gender/sexuality to others. They’re simple, easy to stick on an infographic, and they provide a reassuring sound bite that’s easy to repeat. But of course, the truth is not so simple. Lester writes about how these simplifications are weaponized against trans people by scientists and even those within the queer community—chromosomes painted as determinants, heterosexual desire seen as proof of legitimate transness (even though the majority of trans people have some degree of queer desire or experience). They might be easy to explain, but they don’t reflect the messiness of our lived realities.
I found Lester’s honesty to be particularly refreshing. Alongside information about what’s shown to be common for trans people through research and stories, they don’t shy away from acknowledging the exceptions. As they grapple with the concept of authenticity, of “sureness,” they admit the existence of detransition as a thing that happens, albeit for a very small number of people. They acknowledge their own mental health struggles when talking about claims of mental illness towards trans people. But they also put these complications in context—yes, people do detransition, but more of those said to have “regretted” medical transition were talking about a poor result or lack of access to comprehensive care rather than deciding that they were cis after all. Yes, trans people go through mental health struggles, but the stigma around trans identity and mental health isn’t helping us, and we often feel a need to hide our transness to get adequate mental health care, or to hide our mental health struggles to transition.
This honesty, along with the research they present, makes Lester a highly credible source of information, and I would definitely recommend this book especially to cis folks who work in institutions, who have trans loved ones, or who just want to understand more about our narratives and how they differ from what’s presented in the media. I believe that reading Lester’s work will help cis folks to both be aware of false narratives and to have a sense of the more complex alternative realities that exist for trans people.
I’d also recommend this one for trans folks who are a little newer to the trans community, or trans research, or just feeling isolated, because I think it could be really affirming. Lester has a kind of strengths-based approach that is positive, but doesn’t gloss over realities. For example, in discussing feminism they talk about how feminism needs trans stories, how we are an asset to the feminist movement. In talking about community, they tell stories of how their brother was there for them that have nothing to do with gender. They tell a story of trans life that is not simplistic, but is both realistic and in some ways uplifting. In the final chapter, they admit that there’s no easy answer to the direction the trans movement is going, whether things are good or bad, but they do present a number of positive signs alongside the realities of oppression and violence. And, as a non-binary trans person myself, I found reading such a book from a non-binary perspective, from an author who only talks about their own transition details in fairly general terms and protects their right to privacy alongside exercising vulnerability when they choose to do so, quite refreshing.