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Photo via Ana Valens (Licensed)
How a scrappy, coming-of-age novel is helping transgender women feel less alone.
Warning: This article contains extensive spoilers and plot details.
2014 was a rough year for me. Halfway through college, my anxiety was creeping in, and my depression was getting worse. I hated myself. I hated the way I dressed. I hated having facial hair, wearing men’s clothes, and feeling bulky and masculine as I walked down the street to class.
At the time, I thought I was dealing with low self-esteem and a ferocious anxiety disorder. But as 2014 bled into 2015, I began to realize something else was at play. I was having issues with my gender identity.
In early 2015, I met Sophia Park, a game developer who was studying film in Toronto at the time. She quickly figured out something was wrong. She knew I was experimenting with my gender on the internet, and that I was questioning my gender identity. So she suggested I read a little-known book by Imogen Binnie called Nevada. It’s a novel about a transgender woman named Maria Griffiths whose life gradually falls apart while she’s trying to get by in New York City.
I begrudgingly took her up on the offer. I picked up a copy of the book in mid-2015 and began burning through the first half of it over the summer. It was rough, punky, and slightly rambly. And even though I could tell the story wasn’t very polished, I liked it. There were awkward gender issues. Rumination and depression. Dissociation during sex. Autoerotic asphyxiation. But what I loved most was the transgender protagonist who felt just as stressed out and over-analytical about life as I did.
In other words, it was a good book to read if you were a trans woman early into her transition.
But I couldn’t finish it all at once. There was that much to process, that much more I had to discover about myself first. But over the next two years, Binnie’s story would stay with me. The character of Maria would flow in and out of my life, like a close friend opening up about her transition just when I needed her most.
Why transgender women love ‘Nevada’
I am not alone. Nevada has become an iconic work of fiction among Generation Xers and millennials in the trans community. Trans women loan copies to one another. They send Nevada to pre-transition trans women questioning their gender identity. And they joke about it, referencing the book in stories, poems, art, and tweets.
after reading Nevada I wanna date a smart trans woman who'll tell me "it's not ok, it'll never be ok, but I understand"
— genevieve ⚧ (@an_mistake) July 4, 2017
rereading Nevada because i went to a trans ladies picnic on sunday and now i'm all feeling being trans.
— Magdalene Visaggio (@MagsVisaggs) April 26, 2017
— emmy (@saskeah) February 16, 2017
They also make sure you can read it online for free.
My close friend Janice Raymond currently runs Have You Read Nevada, after engineer Aster Ryan started the site in 2015. Underneath the title “No Actually, Read Nevada” are links to Binnie’s novel for purchase through Amazon and publisher Topside Press’ website. It’s also available digitally in .pdf, .epub, and .mobi formats free of charge, because it was published under a creative commons license to be accessible to all.
What draws many, myself included, into the book is the well-rounded complexity of the main character Maria—she acts, sounds, and thinks like many young trans women I know. Because she spent most of her young life dissociating to deal with her gender dysphoria, Maria ends up in a relationship in her late 20s that’s falling apart due to her lack of communication. Maria describes trans women as meek and shut-in for that reason, which is incredibly accurate. Most of us have locked up our emotions because of all the pain and trauma we’ve been through just to transition.
“She’s every trans woman,” says Raymond, who credits Nevada with changing her life. “Every trans woman has gotten to that point. She lives in her head, she puts all her problems on other people, she breaks up with her girlfriend because she doesn’t think she deserves her girlfriend’s love basically, and she runs away from the city because she can’t fucking stand herself and she’s trying to run away from herself.”
Maria isn’t Laverne Cox or Chelsea Manning. She’s not a public figure or an upbeat role model who has her shit together. She’s just a mild-mannered trans girl living in Brooklyn dealing with a ton of emotional baggage.
Which sounded pretty familiar to me.
its called Nevada by Imogen Binnie pic.twitter.com/HQzH6v5Xpo
— Hi I'm Spider (@CandyArachnid) March 31, 2017
I finished reading Nevada in a stuffy college apartment in New Brunswick, New Jersey, right after I began going on hormone replacement therapy (HRT). That summer, I wandered around my kitchen in the boiling heat and thought a lot about being trans.
I mean a lot. I thought about how I looked out in public, how to maximize passing, whether my voice sounded feminine or not, and what to do about the mounting realization that there was no turning back now that I started HRT. I was on my first year on estrogen, and it was very painful to navigate the world in a city where I was out to some people and closeted to others.
So I did a lot of rationalizing to get by. I was lonely living in place where I could count on my hand how many transgender women I knew, so I told myself I needed to move. I wanted to go to a city where trans women were plentiful. So my friend Aster Ryan, the same one that originally began Have You Read Nevada, offered me a sublet in the same punk house Raymond was living in when she moved to New York City.
I moved to New York later that year. But as it turns out, simply changing your environment doesn’t fix your problems. Like Maria, I was running from something—the pain, trauma, and sadness I’d felt over just being me. Not to mention there were all the terrible coping mechanisms I had developed over the years and the sheer social anxiety that resulted from shutting myself out from the world.
“I think one of the points of Nevada is that your behaviors pre-transition will inform your post-transition life,” Park explained to me. “You won’t be a new person. Your traumas will come with you. The ways you coped with dysphoria will persist, and just trying to unpack everything in the middle of just living your life can seriously distract you.”
‘Nevada’ addresses sorting out the present with the past
There is the personal process of transitioning. And then there is the dealing with how people respond to you once you have transitioned.
“queen ana: feet when. please.” This is a common message I receive in my Curious Cat inbox, an anonymous messaging service where my Twitter followers can shoot me comments and questions with little-to-no repercussions. Scrolling down my page, most of the questions I get are about my body.
“How often do you fap?” one person asks.
“How do you feel about ‘Cum Tributes’?” another says.
And most invasive of all, “Have you considered making adult or fetish videos for people to purchase? I would buy them in a heartbeat.”
I understand why I get a lot of these questions. I’m an attractive, openly transgender woman with a decent online following. But it’s a pretty big reminder that many people see me as a fetish. A piece of meat on the internet. A “trap.” And for that reason, sometimes it sucks to be a trans woman.
I'm reading Nevada by Imogen Binnie rn and it's great, but exquisitely painful (also the first fiction I've read in probably five years).
— Gwyn.ebs (@gwynebs) March 20, 2017
Nevada understands that being trans is kind of a bad deal. In Maria’s case, even though she passes, she still feels held back by her past. All of her old coping behaviors keep getting in the way of her ability to know what she wants and to just live.
“I’m just at this point where I’m stomping around like I know everything about everything, just because I transitioned and now creepy old men on the street hit on me—when really, I’m stunted back at like age thirteen, age five, age zero, when I first started suppressing stuff I knew I couldn’t say in public,” Maria tells her friend Piranha during the middle of the book.
Maria has a pretty complicated relationship with her body, to the point where she fakes her orgasms while having sex with her girlfriend. While I can’t say I’ve ever faked an orgasm (life is too short for that), on some days, my body and I just don’t get along well. My breasts look too pointy, my hips are pear-shaped, my stomach protrudes just a bit too much, and, even after doing squats for months, my ass still doesn’t look quite as wide or round compared to cis women’s. It feels like I spent 22 years of my life being poisoned by testosterone, and when I finally got on HRT, I got a lousy replacement body.
I have my days where I feel hot and sexy, of course. And as it turns out, having other people want you is a major confidence booster. But you really can’t fuck your way into feeling good about yourself.
That’s something Maria gets. In one scene, Maria reminisces about having sex with her coworker Kieran in a Burritoville bathroom. She calls it “her sleaziest moment.” But everything about the scene is awkward. The bathroom is so small that Maria’s face is pressed against the bathroom mirror, and during sex she “managed to keep her skirt on the whole time and not to let him touch her junk,” which sounds more traumatic than sexual.
Maria gets that her hook up with Kieran is suppose to be a hot and exciting moment. It’s punk rock, she says. But sex doesn’t actually make her feel that great, because it’s not actually fixing anything inside of her. It’s just reminding her that she has problems with her body and her genitals.
That’s how I felt about sex for the longest time. I just couldn’t have sex because it was too traumatic for other people to touch my body. When you can’t deal with gender dysphoria, sex feels a lot more like something to dissociate to than truly enjoy.
This also makes those creepy fetish comments particularly brutal. Having a complicated relationship with your body and then being objectified by strangers on the internet can trigger some difficult thoughts. Or it can make you turn to strangers for some sense of validation that you’re attractive and worthwhile. Nevada reminds me that other trans women struggle with this problem, too. And that if I want to figure out how to deal with both wanted and unwanted attention, then I need to come to terms with having a body that’s trans.
Not everyone transitions on the same clock
James H is, by all extents, one of the most mysterious and unsettling characters in Nevada. James, who lives in Star City, spends most of his time smoking weed, working at Wal-Mart, thinking about his girlfriend, and looking at internet porn of men being turned into women. James wonders if he’s a woman—he’s even bought women’s clothing and worn them—but he figures that he’s probably just a freak with a fetish for “being sexually attracted to oneself as female.”
When Maria and James meet, Maria immediately realizes that James must be a closeted transgender woman. She then decides to divert her energy into helping James transition. Except it doesn’t work. James is too emotionally shut off to even understand that he may be transgender. The two of them eventually part ways.
“He isn’t ready,” Park tells me. “He might transition one day. He might not. But because his dysphoric coping behaviors don’t match Maria’s, he’s a little alienated from her.”
Of course, James’ behavior feels a little on the nose. Before I transitioned, I was James. And at one point in my life, Park was Maria. Park tried to help me transition, but the idea of changing my life so heavily, coming out to my family, and telling my friends to call me a girl was… a lot to take in. I wasn’t ready yet. And I balked.
It's raining outside and I'm sitting in the all trans kitchen I work at drinking miso soup & reading Nevada
— ScampTramp (@MotsduPrairie) May 22, 2017
Two and a half years later, reopening that old wound has made me understand why I wasn’t ready to read Nevada when Park first recommended it to me. I was too comfortable with my terrible, shitty life. I was scared to change myself for the better. I wasn’t ready to become a woman.
“I don’t actually believe Nevada is for pre-transitioners anymore,” Park said to me. “Much like Maria encountering James—I think reading Nevada too early, before living out your transition, is too much at once and it’ll alienate you. It would’ve been a better first read this far into your transition.”
Unlike Nevada, though,there’s a concrete ending to my transition. I eventually dove in. I started HRT. In my case, James turned into Maria.
But at the same time, Maria is stuck in a time loop of sorts. She wants to go back to the past, wake herself up, and transition sooner. Of course, Maria can’t fix her past. “You can never go back and change when you did it. You only get to do it when you do it,” Raymond told me about transitioning.
That’s something I think about whenever I go back to that moment Park first recommended Nevada to me. It always makes me wonder why I hesitated so much to come to terms with my gender identity. Why didn’t I just do it sooner? Why couldn’t I wake myself up?
I’m now staring at my mid-20s with less than two years into my transition, and I just wish I could’ve gotten a start back when I was a freshman at Rutgers. I wish I could have walked into the trans support group on campus when I was 18 and shouted, “I’m having issues with my gender identity and I need help.”
But Raymond is right. And her point is made just as much for other trans women as it is for me. There’s no “New Game+” where I get to redo my transition with all my current life skills. I transitioned when I transitioned. And I have to accept that, put aside my past, and move forward. It’s something Maria has to do if she wants to move on with her life—and something I need to do, too.
‘Nevada’ isn’t just for trans people, though
Nevada is the kind of book written by and for trans women. That’s clear. But cisgender readers can get a lot out of reading Nevada, too.
Because the book is based so much on trans women’s experiences with the world, Binnie’s characters can help cisgender people immerse themselves into the thoughts and fears that trans people deal with on a regular basis. Whether that’s figuring out her sex life, or learning what it’s like to deal with gender dysphoria before transitioning, Binnie really gets inside Maria’s head in a way that was never done before.
“Give it to cis people. Give it to your fucking parents,” Raymond said. “If your parents don’t understand any of this, this is, like, a decent chance at them understanding.”
It’s also a good primer for women who date trans women. Nevada can break down transphobia, Raymond insists, forcing cisgender readers to question their ill-conceived notions of transgender women.
“It’s powerful. It lets people understand this and understand what trans women are about, in a way, in simple form,” she said.
Raymond’s right. Something about Nevada is powerful. It’s a book that makes people cry. It’s a story that makes people feel heard. And for many, it’s one that ultimately pushed them to take the first few steps forward in their lives, coming out as transgender to their friends and families.
Raymond told me once that she thinks James is actually a hallucination of Maria’s past. Whenever I think about Nevada, I think about the fact that I’m stuck going in circles, trying to go back to a part of my past that was awkward, painful, and traumatic. I hated being a boy, and I just want to redo it all and start over.
But seeing someone like Maria, someone just as confused and messed up about her life as me, helps a lot. Maybe it’s OK to be stuck in a rut right now. Maybe if I’m aware of it, then I can start to climb out.
Maybe you’re stuck, too. If you haven’t picked up Nevada, give it a read.
Ana Valens is an LGBTQ reporter and essayist for the Daily Dot. Her work has previously appeared in Bitch, the Establishment, Vice's Waypoint, Rolling Stone's Glixel, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.