Britain's Daily Mail newspaper caused a stir last month with a story about a German child diagnosed as transsexual at 12 years of age. Born a boy, she now lives as a girl and receives regular hormone injections to offset the effects of adolescence. "Kim," as she is now known, has been given the wholehearted support of her family – which makes her much more fortunate than the subjects of Cris Beam's Transparent, a detailed look at a subject normally relegated to the tackier daytime talk shows.
Beam met and befriended several transgendered teenagers — born male and now living as female, or vice versa — while volunteering at a small high school for gay students in Los Angeles. Over the next four or five years, Beam became especially close to four of her male-to-female students, and chronicled their daily lives.
Needless to say, they don't have it easy – largely rejected by their families, the girls (as Beam, and most transgender advocates, would insist on calling them) bounce between group homes, roommates, short-term romantic relationships and — all too often — prostitution, drugs and prison. Some are able to procure female hormones or even cosmetic surgery to feminize their appearance, but others attend "pumping parties" where silicone (often, industrial-grade silicone) is injected into their bodies. One of her young friends, Domineque, ends up in a male prison, and ultimately winds up in a special unit with informers and sexual offenders – partly for her own protection, and partly because no one knows exactly what to do with her.
Beam and her girlfriend become especially close to Christina, a former gang member (still sporting her tattoo, which leads to some extremely awkward and dangerous moments) who rollercoasters between meaningful employment and the squalor of prostitution and drugs. She lives off and on with her mother, who remains deeply uncomfortable with what her son (born Eduardo) has done with his life and body.
Thankfully, Beam resists the urge to preach, and allows her subjects' stories to speak for themselves. She does occasionally digress into related subjects, such as the medical options available to young transgendered persons, and why there are so many more male-to-female transsexuals compared to the other way around. (A viable prostitution market for "MTFs" is no small factor here.)
Some readers will be uncomfortable with Transparent's subject matter, whether because of the issue of transsexuality itself, or because of the young age of those involved. Even I would have some serious questions and concerns about allowing a young teen or pre-teen like "Kim" to commence such treatment. But you can be sure this issue will become more prominent as time goes on, and Transparent is an interesting introduction to a controversial subject – and, more importantly, a compelling look at some difficult, unusual human stories.