Many Young Adult (YA) books have topics that touch on burgeoning sensibilities: morality, depth of emotion, sexuality, responsibility, fears, freedoms and independence. But few of them deal head on with the touchy subjects of gender dysphoria, transsexualism or transgenderism, all of which relate in varying degrees with a person whose biologically assigned sex at birth conflicts with their psychological gender, or the gender with which they identify at the core of their being.
Yet as kids become more savvy and more socially aware, these subjects are going to become more mainstream, and it’s a pretty safe bet that kids will be talking about them a lot more than often than books will be published about them. But books can help to bring these subjects out in the open, and can help foster informed, intelligent and empathetic discussions. Being Emily is just such a book.
Chris is a typical 16 year old guy: tall, angular, a member of the swim team, good enough student, likes working on cars with his dad, has had the same girlfriend for 7 months. He has two only slightly uptight, somewhat hands-off parents, a younger brother with whom he gets along pretty well. But Chris is carrying a heavy secret: he doesn’t – he can’t – think of himself as a guy. In his head and in his heart, he is a girl masquerading as a guy, always has been as far back as he can remember. And he’s come to the point where he can’t live that way anymore, that he has to tell someone. But who?
His girlfriend, Claire, that’s who. Because he trusts her to keep his secret and he hopes she’ll understand. She’s an outsider, too, and not afraid of being an outsider, not afraid of speaking her mind, or speaking out if the situation calls for an advocate. She claims to be bisexual (even though she and Chris have never had sex). And she’s got this weird kind of Christianity, where she talks to God and expects an answer, and believes in the concept of God’s love being all inclusive. But he’s scared – he doesn’t want to lose her, either. Will she dump him when she realizes not only is he a girl, but that he intends on becoming a girl – becoming Emily – in more than just his – her – mind?
Sitting in the library for my study hall, I tried to concentrate on schoolwork, but I really wanted to figure out how the hell I was going to talk to Claire. I had plenty of “friends” from the guys on swim team to various kids I had class with, but Claire was the only person I felt excited to see on a regular basis. With the other kids it was just too hard to keep up the pretense of being Chris all the time. My life could be worse, and if I lost my relationship with Claire, it would be. I didn’t know how much worse I could handle, but if I didn’t talk to someone soon there wouldn’t be any of me left at all.
Emily’s journey is a harrowing one, especially because she is so isolated, so rebuffed on the few times that she tries to sound out friends and family on the question of transexualism. The first therapist that her mother takes her to (not knowing the true reason for her “son’s” hostility and moodiness) is not only no help, he’s downright creepy. She has an online support group of kindred spirits that keep her from utter despair, but it’s not enough. In fact, seeing what is possible, what others have been able to attain, and after experiencing even in small ways what it would be like to be the person she knows herself to be and then having to go back to living the lie… well, it takes its toll, emotionally and psychologically. And eventually, something’s gotta give.
But as compelling as Emily’s story is, what might be even more remarkable is how normal she is. Emily isn’t out to change the world, just to live honestly. It’s not about being radical or revolutionary, it’s about the necessity of being true to herself. It’s not about crusading, it’s about surviving. And for the few around Emily who struggle to understand, it’s not about embracing an alternate lifestyle, it’s about giving up their fear of the unknown (and the uncomfortable) in order to allow someone they care for be happy and healthy; to concentrate on the individual and not the circumstance.
People liked to think that life was so stable, even her own pretentions of being holier than thou and oh so open-minded. But God’s plan wasn’t the same as the things we all made up day-to-day, she thought. What was the saying? “Men plan, God laughs.”
Being Emily does a wonderful job of giving us as readers insight into what it must feel like for a young person going through the most fundamental and drastic stages of maturity without the expected solid foundation of “gender euphoria”, who instead have that foundation harbor a prison that threatens to trap them into a life that is a constant lie – to strangers, to those they love, and to themselves. The courage it takes for Emily to step away from what in her life is a mistake – her birth sex – and despite all the challenges to herself, her family and others around her, move towards claiming who she truly is, is strange (for her and for us) but it is also affirming – and it’s very important that we are aware of her struggle.
The final chapters of Being Emily, unfortunately, somewhat gloss over what must have be an intense senior year for Emily, given the reaction of her classmates to even the idea of transsexualism. But still, we are able to follow her internal acceptance and initial steps towards who she really is, and perhaps that’s the hardest, most difficult part of her journey. Regardless, this is a journey that is worth witnessing, whether the reader, like Emily, is standing at the cusp of his or her own life, or whether the reader has already traveled a ways down their own path. As long as we’re listening, then it’s good. It’s all good.