About the book:
When Cris Beam moved to Los Angeles, she thought she might volunteer just a few hours at a school for gay and transgender kids. Instead, she found herself drawn deeply into the pained and powerful group of transgirls she discovered. Transparent introduces four: Christina, Dominique, Foxxjazell, and Ariel. As they accept Cris into their world, she shows it to us—a dizzying mix of familiar teenage cliques and crushes and far less familiar challenges, such as how to morph your body on a few dollars a day. Funny, heartbreaking, defiant, and sometimes defeated, the girls form a singular community. But they struggle valiantly to resolve the gap between the way they feel inside and the way the world sees them—and who among us can’t identify with that? Beam’s astute reporting, sensitive writing, and passionate engagement with her characters place this book in the ranks of the very best narrative nonfiction.
About the author:
CRIS BEAM is a journalist who has written for several national magazines as well as for public radio. She has an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University and teaches creative writing at Columbia and the New School. She lives in New York.
Click here to download a pdf of the reading guide for Transparent.
1. In the chapter titled “School,” Cris Beam outlines the difference between being transgender and being transsexual. Were you familiar with this distinction before reading the book? What are the benefits and limitations of these categories?
2. In “Arriving,” Beam describes her attempts to decipher the informal labels she overhears while teaching at New York’s Harvey Milk School, such as “aggressives” and “femme queens.” The students resist her question about whether a person can be a blend of several types of people and simply label her old. Is the urge to categorize ourselves and others an adolescent impulse, with rules about who can interact with whom? What are the boundaries of your identity? Who created these boundaries?
3. Beam has to become familiar with the code words of Christina’s community (getting “clocked,” for example) and observes how much the terminology can vary between the East Coast and the West Coast. To what extent does vocabulary shape identity? What are the languages of your subculture—the neighborhood where you grew up, or your profession?
4. Talk about your definitions of the words feminine and masculine. Make a list of any traits that come to mind, exploring how these traits manifest themselves in terms of physical appearance, job choices, personality, and other categories. How do these traits manifest themselves in you? To what extent did you adopt these traits innately, and to what extent were you following a role model? Which of these characteristics do you find attractive in others? Which of these characteristics do you think are most valued by society?
5. Transparent describes Native American tribes that valued transsexuality. Why is American society suspicious of transsexual and transgender populations, to the extent that even some gay and lesbian groups prefer to reject them rather than seek solidarity with them in fighting marginalization? Who (or what) has the power to define the margins of the mainstream?
6. Ariel wrestles with the conflict between her Christianity and her gender identity. What should the role of religion be in such questions of identity? Have your experiences with spirituality enhanced or inhibited the growth of your true self?
1. Discuss the notion of parenting expressed in the title Transparent, beyond the wordplay of Beam’s parenting a transgender teen. What is “transparent” about their relationship, both as mother and daughter and as friends? What aspects were less transparent, requiring years of honest communication to decipher?
2. How have you defined family throughout your life? Who have your best “parents” been? Did you have the equivalent of a drag mother, someone you were not related to but who represented your ideal and gave you entry into an otherwise closed community?
3. What fundamentals are essential for strong families? What behaviors can dissolve a family? What are the strengths and weaknesses in Gloria’s approach to parenting?
4. Is gender a factor in a parent’s qualifications? Did Christina particularly need a female parent team, which Beam and her partner, Robin, were?
5. Is good parenting instinctive? Is Beam a good mother because she has innate maternal instincts, or because her own mother’s negligence made her empathetic? Or both?
6. Is drug addiction the reason Andrea and Domineque’s relationship couldn’t be sustained, or were drugs a symptom of a larger problem for Domineque?
1. The chapter “Body” describes the standards of care established by Harry Benjamin. What crucial aspects of care (emotional or physical) did Beam discover that aren’t covered in medical texts?
2. Most of the girls in Transparent endure abusive relationships; in “Skidmarks,” Christina even prefers Loco to Francisco. How do these young women view the relationship between love and survival? What do they believe about men, and about the way a relationship should feel?
3. One aspect of adolescence is the testing of limits, which is why it can be such a dangerous passage in life. Why does Christina court death so regularly? How do Beam and Robin help her achieve not only safe passage, but also the ability to live independently? Is that the ultimate test of successful parenting?
4. Another element of adolescence is experimentation. How, ultimately, do we know which aspects of our behavior are pure exexperimentation and which ones reflect our true identity? Have you ever encountered a situation in which the line between healthy and harmful experimentation was not easy to discern?
5. How do the teens in the book compare to others you have known? What were the greatest dangers you faced as a teen? Who built your safety net?
6. How do you think Christina feels about surviving? What does her sparrow tattoo mean to you?
1. “Body” presents the risks and rewards of taking estrogen. Should it be easier to obtain, or do the risks need to be studied further? For people who are transgender, are hormones a medical treatment or a beauty treatment?
2. How is beauty defined by the various populations in the book—by Beam and Robin, by transgirls, and by straight men? How have you defined beauty at various points in your life?
3. Do the pop stars who are idolized by teenage girls present a purely sexual version of beauty? In “Commencement,” what does Christina mean when she says she wants to look up to herself instead of to glossy magazine images? Which idols have you looked up to over the years? What do those idols indicate about your self-image at those times?
4. In the midst of the setbacks depicted in “Skidmarks,” Beam describes one of Robin’s dreams, which becomes a beautiful image to comfort them when the situation with Christina gets rough: “The three of us were on a rooftop . . . We were all laughing. We were all comfortable, older, and easy around one another. Christina was healthy and self-assured.” What aspects of beauty are presented in this vision? Does the vision come true, symbolically? Describe a beautiful vision that has sustained you.
5. In “Body,” Beam presents well-researched facts about gender-reassignment surgery, incorporating Foxx’s story throughout the chapter. In “Commencement,” Foxx decides against gender-reassignment surgery. What leads her to this decision? How is her decision-making process different from that of someone considering breast implants or liposuction, or other procedures designed to make a person look “sexier”?
E. The Future
1. Does Foxx’s experience with the film industry indicate social progress or a limited mind-set?
2. In the last paragraph of “Change,” Beam eloquently describes her realization that “there is no ‘bad’ kid worth discarding.” What options does your community provide (if any) to children who don’t receive parenting from their biological parents? How could you become an agent for change?
3. What did you learn about the legal quandaries posed by the current use of gender-specific language, such as hurdles in obtaining passports, driver’s licenses, and marriage certificates? What are the ramifications for jailed individuals, such as Domineque?
4. What does the future hold for transgender America?