On Representation In Writing

When I was fourteen years old, a book saved my life. That may sound dramatic, but I’ll be honest, it was a dramatic story. You see, I’ve suffered from depression since I was six years old, and I never felt comfortable in my own skin. Like a lot of transgender kids, I loved things that didn’t match up to the gender I was assigned at birth. I liked He-Man, but I loved She-Ra. I liked Superman, but I loved Supergirl. When it came to GI Joe, I had a ton of figures, but I only ever really played with Scarlet, Lady Jay and Covergirl. I had a BMX Dirt Bike with faux snakeskin pads on it that looked really cool, but I preferred to rid my neighbors pink and purple bike. I thought look was cool, but my Leia action figures always stole his lightsaber.

I hid those things because I knew they were ‘wrong’. I got dragged to church three times a week, and it was a Southern Speaking In Tongues Pentecostal Church. The kind that policed gender presentation and sexuality with militant fervor. So, I grew up not really understanding what it meant to be gay, or transgender (transexual was the term at the time), or lesbian, or queer. I only knew they were bad and meant you were going to hell. My only real exposure to those concepts outside of the fire and brimstone sermons were as the but of jokes on TV, or as a point of horror in movies like ‘Dressed To Kill’ (I’d say look it up, but honestly, don’t, because it’s horrible).

I was seven or eight years old when the AIDS crisis really hit big, and I got an education on what it meant to be gay or lesbian, and I started to understand that maybe, possibly, those weren’t horrible things to be. I never said that, because hell was still a big and scary thing, but I kind of wondered if I might be gay. Being assigned male at birth, and loving all sorts of ‘girl stuff’, that’s where my mind went, because I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. I just understood that I was miserable and I felt trapped in my own skin.

When I was fourteen, I went to Dallas for the summer to dog sit for my aunt for a couple of weeks. Not really a big deal, but at the time, I was a voracious reader, and I burned through the stack of books I had brought with me in about three days. My aunt had mentioned to me that there was a small bookstore a few blocks away, so one day in the middle of July, in Dallas Texas, in hundred plus degree heat, I walked I think six or seven blocks to get to the bookstore.

It was a terrible bookstore. At least, to my mind. I stayed there for a couple of hours, wandering around, waiting for the sun to go down a bit and for it to cool off before I went home, but the store didn’t even have a science fiction section. Just romance, mystery, and a bunch of self-help crap, and a whole ton of stuff about how aliens were among us and Elvis was still alive and other crap.

Somewhere around my sixth circuit of the store, when I was seriously starting to eye the bodice rippers out of sheer desperation, I found something that didn’t belong there. Tucked in between the bodice rippers and the murder mysteries was a name that was familiar, and a title that wasn’t. I found a copy of a book by Robert A. Heinlein called I Will Fear No Evil.

For those of you who have never heard of the book, it’s about a Billionaire named Johann Sebastian Bach Smith whose brain is healthy, but whose body is falling apart. He pays for an experimental procedure, a brain transplant, and wakes up in the body of a women, Eunice Branca, who is young, beautiful, and happens to have been Johann’s secretary.

I Will Fear No Evil is widely regarded as one of Heinlein’s worst works. People call it sexist, and fetishistic and all sorts of other things. I don’t care. It was the first time in my life that I saw a sex change presented as something other than the butt of a joke. It was the first time in my life where I saw a story about someone who started out as male and ended up as female and was happy for the change, who lived a happier life after the change, who loved and was loved in return after the charge.

I’m not sure how many times I read that novel in the week and a half or so I had left in Texas, but at least four times. I got a little obsessed with the idea, and by the time I went home, I understood myself in a way I never had before. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted it more than anything else in the world.

It didn’t change my life overnight. It didn’t make me not depressed. It didn’t make everything okay, suddenly. But it did help me understand myself. It did show me that people like me didn’t have to live miserable, unloved lives. It did show me that being the way I am wasn’t a one-way ticket to hell. It made things better, seeing myself reflected in a story like that.

Knowing myself, understanding myself, it helped stop a downward spiral that would have ended in a very bad place. It gave me something to hang on to for a long time. It took a long time after I found that novel for me to come out and transition, but finding that book, a twenty-year-old science fiction novel in a bookstore that didn’t even have a science fiction section, still feels like the closest thing I’ve ever seen to divine intervention. It was the light that started me on my journey to becoming myself.

That’s something I think about a lot I sit down and start writing. If that book hadn’t shown me a reflection of myself, I would have spiraled down into self-destruction. That book saved my life. Representation saved my life. And that’s something I want to give back in my own stories.