Trans Awareness Week: Day #3

Previous Posts: The Room Where it Happens by Parrish Turner, Trans Stories Are Human Stories by April Daniels, Center Trans Voices: Introduction to Trans Awareness Week Series by Vee S.)

This Summer I got to go to ALA in Orlando, which was an incredible and intense experience. I wrote some about how validating my experience was as a trans teen here. One of the highlights was getting to talk with Alex Gino, author of the Middle Grade novel George. The fact that Alex uses they/them pronouns, wrote a trans book published by Scholastic, and actually has people use those pronouns has meant so much to me. Like I said in the interview “it’s like maybe, could write a book and also be using they/them pronouns, like that’s actually a thing that could happen.”

Alex and I talked school visits, misgendering in reviews, why it’s important to have trans stories told by trans authors, and more. They were an absolute DELIGHT to talk to and I was happily freaking out throughout the whole interview. (If you read my questions with the tone of high amounts of squee and attempting to hold back nervous/jubilant giggles, you’ll probably get the inflection right.)

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Vee: I am here with author Alex Gino, author of the book George. It features a transgender girl and it’s… amazing… and wonderful… and agh ok I’m fine, I’m fine. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, it’s very exciting. So how has your ALA been so far?

Alex Gino: I haven’t had much of an ALA yet, but I’ve had a prep to ALA which was a little… intense.

What does that entail?

That entails… oh, I’m taking my queer body to Orlando, and what am I going to do with that, and how much am I gonna take on feeling that as “I’m in Orlando right now” versus how much is it gonna be “I’m at ALA right now” and how are they gonna come together.

And you have a panel that you’re on tonight, yes?

I’m on a panel tonight, that I love the topic of, because it’s called “Not Just a G Thing: The LBTQI and Beyond in Children’s Lit.” Because we are at a place now where you can have gay male characters who aren’t being gay males. Like they can be action figures or this or that, but generally when you have other queer characters, the story IS that they’re lesbians, or it IS that they’re trans. And I am part of that trajectory. My book is largely about Melissa being trans, and that’s one of the narratives on the track. But how do we move the track forward so that we can all have stories that aren’t ABOUT identity, but include identity.

That’s so cool.

So we’ll figure it out in 50 minutes and anyone who wasn’t there, too bad!

*laughs*

Not true, not true.

So you just recently won the Lambda Literary Award?

Yes.

That’s amazing. I saw you got like a glitter shower? That sounds pretty intense.

There was a glitter bomb, it was delightful. Yeah, it was… really powerful. There was some good queer literature, there was some fabulous young adult literature this year. And I don’t know if he even wants me to say this but I REALLY wanted it to go to Adam Silvera, and it didn’t, so… he’s just gonna have to be fascinating in other ways.

I think he can pull that off.

I THINK he’ll be ok. *laughs*

I had the same thing, like literally anyone who gets it I’m gonna be psyched, because all of the options were so good. So when you were first like writing George, did you think it would be able to be published? Like, was that in your mind at all?

*laughs* Nope. ‘Cause I started writing it in 2004.

Wow!

Yeeeeeaahhh. At that point it was like, what would it be like for there to be a children’s book with a trans character in it? And maybe if I finish it someday I could get copies of it to PFLAG or some very small little queer publisher would get it into like specialty whatever whatever. I did not expect traditional publication.

Then there was a point where I had to start changing the book because culture was catching up to the book and beyond. The first versions of the book didn’t have the word “transgender” in it. What 10 year old is going to find the word “transgender” if not everyone is on Google? But now of course, how would you not find the word “transgender” if you were looking for it?

Yeah. Wow, I had no idea that you started it so long ago.

Mhm! And then culture started to catch up… and then we ended up with Scholastic. I had no concept that that could happen.

That’s so cool! I have so many feelings about this book, it’s fine. So you’ve had a number of posts about using Melissa’s correct pronouns in reviews and using the right language about her being transgender. Which… I personally really appreciate it because that is one of my pet peeves. Like ok, clearly this character identifies as this or that and you’re still using he/his pronouns, or…

Right! Like, you read it for 200 pages and still you’re reverting to your discomfort.

Exactly.

I don’t know if you had more to the question than that or if you’re just like “What we do with them?!” I’ve had people who have said that they didn’t like the book because they found the pronouns distracting and difficult and I’m like… that is just the slightest little insight of what it’s like to live the trans experience. That stupid little things like pronouns become a big deal. And stupid little things like pronouns become the focus of the sentence, which they were never meant to be.

That’s why I, in my dream world– which, I don’t control linguistics– in my dream world, the singular “they” takes on a lot more prevalence, because there’s plenty of times that it’s just irrelevant information and it’s categorization that maybe culturally we’re moving away from as the most important thing to know. I’d love that. Aaand here I am in Orlando where….  I mean, progress causes backlash and we have to keep pushing. But that backlash is scary.

Kind of on that topic, I think you’re pretty much the only prominent author that uses they/them pronouns… that I know of at least?

Oh gosh I don’t want to be wrong… um, Ivan Coyote?

Possibly, yes

Maybe Sassafrass Lowrey.

Oh, yeah.

Like, I’m not sure. But yeah, there’s not many and not many in children’s.


So I was wondering… I don’t want to put anything on you, but like, as someone who also uses they/them pronouns and is trans… like… I don’t know, it’s really meant a lot to have you so visible. It’s like, you know, maybe, I could write a book and also be using they/them pronouns, like that’s actually a thing that could happen.

Yeah! Yeah, yeah yeah. Well, thank you. And yes, that’s one of the ideas, that’s why I love doing school visits and things, just to show people there are adult trans people in the world who have lives and we exist and we do our day and we have careers. And yes, you can be a writer and you can use they/them pronouns. The New York Times may not be helpful. *laughs* Stab stab. But also the timing has been really useful for me, because if I had come out with this book even two or three years ago, I don’t think I would have gotten the traction on [using they/them pronouns] in the same way that I did. I think it would have been a lot harder. It’s already, it’s still complicated but I feel like I can defend it better, and part of why I can defend it better is because Scholastic honestly has my back on it.

And that was part of my question is how has the publishing industry been about pronouns?

They have been great. My editor is great, my publicist is great, my agent’s great, everyone has been really on board on providing back up so I can just say “linguistics trumps grammar” and “it’s more important to be respectful than to be right.” And I can rely on saying those things because I know people have got my back behind me. And it’s the ADA – American Dialectical Association word of the year, “they” as a singular pronoun is the word of the year. And I just feel so lucky that I got all my gender stuff worked out first and then got my book together. If I had gotten my career together first, and then, ‘cause now I’ve seen a number of authors who have to write blah blah blah, who have books under this other name.

Yeah, I’ve seen that too. I was like, damn. That’s…

That’s hard. I see professional scientists do it… It’s hard. It’s convenient that I had to get my life together first.

*laughs* Yeah. So this is a bit of a topic switch, but you were talking about like, school visits and stuff? And I was wondering what your experience has been with those.

They’ve been amazing. I love school visits. I’m often sent older, meaning I’m sent to sixth to eighth grades, more than fifth grade and almost never to fourth grade. I spoke with one little group of third graders once when I was also there to talk to the fourth and fifth grades. So I’m generally kinda pushed up “because of content.” But the kids have been cool with that. Like, I remember growing up, and like, nobody wanted to read about someone younger than them, so that’s kinda neat that they’re like still interested in reading it anyway.

The conversations are amazing. And the questions are different than the questions I get from adults. Sometimes the questions I get from adults are things like “how do I show this to kids???” and it’s like “you don’t need to worry about that, because they’re fine.” I was at a school that was in Western Massachusetts… in a kinda rural-ish area. The school had me come anyway, which is pretty cool. And there was a kid who didn’t want to ask a question, like “oh no, I shouldn’t ask that” and I was like “what is this question,” I’m so curious. So I asked if we could we find out who that kid was and they did, they brought the kid back down. So I said, “what is this question you didn’t want to ask?”And he’s like “so what bathrooms does Melissa use and how does she feel about them?” And it ended up me, the Scholastic rep, and two or three teachers all talking about what that would look like in a given school, and it opened up this amazing conversation.

That’s a bit of a tangent, but I love… it’s really great.

At the same time, I’ve been really lucky. And I see the good side of it. I don’t see the schools that don’t invite me. I luckily haven’t been disinvited yet. But Phil Bildner has been disinvited effectively on my behalf. That’s an awkward and uncomfortable situation. I cannot bake him enough cookies in the world. So my experience has been amazing… but gatekeepers can limit who gets access to those experiences.

Well, that’s generally good though. That’s cool.

It’s way different than… I was in a junior high school gym.

I know! That face! Like, I promise myself I would never be here again! *laughs* Exactly! Like whoa! My life has gotten real weird.

My last question is… both a broad and I feel like an obvious question? I dunno. *laughs* But: why is it important for trans people to tell trans stories?

Um, da da da dummmm! Pulling out file number four… modification 67.3 for the way it was phrased… *laughs* But no, it is a broad question, it’s a common question, but it’s also something that I have to say a lot about. What was the question? *laughs*

So I have read a number of novels, particularly young adult novels, written by cisgender people, mostly white, mostly women, and the dominant theme in them are, I think you’ve heard of this theme, is a thing called the “acceptance” narrative. *laughs* No, but really! There are books out there that are about how hard it is to know someone who’s trans.

Yeah… like. What???

Yeah. Like, great, put the person who has the access in the situation and coddle them. Be like oh yes, oh my goodness, your sister’s trans that must be so hard for you, oh Regan! I didn’t say that. *laughs*

Beyond that though. Own Voices is a thing. And my trans experiences are different from Melissa’s trans experience… but I can use my trans experiences to inform how constant stuff is. Like, ‘cause there are things in the book that people have criticized. Like “ugh, there is so much girl and boy stuff in this book!” Yeah, it’s actually out there! You might not be seeing it because you aren’t looking for it, but there are plenty of– and maybe your school doesn’t do it, and good for you– there are plenty of schools that will absolutely line people up by girls and boys. They’ll absolutely use pink for the girls and blue for the boys. It still happens.

So Own Voices brings a different level to it. And that’s not to say we always write from our experience, we can’t. It’s always fiction. But… there’s been a trope, and there’s enough of books that are like that, and we deserve better than that. So that’s the “why trans people should be writing it”, but why we need trans fiction….

It’s the windows and mirrors. ‘Cause yeah, it’s for trans kids. It’s invaluable to see yourself on the paper. The first time I found the word genderqueer on the page, I picked it up and I was like “I understand myself so much better now.” It took til I was 19, reading Kate Bornstein, I didn’t have kids’ books. So yes, it’s invaluable for trans people.

But it’s not a book FOR trans people to read. It’s a book with a trans main character. And it’s important because yes we want to inform ourselves about the world and learn about people who are different from ourselves, and that’s all great and wonderful. But to me it’s really visceral. (In Orlando, right?) Imagine a kid grows up, straight, heteronormative, football-playing jock-y jock-y dude, totally drunk one night walking down the street, sees someone he identifies as trans. Um, what are the first 100 things in his head as an experience of trans-ness? Are they those crappy things I saw in the movies in the 80s? It’s Pat from SNL? Right? Like those are my formative experiences of what trans-ness is. Or do I have something in my head that connects that person to being a person? And does that person literally make it through the night because someone read something at a formative age? So yeah, trans stories save trans lives and not just because trans people read them. Um… yeah.

That’s a very good answer.

Yeah. That’s also the answer to why I write Middle Grade. Because by the time YA comes… there’s already so much else going on. Whereas, eight years old, that’s where I started connecting with the person I am now. Like before that was protohuman. Learning what nouns and verbs are. And then at some point it’s like who am I within all of this? And some kids figure out things earlier, of course, and we’re all, like flexible, but…

Yeah, no, yeah. Reading trans middle grade fiction, it’s like, oh my god. I remember I was like 12, and I was an “ally,” and I was like, “you know it’s fine for people to be trans but why do they have to transition?” Like… oh, 12 year old self. I wish I’d had trans fiction at or before that age.

Yeah. I love having gotten to a place of maturity of acceptance or not-caring-ness or whatever that really honestly I do believe that I don’t have to understand something to respect its right to exist. And actually “I don’t understand trans stuff” does not fly with me anymore. It’s not your job to understand me and it’s not my job to explain myself to you. That’s cis-centric and it’s BS.

No, absolutely. If your first reaction when you encounter something you don’t know, is to be like well then that’s wrong and/or you should explain that…like… I don’t…

Right, like, it’s outside of my experience, therefore, make it make sense to me, make me comfortable. Like, I already don’t feel comfortable in the world! My job is not to comfort you! And I swear, I’m not trans just to make your life difficult! I swear to you.

What!

Yeah.

Yay! Awesome, thank you so much, this was wonderful.

I hope you have a great ALA. It’s gonna be fun.