Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Talking the T with Cris Beam

Written by Jesse Sposato
Photos by Jon Feinstein

Reading Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers by Cris Beam, I felt the same way I do when I’m reading a guilty pleasure book—I run home, throw the covers to the side of my bed, get under them and read, blissfully and uninterrupted for hours on end. Only, this wasn’t a guilty pleasure book (you know them, Bret Easton Ellis novels, Bridget Jones's Diary, no offense); it was just really f-in good! Beam’s debut non-fiction narrative is the story of four young girls—Christina, Domineque, Foxxjazell, and Ariel—transitioning from boyhood to womanhood, and all the heartbreaks and elations in between.

The journey begins when Cris starts teaching at Eagles, an alternative high school in Los Angeles for gay and transgender teenagers, where she crosses paths with the girls, forms unforgettable bonds, and finds a story that needs to be told. We turn the pages anxiously through the girls’ struggles with family abandonment, the foster care system, homelessness, poverty, gangs, abuse, prostitution, the law, and at the forefront of it all, being trans, and at such a young age. The girls go way back—like blood sisters, they’ve formulated an unwritten contract to, together, shed their pubescent masculinity and gang tattoos and trade them for female hormones and pretty pink skirts.

Though they’re all friends, Domineque and Christina have a special bond from the beginning, and eventually, as their lives unfold, they take dramatically different turns. Cris and her long-term girlfriend at the time, Robin, find themselves parents to Christina, the book’s main subject, who untangles her way out of her complicated adolescence, finds an amazing research job with the county and gets her own place. Domineque, on the other hand, can’t shake the pain of being abandoned by her crack-addicted birth mom. Despite the help she gets from Andrea, a social worker who takes her in as her own, Domineque still gets herself into a whole heap of trouble—family holdup, drug-induced car chase—and lands a jail sentence of twenty-four years and four months in an all-male prison. Foxx’s lifelong dream has always been to become a star, and by the end of the book, it seems like she actually has a chance of making it. Ariel flirts with the idea of fully transitioning as she continues to waver between genders throughout the book.

Transparent reads like a documentary and sends you on a ride of emotions where you come out with a bigger heart and an insightful and in-depth education on the subject of transgender teens in LA.

I spoke with Cris for the first time in her West Village office and met with her again for a photo shoot in her apartment in the East Village where she made coffee with hot chocolate.

Jesse: What has your students’ response to the book been, the main “characters” especially? Have many of them read it or have taken an interest in reading it?

Cris: They all read it in manuscript form before it came out—everyone, except for Domineque, who’s the one in prison, because I would have had to send it to her in the male ward where they read every piece of mail that comes through and she didn’t want the guards knowing her back-story. Now, Domineque has read it; because once it came out as a book, I could mail it from Amazon. Before that, what I did was really complicated. I sent her lists in code, kind of. I sent her the scenes that I would be including and asked her, ‘Would this be okay? Would that be okay? Remember this idea—do you think it’s okay if I use that?’ like the scene with the sink or whatever, to trigger her memory. And then she’d say yes or no, and then Christina read it as her proxy, and said ‘I don’t think Domineque would like that,’ or ‘I think she’d be okay with this...’

Jesse: That’s cute. Are they friends now?

Cris: Well, it’s really complicated. Yes, they’re friends, but I think it’s painful because they’ve gone in really separate ways. At heart, they really love each other—they consider each other sisters—but Christina feels scared too because she knows that she could have gone in that direction, so it’s always a little tentative whenever she thinks about Domineque. And I think she has some guilt about not being a more consistent friend—she’ll write to her sometimes, and other times, she won’t. Like, when I’ve gone to visit Domineque, Christina’s been nervous about it and we’ve talked about going to visit her together and then Christina backs off. So, she has a real hot and cold relationship to the whole thing and I think it’s because it really pushes a button. Christina has moved so far from that life that it reminds her of the old pain, and at the same time, she had a very old loyalty to Domineque and loves her.

Jesse: Aside from Christina, who is obviously a major part of your life, what are your relationships with the other girls now that you don’t live in LA anymore? Do you imagine you’ll continue to maintain those relathionships over time?

Cris: I’m really close to Foxx and Domineque and I write all the time. Christina was just here seven days ago—she’s here twice a year and we’re also in regular phone contact. Foxx comes to New York actually about once a year, and I’m in LA twice a year. Ariel has fallen through the cracks a little bit—she’s okay, but she sort of floated away from everybody. When I go to LA, I look her up and I see her, but I’m kind of in and out with her. And Lenora—I had to change her name because she was underage—she and I are in touch, so, I imagine I’ll have life-long relationships with them.

Jesse: How far into your experience with these kids did you get the idea to write this book—were you writing about your experiences while they were happening or after the fact? What kind of an emotional roller coaster did you go through while writing it?

Cris: Oh my god—I’ll break it down. Let’s see...well, it came about because I was teaching in this high school and at first we were trying to create this magazine. They really wanted a TV show about them and we could barely afford photocopied paper—I mean, I was paying for that out of my own pocket—and they would be like, ‘Let’s make a TV show about us,’ and I was like, ‘You guys, I can hardly even do this!’ So I thought, well, they really want representation, so I did a magazine article about them and I did something on NPR about them, and I did a piece in Teen People, which doesn’t exist anymore. So I did pieces on them and they were happy with that. There was so little representation back then—when I did the Teen People piece, there had never been anything on transgender teenagers at all, not in any teen magazines at least.

There was such little representation at that level, I thought maybe I could do a book—at that point, I was just running tape on a lot of kids. I have a friend who is a really great photographer and he takes pictures of the balls here in Harlem, which is a really different kind of transgender scene. But he’s well entrenched in it, and he came out to LA and took pictures of a lot of the kids, so I thought I was going to do an essay/photo book, and I pitched that around to a bunch of editors and everybody turned it down.

Jesse: How come? That sounds like such a cool idea.

Cris: Well, I think because it’s predictable. You kind of know what that’s going to be like. You know what each essay’s going to say, which is like, ‘My life was hard and I went through this journey...but now I’m going to be okay.’ It’s sort of predictable format. So then, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

But for years I just kept running tape on a lot of kids. I was doing female to male as well as male to female. I left the school and just kept running tape, and all the kids sort of knew me as the person that would just hang out with the tape recorder all the time.

And I still didn’t know what I was doing, and then Christina got in some trouble and came to live with me, and I thought, well, she’s out—she can’t be in the book because I’ve lost all journalistic objectivity or integrity. And she was someone I was really close to, but she was living with me...and I love her. I thought, I don’t have any distance anymore—I can’t be a reporter here. And then I realized that actually, she was the heart of the book, and then it became a really different book. Rather than going broad and wide, I needed to go narrow and deep, so I made it really about her and her close circle of friends. And that’s how it changed. And then in terms of the emotional journey...it was such an emotional journey because Christina is an emotional journey all the time. And she still is.

Jesse: How old is Christina?

Cris: She’s now twenty-four, and she’s doing really, really well, but she’s having a hard time because Robin and I recently broke up and we’ve been together for fourteen years. So, she came out to help me move, but she couldn’t handle it, and she went through kind of a freak-out. And that was tough—she sort of regressed.

And I have my own journey with my own birth mother—at first I thought, ‘I’m drawn to these kids because they’re all transgender and I’m gay so we have this queer umbrella under which we all fit.’ But actually, I left my mom’s house at fourteen and never saw her again, so now, looking back with sort of an armchair psychology point of view, it seems obvious. But it didn’t dawn on me for years. 

Here I was, drawn to this community of largely motherless kids. I think that that’s why there was such a deep connection—the connection was far beyond any sort of queer thing really.

Jesse: Yeah, that totally makes sense. How much did you know about transgender people, and kids specifically, before moving to LA and working at Eagles? How surprised were you by what you learned (about LA, transgender, poverty, homelessness, gangs, the foster care system, etc.)?

Cris: I didn’t know anything really—not about transgender kids. I certainly didn’t know that there was so much homelessness in the community.

I came out and came of age—I guess we’re all still coming of age—in the late eighties and early nineties in Santa Cruz when there was a whole lot of push for lesbian-only space, and there was a lot of anti-transgender attitude.

Jesse: Yeah, I know what you mean...I grew up in the riot grrrl era and I remember that being a big deal...and I didn’t even know what to make of it. There were women-only shows and festivals, like the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, where that was an issue...

Cris: They still do that. They still don’t let in trans women and there’s a big trans camp where they camp outside of the festival and protest.

Jesse: I remember at the time feeling like, I have no idea what the right answer is here, but then after reading this book, it was so obvious how unfair the whole thing was.

Cris: Yeah, it’s really messed up. Now, they’re doing protests where they line up people at the door—and a genetic female who is living as a male will show up and say, ‘Okay, you’re going to let ME in?’ And here’s this person who looks exactly like a man, with a full beard and a deep voice, and for a women-only space could pose a threat to women who are feeling like they don’t want any men around. But they’re saying, ‘Well, you have the genitals of someone that we allow in here, so...’

As soon as you start dividing and saying who counts and who doesn’t, and you determine someone’s gender for them, you’re in all kinds of trouble. We have to allow for everyone to determine his or her own gender.

But, because I came of age at that time, I think I inherited and internalized a lot of—and it’s my own fault—anti-trans sentiment, and you know, I’m embarrassed about it now.

It was like, trans people invade lesbian-only space...and I was young and impressionable and dumb...but then I got older and, hadn’t really moved away from that ideology, but had softened in my thinking in general—and then I got to this school and met these kids and thought, ‘Wow, these kids are incredible!’ They’re incredibly resilient; they’re incredibly intelligent. And I thought, ‘Wait, these are the ones that are actually liberating gender restrictions for all of us. They’re the ones I need to learn from!’ So, they taught me a tremendous amount and I’m so grateful for that. So yeah, I came in kind of stupid, and I had to listen and learn a lot.

Jesse: When writing the book, did you struggle with what pronouns and names to use at different stages of what these girls were going through? Did you consult the girls about when to use what?

Cris: No. I basically just used whatever pronouns they were using—it becomes really easy when you know the person...it becomes second nature and you just use the pronoun they use. It’s a little tricky when you go back in time though.

Like, if I’m talking to you, I’ll say, ‘When Christina was a little boy, she was..., when Christina was little, she would...’ When I think about Christina—and I’ve seen videos of her when she was little—I think of Christina consistently as a little girl in my understanding of her because her sense of herself was always as a little girl. I met her when she was pretty young—she was fourteen—so I’ve known her for ten years now and when I first met her, she was a boy...she used a boy name in my classroom and oscillated; she was transitioning right at that time.

So, her memory of herself is always as a girl, but she was struggling with society and struggling with her family and struggling with so much that she was presenting as a boy. With you and I and everybody else, I would probably always just use the female pronoun. But then, when I’m writing, it’s hard to go back and talk about when she’s actually living for all the world in an external reality as a boy, to say, ‘This little boy named Eduardo—which is the name used in the book—she did this, Eduardo this...’ It’s too confusing on the page, so I used a male pronoun for every time that she was living externally as a boy, and then as soon as she made the transition, I switched it to ‘she,’ and Christina was comfortable with that.

Jesse: I really liked how you periodically admitted your insecurities and squeamishness...like when you’re out to dinner with Foxx at Red Lobster and you write about how the idea of women having male body parts is a bit foreign to you; later, you talk about the initial struggle you had before making the decision to become a guardian to Christina...did you feel you had to edit yourself so that the girls wouldn’t know you had hesitations and fears? Was there any fear of holding back to protect the girls’ feelings (or to protect or preserve what they might have thought of you or felt from your experiences together)?

Cris: I was really, really scared to write that stuff, and my editor, who is probably the smartest person on earth—I really love her—she felt like that was really helpful to the reader, so the readers would feel like, ‘Oh, she’s like me; she’s taking me on this journey and I can go with her...she’s not over there and I’m over here and she’s schooling me.’

It’s the most terrifying thing when you write about someone else’s life and say, ‘Here’s your life story as I wrote it, with any of my weird twitches in it.’ There’s nothing more vulnerable and frightening than that. So, I was completely afraid, but I think, because I was so afraid, I didn’t highlight those parts—I didn’t come out and say, ‘Hey, what did you think of this section?’ So nobody talked about that. But everybody really loved the book. When Christina read it in manuscript form, she read it pretty early on in the process so that she would have a lot of time...I knew it would take her a long time to read it because it was going to be painful.

Jesse: What was her reaction like?

Cris: It was really intense. She would read like three pages a day and call me every day and say, ‘Girl, I just read this. Girl, I just read that...’ And at first it was like confessional—she’d be like, ‘You know that time that I brought the alcohol into the house...well, actually I brought this too...’ And then she’d cry and she’d cry, and then, what I think happened that was so amazing about it was, she felt like she was getting away with something. She kept saying, ‘I can’t believe you noticed all that; I can’t believe you saw that.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? You were right there; you were living with me most of the time—how could I not have noticed?!’

I think she felt like, in a way, she had tricked us into loving her and that we hadn’t noticed all of the bad stuff...and when she saw in print that I (we) had seen all the bad stuff and still loved her, it was really transformational.

Foxx was funny. There was this part when she was running from her ex after he had beaten her up, and I had somehow not put in that she had attended to her guinea pigs, and she was like, ‘GIRL! How could you have said that I left my guinea pigs behind? Peanut’s gonna be all over me! That’s horrible! I love those guinea pigs—I would never abandon them—that is awful!’And I was like, out of the whole book, of all the things I said, of all the trauma she’s been through, of all the pain, she was just like, ‘I would never do that to a guinea pig! How could you think that of me?!’

So, you never know what people are going to see, but they really felt like it was a good book and it told the truth. And I was so scared—mostly of the really hard stuff that they were going to feel—like the hard stuff was too harsh, but they just felt like it was honest, and I was so relieved about that.

I have a friend who is a painter and he asked me to pose for him. He does nudes, and I was like, ‘Oh god, I hate that idea, I can’t,’ but then I thought, you know what, I basically do journalism where I take naked pictures of these people and expose them—I have to do my part. And I had to sit there with this guy naked—and I’m never naked in front of men for one thing—for like six hours, and feel sort of scrutinized, and then he showed me the painting, and I was amazed. What I felt like when I saw it was that, I looked chubby, I looked ruddy in spots...there was my body, and there was me in all of my exactness, and I felt relived. I was like, ‘That’s exactly what I look like.’

I felt grateful. I didn’t feel like, ‘Couldn’t you have made me skinnier? Couldn’t you have made me look prettier?’ I felt like, ‘Oh, you actually got it—you actually captured me in a really truthful way. You didn’t make me better; you didn’t make me worse; you just got it.’ And I felt like I could relax, and then I felt so much better about doing the book because, I think in a way, there’s some relief when somebody actually sees you and tells the truth. There’s a little bit of shame when somebody tries to make it better because you know that they’re covering up for you, and then you think, ‘Why are they covering that up—is what I did so bad?’

Jesse: That’s such an interesting analogy. Okay, this one is pretty heavy...What does Domineque’s case say about love and abandonment? Even Andrea, who offered her real love and was a positive role model and influence in her life, couldn’t save her. What do you think of Andrea’s decision to set the limits with Domineque like she did re: if and when entering the adult criminal system? [Basically, Andrea made a promise to Domineque that if she landed herself in jail, she would sever their ties; she stuck to it.] I thought that was really interesting...

Cris: I think Domineque had to play out her story and there was nobody that was going to stop her. Andrea’s a really good person and she wanted to save Domineque and Domineque wasn’t ready to be saved. And I think that it’s totally within Andrea’s rights as a human being to say, ‘enough.’

There is no doubt Domineque really put Andrea through hell. And I think it circles back. I was so angry at Domineque’s birth mom because I thought that’s where the source was. It was so easy to be angry with somebody I didn’t know because I’d think, Domineque’s birth mom was the one who caused this because that was the first form of abandonment. And then I’d get mad at the system because Domineque had to go into the system and they really failed her. Before Andrea, she didn’t fit in anywhere because she was transgender and because she kept getting sort of thrown to the streets. And then I’d get angry at drugs and the way that drugs are used in poor communities...and then I’d get angry at poverty, and I’d get mad at the government...

Even when I got mad at her birth mom, I’d think, she’s a really easy culprit because I don’t know her, and I don’t know what her cycle of violence and poverty was. I don’t know what her parents did to her, what she came into this world with—she wasn’t the starting point. She had parents and her parents had parents. We all come into this world with such a burden of pain and trauma—it wasn’t like she came [in] on a blank slate...so it’s really hard to find the root of this.

It’s like we have to act out what’s been done to us. Although Domineque was the child, she also abandoned Andrea—she took very good love and abandoned it. So there are no real bad guys here.

I don’t think that love is enough, is what I’ve come to. You can’t just pour love into a vessel and hope that it will heal someone. People themselves have to integrate their early trauma in some way, and Domineque hadn’t—she was too fragmented, so she couldn’t. It was like she couldn’t absorb that love—she was like a broken vessel—so the love just poured out of her.

She seems to be doing better in a prison in some ways. In a lot of ways, it’s horrible for her because she’s in a men’s prison; in other ways, it’s containing her. It was a lot of self-loathing that drove her toward prison—she felt like she didn’t belong anywhere else, and that’s really sad. That self-loathing came from...maybe her mother’s self-loathing, maybe because she had been so abused, maybe because she had been assaulted in so many ways—sexually, psychically, emotionally. She didn’t believe she deserved anything else. She was driving towards destruction—and thank god she didn’t die. Those were some of her choices, I think—prison or death—it’s really, really sad.

Jesse: This question sort of relates...Where do you draw the line between documenting the situations happening around you and feeling the need to step in and get involved?

Cris: It’s really tricky. I talk about that in my classes a lot, the strict definition of journalism where you don’t impact it in any way...and then the idea of just being humanitarian. I can’t help but get involved. I think about Leon Dash—the journalist who wrote “Rosa Lee’s Story”—he has this really strict belief that you don’t get involved in ANY way whatsoever. He believes you should really do this kind of immersion journalism but always make those lines really clear. You’re the journalist and they’re the subject. If someone ever gives you a gift, you don’t accept it.

And I think that in some ways that’s really good because you never want to be in a situation of bribery, where they’re [your subject is] using you for their own ego or to try to get something out of you. But at the same time, you’re also forming a human connection, and there’s no way that you’re not. There’s no way to deny that when you’re listening to someone’s story, you’re taking it down and saying, ‘I’m bearing witness to your pain.’ There’s a real connection there, and sometimes they want to give back. If someone that you’ve spent several years with wants to give you a gesture of love—to say, ‘No I can’t take that,’ is also a lie, in my view, about what’s actually transpired.

When someone is hurting, I have a hard time not getting involved. But what I think is really important is that you have a contract with your reader—that you’re always honest with your reader. You can’t pretend that you’re doing straight journalism—or gay journalism :)—and then have this personal relationship with your subject and not tell your readers.

That’s where I really struggled—when Christina and I started getting close, it was like, wait, in J-school, we learned that you certainly can’t do this; you can’t let your subject sleep at your house! But then, I think as long as you’re always honest with your readers, or your listeners or whatever, then it’s okay as long as you’re really real with them.

Jesse: I thought it was such an interesting scenario when your friend came to visit and you guys saw Christina [prostituting herself] on the Boulevard* and your friend wanted to intervene and you and Robin were more hesitant...

Cris: Yeah, that was more of a parental situation. That wasn’t so much about the journalism anymore, because at that point, I had already surrendered to being her parent. So it wasn’t like, for the sake of writing, I have to let her do what she’s going to do. That was about her being on her own destructive path. And there were so many times when she’d call at two in the morning and be like, ‘I’m on Skid Row, I’m drunk, come pick me up.’ And I’d go and do that, and it wasn’t so safe for me to be driving down there and picking her up and doing this and watching her cycle in and out of this pattern. She had a perfectly safe and warm place to be. She did not have to be out there doing that...and (I was) really struggling with the idea that if she’s going to destroy herself, she has to destroy herself and I can’t stop her. And then going, but I love this person, I have to stop her.

And when you watch someone you love on drugs—which was really most of the core issue there, she was using a lot of drugs—it sounds clichéd, but you can help them as much as you can, and then at some point, you throw up your hands and say, I’ve given you all the tools I can, go ahead. If you’re going to destroy yourself, there’s not much I can do—I’m here for you when you’re ready to get better.

But I was torn because seeing her prostituting is wrenching. It’s different with kids. I certainly feel like what adults do with their own bodies, with their own money, is perfectly reasonable and respectable, and I feel like it should be legalized. What I wish is that there were a lot more employment opportunities for transgender people because I feel like a lot of trans people turn to prostitution because there are so few employment opportunities.

Trans people often feel like, if my driver’s license doesn’t match the name I use, or if my social security doesn’t match the name I use, then there’s no way I can apply for this job. There’s a whole litany of things that keep them from seeking out legitimate work, and because of prior employment or education struggles, they feel like they often don’t have the same opportunities.

Jesse: On a totally different note, what do you (and what do the girls) think of Hollywood’s and mainstream media’s portrayal of transexuality, like the movie Transamerica for example?

Cris: I never saw Transamerica, so I can’t comment on that. But I saw a lot of the hype around it and I was mad about some of the stuff people were saying about Felicity Huffman. A lot of people were like, ‘Isn’t that great how she made herself look so ugly—she looks just like a trans woman,’ and I was like, ‘Fuck that—trans women are not ugly!’ It was so offensive, the way people were like, ‘She’s so willing to be ugly for this role. 

Jesse: That is awful, wow.

Cris: Yeah, I know! So there was a lot of that...but then there were some people that felt like it was okay—there were real mixed reviews on that one from the trans community.

I think that TransGeneration is pretty good. That was a series done on Showtime...certainly leagues above where we were five years ago, where it was all Jerry Springer, “chicks-with-dicks” kind of stuff. TransGeneration was good in that it also portrayed some trans men, and I think often we have this idea of trans people being only trans women, and a lot of times a white person in their forties or fifties who is just transitioning, where it’s like a guy in a dress, and that’s sort of the cultural imagining of it. That’s what was good about TransGeneration—it sort of broke that open. But I think people feel like there’s not very much of it and it’s not great yet. I think they don’t feel very seen. When I was teaching at Eagles, the kids felt like there was nothing. The first time they had seen anything [any representation of or about themselves] the first inkling they had gotten was on a talk show. And they were like, ‘Oh, is that me?’ And they were the butt of a joke.

I think it’s starting to shift a little bit, is the hope. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I think it’s starting to feel like, the door’s cracking open a little bit...and then there’s backlash, and then it’s cracking open...and then there’s backlash.

Jesse: That seems about right. Since you’re a journalist yourself, are there any questions you would want to ask yourself? About this book or maybe just in general? Or any thoughts you might like to share.

Cris: The next book that I’m doing is on foster care, which is a huge topic—but so many of these kids end up in foster care and it fails all children on so many levels, but especially when you’re a gender variant in some way. It’s so hard for these kids to get through in general, and yet every system is so gender binary, especially the foster care system, and it just really struck me how bad that was. 

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