A Reader’s Journey Through Transition
Joseph Schreiber's Search for Self in a Lifetime of Books
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.
–Ursula K. Le Guin
As a child, growing up under the open skies of Western Canada, I relied on the Rockies to orient myself in space. If I stood with the distant mountains to my left, I knew I was facing north. To the right, south, and so on. Having this point of reference helped me feel grounded because, as far as I could tell, I seemed to be missing some kind of internal compass. I knew the direction I was supposed to be heading in, but had no idea how I was going to get there.
From the outside, I appeared to be a girl. With two younger brothers I was well aware of the critical differences between us. But from an early age I was troubled by a nagging uncertainty about who or what I really was. I worried that I was a fake. I couldn’t get my bearings in the world of girls. I looked like one, but sensed there was something lacking, or worse, something terribly wrong inside. In the 1960s and 70s, I had no way to explain my otherness. I was not a tomboy, and was never attracted to girls. I was a misfit—awkward, shy, and smart. So I turned to books. I wanted to escape, experience other realities, and, I hoped, learn how to think and feel female.
Like many other avid readers who seek refuge in books, I read widely. I frequently tackled works that were well beyond my years and, quite likely, my understanding. I did sample the books that seemed to fascinate other girls at my small rural school—horse stories, nurse romances and, of course, Nancy Drew—one of each was more than enough for me. Fantasy, science fiction, and, into my teens, history and espionage novels seemed to strike a more neutral ground; offer a safe space to exist, even hide. But there is one particular book that captivated me so completely in early adolescence that I must have read it three or four times: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. A world where the inhabitants had no fixed sex or gender was endlessly fascinating to me, even if I would not fully appreciate the appeal for many years.
By the time I was in my twenties, my gender insecurity had become a deep and abiding concern that I still believed was somehow my fault, a failure to learn the essentials of being female. I played the part, carefully monitoring how I dressed and carried myself, constantly concerned that I would be exposed. The truth of the matter is, everyone else saw a perfectly feminine woman while my own internal sense of isolation grew stronger with each passing year.
For more than 30 years now, from the age of 22 onward, I have maintained a journal record of every book I’ve read, give or take. Throughout my twenties I can see how intently I was listening for voices, that is, reading books by female authors hoping to recognize myself in their characters, in the stories they told. But the insight into womanhood I was seeking remained elusive. Even having children couldn’t quell my anxiety. If anything, it made me feel even more estranged from my body and further alienated from other women.
My book journals stop abruptly when our first child was born. No need to record infinite recitations of Goodnight Moon. But once the sleepless nights came to an end and order began to return to my life, I was eager to get back to reading adult fare. A brand new journal opens with the record of another book that would prove to be critical on my personal journey, even if it would serve to lead me wildly off course for a while.
I will never forget the day I found this novel in a downtown bookstore. The year was 1995, and the book had been out for a decade, but I had never heard of it. I was working at a church at the time and growing increasingly disillusioned with the politics of faith. According to the brief blurb on the back, this novel dealt with “religious excess” and that was what caught my attention. It was called Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I can’t say exactly what struck me about Jeanette Winterson’s story of a young woman who grows up in a strictly fundamentalist family, falls in love with another girl, and faces the wrath of her mother and church community. It is a beautifully constructed novel, smart and funny; yet somewhere, deep inside, something was knocked loose. There was a differentness I connected to, unnamed at first, that kept working away at my fragile sense of identity.
I returned to Winterson the following year, reading The Passion and Written on the Body. Now she was playing with gender, and by this point I was finely tuned to the possibilities she evoked. Then, somewhere along the way, as my interest in Winterson grew, I stumbled across a review or article that described her as writing as if she was a man trapped in a woman’s body. Until that moment I had never heard that expression. It hit me hard. That was me. I had an answer to the not-femaleness I’d been fighting for decades. I was a… a lesbian? To be honest, I had had many gay friends in my life, but lesbians had never really registered. I didn’t even like women. Or at least that’s what I had always told myself.
Today I laugh when I think about my so-called “lesbian searching years,” the years when I listened to nothing but female singers (now actively immersing myself in female voices) and read books by lesbian authors. Yet in reality, those were difficult, painful times. I had been married for over 13 years and the revelation that I was questioning my sexuality was not a marriage builder. There were moments of incredible heartache and distress, but this was, for me, a necessary part of the process.
It’s important to remember that in the mid to late 1990s, the internet as a publicly accessible entity was still in its nascent stages. I had, of course, heard of some of the famous transsexuals, always male to female, who had attracted international attention and, although I was deeply fascinated by the concept, I never connected it to myself. As I went on to university I stayed far away from women’s studies. I was ostensibly “straight” and had lost touch with most of my gay friends over time, so, that although books dealing with gender and transgender subjects did exist, I would not have found my way to them without my detour through sexuality. I would have continued to wander directionless because, as much as I knew I felt different, I could not articulate the questions that haunted me until I began to recognize a shadow of myself in the words of others. Even then, I would still need another book to confirm it.
I was 38 years old when I found myself in the stacks of the central library. I stood there with a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors and slowly made my way through the ethnographic and historical accounts of those whose lives crossed gender lines until I finally reached the pages featuring pictures of transgender men. I was so nervous. I had no idea what to expect but feared something freakish, masculine but still decidedly female. I’ll never forget the thrill of turning the page to find photographs of absolutely, wonderfully ordinary looking men. Bald, bearded, undeniably male. And that was it. I would fight it for a while, struggle to find a middle ground once I knew I no longer had to feel female, but by the age of 40 I was ready to start taking testosterone.
Through the year or so immediately preceding my decision to transition, and on into the early years of second puberty, I read deeply and intentionally. Nonfiction works about masculinity, gender, and sexuality, along with a few transgender-themed novels, dominated my reading. I was still very isolated. There were no support groups in my city, I had few opportunities to meet other transgender men, and the professional resources for someone starting transition were limited. Books were still an essential guide to exploring the new terrain I was entering.
With this shift in self-awareness, I no longer needed to find the exacting mirror I had once sought in the voices and words of other women. My own trajectory differed from the “classic” dialogue for a transgender man that was considered standard at the time—the rejection of feminine dress and play, attractions to women, stereotypical “masculine” interests—so I learned to find echoes of myself in the stories I read. Oddly it’s another lesbian classic, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, that stands out in my memory from this period.
The heroine of Hall’s novel, a woman named Stephen Gordon, can be read as standing at the intersection between the butch woman and the transgender man. When it was released in 1928, the concept of inversion, the inborn reversal of gendered traits and feelings, was widely thought to explain homosexuality. I approached the book well aware of this fact and found passages that resonated with the long standing disconnect I had had with my own body. Stephen is sensitive to the masculine physical features she detects in both herself and other lesbian women. One passage in particular floored me. In describing the regulars of a Paris club, she makes the observation about Pat, “whose libido apart from the flesh, flowed into entomological channels—one had to look twice to discern that her ankles were too strong and heavy to be those of a woman.” I had spent years turning my feet in a circular motion, in a futile exercise that I imagined might slim my thick ankles! As a girl I was solidly built, not allowed to grow my hair long, and cursed with a name commonly associated with boys. I fantasized that the ability to change these things might make me feel female, and my legs and ankles continued to obsess me for decades. For me, finding myself in such a small detail in a book published the year my father was born was precious validation that I was finally on the right track. I had found my bearings at last.
As my transition progressed, I went through a period of reading novels and biographies that seemed explicitly masculine to me: stories about boxers, traders and explorers, soldiers and mariners. One could say I allowed the pendulum to swing to opposite extremes. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that being a man in the world was really about being at peace with who I was, internally and externally; and being able to look in the mirror and identify with the person looking back. Finally, the book I recognize as the one that marks a point of completeness, in so far as this ongoing journey has any signposts that signal arrival, is Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.
When I first read this novel I was almost ten years into life on the other side of the gender line. I had long since given up forcing my literary choices. Despite the demands of work and single parenting, I was reading more widely and critically than ever before. What Out Stealing Horses offered was an opportunity to stand, as a reader—and most importantly, a male reader—between the 67-year-old narrator, a man who has retreated to a remote cabin, and his memories of the summer when he was 15. This poignant coming of age story gifted me a measure of boyhood, so subtle and affecting, that I was able to feel that I had come full circle to the child I once was, now marking “his” location relative to the mountains on the horizon.
Today, if I am listening to voices when I read, it is as a writer. I engage with literature with a maturity and perspective borne of my own circuitous path to find out where I belonged. Left to my own devices I tend to read more male authors than female by a ratio of about three to one. After fretting about gendered voices for so long, it’s a relief to simply read out of interest. The only thing I do harbor is a penchant for coming-of-age and coming-out stories that allow me to imagine the boy I might have been, for better or worse.
Looking back over the odd selection of books that stood out for me on my long journey to manhood, I find it hard to imagine how different it might have been if I’d had access to the range of LGBTQ literature available today, particularly the vast quantities aimed at young adults. Mine was a different time. And despite the prominent position that trans awareness currently holds in politics and pop culture, crossing the gender line is a much smaller, more intimate and fundamentally ordinary experience than the one that media and literature tends to portray. I had to read myself into my own narrative and, in the end, that’s okay; even if I am living proof that you can be a very smart child, but a very slow learner.