Photo credit: Sloane Taylor
When I was recording the audiobook for my debut book, Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place
, I happened to meet a professional audiobook reader who asked me a question that stuck with me. We were crowded into a makeshift dining area in a small nook of the recording studio, the team for my audiobook squeezed in alongside assorted staff and readers from other projects who were also taking their lunch breaks. It was such tight quarters I had to turn my whole body to make eye contact with the grey-haired gentleman beside me who was telling us about his career as an audiobook reader while he ate his sandwich out of a neatly packed Tupperware dish.
After regaling us with amusing tales from various books and TV shows he’d worked on, he turned to me and asked what I was reading for. I had just taken a bite of my Uptown Funk Chicken Sandwich (next time you’re in Manhattan, you have to try My Belly’s Playlist and their song-themed menu) so the producer of my audiobook answered for me with a proud grin.
“Jack is reading his own book.”
“Oh,” the man said with surprise. “You’re lucky they let you. What’s your book about?”
I looked at my producer. She nodded at me encouragingly, as if coaching me to get in some practice pitching my own book.
I started mumbling, “It's a memoir and... sort of an educational guide too.”
The man nodded politely and we were all silent for a moment, picking at our shared order of Old Bay-spiced fries before he spoke up again.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but you look a bit young to be writing a memoir. Was there a particular reason for it?”
I looked at my producer to save me, but it was clear by her silence that she didn’t want to speak for me on this particular question. My book is largely about me being transgender and it seemed that my producer wasn’t sure how to help me without outing me to this small crowd of strangers — and neither was I.
I knew this moment would come, but I was still unprepared for it. It happens to me on a near daily basis thanks to my other work as a YouTube creator, podcaster, and public speaker on trans advocacy, and yet it never gets any easier. It’s impossible for me to answer the simple question, “What do you do?,” without outing myself. I still try, though. I speak generally about LGBT issues (no one ever suspects the “T,” since hardly anyone ever remembers what it stands for), shift the focus to my past work in youth activism, or occasionally straight-up lie and make up the most boring job I can think of to prevent follow-up questions.
But who are we to say how much life anyone has lived solely based on their age?
With a book coming out that has “transgender” stamped right there on the cover, I knew this problem would get worse, but the man at the recording studio had highlighted a different pathway to this issue and one which I was particularly self-conscious about: my age.
It’s one thing to say you’ve written a memoir when you’re in your forties (Fifties? Sixties? At what age do we find it appropriate to have penned an account of your life?), but quite another at barely 30. I’ll give the man some credit though: thanks to a combination of good genes and the youthful appearance many trans men share, I don’t look a day past 20. It’s a frustrating reality when I’m trying to be taken seriously by my peers or attempting to purchase beer from a skeptical bartender, but the oddity of someone who appears so young writing a memoir, I have realized, is a huge red flag for follow-up questions. The exact type of follow-up questions I generally like to avoid.
Why is it so odd though? I’ll admit I spent years bouncing back and forth on my decision to publish this book, feeling like I didn’t have the right to be sharing my story at only 29. Who am I
to say I’ve lived enough life to dispense wisdom to the masses? Especially through a medium that somehow seems to carry so much more authority than its digital cousins.
But who are we
to say how much life anyone has lived solely based on their age? While there’s plenty I don’t know about life yet, there’s also plenty I’ve experienced that the majority of the population never will. According to the most generous estimates
, only three percent of the United States population identifies as transgender. Even accounting for how many more probably go unreported, that’s still hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. alone who don’t know what it’s like to question your gender, to fear rejection and violence for living as that affirmed gender, to undergo medical treatments, face legal battles, and upend your whole life in order to be who you truly are.
I know what that’s like. I may be only 29, but I’ve weathered a lot to get here as the man I am today. As have many other people. Many people who have shared their stories before me, but even more who have not. Memoirs by trans authors make up an infinitesimal sliver of the grand genre of memoir. While I have a bookcase's worth I could recommend, they still pale in comparison to the count of memoirs by cisgender authors. Even where they do exist, you often have to hunt them down from the shadows of self-publication, obscure imprints, and ones long since removed from publication. For some, mine will be the first memoir by a trans author they’ve ever read (no pressure).
It’s kind of funny to me that we should worry so much about whether someone is old enough to share their story when there are so many stories out there that don’t get a fair chance to be told and perhaps would have a marginally better shot if we stopped creating additional barriers to entry, like equating age with life experience.
In the end, I told the man at the recording studio that I was transgender and that my book was about my journey coming to terms with that. We ended up having a lovely talk. He told me about a friend’s child who had recently come out as trans — as most people share when they talk to me. Everyone has a trans relation they want to tell me about these days. We seem to be everywhere. Perhaps one day our books will be too, just as ubiquitous and unremarkable with regards to the author’s identity as everyone else’s. Until then, I’ll have to get used to swallowing my pride and telling people, “Yes, I wrote a memoir at 29 and, yes, I’m transgender. Now let’s talk about your friend’s son.”
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is a YouTube creator and LGBTQ+ advocate dedicated to demystifying the transgender experience. His TED Talk, “How to talk (and listen) to transgender people,”
has been viewed over a million times. Jackson is a recipient of the GLAAD Rising Star Digital Innovator Award and lives in New York City. You can follow him online @JackIsNotABird