A Coming-of-Gender Story
By Jacob Tobia
REAL QUEER AMERICA
LGBT Stories From Red States
By Samantha Allen
L.G.B.T.Q. people are everywhere. It is a simple and seemingly obvious fact, but one you will be forgiven for not fully realizing.
Even the most well-intentioned person can fall into the trap of the dominant narrative. Through the repetition and limitation of the stories we see and the voices we hear, we have been conditioned to think of a very specific set of experiences when a particular community or identity is evoked. We create a limited stereotype of life that glosses over a broader diversity. In doing so, we leave far too many behind.
We hear “transgender” and we think of a transgender woman, much like myself. We hear “L.G.B.T.Q.” and we think of a white gay man. And, no matter the letter we are referring to, we almost exclusively envision lives lived in coastal, blue-state cities.
But part of the beauty of the L.G.B.T.Q. community — and one of the factors that have fostered change — is that we exist everywhere, in all our rainbow glory, across region, class, race.
In Jacob Tobia’s “Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story,” and Samantha Allen’s “Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States,” these two young authors bust through the dominant L.G.B.T.Q. narratives with poise and pride to further reveal the community’s wide diversity. While different in style and tone, these books share the common thread of highlighting parts of a marginalized population that too often remain invisible and ignored.
Despite the predominant focus in politics and entertainment on transgender men and (particularly) women, many in the transgender community actually identify outside of the gender binary: between 25 percent and 35 percent, according to a recent survey. These nonbinary identities have existed throughout time, but in contemporary media they are just beginning to receive the visibility they deserve.
Tobia, a nonbinary writer, activist and actor who uses the pronouns they/them/their, combines incisive wit and undeniable intelligence to invite readers into their personal journey as a gender-nonconforming young person in North Carolina.
Tobia makes clear early on that this book will not be your traditional “Transgender 101.” Even so, through evocative rhetoric, the memoir subtly educates even the most uninformed reader about the spectrum of nonbinary identities by recounting Tobia’s various coming-out experiences, their initial refuge in their Methodist faith and their gradual self-discovery and advocacy as a visible student at a Southern university.
It is in Tobia’s often self-deprecating humor that “Sissy” is most transformative, and where it most departs from other trans memoirs. The seriousness of the topic never feels glossed over, which allows for an organic and seamless journey from tears on one page to laughing aloud on the next. If Tobia aspires to the ranks of comic memoirists like David Sedaris and Mindy Kaling, “Sissy” succeeds.
Allen’s powerful book of memoir and reportage, “Real Queer America,” is decidedly more serious in tone, but it’s no less entertaining. The Daily Beast reporter gathers stories from L.G.B.T.Q. people she met in conservative states across the country on a road trip she took in July 2017, the first summer of the Trump presidency.
An anthology of testimonials might feel disjointed, but Allen’s never does. She connects each stop and story by weaving in her own personal journey, from a closeted Mormon missionary and student at Brigham Young University to one of the nation’s most prominent openly transgender reporters (who, while on the road for this very book in Texas, covered reactions to what she calls the “dystopian development” of Trump’s tweeted ban on transgender troops).
It is difficult to capture universality in a way that also celebrates uniqueness. Allen does so through the diversity of the individual stories she uplifts, giving any reader an entry point into L.G.B.T.Q. lives. Tobia achieves the same thing through humor while avoiding the “Trans Narrative©.” Both writers do so with a vulnerability and humility as approachable and accessible as it is profoundly moving.
On one stop along Allen’s journey, she returns to her former college town of Provo, Utah. Ten years before, deep in the closet, she would escape the conservative town for late-night solo drives through the mountains, “searching the city’s plentiful parking lots for isolated corners where I could apply makeup and change into women’s clothing unseen.” Fast forward a decade, and Allen, now living openly as a transgender woman, visits Provo’s L.G.B.T. youth center. There she meets young people and their loving families doing what once seemed impossible to her: living boldly, and authentically, in a place where Allen used to feel completely alienated.
That is the shared beauty of these books: They demonstrate that progress and pride in red-state America is a tangible reality.
There’s no doubt there are significant challenges to that progress, but from North Carolina to Texas to Utah, L.G.B.T.Q. individuals are not just living, but thriving. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and nonbinary people exist in every corner of this vibrant nation; Tobia and Allen are simply showing us how to appreciate this great multiplicity of voices and experiences.
In seeing this, we learn that the ground, whether red or blue, is more than ready for the seeds of change.