Wednesday, July 25, 2018

MANGA REVIEW: The Bride was a Boy - adding another, different trans narrative to our worldview

I was so excited to read "The Bride was a Boy," and while it was good, it didn't quite live up to my (maybe impossible) expectations. Just a few weeks ago, my wife and I had a discussion about what we'd do differently with our wedding if we were to do it all over again. The biggest thing that bothers me is that I didn't look like me. I mean, I looked like the me everyone knew. I wore a nice black suit and all that. But when I think about what I would rather have worn, I could never come up with a man's outfit that would feel right, until I start thinking about wedding dresses. If only my wife's groom was a bride! So needless to say, the title alone had me curious.

So "The Bride was a Boy" is about a trans-woman (Chii) who meets a man just as she's starting her transition and the story of coming out to him, dating, and getting married. The art is chibi/super-deformed (I'm sure I'm getting the terms wrong, sorry) and very very cute. I actually really like the way Chii did the art here. She looks cute and feminine and while I have no idea what she might look like in reality, I love that she presented herself so wonderfully cute. It suggests a strong self-image and happiness that she gained from her transition. There are backstories to her times growing up as a boy and some of the various stages of transition, but one really gets the feeling of how much self-confidence the transition has brought, both in the storytelling, but in the cute way she depicts herself. I love that.

The book was originally a four-panel web strip. In book form, there is additional commentary provided about LGBTQ issues and the laws and processes in Japan. I found the cultural perspective, and its differences from American LGBTQ culture and law fascinating. At the same time, some of this proved problematic in that some of the gender identity definitions were translated as universal facts rather than culturally bound to Japan and so someone who may be starting their own gender exploration in American society reading this may misinterpret some of these passages.

For example, in the section explaining the definition of transgender, the author stipulates that is specifically applies to to people who are undergoing or want to undergo a physical transition. While there has been a long history within the US trans culture of who is included and who is not in the label, the general movement is to be inclusive including those not transitioning, those with and without dysphoria, non-binary and non-gendered people, amongst others. So the definition included here is limiting. It goes further to explicitly exempt people who simply experience a mismatch between their internal gender identity and their assigned gender which to me is concerning. However, if viewed within the Japanese cultural framework, perhaps this is how those terms are used there, it just isn't a good fit for US audiences. Personally, I adhere to the broadest view of trans as being anyone whose internal gender identity is not strictly identical to the junk in their pants. They may or may not experience dysphoria, they may or may not want to or actually transition, they may or may not even have a binary view of their gender. Let's be inclusive! Here's a great article on the topic:

Also, she states that in English they are referred to as "transgendered" rather than "transgender" but does make the caveat that the terms are used differently in different cultures and countries. The author also uses the term LGBTs (with the plural "s") and refers to it as the essentially the Japanese equivalent to LGBTQ or LGBT+ (etc...). I could not find any online verification of this, but it may be due to few LGBTQ articles in English about Japanese norms. The explanation of the Japanese law in regards to officially changing one's legal gender status was fascinating. It requires that to change documentation from one gender to another, that the individual not only undergo a physical transition, but that they be rendered incapable of sexually reproducing. YIKES! That sounds like a pretty big human rights violation to me. This is known as the Gender Identity Disorder Special Provision.

The book also talks a lot about the implications and intertwining of marriage and transition. In Japan, same sex marriage is illegal, so a biologically male and female couple where one transitions to the opposite sex (say male to female) would then make it impossible to be both married and have their gender status legally changed (because then they'd both be the same gender legally and couldn't stay married as a same-sex couple).

The other perspective of this narrative that was somewhat troubling to me was the overall bias towards presenting trans individuals as nearly universally gay, as in they were sexually attracted to the people of the same gender as their biological sex ie: a trans-woman attracted to a cis-man. I'm am super happy for each author to tell their story and share their narrative (more on this in a moment), but I did feel that in the explication sections (rather than the personal narrative section) it was dominated by the trans+gay perspective (I'm also not sure the best ways to talk about this, so forgive my clunkiness. I guess it's actually that since a trans person IS their gender identity that they are "straight" when their partner is of the opposite gender identity, even though that gender matched the trans individual's original biological sex - so complex, we don't have good language for this, so my apologies).

Anyway, the perspective of a trans individual usually being with someone of the opposite gender as their internal gender identity isn't universal. It certainly doesn't match my experience as a bio-man, attracted to women, but who self-identifies as female (my high-school girlfriend used to call me a lesbian in a man's body - this was before we knew the term trans!). So am I hetero? Am I gay? Not that I need to see my narrative reflected in hers, but in the sections of the book that seek to explain to the audience the terms, world-views, etc...I again felt there were limitations and exclusivity (unintentionally I'm sure) and wondered again how much of this might be culturally bound.

That all being said, what about the good stuff? There was lots of it! I read a review that panned the book because they felt it presented the story as too happy and that everything went too easily (the surgeries, the family and boyfriend acceptance, etc...). The reviewer's point was that since many, maybe most, trans and LGBTQ people encounter lots of struggle and heart-ache along the way, presenting a happy-go-lucky-person+easy-going boyfriend+accepting family+successful transition story undermined others' experiences.

That's a load of crap for several reasons. 1) Who knows, Chii's experiences may really have been relatively easy for her compared to others, she's allowed to share her narrative, and wouldn't it be nice to believe that some people's experience aren't awful? 2) We need a diversity of trans narratives. It is incredibly important that we don't force a single trans narrative on the world. It is important for the general public to not be dismissive of experiences that don't match the common narrative. But it is especially crucial for people just beginning their journey who may fail to see themselves represented in the commonly published and pushed trans narrative.

That narrative goes like this: "I was 2-years-old, I realized I wasn't a boy (or girl) and I started wearing girls (or boys) clothes right then and there." That's certainly a valid and real narrative. But it is not everyone's. It is certainly not mine. I always felt different than the other boys, but had no idea why. I also love many traditional boy things (and many traditionally feminine things). It wasn't until I was about 20 that I finally put the pieces together that what felt different is that I wasn't a boy, and now at 38 I'm just beginning to really think about what I might want physically different in my life, if anything. All along, the only narrative published (because it's an easy sell on TV) is that of the kid who starts cross dressing as a toddler. Well, that does psychological damage to all those whose journey is different. We need as many and as varied narratives out there as possible so that people find themselves reflected and so others have a chance to learn about the infinite variety within the human condition. Thankfully, Chii does a great job talking about just these points.

She starts with a question she often gets about how "lucky" she must be to understand both how men AND women feel. Of course, since she identifies as a woman, and therefore IS a woman, she admits she doesn't know a damn thing about how men feel, and rightfully so (I'm with her on this!). But by that same token, she's wise enough to admit that she can't really know how ANYONE else feels, that whats she does understand is how she feels. She is never attempting to say that her feelings are universal nor is she a spokesperson for anyone else's experiences. My favorite moment was a wonderful passage where she introduces herself and at first says she "was a boy" but then corrects herself to say that at one point she just "looked like a boy." Again, not speaking for anyone else, but that moment felt so true. I may look like a boy but I have never been one!

Along the lines of needing multiple narratives in the world, Chii herself states that in her past she knew she wasn't comfortable with her gender but couldn't identify with any of the people and stories she was seeing on the internet in her research. Their narratives didn't match hers and was a source of confusion. All the more reason why it's important that as many diverse experiences are out there for people to connect with.

The wedding planning also had some truly heart-breaking moments, even if they were presented comedically. A poignant moment is where Chii doesn't want pictures and videos from her youth in a montage video because they are all of her looking like a boy. Her fiance is very accepting, as he is throughout (and he even has a little endnote of his own to reflect on the story where he corroborates the depiction of events in the story). But one cannot help but feel sad that a huge chunk of a person's life story leads to such distress.

With this, she also must balance that some people knew her as a boy/man but many current friends and colleagues don't. She suggests that she is passing well enough that they wouldn't know she used to look like a boy/man unless they were to see these images from her past, which isn't how she wants to be known to them. This is further complicated with all the questions she gets from friends about whether they'll have kids now that they're married. She ultimately decides on "it's up to fate" as her response so as not to have to explain that she cannot bear children. So again, although it's presented in a lighthearted way, there is truly serious and heartrending discussion of a complex life. One does not always have to present challenges as if they are tragedies. Chii chooses to live brightly through these struggles rather than present them as black holes of morbid awfulness.

So there was a lot of good. Cute art, a winning, funny, light, heart-warming story. There was some true nuance and complexity presented. There was some fascinating explanation of the legal differences in Japan. However, there was also some explanations that didn't jive with my personal beliefs or likely the consensus approach in the trans community in the US. It was also, for all its value, a somewhat simple, perfunctory piece. That's not necessarily a criticism, but it's not necessarily a selling point either. I went into this expecting something more like "My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness" which may not have been a fair comparison, but it was one that was stuck in my head regardless. So I'm torn with how to rate this, is it a 6/10 or a 7/10? I'm not sure, maybe somewhere in-between. It is absolutely important that something like this exists and I'm thrilled that it was translated and made available. However, it's far from a master-work. But as part of a greater pantheon of narratives, it is as equally important as any, because it is Chii's story.


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