I made it almost all the way through Boys Don’t Cry. I already knew how it ended, and after the rape scene, I really couldn’t stomach watching Brandon Teena getting murdered on top of everything. So I turned it off. The brutality rattled around in my head for a few days, but being able to dissociate myself from it is a luxury I’m allowed.
Juliet Jacques is a journalist and writer who became well known between 2010 and 2012 for detailing her transition for the Guardian on a blog titled “A Transgender Journey.” If the blog plotted some significant points in Jacques’s transition, her new memoir, Trans, takes a more sweeping view of her development as a person. Much of the first half charts Jacques’s struggle as a young person to find stories and models that could make her own life path clearer to her. In other words, the paucity of transgender stories available up to now meant that Jacques didn’t get to switch off Boys Don’t Cry — it was one of the few clues she could find as to what life might have in store for her.
Jacques is also a culture journalist, and cinema is often a touchstone for her. As a teenager, she says, “everything I learned about [being transgender] came from films and TV programmes — the ones I’d chosen to see by myself.” But their narratives were often dark, violent, and tragic. “Soon, I discovered that transsexual people should not ‘deceive’ anyone about who they were, but shouldn’t be open about it either.” The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert offered Jacques at least a more cheerful view of gender-nonconformity, but it’s not a film you base a life around.
We also witness Jacques’s vocabulary evolve as she explores more nuanced conceptions of dressing and living as a woman. Her first terms — cross-dressing, drag, transsexual — are later replaced with transgender after she discovers the term on a website, which in turn makes space for more nuanced conceptions of herself: “‘I think I’m transgender first and gay second,’” she tells a friend.
Always thinking of herself as an author, Jacques surveys the literary landscape without much luck. “If I can’t be myself in my life, perhaps I can in my writing, I thought. But how? ‘Transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’ authors only seemed to write memoirs, usually when they were much older than I was, so I had no role models.” Later discoveries of texts like Kate Borenstein’s Gender Outlaw offer more interesting examples. And soon Jacques’s focus shifts from seeking stories that could inform her own, to the challenges of telling her own story.
Trans is above all conversational — you’ll finish it feeling like Jacques is your friend. Though some of the episodes she recounts are distressing, the book clearly belongs to a different generation than earlier memoirs, freed from the spectacle, drama, and voyeurism with which transgender stories are often presented. In many senses, it’s simply a memoir of being a millennial: her soccer team, her friends, her love of The Smiths, New Order, and Joy Division, the constant treadmill of temp jobs and undervalued journalistic work, being screwed over by the 2008 economic crisis, struggling to connect with her parents. In an interview with Sheila Heti, Jacques explains that she wanted to counteract the pattern of “transition being portrayed like a mythical hero’s journey. To me it didn’t feel like that, rather a bunch of hoops to jump through while working boring jobs.”
Both Jacques’s blog and her book are aimed at informing those in need of information. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but as transgender identities have become a mainstream topic, the average reader of Trans will probably experience little shock at Jacques’s story; rather the book presents the opportunity to flesh out existing knowledge. (Jacques’s most startling revelation for me was that until 1998, Starbursts were known as “Opal Fruits” in the U.K.) Traumatic events — such as surgery — are recorded in an even, meticulous style, which makes them both a good source of information for those who will go through the same process, as well as evidence of Jacques’s control of the material, and by extension, her experience.
Jacques’s aim is to normalize but also complicate the transgender narrative. From the tired trope of being “trapped in the wrong body,” to the repetitious interrogations she encounters (“Most questions boiled down to: Why? I had no answer to this question any more than I could convey to people why I was left-handed…”), to the stark boundaries often set between male and female, with “before” and “after” pictures featured prominently in media depictions of people who have transitioned — in reality, Jacques is trapped in the wrong narrative, and Trans offers the possibility of a more complete one, with a holistic personal story that does not reject pre-transition identity, and an understanding that gender lies on a continuum.
As a matter of course, British politics and social mores are relevant to Jacques’s story as a transgender person. And the process of her surgery through the NHS is a culturally fascinating one. (She has to go through the dystopian-sounding “Real Life Experience” before having surgery, which really just means documenting that she is living as a woman for a few months. One wonders what sort of experience she was living before that?)
As a journalist, her career is shaped by the British media landscape — Murdoch-owned papers and the Daily Mail are no-goes for her, for example. It’s not a simple conservative-liberal binary, though; The Observer — the sister paper to The Guardian, the liberal paper where her blog is published —also published a particularly vehement brand of transphobic feminist writing. Jacques struggles with this fact but also hopes that her blog will help to balance it. “No publication had a good record, and given the widespread transphobia across left- and right-wing politics, their coverage could not be left in the hands of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, reactionary conservatives or faux-alternative comedians any longer.” It’s somewhat grimly that Jacques concludes “‘Now, I’ve become the media.’” And later, “If you articulate an outsider critique well enough, you stop being one.”
At the same time, she struggles to avoid becoming typecast as someone who only writes about transgender issues. As she recounts in a piece in Granta, “Whenever there are flashpoints in mainstream media coverage of trans politics, I struggle to keep out with a clear conscience; on several occasions I have had no choice but to get involved. When I tell friends about how draining this is, I have tended to say, semi-seriously: ‘I just want to write about video art again.’”
Sports offer Jacques the opportunity to contemplate the connection between body and mind, one that for her is both more fraught and more conscientious than for many of us. Referring to a maverick goal scored by Justin Fashanu, who committed suicide in 1998 and was one of the few openly gay English soccer players in the ’90s:
…my old physical anxieties kicked back in. I remembered an interview with Fashanu asking how he’d scored that goal. He didn’t know: ‘I just hit it and it flew in.’ Far from banal, this was the perfect statement on that symbiotic, sublime relationship between body and mind needed to succeed in sport: it is so difficult to reach that point, after years of practice, when the body does what the mind desires without having to be told.
Jacques is speaking about her experience on the field, but of course we read in this statement the yearning to have a body and mind that have a “symbiotic, sublime relationship” all of the time.
And indeed, the most sublime moments in Trans come when Jacques shares with us a vision she has gained — and often these are hard-won — into what it means to have a unified self, whether it’s when she receives recognition from her parents for her success, has a great day on the soccer field, or simply feels good in her skin. To quote Jacques quoting Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother: “The more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being, the more authentic you are.”
We can also learn a thing or two from Trans about the experience of another phenomena so important to our era: internet fame and the promise and perils of writing about yourself online. A bit of wisdom that Jacques includes from her “Manifesto for Confessional Journalism”: “Never humiliate or sensationalise yourself or others known to you, and do not write anything unkind about your own body, although you may test its limits: think of confessional journalism, and everything else in your life, as a form of performance art.” In other words, be the writer you’ve dreamed of being, and your story will be authentic art.