If I had read this book last year shortly after it came out, I would be writing this review from the position of a cisgender man and, like Amanda Jetté Knox, hopefully a trans ally trying to educate himself. Instead, I recently came out as transgender, not too long after having the epiphany that I am a trans woman (I’m still trying to work out the precise language I want to use to describe that experience—but that’s for another blog post). So I picked up Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family because I wanted to see other perspectives on coming out. In particular, I’m quite interested in stories of people who, like me, come out later in life rather than as teenagers or very young adults. Finally, as I wade into some trans spaces online, I want to be able to bring my love of books to bear when it comes to recommending trans-friendly and trans-supportive books to my fellow trans friends and cis allies—and that means I need to read more!
Who is this book for, by the way? Despite its heavy focus on the transition of her daughter and her wife, Love Lives Here really is Jetté Knox’s memoir and really is about her. Although Jetté Knox shares some key moments in Alexis and Zoe’s stories, this book does not chronicle their experiences in detail—nor should it, of course, because that’s not Jetté Knox’s story to tell. So, is this book for potential allies, or is this book for trans people looking for some love and support? Who should read this?
The facile answer would be “everyone,” and it’s also true, although as I often tell my English students, somewhat uninteresting. As someone who is still very much recalibrating her mindset from “cis male ally” to “trans woman,” I feel like I can bridge these potential audiences and almost see the book from both perspectives.
For trans readers, this book may be difficult at times. I’d also add that cis people might find parts of this book triggering too. Jetté Knox mentions this up front, adding in content/trigger warnings not just for transphobic incidents but also when she discusses her history with alcohol and sexual abuse. But for trans readers in particular who have struggled with being closeted for much of their lives, reliving Zoe and Alexis’ experiences through Jetté Knox’s eyes might be a bit much in some cases. However, I’m not saying this because I want to discourage you from reading it. On the contrary, for most trans people, I think this book will feel like a warm blanket. Just have a box of tissues next to you, because you will cry a lot, happy tears and sad ones. Love Lives Here is a reassuring balm to the firehose of transphobic and trans-exclusionary rhetoric that spaces like Twitter inculcate. I’ll be spending the rest of my review discussing the book from my perspective.
For cis readers, you could not really do better than this book when it comes to learning about being an ally. Jetté Knox is refreshingly honest and open about her internalized transphobia and her missteps in her reactions to her daughter and wife coming out. I think “you will screw up and have to apologize and learn but that doesn’t make you a bad person” is a very important message that cisgender people need to hear (and internalize) if they are going to be good allies. Jetté Knox tries very hard not to self-aggrandize or sugarcoat how she handles what transpires (pun intended). When someone close to you comes out as trans, no matter how supportive you think you are of trans right, it’s totally understandable for it to be a shock.
Love Lives Here reminds all readers that life is a constant learning process. Friction comes about when one is confronted by an unexpected change, and instead of pausing to take in that change and re-evaluate one’s attitude, one reacts instinctively, perhaps even lashes out, because the change is so startling. This book reminds us that it is important to take time, and to have faith that even if you don’t understand something right now, you will eventually get there in the end.
As a memoir, this book is about more than Jetté Knox’s adaptation and adjustments to having a trans child and partner. Those are obviously very important, but we also learn about her growth and the challenges she faces as her family relocates a couple of times and has to put down new roots. In particular, I was really fascinated by how Jetté Knox realizes that she constructed her sense of self around the identity of being “a good mother,” and that some of her apprehension regarding Alexis’ transition was rooted in how this affected her self-worth as a mother. That’s probably (I don’t know, I’m not a parent) something many parents can empathize with. She also discusses how the transition of two people in the family affect the other two children, both in the sense of the worries she projects on these children as well as the collateral damage that might happen as a result of being a high-profile trans-inclusive family.
Indeed, Love Lives Here is a chronicle in many ways of Jetté Knox’s personal journey from thinking of herself merely as an ally to being an an accomplice. (For more on allyship versus accomplice, this article is a good primer. And I want to recommend this site specifically for being an accomplice around racial justice, although that is not the topic of this book. The entire framework originates from anti-racist/anti-colonialist work done by Indigenous Action.) Not everyone who has a transgender family member ends up speaking and writing about trans rights, of course, but there are plenty of other ways to become an accomplice. It’s a matter of moving from “I support you/trans people in general” to “I will actively work to make the world around you a better place and remove the unfair institutions that oppress you.”
It is honestly so reassuring and wonderful that even in the short time since Alexis came out around 2014/2015, we have moved forward here in Canada and Ontario when it comes to accepting trans people. Jetté Knox observes that 2014 was really the beginning of a surge in trans visibility and acceptance, and I agree. When I came out publicly (by which I mean on social media, because that’s my version of “public”!) and at work at the end of February, I was inundated with love and support. My work has very explicit policies around how to include trans students; I was a little apprehensive because I couldn’t find any policies regarding trans staff, but turns out we have a dedicated “human rights and equity advisor” who, bonus, knows what she’s doing. So even in the span of a few years, supports and access have measurably improved. It still isn’t good enough—there is still far too much violence against trans people, and as the TPL kerfuffle demonstrates, still too many people who think trans rights are up for debate. But it is getting better.
But if it’s getting better, that’s because of people like Jetté Knox, and hopefully you too, dear reader. Love Lives Here is an example of why advocacy, activism, and accomplices are so crucial. Perhaps the most important takeaway from the book, something that Jetté Knox repeats a few times and with which I heartily agree, is this: the hardship and struggles that trans people face are never a result of being transgender. These struggles are a result of the society around us not accepting us. The solution will never be to change transgender people, to question our certainty, to ask us to take a seat or maybe not be so loud about our transness. If you really do support trans rights, then you need to work towards changing society until it supports us. When trans people are loved and supported, and when we work towards a better future together, the world is better for all of us. Jetté Knox makes it clear that working through this challenging time with her family has improved her personally, whether it involves coming to terms with her own sexuality or growing as a person and a self-made professional.
One final thing to discuss: the role of allies and accomplices in taking up space. Certainly I was a little apprehensive going into this book. As Jetté Knox acknowledges in the preface, it’s not her place to take up space in the conversation around gender identity. When you take on that accomplice mantle but don’t share that particular marginalization, you run the risk of taking up space that should be given to those who have that identity. Should I be reading a book by a cis person about transgender issues? Seems like a strange decision.
In my opinion, Jetté Knox avoids most of the pitfalls that even the most well-intentioned ally can fall into when speaking up about these issues. As previously mentioned, Love Lives Here really is the memoir it claims to be, and I think that’s very important. This is definitely a book about trans rights, but it is a book about trans rights wrapped up in a very specific story of one Canadian family adjusting to two people coming out and told from the perspective of one of its cisgender members. Jetté Knox is very careful to try to give back space when possible and point out where her voice can’t go; it sounds like she consulted carefully with her daughter and her wife when it comes to how much information she should include in this story. Ultimately, I would hope that cis people who read this don’t come away thinking, “Oh, cool, I can go out there and speak all about trans issues everywhere!” That’s definitely not what Jetté Knox is saying. Love Lives Here is an exemplar but not a blueprint for advocacy. That has to come from within, from your particular circumstances.
I’m still reeling a little bit from my abrupt pivot and coming out, to be honest. I’m struggling to understand what my new public gender identity means for how I interact with the world—and as a recent blog post explains, the current situation in the world complicates this! So I came to Love Lives Here looking for some reassurance, perhaps—and I found it—and maybe some answers. Of course, that is a bit much to ask of any single book; I need to write the answers for myself, and I know that they will probably be years in coming. Nevertheless, this was a really good place to start.