Tomorrow Will Be Different, and so will this memoir, written by trans activist Sarah McBride about her experiences since coming out in her senior year of college. I generally avoid trans memoirs, since the genre has become rather predictable and honestly a little depressing. But this book breaks out of that mold—though Sarah doesn’t shy away from discussing her experiences as a trans person, she also doesn’t conform to the genre. Her story is more a tale of coming into politics as a young adult, learning to balance professionalism with the authenticity of identity-based storytelling, and battling cancer as a young couple than it is a traditional trans memoir. She sprinkles in the statistics and legal realities of trans people throughout to educate the casual reader, but it’s really just a story, told by a bold and heartfelt young woman who’s been through way more than anyone should have to before reaching the age of 30.
Tear-jerker warning: a lot of what Sarah writes about in this book is the ultimately tragic love story of her and her late husband, Andy, another trans activist who died of cancer a few years ago. I don’t know if folks who didn’t know Andy will do quite as much crying in airports as I did while reading this, but as a friend and former coworker of Andy’s, I was terribly struck by how the intimate version of the last couple of years of his life written by his wife aligned with my own experience of Andy as a person. Bright, fiercely dedicated, and hillarious, Andy was a hard worker whose efforts were instrumental in getting trans health care protections put into law, but he was also just an awesome person and I wish I’d been closer with him in his life. It was a little surreal to read about what was happening in Andy and Sarah’s private life as I was making bad oral sex jokes with them on Facebook and offering to teach Andy to sign if his tongue cancer made speech difficult. Even those who didn’t know Andy, I think, will have a hard time not getting emotional when they learn through Sarah what a sweet, romantic nerd he was, and how dedicated he was to improving trans peoples’ lives.
I don’t really know Sarah personally, but I feel like I do after reading this book. Some of her experiences ring so true for me, as she goes from terror around coming out to pleasant surprise at the positive reactions to political activism and ultimately pride in herself as a transgender person. I am so, so happy to read about kids like Lula who ask a question like “What’s your favorite part of being transgender?” as if there’s nothing unusual about it. I admit that I’ve sometimes been fiercely jealous of trans kids, but I think part of it is that, like Sarah, I look at them and see the authentic kid I could’ve been, if I were born just a little bit later. I’m happy that I’ve been even a tiny part of the national trans movement that has made their experiences possible.
And it’s the feeling of community of that movement that I think Sarah best brings to light in her account. DC can feel like a bubble sometimes, but the trans and queer movements really can be like a big family at times. Behind the big trans policy announcements of the last few years, there are spectacular people working tirelessly even as they go through their own struggles of bullying and bad breakups and figuring out family life. Even though I don’t currently work in the movement, I feel that I have a home there, and I’m happy to know that such awesome people are working to protect my rights even in terrifying political times. I’m also so happy to read a white trans activist like Sarah giving full credit to the trans folks of color who are much more marginalized and usually can’t get a book deal or the kind of spotlight that she has. She’s clear that while her own story is valuable as a tool for activism, she stands on the shoulders of giants whose names most of us will never know, and I can feel her commitment through her words to changing that world from a position of relative privilege.
Kate Bornstein’s memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, out today, is perhaps not what you would expect from the memoir of a white transfeminine person in her mid-sixties. Unlike some of her peers, Bornstein wrestles with gender and sexuality questions that are often attributed to a younger generation. This will be no surprise for readers of Bornstein’s earlier Gender Outlaw, but it is refreshing in a genre that is often overwrought with medical history, descriptions of a second puberty, and marital drama.
In fact, a large chunk of A Queer and Pleasant Danger isn’t about a trans topic at all—or at least, not a topic that most would consider trans. Bornstein chronicles her years in Scientology, from the anorexic and suicidal young man that joined up in Colorado to the high-ranking Sea Org officer who lived on the flagship with L. Ron Hubbard himself in the 70s to the struggling young father trying to establish a presence for the Church in seedy New York neighborhoods. This portion of the book is hilarious and quite readable, though not without the threads of emotion that you would expect from such a tale told in retrospect.
Bornstein frames the book as a letter to her daughter, Jessica, who was born in the New York years and who is still in the Church with her mother, estranged from Bornstein for the last thirty-two years. The emotional element comes from the fact that this transgender memoir is really a deceptively simple father/daughter story. Bornstein never got to be her father’s daughter, but her memories of Jessica are all as “Daddy.”
The transition element weaves throughout the story, from surreptitious crossdressing as a successful salesman for Scientology to transition and eventual rejection by many staunch trans women who couldn’t quite assimilate Bornstein’s notions of gender. The initial appeal of Scientology for Bornstein was that thetans, the Church’s notion of soul or essential humanity, don’t have a gender. When she took that flexibility beyond the Church, her trans female peers were evidently not amused. Bornstein’s queerness, openness to less rigid ideas of gender, and forays into the lesbian SM scene kept her from fitting in with most trans women and cis lesbians and frankly, make it a more interesting book. At the same time, there are elements of gender hierarchy in Bornstein’s relationships that will likely frustrate any second-wave feminist readers.
As a trans activist, I’ve never quite known what to think of Bornstein, who seems to weave between some really brilliant ideas about gender and some frustratingly foot-in-mouth moments. But as a writer, she accomplishes the same thing she does as a performer: she draws you into her story and gives you a break from life to laugh along with her. What she sometimes lacks when asked to be a trans spokesperson or a media pundit, she makes up for in her storytelling. I would recommend this book to anyone who needs a brief and honest reprieve from the daily grind.
As Bornstein’s one-time partner, David, says, when she asks what she is, exactly—”You’re a mad, mad artist, my dear, and you are awfully cute.”