This post isn’t a book review in the usual sense. I’ve only read the first few chapters of Katie Rain Hill’s 2014 memoir Rethinking Normal, and while I haven’t made my mind up entirely, I don’t think I want to read any more of it. It’s important, and there are some good things about it, but having read as much as I have, I came away feeling disturbed and upset.
Hill is a binary transgender college student who transitioned at the age of 15. She and her high school boyfriend, Arin Andrews, were the subject of widespread media attention in high school because they are both transgender, Andrews having been assigned female sex at birth and Hill having been assigned male. I’m sure on more than one occasion they must have desperately wished they could just swap.
Hill’s memoir starts with her arrival at college, when her and Andrews’s relationship was winding down. The book is important because it’s a fairly well-written, first-hand account by a trans person from a generation in which it is actually beginning to be possible to transition before entering adulthood. In another few years, I hope we’ll see more accounts from trans people who have been supported in their actual genders from grade school or earlier. These stories are likely to be different in many ways from already existing accounts by accomplished adult writers, such as Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There or Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness.
At the same time, unfortunately, I think Hill’s memoir and accounts like it are doing some real harm. This is because Hill, who according to biographies considers herself an LGBTQ+ advocate, does not seem to have taken the necessary steps to educate herself about broader LGBTQ+ issues, nor to find sensitivity readers who could explain the problems in her book to her.
All in the first few chapters, she gives a friend a free pass for using the word “faggot” because “he didn’t mean it,” claims that all trans people who don’t get surgery are still concerned primarily with “passing” (if you’re reading this and don’t already know, that’s not the case), and repeatedly misgenders herself.
To clarify, Hill repeatedly refers to herself prior to her transition as a “boy.” In other words, she’s adopting cis people’s terminology for herself, that she’s not a legitimately female until she has surgery and hormones, or at best until she presents as female.
Now, I do know that there are trans people who legitimately identify as one gender and then come to identify as another, but most of us seem to have the experience of always having identified as whatever gender or genders we actually are, even if other people always thought of us as our assigned birth sex, and even if we didn’t have the gender identity knowledge or terminology to understand or describe what we were.
This is why I dislike and try to avoid the terms “FTM” and “MTF” (“female to male” and “male to female,” respectively) for binary trans people: they put the power for assigning gender in the eye of the beholder–for instance, since everyone thought of Hill as a boy prior to her transition, she thinks of herself as actually having been a boy then, even though by her own account her gender dysphoria was so intense that she was constantly depressed and would lock herself in her room for days.
The reason I’m so bothered by this is that because Hill is known through popular news outlets, her book is likely to be the first–and possibly only–account of being transgender that many people will read. Since cis people tend to assume that any LGBTQ+ person can speak for all LGBTQ+ people, they will learn that it’s OK to use slurs for LGBTQ+ people if you’re in a group that doesn’t care as long as you “don’t mean it,” that all trans people are preoccupied with passing, and that binary trans people start as one gender and become another.
I am positive these are not the only such misteachings in the book, but I’m reluctant to read forward and continue to experience these disturbing nuggets of short-sightedness coming from within the trans community.
As a 19-year-old writer, Hill’s book is not as immediate or engaging as it could be, at least judging from the beginning. It’s not bad, but its success so far looks to be based not on writing skill, but from its topic and writer being so noteworthy.
This is not to insult Hill. It’s probably a better memoir than I could have written at 19 if I had anything meaningful to write about that I understood then–and I’ve been devoted to writing for a long time. It’s just that writing takes skill, and skill takes practice, and 19 years is not old enough for most people to have put in that practice.
And I don’t mean to suggest that Hill had any ill intent or even was especially negligent (for a 19-year-old). I do, however, fault her agent (if she had one) and her editor. Presumably they’re professionals, and if they haven’t had previous experience with publishing LGBTQ+ work, they should have known who to talk to in order to get it, and they should have understood about sensitivity readers and other resources they could have used to guide Hill and point out the problems in her book. These kinds of issues would have been easy to fix once identified.
At the same time, maybe I’m being too hard on a book that was written 5 or 6 years ago, since our culture is so rapidly changing our understanding of how to handle and talk about gender identity. Apart from the “faggot” comment, perhaps this book was close to the state of the art at the time.
On the other hand, I don’t think it will help for us to be too open to yet more harmful writing about our community, even when it’s wrapped up in an interesting and meaningful account by a trans writer. Average Americans–even including many of us who are not cis–are confused enough about gender identity as it is.