Trans issues addressed through an audiobook and photography

Beast-author-CREDIT-June-Lion

Beast by Brie Spangler, read by Andrew Eiden (Blackstone Audio c.2016) $34.95 8.5 hours, 7 CDs.

In its most basic description, it’s a muscle. Nothing computerized, no easy-to-follow instructions or list of parts. Nope, it’s a muscle — a dub-thumping, miraculous group of cells beating when you were born, due to simple electrical activity. But in the audiobook Beast, the heart knows who it loves.

At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, 15-year-old Dylan Ingvarsson was a beast. And he hated it.

BeastNot only did he tower over every single student and most of the teachers at St. Lawrence Prep, but he was also hairy as a faux-fur blanket. You might get teased, but you don’t get bullied when you’re like that. You don’t have a lot of friends, either, and you don’t get girls.

If it wasn’t for his best friend JP, Dylan wouldn’t know what to do. They’d known one another since they were little and he was everything Dylan was not: well-off, well-groomed, well-liked. Just walking the halls with JP made Dylan cool, though there was a dark side to JP’s friendship. Dylan hated that, too.

He hated his entire life, so he took risks — big, stupid risks. Which is how Dylan ended up on a roof. Which was how he ended up falling and busting his leg. Which was how he got sent to group therapy for self-harmers. Which was how he met the girl of his dreams.

Her name was Jamie — gorgeous, tall, smart, and she had the same struggles with the way her life was going. She only wanted to be friends, but he wanted so much more — partly because Jamie was funny and he liked her, partly because she liked him, and partly because she would prove to JP that Dylan could get a girl by himself.

But then everything fell apart. She said she told Dylan that she was transgender, but he didn’t hear that. Was she a dude?  He wasn’t gay. She hadn’t hidden anything, hadn’t lied, but Dylan couldn’t get over facts.

And he couldn’t get over Jamie…

Two minutes into Beast, you’ll be eager to know more about Dylan. Author Brie Spangler gave him the right words with the right attitude, Andrew Eiden reads them perfectly, and you’ll genuinely like this kid with a tough exterior but a marshmallow center.

Spangler and Eiden make Dylan come alive in this boy-meets-girl-who-used-to-be-a-boy story, by giving him more than just one dimension. He’s a warm, responsible, and complex, well-crafted character; with Dylan, Spangler beautifully tackles a could-be-thorny subject, wrestles with its conscious some, then lets it do its own soul-searching. That leads to a new-old-fashioned love story that really couldn’t be sweeter.

On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories, photographs by Mark Seliger, foreword by Janet Mock) Rizzoli International Publications 2016) $55; 160 pp.

On-Christopher-StreetWhere would you go if you just wanted to be yourself? If you are transgender and living in or near Manhattan, you’d go to Christopher Street in the West Village. There, you could find support, advice, community or family, if you needed it. Recently, you might have also run into photographer Mark Seliger, who says in a brief statement that he noticed the “freedom of expression and gender identity” that was once abundant is “vanishing” from the area. High-end condos, cafes and restaurants are moving in and the trans community is being pushed aside; here, Seliger puts a marker on it before it’s gone. 

“I realize that everybody has a trans story, that being trans is something that affects all of us,” he says, using his camera as storyteller.

Being in prison as a trans woman, says one photo subject, is like being “caged.” You don’t belong with the men. They won’t put you in the women’s lock-down. Everybody knows what’s going on and sometimes, the guards have one more slap-down in store for you just before you’re released.

Many stories begin with “I was 4” … or 5 or 8 … when the teller realized that they were in the “wrong body.” Families were supportive (or not), transitioning “is not easy,” and the decision for or against surgery is deeply personal but ultimately, it’s the “inner peace” that matters. Still, lying about being trans can backfire and even if nobody knows, there’s a “constant state of paranoia and fear” that may yet linger.

And then there’s the place itself: Christopher Street has a dark side, with drugs, prostitution and harassment. That means that for LGBTQ youth, which account for  40 percent of the nation’s street kids, it isn’t always safe…

And so there I was, quietly reading On Christopher Street when it suddenly… ended!  The surprise was not that it did so, but that I was so wrapped up in the inside this book that I didn’t notice the last pages looming.

Yes, it’s that kind of thing, filled with photographic portraits that are worth the thousand cliché words, and then some. Seliger’s subjects seem mostly well-at-ease in snapshots that feel random but natural; some people are identified, some are not, and not all of them weigh in, verbally. Those that do, tell tales that hit hard, in part because they leave readers with the sense that there’s more, but that it’s too difficult to speak.

This large-size, elegantly-presented coffee-table book is one you’ll return to again and again because what’s inside is so compelling. If it is, indeed, true what they say about everyone having a story, On Christopher Street is filled with good ones.           

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 13, 2017.