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The Answer Blog

Archive for February, 2011

Prize-winning Novel ‘Almost Perfect’ Puts You Inside the Life of a Transgender Teen

February 16, 2011

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The American Library Association’s John Newbery Medal is to young adult fiction what the Oscar is to the motion picture industry: the highest award the industry can bestow.

Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest won this year’s Newbery award, and while reading about it, I found another prize-winning book for teens: Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher. The book received the ALA’s 2011 Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, given to “English language books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience.”

Since I’d never read a book about a transgender teen, I decided to take the plunge. Almost Perfect is set in “the American heartland”: a small Missouri town. (The author lives and works as a school librarian in the state.) Its narrator, 18-year-old Logan Witherspoon, is a junior at the town’s only high school and lives in a trailer with his mom, a single parent who works as a waitress. Logan’s sister goes to the state university, and Logan’s mother hopes he will follow in her footsteps.

But Logan isn’t feeling good about anything, because he’s just broken up with his girlfriend, Brenda, and is sad and disillusioned about life. He is sure that Brenda was the only girl for him. While patiently trying to rationalize why she didn’t want to have sex with him, he learns that she cheated on him with another guy.

Into Logan’s vulnerability, confusion, and sadness strides Sage Hendricks, a new girl in town who, for reasons Logan can’t fathom, appeals to him. Her résumé is somewhat odd: She has been home schooled until high school and has an overly strict father who won’t let her date. (Her younger sister is allowed to date.)

Their friendship grows. But Logan wonders if he can confine it to just that when he feels attracted to Sage when he sees her in a bikini at the local pool. Sage also begins to push beyond the self-imposed boundary. Logan kisses Sage when they are together, and she returns it. Pulling apart, Sage says, “Logan … the reason I can’t date … the reason we can’t kiss … the reason I was home schooled, I … I’m a boy.”

While Logan recoils from this information, Sage explains that she wanted to be a girl ever since watching her mother dress her older sister in frilly pink dresses. Disgusted with himself for being attracted to Sage — and worrying that if anyone ever found out, he would be called “a fag” — Logan ends the relationship. But not before Sage tells him that she has taken hormones, brought in illegally from Mexico, to create her breasts, and that she can’t have the operation to complete the sex change, because it costs $30,000 and her father refuses to pay for it, since he’s furious about her decision to become a girl.

Logan beats himself up for abruptly leaving the relationship. Like magnets, they come together for a night of lovemaking in his sister’s dorm room at the university. As Logan remembers: “Sage. Me. Naked. Well, I was naked. Sage had never removed her shorts.

Things had started slowly. Touching. Kissing. More touching. Then … the sweat, the touch of her mouth, the prick of her nails, the noise of the bed as it scooted across the floor.”

Later, reminiscing, both agree that they had lost their virginity.

If anything, Almost Perfect gets more intense with Logan’s decision to break up with Sage again. We learn about his lies to his sister about the relationship and his pangs of remorse; the vicious beating Sage endures from a guy she hooked up with after the breakup; Sage’s father’s attack on Logan; and Sage’s decision to return to being a male, which Logan begs her not to do. We also learn of Sage’s threat to commit suicide, which she had tried once before.

Logan thinks he has learned a lesson and can resume the relationship: “Sage just wanted to be herself. To be something that half the people on the planet become when they’re born. She just wanted a little acceptance, a little understanding. And because she had the gall to look in a mirror and say, ‘I am a woman,’ she had been rejected by her father, denied a normal childhood, abandoned by a boy she thought cared for her and had her bones broken and her face smashed…”

Sage has had enough of Logan’s changes of heart and, sadly, although she cares for him, sends him away after he visits her in a psychiatric hospital. Sage does not commit suicide or return to her former gender — but the relationship ends, Logan graduates and goes off to the local university, and Sage to another out of state.

I had to keep reminding myself that Almost Perfect is a novel, not nonfiction. Yet in his acknowledgments, Katcher says that he used the online stories of many “real-life Sages” to form the core of his book.

Recently, I learned about the study “Injustice at Every Turn,” compiled by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which reports that over half of transgender teens try to commit suicide. Many of these teens undoubtedly face the same struggles as Sage.

A good first step toward improving relationships between transgender and non-transgender youth is for parents and educators to read and discuss a book like Almost Perfect with teens. Small steps like this one might reduce the loneliness that many transgender youth feel before they think of suicide as a way out of their misery.

I guess it would have been too much for the ALA to award the Newberry medal to Almost Perfect. That’s too bad, since school libraries would be more likely to purchase it, parents more likely to give it to their teens, and sex educators more likely to use it in their classes. (Of course, some school administrators and parents may have problems with a book that has a transgender heroine and a mildly explicit sex scene, even if it had won the Newbery award.)

Many might believe that Almost Perfect is only for gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and transgendered teens. But it is a book for all teens. It also would help all of us know what it’s like to be a transgendered teen and feel his or her fear, pain, and desire for acceptance. There are many human lessons in Almost Perfect — lessons about dignity and acceptance, respect and understanding, fear and courage, empathy and compassion, and friendship and love.

Perhaps someday a book about a transgender teen may win the Newbery medal. In the meantime, there is Almost Perfect.

Parsing President Obama’s Vision for Better Sex Education

February 10, 2011

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“Education,” “innovation,” and “infrastructure” were among the most often repeated words from President Obama’s measured, thoughtful, and at times powerful State of the Union address. Many commentators praised the president for using them to set a new path of investment for our country.

I agree with the importance of each of them, and I want to apply them to sex and health education. A recent letter writer in the New York Times worried that the president’s recommendations about upgrading education was limited to math, science, and technology. She then made a pitch for “history, political science, literature, and…foreign languages.” Her point was that in order to “build a robust, humane, aware-of-the world society, we surely need a more broadly educated population.”

I would add health and sex education to the mix; they need to be upgraded and even conceptualized differently as we redesign our education system to help students be more competitive in the world. Along with more respect for their crucial importance, we need to revamp these subjects through “innovation,” because as we all know, the Internet has changed the way young people communicate and learn.

To start, we need funding to survey graduating high school students to learn what they liked and didn’t like about their schools’ sex and health education programs. This idea came from reading Sam Dillon’s Times piece “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students,” which discussed a $45-million dollar research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to find ways of using students to identify good and bad teachers.

I’m intrigued by the idea of developing a different, and much less expensive, research project to help us design future health and sex education curricula. Ronald Ferguson, a senior lecturer in education and public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, who developed the questionnaires for the Gates’ project, said that “few of the national 15,000 public school districts systematically question students about their classroom experiences.”

“As a nation, we’ve wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts,” he said.

I wish a foundation would fund the design of a national questionnaire surveying students on what they like or didn’t like about their sex and health education programs, and how they would redesign their courses to help them make smart decisions about sex. Dr. Ferguson should design that questionnaire, perhaps with the help of a cross-section of students around the nation.

More respectful attitudes can be to health and sex education what new roads and new forms of transportation can be to our national economy: “infrastructure.” We need to be more understanding of the powerful, often irresponsible, or even hypocritical attitudes toward sexuality promoted by the media. Take MTV’s new controversial series Skins, about the sexual and drug-fueled exploits of misfit teenagers.

Alessandra Stanley, writing on the Times‘ ArtsBeat blog, voiced her concerns when she wrote: “Skins is a remake of a British drama about misbehaving teenagers that stars real teenagers — the youngest is 15. Monday’s episode [the second], which included a shot of a boy standing naked with a cloth over his pill-enhanced erection, generated a lot of complaints in advance and drove several sponsors to pull their ads from the series.”

MTV executives — concerned that the racy show may violate federal child pornography statutes — ordered its producers to tone down the segment, but in the end, the “offending material” stayed in the show. What is particularly disquieting to me about Skins is that its first episode “drew 1.2 million people younger than 18,” despite the fact that it was seen after 10 pm, Eastern.

Many viewers feel that Skins crosses the line between acceptable depictions of teen sexuality and pornography. I wonder if it gives impressionable teens — many of whom believe “everyone is doing it” — the entirely wrong idea about acceptable sexual behavior. I think most people believe that sex is a mature behavior and that it is better for younger teens to wait until they are sure that their sexual relationship is consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutual pleasurable and protected. What Skins seems to emphasize is that teen sex should be casual, furtive, drug and alcohol induced and unprotected.

Much as I believe in giving teens honest, accurate information about sex, I worry that a lot of MTV’s content isn’t helpful to young people. I might feel differently if some of that racy content would actually be discussed by parents or teachers in age-appropriate sex ed classrooms. We need better sex education programs that incorporate what teens see on TV.

Yet, we don’t have that type of sex ed across the country. So, at the moment, I wish MTV would tone down its sexual content and put young people’s well-being ahead of profits.

The president’s speech included other phrases that can be applied to the idea of investing more heavily in our kids’ futures: “Winning the Future” and “This is Our Sputnik Moment” are two of the media’s favorites. I know they seem like sound bites, but we’re a society that likes to compress important ideas into two-second media clips.

Now it’s time to apply these phrases to sex ed.