For those of you who are new to the idea of transgender people or in case I use a bit of terminology you're not familiar with, I recommend checking out this handy site on Trans* Basics, which includes a definition of transgender and a helpful glossary of terms. For those of you who would really like to know why I keep writing the word “trans*” with an asterisk, I've got you covered, too.
Being Emily Review
Now that we've got some basics out of the way, let's talk about Being Emily, which is the transition tale of Emily Hesse, who was born Christopher, and her struggles to come out to her friends and family and take those first few steps of living her life on her own terms. For those who kind of know the transition process, this book does a great job of expanding upon the framework and relaying in a simplified sense what many of these moments and experiences might feel like, from the sickening nervousness of coming out to your parents to the joys and fears of going out in public dressed as your proper gender for the first time. It goes without saying that everyone's experiences are different, but Being Emily touched on many of the major moments I experienced during my own transition and conveys the emotions that come with those experiences better than any other Young Adult novel I've read on the topic.
Another major success on the book's part is that it addresses some of the big transgender stereotypes like the frequent mixing together of gender identity and sexuality when they are distinct from one another and the idea that, after transitioning, a trans* person won't retain the same interests. Emily is comfortable being a geek, likes cars, and still wants to date women; her transition and identity as a woman does not change any of these facts. Furthermore, she meets other trans* women who are attracted to men and tend to have more feminine interests, thus conveying the idea of trans* people being as varied as anyone else.
Perhaps one of the most interesting twists in the book is how it doesn't settle for telling one story. Most Young Adult novels focused on trans* teens transitioning tell the story from either the perspective of the trans* character or from a close relative or friend. Being Emily does both. The split between Emily and Claire is what would make me recommend this book to anyone who wants a narrative to further explain trans* issues. In many ways, Claire's side was the educational one for me, since I was never on that side of the transition process and missed a lot of opportunities to learn about those other perspectives since had a hard time taking into account the feelings of friends and family when I first came out. For that reason, trans* readers may still be educated by the book.
Being Emily does include some harsh language in an act to stay true to the situations, but never gets overly graphic or taboo beyond dropping a few F-bombs. And, unlike so many trans* stories, Being Emily shows the side that things can get better. That if you give people time, they can grow and understand even a change as big as transitioning. Other Young Adult novels I've read either lacked the message of hope or sugarcoated the entire process. Being Emily shows the good and the bad, which is something I think more LGBT fiction needs in general, as for most of us there is going to be that give and take. More info on Being Emily can be found over at beingemily.com, including where to pick up a copy of the book.
Escapism of Video Games
In Being Emily, Emily plays female characters on World of Warcraft. This simple act gives her a lot of joy as she is then able to interact with a world and be identified by others as female. Plenty of people play cross-gender characters without being trans* or gender dysphoric at all, but, for trans* folks, being able to do so can carry more importance, as for many of us it was one of our few escapes prior to coming out.
Part of me wishes Being Emily had delved a bit deeper into this psychology and focused a bit more on Emily's geekiness rather than being a straight transition tale. Many have written brilliant articles on the topic including How Games Saved My Life and TransGamerSociologist, but I think it's still a rich topic worth exploring how games can provide that first small step towards transitioning. Looking back, video games and tabletop RPGs were hugely important as an escape to me, as these instances were the first few times I heard myself referred to with the right pronouns and sometimes even treated the way I wanted to be treated.
I think, for these reasons and more, it's important to have a wide representation of options in games, so that gamers can play the kinds of characters they want to play, whether that's men, women, or other options, gender and otherwise. Furthermore, I believe more works of fiction, like Being Emily, need to be out there to both educate and change public perception and provide a resource and source of inspiration for young transgender people who need to see more characters like them just as much as they need the opportunity to be themselves.