James Frankie Thomas on Discovering His Trans Identity While Writing Fiction
"It’s both mystical and humiliating how your novel can know things before you yourself know them."
It happened in this order: I started writing a novel. Then I found out the novel was trans. Then I found out I was trans. Now the novel is coming out, and so am I.
To come out as trans is to come up with an answer to the question How did you know? Many trans people can recall knowing as early as age five, or three, or even before they were neurobiologically capable of forming memories. When I browse the FTM subreddits I sometimes detect a certain competitive dick-swinging element to these origin stories—tranecdotes, if you will—but I’m just bitter. I don’t have any of my own; I simply didn’t know. I’m about to recount an incident that happened around the time I turned thirty-one, by which point I still didn’t know.
It was 2018. I was in my second semester at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and my life revolved around a class called Novel Workshop. It had ten students, each one working on a novel. Every Tuesday, we all got together and “workshopped” one person’s novel in a discussion led by our instructor, the novelist Paul Harding. We went deep: workshops usually ran over three hours. I was scheduled to be workshopped in week five – the week after my friend Kiley Reid workshopped her completed manuscript Such a Fun Age, which remains to this day one of my favorite novels I’ve ever read. She was a tough act to follow. My own novel-in-progress, Idlewild, wasn’t even halfway finished.To come out as trans is to come up with an answer to the question How did you know?
Still, I felt pretty good about it. The story followed two best friends, Fay and Nell, at a private Quaker high school in Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11. I was having a lot of fun revisiting that era, and by “revisiting that era” I mean “spending hours a day reading slash fiction.” No one actually calls it “slash fiction” anymore; it’s “gay fanfiction” now, unless you’re old enough to have read it on 9/11. But my characters would have called it slash, and I was reading it for them. It was character research, like Method acting (or what I imagined Method acting was before I read Isaac Butler’s The Method). My characters fantasized nonstop about men having sex with each other, so it was crucial to my process that I fantasize nonstop about men having sex with each other.
In all seriousness, I prided myself on my well-observed portrayal of teen girlhood in the early 2000s—specifically the way teen girls back then were consumed with the desire to be gay men. That was something you just never saw in fiction about teen girls, but Idlewild was going to change that. From the very first page, on which I introduced Fay as “a gay dude trapped in a female body,” I plumbed my memories of my own adolescence for universal truths about teen girlhood.
On Tuesday, February 27, 2018, I showed up to Novel Workshop with the customary armload of snacks and twelve-pack of LaCroix, set them on the conference table as a bribe for my classmates, and exchanged some rote pleasantries before taking my three-hour vow of silence. You’re not allowed to talk while you’re being workshopped.
“Let’s talk about the character of Fay,” said Paul Harding. “She—or, he, I guess—will obviously grow up to be a trans man. That’s telegraphed very clearly from the first page. The novel is unfinished, of course, so I assume the author is building up to a big reveal later on. But I’m wondering: does it need to be a big reveal? If the character knows it, why can’t the reader know it?”
Let me pause here to tell you a little bit about Paul Harding. He is a brilliant person, a Pulitzer winner, the actual definition of a gentleman and a scholar, dazzlingly fluent in Shakespeare and the Bible and Moby-Dick. He is also a middle-aged cisgender heterosexual man whose primary residence at the time was, if I recall his words correctly, “the woods.” I think he had met, to his knowledge, one trans person in his entire life. As I listened to him talk, I pitied him for putting his ignorance on display: this guy clearly didn’t know the first thing about trans people. I waited for my classmates to correct him.
One by one, they responded.
“Yeah, I did think it was a little unnecessarily coy.”
“Especially since it’s foreshadowed so heavily. A big reveal would be anticlimactic, since the reader has already figured it out.”
“Why not make it explicit from the start? What’s gained by withholding such important information about the character?”
And I wasn’t allowed to speak, so I just had to sit there and take it over and over. I was so flabbergasted, I bet you could see a giant cartoon exclamation point floating over my head. How had my entire workshop read my novel so wrong? Stranger still, how had they all read it wrong in the exact same way? There was only one possible explanation, something I’d long suspected but never dared to admit out loud: Everyone was stupid except me.
Still, feedback is feedback. After that workshop, I deleted the line on the first page about Fay being “a gay dude trapped in a female body.” I figured it must have been that line that threw everyone off. Back in the early 2000s, it was just a normal thing to say—so normal, in fact, that it was an Elle magazine headline in 2003: “Help! I’m a Gay Man Trapped in a Woman’s Body!” My high school friend Jaya Saxena had clipped that headline and made me a collage out of it as a present for my seventeenth birthday, a collage I’d proudly displayed on my bedroom wall next to my vintage World War I naval recruitment poster that said Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man, I’d Join the Navy. That collage must have been why the words “gay man trapped in a woman’s body” were still rattling around in my head fifteen years later. But naturally a line like that would land differently in 2018. Post-transgender-tipping-point, it sounded like a way of saying you were trans.
So I cut it. Having solved that problem, I returned to the task of spending hours a day reading slash fiction.
A couple of months later, in April, I attended a house party thrown by poets. The party featured a juvenilia-themed reading: the poets took turns reading aloud things they’d written as kids. One of these poets was Stephen Ira, who would go on to publish Chasers, a collection of gay trans love poems. His juvenilia was a work of slash fiction he’d written when he was fourteen. He read it aloud, with great dramatic flair, and I was bowled over with amazement. The tone, the style, his half-ironic affection for it now—this was exactly what my novel was about! I even recognized historical details cribbed from Graham Robb’s Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, a book with which I’d also been obsessed at that age. I couldn’t believe there was someone right here in Iowa City who was just like me, except cooler and a gay guy.You might say that the novel felt more real to me than I felt real to myself.
As Stephen left the stage, he quipped, “You know what they say—trans girls play video games, trans boys write slash fiction.”
I hadn’t known that, actually. I was like, Huh. Later I thought about it and I was like, Oh. And then I thought about it some more and I was like, Oh NO. It was going to be incredibly inconvenient and time-consuming, but it was the only path forward: I had to rewrite the whole novel. Fay was trans, and I owed it to the novel to explore the implications of this, which meant I was now writing a trans story.
I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind, over the next three years of writing and rewriting, that this might also say something about me. In fact, besides men having sex with each other, I thought of little else. But it was an abstract, hypothetical thought. After all, what was I going to do, transition? I didn’t have time for that. For God’s sake, I was trying to write a novel here.
In the end, I didn’t allow myself to start testosterone until after I’d finished the novel. Like many people who start taking testosterone in their thirties, I often wish I’d started sooner, and sometimes I regret prioritizing the novel above my physical existence. You might say that the novel felt more real to me than I felt real to myself. But perhaps that’s pathologizing a process that’s always slow and awkward by nature. Am I referring to novel-writing or to transition? Both, I guess. In my case, they were one and the same.
Recently, at a gay bar in the West Village, I told Stephen Ira this whole story, and how his casual aside “Trans boys write slash fiction” was the five-word phrase that unlocked my novel and my heart. He found it very funny that Paul Harding, of all people, got there first. “You were playing to the cheap seats,” he said. It’s both mystical and humiliating how your novel can know things before you yourself know them.
But on that April night in Iowa City, I did know one thing: I had to introduce myself to Stephen. The party was so crowded, and he was all the way on the other side of it, but I had to find him and tell him I was just like him. What did I even mean by that? I didn’t know. I didn’t know! I made my way slowly across the room and it was the last moment in my life that I could get away with telling myself I didn’t know.
Idlewild by James Frankie Thomas is available from Overlook Press, an imprint of Abrams Books.