Can a poor end to an otherwise okay book truly ruin the entire reading experience? This is the question I have been pondering since reading Julia Watt’s Piece of My Heart.
Jess Hamlin starts grad school just out of the closet and broken hearted. Pining for her former (yet still straight) roommate, she begins a series of gay adventures, like going to lesbian bars, making queer friends, dating actual lesbians… Only to end with the book participating in some seriously transphobic “hi-jinks” that made me rethink everything I had considered enjoyable about the book.
Here is what happens (TOTAL SPOILER ALERT): At the very end of the novel, when Jess has finally let go of her fear, met a great lady, and started a happy lesbian life, Julie Watts brings in a villain. Grady, one of Jess’ students, makes romantic overtures of the unwanted “I love lesbians because of the 3somes!” variety. Michelle, Jess’ new girlfriend, gets pissed and plots vengeance– her male-to-female dominatrix friend Chastity will trick Grady into gettin’ freaky with her, only to reveal herself as the man she really is! Hilarious, right?!!
These are sarcastic exclamation marks, by the way.
When Jess and her lesbian friends meet Chastity, they spend pages and pages goggling at her inexplicable feminine beauty. Their gazes linger, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over her face and breasts. To prove just how incredible it all is, Michelle whips out pre-transition photos of Chastity and shows everyone, also telling them her former name, without her permission. One character asks her, over dinner, whether or not she has had bottom surgery. Aside from being humiliating, it’s also downright rude and ill-mannered. The point is made, clearly and explicitly, that Chastity isn’t really a woman, no matter how feminine she may look on the outside.
But we haven’t even gotten to the comedy yet! After all the plotting, Grady is, of course, completely and utterly emasculated by the sight of a trans woman’s penis, and runs from the room. All of the lesbians die of laughter and high-five each other for finally evening the score with conservative heterosexuals everywhere. No one seems to appreciate that they have made a mockery of Chastity at the same time.
Watts and her characters fetishize Chastity the exact same way Grady objectifies Jess and her girlfriend. Chastity’s sole purpose is to be a horribly attractive freakshow that can both entice and humiliate anyone who looks at her. The way the characters treat her, from outright staring at her body to the rude questions about her genitals, sickened me. The way Julia Watts wrote Chastity as a totally defined by the state of her genitals also sicked me. A trans person’s body is not a punch line. It is not public property, for everyone to gawk at and use. The more I think about it, the angrier I get, and unfortunately, I cannot detach from these feelings.
It might not be fair, but how the book ended completely colored my opinion of the entire book itself. I can’t divide the good from the bad. I also refuse to make excuses for the book: it’s not that old, it’s not that funny, and someone writing a queer book for queer readers should have known better.