Daily Archives: November 24, 2014

On Gender, Leslie Feinberg, and Liberation

Nora Olsen’s latest novel, Maxine Wore Black, is a retelling of Rebecca with a transgender lesbian main character.

By Nora Olsen

oldsen-maxineI was all fired up to write my guest blog post about gender diversity. Then on Monday (November 17) I learned that Leslie Feinberg has died. Leslie Feinberg wrote the legendary novel Stone Butch Blues as well as nonfiction about transgender topics, and was also an activist. Feinberg was only 65 years old and was taken from this world too soon. It’s a hard thing when our heroes die. Stone Butch Blues means a lot to me. I first read it in 2007 and it opened my eyes in a lot of ways. In the last two years I have given away literally hundreds of books as I try to create more space in my life and on my bookshelves, but Stone Butch Blues is one that I can never let go of. Feinberg’s death has made me feel very reflective. That’s a good thing, but not in a way that helps with a blog post. I don’t think there’s anything I can say about gender diversity that would be more helpful than, “Go read or re-read Stone Butch Blues.” But that word count is too low. So I will tell you about my favorite eatery, Village Yogurt in New York City. And it will all come back to Leslie Feinberg in the end.

I have been eating at Village Yogurt since it opened when I was six. The elderly owners, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, used to give me a cookie because I was so cute. Alas I am no longer that cute and I no longer get a cookie. Recently the place had a big makeover, and when I saw the new storefront my heart skipped a beat because I thought Village Yogurt had closed. But no. They still have the same headshots of not very famous people on the wall and the same 1970s foods on the menu. But now the place looks more contemporary and there are some new items on the menu. Mr. and Mrs. Kim retired or possibly moved into the kitchen, which is no longer visible to customers. Now surly, gum-snapping young people take the orders and mix up the shakes.

The one shake which has always been on the menu is called Special Shake. It is frozen yogurt, milk, honey, and wheat germ, which were all perceived as health foods in the 1970s. But now there are also non-dairy shakes which contain fruits, which are perceived as health foods today. My favorite has strawberry, banana, orange juice, protein, ginseng, and flax seed. It is called the He Man/Wonder Woman. In a way, I like this name because I loved both of those TV shows as a kid. I can’t tell you how many times I lifted a pencil over my head and shouted, “By the Power of Grayskull! I have the power!” and then pointed it at my cat Amber, hoping she would turn into a mighty battle cat. And even more times I wore my Wonder Woman underroos and spun around and around, just like Diana Prince does when she turns into Wonder Woman. But mostly I don’t like the name because you’re supposed to order “He Man” if you’re a man and “Wonder Woman” if you’re a woman.

Yes, really. That is what all the people do. Umm, it’s a drink. It doesn’t have a gender. And it has the same ingredients no matter who orders it. At every encounter with the He-Man/Wonder Woman I am confronted again with the knowledge that I live in a strange, mixed-up science fiction universe. Just as the characters in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series think radical cosmetic surgery is totes normal, just as the characters in Alex London’s Proxy series think it’s normal for poor people to take punishment for the rich, just as the people in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince think human sacrifice is completely regular, we have ideas about gender that are absolutely bananas. We have built incredibly complex rules that most people don’t even think about. And it’s all based on … nothing. Even if there really were only two genders, there’d be no need for all these taboos and barriers. But there aren’t.

Most of my books have been about gender in some way. In my first YA novel, The End: Five Queer Kids Save the World, one of my main characters was genderqueer, except that I had never heard the word genderqueer when I wrote the book. My second novel Swans & Klons was set in a world where there are no men. The protagonist of my most recent novel, Maxine Wore Black, is a young woman who is transgender and a lesbian. Most YA novels with transgender protagonists are focused on the character’s coming-out process and transition. You cannot say that theme has been done to death because there are only a handful of these books, unfortunately. But I decided to go down a different road, focusing instead on a troubled love interest, an untimely death, and a house haunted by tragedy. This is because Maxine Wore Black is a retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca, so gothic thriller was the way to go. I wanted the fact that my main character, Jayla, is transgender to be an important part of who she is but not really a plot point.

When I write a story, I’m basically writing it for myself. Sure, there are a lot of other things to take into consideration like, who would want to publish this story? Has this story been told before? How might a young person feel when they read this story? Are the characters real or based on stereotypes or lazy thinking? But basically, the first person I’m trying to please is myself. I’ve written numerous times that I write so that QUILTBAG (LGBTQ) youth can see themselves reflected in the pages of a book and know that their experience counts. And that is true. But really? If I’m honest? It’s the part of me that is a queer teen that I am writing to.

I think this is probably true for many other writers too. So, you other writers, I have a tip for you. Write about gender. If you are writing a story set on another planet or in another world, you don’t have to make it so there are only two genders. That’s not even true right here at home on Planet Earth, so why would it be true on Xabulox–6? In addition, transgender people don’t have to be erased from fiction. They exist all over the place in real life and they can exist all over the place in the pages of your book if that’s what you want. Why am I telling you this? Is it to help your readers, the teens of today and the teens of tomorrow? No. This is about what your writing does for YOU.

Writing about gender is amazing because it makes you question everything you thought you knew about it. It changes you. And that’s a good thing! If you write a book about pirates and you are not already a pirate, it won’t make you a pirate. If you are writing about a Ghanaian math genius and you are not already a Ghanaian math genius, it won’t make you one. But if you are writing about defying the deeply ingrained gender rules and gender roles in our society, I bet money that would turn you into a gender warrior even if you are not already one. That might sound scary, but actually it is a really positive and fun development.

Leslie Feinberg said, “Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught.” When you begin to create that poem, you don’t know what you will discover about yourself. You may discover that the gender you’ve been assigned fits you like a glove, or that it does not. That knowledge will help you be the truest self you can be, which is as fulfilling as it gets. Somewhere along the way you discover that a person’s sex assigned at birth based on their anatomy does not necessarily dictate their gender. That knowledge liberates other people, and it liberates you too. If you begin to see that there are people all around you who do not fall into the gender binary and do not identify as male or female, that greater understanding of the world around you will help you make authentic connections in this life.

Leslie Feinberg also said, “More exists among human beings than can be answered by the simplistic question I’m hit with every day of my life: ‘Are you a man or a woman?’” If you can see people you encounter in social situations as person without feverishly needing to immediately classify them as man or woman, that knowledge will allow the door of your cage to swing open.


Nora Olsen was born and raised in New York City. Nora’s YA novels are Frenemy of the People, Swans & Klons, The End: Five Queer Kids Save The World, and Maxine Wore Black. Nora lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her girlfriend and their cat. You can learn more at http://noraolsen.com.

Maxine Wore Black is now available.