The next book I read for book club was one I would never pick up myself. Those always turn out to be the best kinds of books though, don’t they? It’s not that I would have had anything against this book. I just would have gone for other ones first. Maybe stayed on more familiar territory.
This Is How It Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, is about a family whose fifth and youngest child is transgender. There may be some unavoidable spoilers in this post, just to warn you now.
This book was so terrifically written that there wasn’t a single copy available in the entire county. The wait list was a couple weeks long, though I got notified a copy was ready for me earlier than I expected, maybe because like me, people couldn’t put it down and finished it in just a few days.
The story literally starts with the conception of the child. I hesitate to say “main character” because although the book is about him/her, I found the main characters to actually be his parents. I also hesitate to label him/her immediately as “the transgender child” because throughout the book, one point is clearly made. The child is just who he or she is. Just Claude. Just Poppy. There is no descriptor, no adjective, no qualifier necessary.
I thought the author made another important point by starting with Claude’s conception. The point made here is that Claude is born who he is and who he will become. From the very beginning. If Frankel were writing to the naysayers, the bigots, the haters, then she is saying that people aren’t choosing to be gay or queer or transgender. They aren’t influenced by their parents or the environment around them. They are born who they are. And they can’t be forced to be anyone other than who they are. They can’t decide to be someone else. No one can change them.
I believe that the author intentionally wrote the book from the perspective of the (perhaps surprisingly) accepting and open parents. It is through their eyes that see that there is a story behind an identity. We often think of someone in the LGBTQ community as their own solo act. They decide to come out, they face challenges and adversity, they identify as a different gender, they change their name. The focus is on who they are and how they are idenitifying. But in telling the story of Claude/Poppy from the perspective of the parents, we see that Claude is part of a family who cares about him. He has parents who accept him and allow him to be himself as he learns and grows. He has brothers who are also all different and weird and quirky in their own ways. His parents seek support from other family members and colleagues and friends. Claude/Poppy is supported no matter who he/she wants to be. She isn’t facing the world alone.
At the same time, we need to see the parents perspective to understand the struggle of acceptance. As open and understanding as they are from the beginning, they struggle with how to support Claude. They struggle with how to talk to friends, how to present their family to the world, how to deal with others’ hate or misunderstanding.
I thought it a little unusual that the parents were so accepting right from the start. Their reaction was out of the norm from how I would think most parents would react, when their son wanted to wear dresses to school and a bikini to the pool. I would hope people would be open to their children exploring their identities, however, I still think that most parents would find it odd and would try to convince their sons that boys don’t wear dresses. No matter how open any of us are, that is our culture here. It was refreshing to read about their openness from the start, and at the same time it was a relief to see them struggle later on with how to deal with it. I think I wanted the reassurance that they’re not perfect saints, they are just like the rest of us, confused by boys who identify as girls.
I personally think that confusion is okay. I think that it’s okay for normal people, tolerant and liberal people, to still be confused by people who identify as LGBT. I believe it’s okay for us to not understand, because we are not those people. I think the important part is that the world be full of tolerant, liberal people who seek to understand. Who ask questions, believe that everyone has their own story, and listen to the people around them.
I found it interesting in the book though, that the family moves to Seattle because their research showed that the culture in that city would be more open and accepting of people in the LGBT community. That was literally the entire reason they moved. They didn’t want to cower in fear, hiding behind their secret, afraid of people’s judgement. And yet that’s exactly what they did for the next four years. Because their neighbor she she didn’t want to tell her children? One person said she wanted to keep the information from her kids, so the entire family decided to live in the closet? That didn’t make sense to me. They had the choice at that point, to be who they were, that first day they arrived in Seattle. They could have said to the neighbor, that’s fine, but Poppy will be telling who she wants to tell on her own time. They could have waved a rainbow flag in their yard. They could have chosen to be open for the sake of their family and their own identities and instead they chose to hide the secret because of one stranger. Maybe that’s the part I can’t understand until I have children. Their need to fit in, for Poppy to have friends and to live a normal life, so outweighed their own desire to stand in their truth, that they accepted that it was easier to just keep quiet.
That’s fine. But then, when Poppy needed role models, they had to travel across the world for some reason. Poppy needed to see someone like her, and it took a trip to Thailand to get access to a transgender community. Excuse me, what? They moved to Seattle because of the LGBT community. Why couldn’t they just have attended a pride parade downtown or something?
I think the way this book was written was beautiful. It is beautiful in a way that sparks discussion rather than resentment, conversations rather than hate. It makes you think about all the aspects of being transgender – school bathrooms, sleepovers, gym classes, the way we have boys and girls line up separately starting in pre-school. There are so many ways we categorize our children into pink and blue, from the moment they’re conceived. Maybe even before, considering how badly these parents had wanted a girl.