Cris Beam

I Am J

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I Am J Summary

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Cris Beam’s novel I Am J (2011) centers on protagonist “J” – born Jenifer – a young transman whose coming of age tale gives a new, modern spin to the bildungsroman. J at one point declares, in something of a tagline for the novel, “My gender’s not a lie. I am not a lie.” The plot focuses on J’s attempts to use the resources available to him as a working-class adolescent to bring his gender identity into accord with his body. He attempts to do this in a social context that is not always understanding or supportive. Beam previously wrote the book Transparent, a nonfictional account of transgender adolescents in LA. Beam conceived of I Am J as a fictional counterpoint to Transparent. The book ends with four pages of resources for queer and trans youth.

I Am J is set in New York City. J’s first memory is as a shirtless two-year-old, running through a sprinkler on a hot day. A neighbor comments to J’s father, Manny, that his son is cute – which prompts Manny to correct her that J is his daughter. Even at this young age, J is embarrassed by his father’s embarrassment over the situation; in his mind, he is indeed his father’s son. Similar situations involving his misgendering occur to J throughout his childhood and adolescence – and throughout I Am J. J’s mother, Carolina, on the other hand, seems at first willfully oblivious to the topic of his gender, focusing instead on his college prospects. She and his father have been saving up his whole life to be able to send him to a good college. However, J has more immediate concerns.

J complains to his best friend, Melissa, that he has been called a dyke. J has a female body, but has a male mind, and is constantly upset that those around him do not view him as he views himself. Melissa, unfortunately, is one of those who does not initially see J as male. She asks J to accompany her to a party where she hopes to hit on her crush, the pretentious, Proust-reading Daniel. When J later catches Daniel and Melissa kissing, he is sick.

One night, while sleeping over at Melissa’s, J decides to hit on her. J kisses Melissa, and at first, she kisses back – but then abruptly rejects him, making him leave. This hurts J, pushing him into new emotional territory: if everyone is going to treat him like a freak, he will embrace the label. To this end, J begins to openly present as male, binding his chest, wearing boy’s clothes, and flirting with girls. He takes up photography as an outlet for his feelings and creative impulses. He documents things he finds as he wanders through New York; many of the photos have symbolic importance to J.

Eventually, despairing that his parents will never accept his condition, J resolves to seek illegal testosterone injections – or as it’s known on the streets, “T.” He describes his feelings about the drug as being “made from equal parts shame and need.” Normally, receiving testosterone involves parental consent and a doctor’s approval, but J fears he won’t be able to secure either, so he runs away from home. He finds solace in a center for LGBTQ youth, but only on the condition that he return to school. However, he is given the option to attend a school for LGBTQ youth – a “gay school” as he calls it. There, J meets others like himself.

Finally, J comes out to his mother and explains to her why he wants to go on “T.” J’s mother, afraid that her husband won’t take the news well, takes J to his former best friend, Melissa’s house. This ends up being serendipitous, as it gives J and Melissa a chance to talk things through. It turns out that they have more in common than Melissa realized: just as she uses dance to express herself creatively, J uses photography. He has been documenting his process of coming to terms with his identity in this way. Melissa and J rekindle their friendship.

Beam’s novel I Am J takes one of Western literature’s most traditional genres into distinctly modern territory. It deals candidly with many of the details of female-to-male transition: like breast binding, the complications of “passing” as a man, the role of testosterone, and the stress of being (sometimes intentionally) misgendered by others. Beam’s familiarity with the topic of transgenderism derives in part from her time volunteering at EAGLES, a Los Angeles continuation school whose name stands for Emphasizing Adolescent Gay/Lesbian Educational Services. Because of her experiences there, Beam adopted a transgender daughter. However, she also conceived of I Am J, with the goal of writing to – and not simply about – transgender youth.