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On Identity

Though trans, I identify first, foremost, and always as human.


As I child, I longed to be first a girl and then a woman, which spawned 40 years of confusion, dysphoria, and depression. Though the language now often used is that I identified as female, when and where I grew up I hadn’t that vocabulary and couldn’t envision that possibility. So my thoughts ranged from wondering whether everyone else felt like I did but said nothing to whether I was schizophrenic. But by middle school, my only exposure to schizophrenia was from reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I didn’t want a lobotomy.


Though depressed, I knew I was also incredibly fortunate. A child of a doctor and a teacher, raised in a family of means that prized health care and education above all else, I never heard my parents say anything negative about any person who did no harm to others, let alone anything racist or bigoted. Much of our law and morality is guided by the principle that people who do no harm to others are valuable and worthy and that was central to my upbringing. I clung to that thought, as I observed friends and acquaintances who were black or female or Jewish or members of other groups that suffered from discrimination. I knew no one out as gay in high school, few people who were out as gay in college and law school, and only when I moved to New York City at age 25 did I become close friends with any openly gay people. I knew no trans people.


Throughout my life, books have also assumed an outsized importance. According to my mother (who I hope a biased source), at six months I spoke my first word—book. At the local library, throughout elementary and middle school, I often checked out 20 or so books each week, in part to conceal I was reading books like Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacey and Tib, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, or Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I considered reading an exercise in empathy and searched (without success) for someone like me to admire or for guidance. When I was quite young, the librarian once told my mother she should be reading every book I checked out; my mother responded that would be impossible; and I thought, “that’s the point.”


In high school, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice was revolutionary to me, particularly his concept of the natural lottery. I was conservative and listened to Rush Limbaugh before reading it, and pondering it over time made me more liberal. People do not deserve to be born sighted or blind, hearing or deaf, black or white, and the list goes on of the characteristics assigned at birth that create advantages and disadvantages in in a sort of natural lottery. In other words, people who do not harm others have inherent value. With hindsight, I appreciate it resonated with me in part because it relieved some of the burden I felt based on the desire to be female present my whole life.


And, in Defense of an Other, I have placed words in some secondary characters’ mouths that I desperately needed to hear; validation that no one is blameworthy because of their race or sexual orientation or gender identity; validation that those viewpoints are fundamentally wrong; and validation that when the State acts based on those viewpoints it is unjust.


Diversity has value for many reasons, including that a diverse cast of characters makes for a more interesting story and opens up more plot possibilities. But a novelist will always bring her individual perspective to bear on those characters; unlike the collaborative work of the movie Brokeback Mountain or the television show Pose, my novel is inevitably written from a more restricted viewpoint. But I couldn’t imagine writing a story worthy of this subject matter without people of various colors, of different genders, of different sexual orientations, or of different backgrounds. The use of dialect is also intentional—the cadences of a person’s speech and words chosen are telling. Most obviously, people with prejudices use slurs.


I am a transwoman, a lawyer, a reader, a thinker, a writer, and many other things, but we are all human. And that remains transcendent.

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