I am in an introductory fiction writing class in college in New York City, and we are tasked with bringing in a paragraph we find particularly moving. I choose the paragraph from Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn in which a transgender sex worker, Georgette, saves the atmosphere of a party by pulling down a book and reading Poe’s “The Raven” aloud as Charlie Parker echoes from the record player. I don’t then know why this section makes me cry. Perhaps, I think, it is because Poe was my first love, literature in general was my second, and despair in literature my third.
We go around the room, reading from Carver, Bowles, and Cheever. We never get to Georgette’s shining moment.
At a later date, in the same class, we are assigned to write a short piece in which one of the characters has a secret. A boy in the class who is, by self-description, straight and cis gender writes a scene in which a transgender woman is hiding her gender identity from her lover. The big reveal is her final pronoun, which he writes as “s/he.”
I meet a bartender in a dive bar in the East Village. I think, “He’s the kind of guy I would sleep with once, then never talk to again.” On our second date, after sex, he tells me that he identifies as “spiritually transgender.” We talk about our childhoods, and it becomes painfully clear to me that I shared all the hallmarks of a transgender child. I think about the years between then and now: my obsession with transgender people in literature and film, my determination to to make friends with the one transgender person in my small hometown for reasons I couldn’t at the time understand, my fascination with David Bowie and Lou Reed.
I don’t know any trans people other than the bartender, and me. I turn back to the books I grew up with while also reading Kate Bornstein, Riki Wilchins, Julia Serrano. I begin to understand why Georgette made me cry.
My degree in creative writing has landed me the only kind of job it probably ever will. I work in the office of a bookstore. My boss is the guy who wrote the “s/he” reveal all those years ago. I wonder if he remembers? I remember. I am not out at work.
Coworkers friend me on Facebook. They see my chosen name, which I still haven’t been able to start using at work. They see my identification as transgender. Some of them are kind. There is the man with the long, white beard who I have seen in this bookstore since the first time I came in, years ago. He asks me if I would prefer to be called Alex. His kindness breaks the aloof persona that I have affected for protection. But mostly, I eat lunch alone and write. One day someone tells me they would talk to me more, but that I have “an air of solitude.”
I read Last Exit to Brooklyn critically. With a growing circle of transgender friends, with access to books written by transgender people, I see every one of the reductive tropes. Sad sex worker. Tragic heroin addict. Death. Exactly what every last cis gender person makes of transgender women in literature. I don’t think deeply about the fact that many of the trans people I know do in fact do some kind of sex work to get by in New York—myself included, taking off my clothes on web cams and acting out men’s fantasies on pay-per-hour phone lines. Or that a lot of us struggle with drinking and drugs. I think: This is wrong. This is problematic. Why do cis people keep portraying trans people this way? Even recent books such as Adam by Ariel Shrag have kept up the legacy of trans person as cis foil.
I marry the bartender, who has transitioned with my support. I work at the bookstore for two years, and towards the end of my employment, she leaves me for a trans girl she met in California on vacation. I start drinking hard, wallowing in depression, and missing work. I get doctors notes from the nurses at my trans specific clinic that use my chosen name. The guy who wrote the “s/he” reveal sits me down in his office to talk about how I am no longer a reliable employee, and, anyway, what is going on with these notes being under a name that’s not even mine?
I sit down to write this essay, and in doing so, pull up the paragraph that describes Georgette’s moment of beauty. There are so many things wrong with this book. But as I read, I see Selby writing with as much compassion as you could expect him to. The other characters look at Georgette as a man, as themselves as gay for their attraction to her. Selby never does—Selby sees Georgette as she wants to be seen. And though he kills Georgette, he first gives her this moment that is the most that any of his characters could hope for—harsh poetry.
There is so much I could have used, years before, that none of these books or songs ever gave me. Any sort of trans man in literature or art, any sort of voice from someone much more like myself, any sort of positive portrayal of trans people. Someone saying that things will be a mess and a disaster, and, also, quite inexplicably, okay.
Again, at the moment of Georgette’s death, I am crying.