Cris Beam began volunteering at a school for transgender kids when she first moved to Los Angeles, and was soon drawn into their lives. Blending reportage and memoir, Transparent (Reviews, p. 47) looks at their struggle to find a place in the world.
Your portraits of these transgender students are incredibly vibrant, but the urban environment of Los Angeles is also a character in the book. What effect does the city have on these kids?
There are many resources available to transgendered youth in Los Angeles—more even than in San Francisco—and Los Angeles has a very real awareness and pride in itself as a city of multiple communities, peoples and languages. Having to learn about other people's lives forces young people to confront and grapple with their own identity. The students I knew also came from strong, supportive ethnic communities, but they could be very isolated if they were forced to leave those communities when they came out.
The lives of transgendered people can be unfamiliar. Was it a challenge to write about people you loved and admired, knowing many readers would not immediately share your view of them?
One of my early readers joked that my book should be called Rebecca of Sunnybrook Genitalia, and said that I could not presume all of my readers would be as open with this subject as I was. At first, I wrote with a chip on my shoulder: "Don't you dare judge these people." Then I realized that I had to understand my readers as well as my subjects—to have compassion for them and their preconceptions. I actually thought of my readers as a lot like my dad, who is a good person, but you have to be patient explaining things to him.
There is a great deal of pain, as well as joy, in the lives of these youth. What kinds of changes can society make to help make their lives easier and better?
First, everyone should realize that there are transpeople around all the time. They are in your community now and are not strange, odd or only in big cites. Also, we need to create schools where kids are allowed to present themselves any way they want and are protected, not bullied or harassed. And we need to have federal laws that will protect transgendered people in employment and housing. The federal government tracks hate crimes against gay people, but not against transgender people, who face an enormous amount of violence.