Review of Am I Trans Enough?: How to Overcome Your Doubts and Find Your Authentic Self by Alo Johnston
Am I Trans Enough?: How to Overcome Your Doubts and Find Your Authentic Self
by Alo Johnston
You know, I don’t really think I ever asked myself this question after the one sleepless Sunday night I spent wrestling with it. I jest, of course. Kind of. I think for me my understanding of my transness was sneaky. It kind of grew in my subconscious for years until it burst forth, fully formed, and once I accepted it, everything else happened all at once. Nevertheless, Am I Trans Enough: How to Overcome Your Doubts and Find Your Authentic Self still had some cool insights for me, and I suspect the research, ideas, and questions Alo Johnston has brought together in this book will be helpful for many a trans or questioning person. Thanks to Jessica Kingsley Publishers and NetGalley for the eARC.
This is a surprisingly comprehensive book! I say surprisingly because I wasn’t sure it was possible to pull off a feat like this until Johnston did it. Am I Trans Enough? comprises four parts: “The Personal and Philosophy,” “Context and History,” “Mental Health,” and “Interpersonal.” You know how much I love good organization, and this book has that down: each one of these parts is necessary and thoughtful in the exploration of this topic. Johnston begins by asking the reader, who presumably might be questioning their gender identity, to consider how we think of gender in relation to ourselves. From there, he branches into the wider idea of gender as a social construct. Next, a crucial discussion of how gender nonconformity and transition can affect one’s mental health, especially given the transphobic state of our society. Finally, a part that discusses what transition and coming out means for your relationships with others.
One of the things I love most about this book is how it doesn’t focus much on medical transition. Of course Johnstone mentions both hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery throughout the book. However, these are always in service of a wider discussion of transition that firmly grounds it in a social context. This is valuable, in my opinion, for three reasons. First, it discourages what’s known as transmedicalization, this idea that you are only “trans enough” if you pursue a certain level of medical transition. Second, it pushes back against the cisnormative narrative that always focuses on medical transition when we talk about trans people. Third, it reminds us that gender-affirming medical care is only one piece of the puzzle. Yes, it is essential for many trans people—including me!—but when we look to hormones or the like as a panacea for all of our mental health issues or questions about gender, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Along these lines, probably my favourite chapter is “The Paradox of Transition.” In it, Johnston reflects on how most trans people would love to say that we are only transitioning for ourselves, but the reality is much more complicated. I feel this, oof. I’m approaching my third anniversary of coming out as trans and pondering what I want to write about to mark the occasion. Though I don’t question whether I am trans enough, I still struggle to explain sometimes why I went from (as an external observer might see it) being comfortable calling myself cis for thirty years to deciding to transition overnight. It is, of course, more complicated than that, and this is what Johnston gets at in this chapter. I love how he discusses how the pandemic belied the popular desire among many transitioning people to go off and transition on a desert island—I have blogged about that as well.
In particular, this paragraph stands out for me:
The fantasy of complete self-reliance also assumes there is a “true gender” deep down, past the reach of our interactions and relationships. There is no objective, pure, internal self that exists outside of the relationships that form us and help us thrive. We are relational, and our genders are relational too.
Louder for the people at the back, please!
This is what I have tried to articulate time and again, on my personal blog and in discussions with others about my transition. The piece of the puzzle that burst the dam I had subconsciously built around my gender identity was the realization that I didn’t want to be “one of the girls” in an honourary sense; I wanted to be one of the girls. This flip of a switch from metaphorical to literal was all it took for my resistance to being trans to crumble—seemingly overnight, as I said earlier—because, as Johnston puts it so well in that quote, it’s all about relations. It’s why I needed to socially transition rather than just start wearing cute dresses while still calling myself a man; it’s why the cute dresses make me feel good about myself even though I am a woman regardless of what I wear.
In terms of knowledge levels, this book eschews quite a bit of the standard “trans 101” that you might find in similar texts. However, it remains accessible to someone who hasn’t read a lot of books about being transgender. Some later chapters discuss, respectively, the experience of being nonbinary, a trans woman, or a trans man, and I think a lot of people who are much newer to the language and concepts around transness will benefit from those chapters especially.
Of course, even though this framing includes nonbinary people loudly and on the same footing as transfeminine and transmasculine people, it’s still somewhat problematic in the way it kind of creates what I call the “bumpy gender binary,” where nonbinary becomes an “other” category outside of a trans experience that otherwise replicates and reinforces the binary. Johnston acknowledges early in the book that his perspective is a limited, Western one. So it’s important to seek out voices that write about nonbinary experiences outside of that sphere—this publisher has such an anthology, and there are others out there. This is not a critique of Am I Trans Enough? so much as an observation of a limitation it has already acknowledged.
What about readers who are pretty certain they are cis? Am I Trans Enough? might still be a beneficial read. You are not Johnston’s intended audience, but you would still learn a lot about how to look at and explore gender. Even if you are confident you are cisgender, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time examining what that means for you. However, there are probably other books out there that will do a better job of guiding you on that journey, just as there are probably better books to learn about trans experiences, ones that are speaking to an audience that includes cis people.
This is a book firmly written for trans people, by a trans author who is also a therapist, grounded firmly in theory and praxis. It gets you thinking. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who comes to me expressing questions about their gender.