I feel very conflicted about this book. When I first heard about it, I was really excited to read it, because it is the first young adult book with a trans girl narrator, plus the main character is a lesbian. There are very few trans lesbian books, so they also get bumped up my reading list. When I heard that the author is cis, I was a little apprehensive, which I always am when reading a book about a minority identity that the author doesn’t share. Then when I initially read it, I was disappointed. Although it was compelling, I had a lot of issues with it, particularly the vocabulary used (which may be regional, but I haven’t heard anyone ever refer to themselves as a “survivor of transsexualism”, and the word “transsexual” itself I very rarely hear), and the ample amount of space given to Emily’s girlfriend’s initial transphobic response to Emily coming out. After that, I Rachel Gold’s second novel, Just Girls, fully expecting to dislike it. Instead, I loved it. I then discovered tons of rave reviews of Being Emily from all over, including many reviews by trans women themselves, and found out that there were many trans women beta readers who worked with Rachel Gold in shaping Being Emily. As a cisgender person, I obviously make no claim to the authenticity of a depiction of the experience of being trans.
So, I feel muddled about Being Emily. (Much more so now, because I put off reviewing Being Emily due to my ambivalence about it, and then discovered that my glitchy Kobo had helpfully erased all of my extensive highlighting and notes that I took while reading it.) Although I absolutely give precedence to trans women’s reviews of this book, I’ll share my experience with it anyways, in case it’s helpful to anyone.
One of the first things that struck me about the novel was that I wasn’t sure who it was aimed at. Almost half of the book is from the perspective of Claire, Emily’s girlfriend, who at first reacts pretty badly to Emily’s coming out. We read pages of her transphobic tirades complete with religious justification and sketchy ideas of biological truths before she comes around. This may be accurate to many people’s experience, but I cringed reading it, and I can’t imagine slogging through that as someone coming to terms with their own gender identity.
It’s also quite bleak, and again, though it may be realistic for many people for their parents to react badly and for the coming out process to be negative, as a personal preference that’s not the world I want to escape to in a book. Again, this is completely personal, but I have long ago gotten tired of reading lesbian YA that is focused on how awful it is to come out. And maybe it’s unfair to bring that into reading a trans narrative, where there are so few stories at the moment, and where the reality is bleaker than the average cis lesbian experience.
Another element that I personally didn’t enjoy was Claire’s Christianity being focused on quite a bit in her sections. One detail I did enjoy was the freedom that Emily experiences in gaming/the internet, especially World of Warcraft. This is explored more in Just Girls, and I liked it even more there.
I learned from the author that Being Emily was first drafted ten years ago, which explains some of the outdated terms. I’m still not sure how to think about this one. Although I’ve lost all my notes, I remember highlighting many of Claire’s passages, being horrified at her callousness, and questioning some other lines for not seeming realistic to how I’ve heard trans people present themselves, but at the same time, I’ve read multiple trans women’s positive reviews of this title, and no negative reviews by trans people, so I have to chalk it up to my own preferences at least in part. I did absolutely love Just Girls, though, and recommend that one wholeheartedly.