There are many little bits and pieces of growing up transfeminine in a hostile world. Recognizing ourselves early as pressed into a gender we neither desire nor understand is not always a blessing, and often merely changes the character of our seeping hurt. Our youthful relationships with boys, our youthful relationships with girls, how we feel about clothing and sport and our parents, all get colored through these lenses, already complicated and made more so by inept striving toward a less horrid vision of the future.
In her novel For Today I Am a Boy, Kim Fu finds them all.
Her protagonist, known as Peter Huang for most of the novel, delivers her story in first person. For Today I Am a Boy follows Peter through her relationships with her male peers, her three older sisters, her parents, a lonely and workaholic adulthood, and ultimately, herself. Through her eyes, we see how her parents are cold and distant, mostly conveying to Peter and her sisters the standards they were expected to live up to and the urgent hopes of immigrants for their first-generation children. We also see the fissure between the Huang parents, from different Chinese backgrounds with different ideas about how Chinese and even which Chinese they wanted their children to be. We see the multilayered, disparate varieties of disappointment the Huang parents bear for each of their children, and how each one in turn flees the family home at their first opportunity and hardly ever returns, no matter what it costs them.
Through Peter, we see the painful dissonance of seeking warmth in friends, finding vicious bullying instead, and staying anyway because it’s the closest one has. We see Peter trying to be present and absent, close enough to be whatever a friend is to this crowd and far enough to be safe from their violence, all at once, and just barely succeeding. We see young Peter bullied by these same non-friends into being an accomplice in a sexual assault on a girl, be horrified at her role, and receive subtle praise and relief from her father for this new display of apparent masculinity. We see Peter’s terror at her sisters one by one leaving home before her, in different directions for different futures, and how she copes.
We see the milestones, cruel and wonderful, that most of us trans women experience at least once. Peter has childhood encounters with femininity that bring great joy; Peter experiences horror at what masculinity seems to mean. Peter’s first feminine excess in her parents’ home is brutally punished. Peter acquires her own feminine clothing long after escaping home, and later has a mortified moment where she believes cissexist lies and destroys that stash in a futile effort to claim masculinity instead. Peter hurls herself into her work hard and thoroughly, with what little leisure she permits herself spent on unhealthy sexual relationships and spending time alone in her apartment in feminine clothing. Peter’s sex life is riddled with dysphoria, and one of her relationships ends when her partner pushes past this boundary and fills her with self-loathing and revulsion. Her relationships with her sisters are awkward and strained, deep understanding mixed with their own assorted problems and with no idea of how to navigate the liminal gender space Peter occupies. Peter dreams of the friendly, affectionate familiarity her sisters shared with one another and how she, however close the lot of them try to be in their unfolding independence, is denied it. We see Peter not recognizing the beautiful future she could have until she meets other trans people and has those options laid bare and wondrous before her. We see the strange jealousy too many of us aim at transmasculine people, and the perverse anger we aim at the world for not enabling us to trade with them: “Give me your girlhood, John, I thought nonsensically. You don’t want it? Give it to me. I want to be the woman you would have been.”
I currently have trouble accepting Kim Fu’s own admission that she is cisgender and wrote For Today I Am a Boy out of a desire to see more Asian-descended trans women in literature, because she captured this story with such thoroughness, grace, and empathy that I am not convinced one of our own could have done better. I took months to read this book because its emotional resonance is so strong that I had to take breaks between chapters to compose myself. I am not satisfied with other reviewers’ insistence that this story is trite, sensationalized, or indicative of a flat and sad view of transgender people by its writer. I am disappointed that Fu, in this interview and this one, refers to her protagonist with male pronouns and uses outdated terminology many trans women find hurtful to describe her, as recently as 2014. Other reviewers are probably dissatisfied with my decision here to use the name that Peter labors under until she selects one for herself, rather than letting the reader experience the full impact of its buildup and reveal.
Peter’s story isn’t mine. I took much longer than her to figure out that womanhood was the adulthood I wanted. I had far fewer encounters with femininity in my youth, enforced first by parents with an even more thorough sense of gender segregation than Peter’s and then by my own terror at transgressing those barriers. I am autistic, and that rearranged how everything felt and everything else played out. My brother and sister are coming to terms with our dysfunctional, narcissistic parents in ways that don’t resemble Helen’s or Adele’s or Bonnie’s or Peter’s or mine, and it’s they who have my example of flight, independence, and self-discovery rather than the reverse.
But when Peter narrates her strange relationship to dolls, works herself to the bone in a job she’s good at but no longer passionate about because being at work all the time means not thinking about herself, despairs of the physical space she occupies, alternately defies her father and tries to earn his approval, and thinks about ending it all when her hope of living as herself someday is at its lowest…I forget.
Read this book. Find out what name Peter selects when she finally finds herself. Keep tissues handy. Know us all better.