Over the last few years, there has been increasing coverage of the transgender community in mainstream media. Many journalists, however, tend to write about transgender people in a way that actually silences or stigmatizes them—thereby further marginalizing a population that already faces much higher rates of violence and discrimination. Susan Kuklin’s latest book, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, is wonderful precisely because it empowers these teenagers to speak for themselves. Kuklin interviewed and photographed six transgender or gender-neutral young adults about their experiences before, during and after the realization of their truth.
Prior to working on this book, Kuklin did not know any transgender people personally and she admits that the learning process was steep. “Initially the topic came about from long LGBTQ conversations with a young cousin. At one point, she told me about a transgender friend who talked to her about gender and priorities: When looking for love and friendship, it’s the person, not the gender, that counts. That comment got me thinking.”
As her initial research for the book began, she quickly realized the complexity of the topic and the community. After reading a number of books (some of which are included in the “resources” section of Beyond Magenta), attending several conferences and talking with experts, Kuklin ultimately came to have a stronger understanding of the community. “I must say that I learned the most from listening to the teens themselves. I couldn’t get better experts,” said Kuklin, who has written and photographed more than 30 books for children and young adults. Indeed, it is empowering for these teens to voice their journeys in their own words and it’s a necessary read for adults (as well as young people).
The Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York City, which offers low-cost or free healthcare for LGBTQ people, helped Kuklin locate subjects for the book. Callen-Lorde runs a special program for teenagers called Health Outreach To Teens; Kuklin was able to connect with a psychologist who works at the center. “My prerequisite was that the teens come from a broad range of backgrounds. She told me in general terms about clients that she thought would be good candidates. I agreed with her choices,” Kuklin says. “Then, she told the clients about the project. It was up to the clients to think about doing this and, if interested, call me. Everyone who called me was included; no one was rejected.”
Each section is devoted to a teenager and features color pictures—playful and serious and vibrant—taken by Kuklin (one teen asked not be photographed and the parent of another requested that their child’s face not be shown) as they partake in everyday activities—shopping, playing music, jumping for joy or hugging their mother. As a photographer, Kuklin felt that their images would add intimacy and further bring their stories to life. She planned the photo essays together with the teens. She allows the teens to speak for themselves throughout—only interjecting with her own voice, set off in a different font, to clarify a specific point or explain something that’s happening that the reader can’t see.
“I followed the teens’ leads about what they wanted readers to know about themselves. They were candid and introspective. After I wrote their first drafts, they read them for accuracy,” says Kuklin, who spent two years interviewing her subjects after researching the community for almost a year. “There were rare times when they said something they later preferred I leave out. I respected that throughout the editing process.”
Each of these stories is unique and, like all teenagers, each one of these young people is still in the midst of grappling with their place in the world. Kuklin says that some of them spoke in a stream of consciousness style, some began at the end of their story and worked backward, and some jumped around in time. Each story has moments of revelation, heartache and joy as these teens navigate the standard issues of adolescence—school, dating and thoughts of college—while being ostracized or marginalized by their peers. Kuklin’s book comes at a time when teenagers are getting more comfortable with acknowledging their gender identity, as demonstrated by the story of Blake Brockington, a 17-year-old transgender student who came out in his sophomore year, was recently nominated to be homecoming king of his Charlotte high school, and who mentors other, younger transgender youth.
Late in developing the book, Kuklin decided to include the perspective of one parent, which adds another layer of nuance to this valuable tome. If we as a society are ever going to truly recognize the humanity of transgender people, it must begin by listening to their stories. Beyond Magenta is a great place to start.