As a teen, I dreamed of being a cheerleader. I wanted to apply my athleticism to air splits and tumbles dressed in colorful skirts and pom-poms. I saw myself spinning 15 feet in the air above the shiny, wooden gym floor. My French braids would blow against stale gymnasium air with hundreds of classmates cheering on. I’d be adored—and as feminine as I’d always wanted to be.
In my mind’s eye, I collected pieces from the cheerleaders in my high school and filed them away for future reference. I created an imaginary paper doll who looked like me, but lived their life as their authentic gender. My mind carefully catalogued each and every bow, color, and scent.
My reality was junior varsity football, a shaved head, and the aroma of testosterone-infused body odor. My high school in the Southern “Bible Belt” enforced a narrow path of conservative Christian values. The most beautiful, wholesome characteristic I possessed was my queer femininity, but the world I lived in forced me to repress those desires deep into the recesses of my imagination.
I had very little options for escape from masculinity, too. This is where my search for queer media began. It was the ‘90s, so I was limited to RuPaul singing “Supermodel” on MTV and late night “shockumentaries” on premium cable about transgender people. I became laser-focused on finding people like me in television and in books. I would record episodes of Boy Meets World where the male characters present femme on my VCR and collect old issues of Superman comics where Jimmy Olsen eventually becomes Jenny Olsen.
I felt like a starved animal looking for crumbs in overturned garbage cans, and every ounce of “representation” I could find was wrought with gender stereotypes. Typically, the person displaying any sort of gender non-conformity was the butt of the joke; therefore, I was also the butt of the joke.
Recently, I found a Young Adult novel called Squad by Rae (Mariah) MacCarthy that includes trans and queer teens with positive character development. I didn’t realize how much of myself I’d left untouched from my teenage years until I began to live vicariously through MacCarthy’s characters. The book awakened my inner teen, who was starved for YA stories featuring transgender people who don’t die, don’t commit violent crimes, and aren’t included for shock value. These characters just are—living their lives, navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence, being young and awkward just like any other teenager.
Squad follows Jenna Watson, a teen navigating life as a high school cheerleader with her best friend Raejean. Her life takes a sudden shift when Raejean ghosts Jenna, along with the entire cheerleading squad. A transgender boy named James is woven throughout the story and becomes increasingly more relevant in Jenna’s life.
James is introduced by Jenna’s older brother Jack, who explains and enforces his new pronouns and name during James’ transition. Jack also spends time explaining hormone therapy and why James won’t be taking testosterone until college. He reveals himself to be the intelligent, compassionate, trans-affirming big brother I wish everyone had.
Jenna gradually gets used to using the correct pronouns and goes through the adjustment of correcting herself when she accidently misgenders him. As I read her inner monologue, I could feel parts of myself that were buried in my childhood awaken again. I felt a type of euphoria that only comes when you’re able to express your authenticity freely.
I imagine that this is what it feels like for a closeted trans child to read a book like Squad today.
The emotions Jenna and James share are feelings my inner transgender teen longed for. Somewhere internally, I still don’t fully believe transgender people should be loved. I’ve been conditioned to believe that transgender people are doing something wrong and deserve to be punished for it.
However, Jenna and James don’t fall prey to this conditioning. Instead, they cherish the love they feel. When they’re intimate, they ask for consent and nurture each other’s bodies. Jenna doesn’t always understand what James is going through while discovering his gender identity, but she knows that she loves him. That’s all that matters.
Part of the work of undoing decades of internalized transphobia is realizing the source. I’ll never get to experience being in love as a young person living life out-and-proud. I got a sense of what that must be like from James, who makes it clear throughout Squad how thankful he is to love and have someone love him knowing who he really is.
MacCarthy, who identifies as gender non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, touches on subjects that may be out of the range of most cisgender authors. They’re unafraid to reach into the depths of the transgender experience, something that’s sorely lacking in most contemporary YA fiction. Stories like these—ones that transport readers back to their teenage years, allow LGBTQ adults to nurture the wholesome queer feelings they repressed in their youth—are vitally important for LGBTQ readers seeking to see themselves represented in literature.
I’ll never be a high school cheerleader. I’ll never know what it’s like to go through puberty or fall in love without gender dysphoria looming overhead. Large parts of who I am are still scarred from being in the closet as a young adult. I can’t change it, and I now realize that that’s okay. My inner teenager is slowly healing and learning just how complex and beautiful gender can be. Hopefully, trans teens find stories like Squad and see that transgender people can have full lives.
I know there’s a trans teenager out there who needs to hear, the same way I once did, that they don’t have to hide. They don’t need to pretend to be somebody they aren’t. They deserve to love and be loved, too.