Book Review: CN Lester – Trans Like Me

CN Lester’s first book has been published by Virago Press, and Karen Pollock reviews it for The Queerness.

CN Lester will probably be familiar to many readers. A musician, academic and activist, they have been campaigning since their teens for LGBTQ+ rights. Now, their first book, Trans Like Me, has been published, and, along with many others, I was eager to read it. It is a book which pulls no punches, on the second page recounting the death of Lucy Meadows, a teacher who killed herself after being attacked as a danger to children by the Daily Mail. Lucy was trans.

It is as if Lester wants to make sure we know there is nothing academic about this book, not in the sense of being removed from real lives, and deaths. Gender might be an interesting late night debate topic for some, but for others it is quite literally a matter of life and death. From a school teacher very few outside the trans community will remember, to quite possibly the most famous trans person, Caitlyn Jenner, the second chapter throws the reader into some of the most heated debates we can have about trans issues at the moment.

Again, it feels like Lester is saying “I am not going to hold your hand here – there is too much work to do”. The book goes on to cover a host of topics from the history of gender-variant people to feminism, stopping off at sex, love and language along the way. In each chapter, we learn more about Lester, as they use their own life to illuminate corners, or draw the reader into understanding that this is real, not simply a debate about some mythical “trans agenda”.

While not an autobiography, it is an autobiographical book, with – at times – an unflinching honesty. In the chapter ‘Trans/Love’, the lens through which we understand how people can abuse and control their trans partners is Lester’s own life. As someone who has worked with survivors of domestic abuse, of all genders, the universality of their desire to be what their partner wanted was exceptionally powerful.

My body was prepped and shaped in all ways to a standard that she would find attractive.. from my weight to my pubic hair – and I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, who could fail to love that? I no longer felt any connection to my own body as mine.

There is always a danger of using personal narrative to make a wider point. The individual details can be seized on, and then universalised. Indeed, this is exactly what Lester challenges in some of the other chapters, particularly the one on Caitlyn Jenner. However, people relate to people, to their stories, their triumphs and their pain. Lester had to pick their way between the purely narrative driven, and the dry, and impersonal. Given the misapprehensions and transphobia of the general public, it may feel inevitable that without the autobiographical, the reader would fail to understand how the themes explored impact on real, living, breathing, human beings. I have upon occasion observed exchanges on Twitter which have made me want to ask, “Do you understand you are speaking to a person, with feelings?”

The title itself tries to pull out this seeming contradiction in trying to write about the trans experience, when the world demands the personal experience. Lester called the book Trans Like Me and I cannot help wondering if it is meant to echo “Girls Like Us”. Is this a statement about where the discourse is going, less broad brush, and more into individual experience? How then do we decide on things like medical pathways and protocols? How do we design workshops and training when we are told that ‘like me’ also means ‘do not expect others to be like me’. These are questions which need to be answered, and which the book is an important contribution to opening up.

Reading the chapter ‘Beyond Binaries’ reminded me of a blog on Bex talks Sex, about their feelings about taking testosterone. People are exploring gender in a multitude of ways, in ways which do not fit the neat boxes of cis and trans, whilst the world still struggles to accept cis as an adjective. CN Lester is trapped between the rock and the hard place of knowing that however much they emphasise the ‘like me’, the world hears ‘like all of you’. In the closing chapter, they sum up how they hope the world will see them, and the book.

I am working for a future where the fact some people will make changes to their sexed bodies will be an understandable and unremarkable aspect of life, stripped of stigma and shame. When every child is recognised, valued and loved for their own unique selves.

This book is fundamentally a series of essays which make an excellent introduction to a number of issues which have entered the mainstream over the past couple of years. Whilst nothing may seem more twenty first-century than the current challenges to cisnormative gender binaries, we seem to be returning to older templates for a lot of the most interesting writing coming out. This is the second golden age of the essayist. Perhaps no surprise when many of us cut our teeth on blogs. In many ways, Trans Like Me reminds me of Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny, where all of the issues an individual might face is turned into a way of writing about universal themes. The link between each chapter is the writer, and the reader is invited into the writer’s life in order to carry themselves from idea to idea. If you are new to the ideas, Trans Like Me is an ideal book; indeed, even if you are not a newcomer, but simply wish to spend some time with a thoughtful, well informed writer, it is worth reading. I do find myself wishing for the deeper narrative, the book which moves from essayist into the territory of making the reader do the work. Perhaps I am simply wishing for CN Lester’s next book? It is certainly one which I await with anticipation.

Trans Like Me is available to buy from Amazon now.

You can follow Karen on Twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

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