The day after the election, I called in sick to work, renewed my testosterone prescription, and read a book. I expect that, minus the middle bit, I was not alone in my impulse to sleep off and read through the previous night’s very real nightmare. The book I turned to was Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide, and honestly I read it because it was the shortest book in my to-read pile and because I knew it was vaguely related to being transgender. It was a friendly orange paperback, bookstore crisp, and solid in my hands. We seek such small comforts where we can in times of crisis.
Ivan’s book, a memoir, is about their childhood running amok as a tomboy in rural Canada and their life trying to reconcile themselves in a world unkind to those of us who do not fit neatly into gender boxes or labels. It was the perfect book for that day: every other page evoked a pang of “oh, me too,” like meeting a new friend who really gets you. Tomboy Survival Guide served as connection and a balm in the foggy and muffled morning after, in a world that had confirmed my worst suspicions about America.
In times of crisis, I reach towards books. Changing schools? Almanzo Wilder in Farmer Boy was there for me. Entering middle school? Thanks, Harry Potter. Books are a portable escape, a map to help me confront or comprehend my way through a crisis. Puberty brought on a confused and haphazard investigation into my school’s outdated health manuals, as I was betrayed by hormones forcing upon me a body and set of gendered expectations unpleasantly different than what I knew to be true. As I grow older, I’ve tended to reach for books related to the crisis at hand. Which means that, recently, I’ve been reading some really gay books.
Many point to the election as their turning point in 2016, but I’m dating mine back to March, when HB2 was passed in North Carolina. HB2, as a refresher, is the law that mandates people use the bathrooms matching the gender on their birth certificate rather than their current ID, which for many transgender people are two different things. So, anxious by how fast these sorts of laws tend to spread, and sad about how legislatures seemed once again okay with codified hate on their books, I picked up a book. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts saw me through that week, shining a light on the complexities, trials, and joys of making a romance and a family as queer people. It was a way to confront my instinctive flinch, my question as to whether this transition is worth it, whether people are going to be writing laws about where I can pee. Nelson answered: there is joy and love and happiness to be found in life, even outside the norms of socially accepted genders.
I was on a solo vacation to Madrid in June when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in Orlando. Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 more in the deadliest act of a single shooter and the worst violence towards LGBTQ people in United States’ history. Devastating barely captures the feeling that swept through the LGBTQ community. There wouldn’t be working through my emotions during this crisis, just escapism and a lot of transcontinental Skype calls. In between museums and eating my feelings in tapas bars, Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story: A Novel carried me away to 19th century western Massachusetts where a hapless Herman Melville tries to woo a resistant Nathaniel Hawthorne and works on some novel about whales. It was as far as I could get from the reality of coming out in broken Spanish to my Airbnb host, explaining why I was suddenly crying all the time, and for that small respite I am grateful to that novel.
Within weeks of each other, police murdered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and Donald Trump selected LGBTQ Americans’ conversion-therapy boogeyman, Mike Pence, as his vice president. Though I’ve never had to confront state-sponsored racism and violence towards myself, or had to consider gay conversion therapy as a threat to my future, still I sought to comprehend. I found new words for pain and joy in the poetry of Saeed Jones’s collection, Prelude to Bruise, and put myself in the shoes of a character faced with homophobia from loved ones in Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You. Even if I can never inhabit these points of view, I’m closer to understanding them.
Fast forward through August and slamming through The Raven Boys quartet by Maggie Steifvater, which includes a scene with a perfect queer kiss that made my twisting stomach relax for one precious moment. September and October was a blur of seemingly requisite think pieces and tweets. A brief pause, after listening to Trump discuss casually sexually violating women, came with a corresponding increase in gay werewolf Kindle Single consumption. And then the election, and my reaching for an orange paperback on my nightstand.
“I didn’t not want to be a girl because I had been told that they were weaker or somehow lesser than boys. It was never that simple,” Coyote writes in Tomboy Survival Guide, taking the words right out of my mouth. Yes, that’s me, I thought, and ignored the news for another hour. On the roller coaster that was 2016, I reached for LGBTQ authors and stories, seeking words from my own heart articulated by someone else and safe worlds to run away to. Worlds like in The Raven King where two boys loving one another is a celebration, where people like me have happily-after-alls. Authors like Coyote, who writes, “And how do I know all of this? Because I’ve been there. I want you to know you are not alone.”