Trans rights, according to Time magazine’s cover, are “America’s next civil rights frontier.” This announcement comes not a moment too soon; a push for trans rights and acceptance is on the rise, amid a bullying epidemic and staggeringly high rates of violence towards trans people. More and more transgender activists and cultural icons — people including Janet Mock, Chaz Bono, Lana Wachowski, Chelsea Manning, and Laverne Cox (above) — are opening up and sharing their stories in hopes of lessening the stigma around being trans, and to educate about the social, legal and medical battles they face.
Cisgender people often carry many misconceptions about the trans population; they often incorrectly assume trans people are the same as those who identify as intersex (people born with ambiguous genitalia) or genderqueer (people who identify as a third gender, or move between male and female). Pop culture can sometimes paint trans people as punchlines or freaks, and as a society we're drastically undereducated about the struggles they face and the validity of their lives. Luckily, there are plenty of great books to help you understand and empathize with the trans experience. Here are some memoirs, novels, and theory texts to get you started.
Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
Transgender activist Feinberg won a number of awards for her 1993 novel, which follows protagonist Jess. Throughout the novel, Jess explores gender and sexuality, embracing lesbian, butch, and eventually transgender identities. As groundbreaking today as it was 20 years ago, Feinberg’s story was one of the first published to explore trans identity in non-binary terms.
S/HE by Minnie Bruce Pratt
Pratt is Leslie Feinberg’s partner (a million queer theory squees!), and their relationship is explored within her beautiful, poetic memoir. Pratt herself doesn’t quite identify as trans — the book brings up interesting questions regarding her identification as a lesbian while involved with someone who does not present as a woman, and will make you reconsider your own ideas of labels and pronouns.
Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
Kuklin, a photographer, has compiled interviews and portraits of transgender teenagers and young adults in this recently released book, giving an underrepresented community a chance to speak for themselves.
TheTestosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male by Max Wolf Valerio
Valerio was living as a lesbian woman before transitioning into life as a straight man; he includes readers as he does things like buy men’s underwear for the first time, and enlightens them on issues of male power and privilege.
Luna by Julie Anne Peters
An award-winning YA novel, Peters follows a teenage girl as the person she knew as her older brother transitions into living as a woman. Through it all, the sibling bond remains strong and the story preaches acceptance, making this oft-banned book a great lesson in tolerance for younger readers.
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
Mock’s activism has helped launch trans rights into the national spotlight. Her book — partially political and totally personal — will surely do the same.
She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Boylan was living as a married father of two when she decided to take the steps to become the woman she always knew she was. Her writing is honest, funny, and approachable, and the consideration of what her transition has done to her family (spoiler alert: it's only made them closer) is especially absorbing and further explored in her follow-up memoir, Stuck in the Middle With You.
Whipping Girl is an all-out manifesto on the unbelievable prejudices and oppression trans men and women face and the root cause of it all: misogyny. But Serano also takes to task cis-women feminists, who have historically (and often purposefully) left transgender women out of feminist dialogue. A must-read for anyone interested in gender theory, it’s a fascinating look at the ways in which society is threatened by and terrified of anyone existing outside gender norms.
Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein
Bornstein’s book — part autobiography, part theory, part advocacy for theater-as-therapy (she includes a play she wrote)— details the physical and emotional aspects of her transition, but is more interesting in its acknowledgement of the ability to exist and identify outside of the male/female binary (what if you feel neither male nor female — to where do you transition?). For those trying to tease out the definitions of and differences between sex and gender, Bornstein is a great author with whom to start.
In a Queer Time and Place by Judith Halberstam
Halberstam’s discussion on pop culture’s representations of transgender bodies is dense with theory but is eye-opening, thought-provoking, and innovative in its hypothesis that gender freedom could occur in queering our temporalities. Think: an abolishment of measuring time generationally, since our culture places such high value on hetero and gender normative definitions of marriage and children.