An Open Letter to Pride St. Louis

Dear Pride St. Louis Board,

First, thank you for the hard work you did this year and every year to produce PrideFest and the Pride Parade.  I know from producing 200 author events per year, pulling off something like this is a LOT of work and the chances that you will make someone unhappy are 100%.

Some unhappiness is part of the gig. Lack of communication and other surprises make tempers flare in high stress situations.  Most of us who manage these events know how to handle this.  Personally, I’ve had books thrown at my head (an unfortunate baseball event some years ago) and emails and phone messages from people who didn’t feel heard or respected for one reason or another. Usually it can all be resolved with some work.

I’m writing today in hopes that my unhappiness (and the hurt feelings and anger of the group I was with) can be resolved.  Let me tell you what happened.

Metro Trans Umbrella Group (MTUG) registered to march in the parade.  In keeping with its mission as an umbrella group, other groups such as the Gender Foundation and Queer People of Color (QPOC) joined in our entry, making 2015 include the largest transgender and gender queer presence I can remember in two decades of attending PrideFest.  It was really remarkable.

In the weeks leading up to the parade we all discussed what message we wanted to convey, and the consensus was clear.  We wanted to honor all of the trans people, many of whom are people of color, who came before us – who paved the way with their reputations, careers and lives.

As you know, people aren’t just gay.  They aren’t just lesbian. They aren’t just transgender. They aren’t just intersex. They aren’t just bisexual. They aren’t just anything.  We are all many things, and our struggles sometimes come at us from many angles.  We wanted to honor that by opening our arms and hearts wide and talking about gender, race and class in our entry.

After all, the theme this year was “Color Our World.”

So we set up on the parade route – all of us in many ages, all of us in many genders, all of us in many races with our signs and our pain and our celebration – ready to walk down the street in our home town in front of our families and friends, in front of you, and speak clearly.  We were excited to be a part of the march.

When our group set up we were asked what we were “doing.”  Our Black Lives Matter signs were nervously noted. The black people in our group were monitored by the same police officers who had maced them in other contexts. There were no plans to stop the parade, but one police officer approached a member of our group and pleaded with him not to stop the parade. Another person asked for a heads up from MTUG president, Sayer Johnson, about anything we might do to disrupt the parade. Other friends approached me asking about an action.

Our presence made people uneasy.  That feeling, unfortunately, is an everyday occurrence.  It’s one of the thousands of paper cuts that ruin a good day for every transgender person and every person of color in America.  It’s not a feeling I was prepared for in a parade celebrating diversity.

We had gotten there early enough for a good spot in the staging area and waited patiently.  We knew it would take a while to get the parade underway.  There were four lanes and entrants from each lane were being fed into the parade. Those around us were being allowed through and we were told to stay still.  People behind us who had arrived after us were steered around us.  People directly behind us in our lane were steered around us to the parade entrance.  We waited. Finally, near the very end of the 2 ½ hour parade – at the back of the proverbial bus –  we were allowed to proceed.

We marched, some of us coming out for our very first time, some of us celebrating, some of us protesting, all of us relevant, all of us important.

The respect and support from the crowd was exhilarating. I teared up.  Everyone needs a several block long standing ovation in their lives.

But when we got to the judges’ booth we were met with sarcasm.  Our Black Lives Matter message was met with a very loud “All Lives Matter” retort from the emcee.  If you need more information about why that’s problematic, I will explain.   When we replied “Black Lives Matter” the emcee sarcastically read our signs, “Oh, Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter. Um yeah, I get it.” I thought I was being too sensitive when I heard this passing by but later, when I watched the video we have of the exchange, I realized I had heard her correctly.  The one time we stopped in the parade was here, for a few seconds of silence. It was barely noticed.

One of the best ways to crush someone’s spirit is to ignore or laugh at them. Insurance companies and politicians do it all the time. It works beautifully.  It’s how gay men died for decades of AIDS before someone took them seriously.  It’s how black citizens were denied the vote for decades.  It has no place in our queer community.

Our entry was a celebration, a tribute and a protest.  It was meant to remind everyone of the beautiful complexity of our humanity, and that this complexity was the beginning of the LGBT Pride 46 years ago when a group of trans people who looked a lot like us decided to fight instead of hide at Stonewall.

I am someone who recognizes the work we need to do and celebrates the work we’ve already done. I love that our queer movement has become a celebration, but I know that there are still reasons to rise up.  I want to celebrate millions of happily married gay couples, and I want to work even harder for the rest of us who are still here fighting for our lives.

What can you do to make this right?  You can believe me.  You can believe us.  We are only telling our truth.

Best Wishes and Happy Pride,

Jarek Steele

Co-Owner, Left Bank Books

Supporter of Metro Trans Umbrella Group


Chasing Gillian – A critique of Adam by Ariel Schrag

Well, this is problematic.  I don’t have anything against Ariel Schrag, per say like I do Norah Vincent (the reasons for which I could describe at length). Schrag is a talented writer.  Adam opens with a crushingly awkward and awesome scene where Adam, the 17-year-old protagonist tries to make out with a pretty girl in her bedroom while she IMs her other friends.  It sucked me in, I’ll admit.  When I picked the Advance Reading Copy off of a pile in my hallway to break my reading slump, I thought I was in for a light young adult novel – and it is, really – teenage protagonist, absent adults, adventure to new city, first-time sex.  Plus the blurb on the front was written by none other than Alison Bechdel, I mean holy crap, I love pretty much everything she’s done.

Synopsis:  Adam, socially awkward, 17 year old virgin moves to New York to live with his older (lesbian) sister Casey for the summer.  While there, he and his sister become involved with a group of friends – lesbian, bi and trans.  Adam is mostly on the periphery of the group, following them to clubs and parties, until he meets Gillian, a 22 year old lesbian, who mistakes him for a transman and starts dating him based on that assumption.

The story started out ok.  I even thought Schrag had broken into my head and lifted some of the awkward thoughts and panic attacks out of it and committed them to paper as she followed Adam through his social interactions.  And make no mistake, I remained sympathetic to Adam for pretty much the whole book.

Even as the story progressed, I found myself laughing at the posturing and posing of the 20-something scene in NYC, especially the Marriage Equality March scene where Schrag deftly and humorously illustrates the complicated and sometimes contradictory allegiances within the LGBT community.

Where this went off the rails for me is where Gillian, who is a 22 year old lesbian with more world and relationship experience than both Adam and Casey combined, mistakes a 17 year old high-school student for a 22 year old transgender man – not just once when she’s drunk at a party, but for a sustained relationship.  Why?  Because this pokes at a very sore spot for me as a transman.

Do sparse facial hair, acne and social awkwardness define trans for Schrag?  What about obsession with sex and body image? How about emotional immaturity and desperation for inclusion?  Because those are the only things about Adam’s character that Schrag draws upon to make her case that he is a passable transman.  The other transmen in the story are one-dimensional stereotypes obsessed with their bodies and masculinity who casually hook up with women like Casey and then break their hearts.  (Then, of course the confused woman (Casey) realizes she’s really into butch women and abandons the idea of transmen altogether.)

This premise is insulting to all involved.  In real life, Gillian would have figured out she was dating a teenage boy who had never even kissed a girl immediately.  Transmen have the unique experience of being socialized as girls.  Adam once sneaked his best friend to a place where they could watch his sister have sex with her girlfriend.  I sincerely doubt that same person could pull off even one day in the company of a group of people including other (real) transmen.

During the course of their relationship, Adam crams like he would for an exam so that he can pass as a transman.  He memorizes testosterone doses, surgeries, doctors, research and the shorthand lingo we use in online forums. He recites them in his head as one would before the big test, and throws out the bits of intelligence he’s gathered at strategic places so he looks like he knows what he’s talking about.

In other words, rote memorization without the experience – which is what Schrag’s treatment of the trans experience reads like.

Even still, the story held my interest for the day and a half it took for me to read the book.  And then the end of the story happened.


Gillian finds out Adam isn’t trans, is ok with it, decides she wants to date a 17 year old boy, then loses interest and begins a relationship with a cis gender man.

Sooo, what I’m hearing is that relationships with transmen (or people one thinks are trans) are only useful to clarify someone’s sexuality so that they can pursue a (real) relationship with the butch woman or cis gender man of their dreams.  So glad we can be of service. You’ll pardon me if I don’t let my partner of 12 years in on that secret.

I finished this book thinking, “Why can’t I find more good stories about trans people written by trans people?”  I suppose I should get to work.