Queerly Beloved is a memoir by Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall that details how they got together as a self-identified lesbian couple and how they managed to stay together after Jacob (who was originally named Suzy) came out as a transgender man (fifteen years into the relationship). The book is a beautiful love story and a fascinating look at gender issues. Above all, the book is a powerful reminder that there is no single “gay” or “transsexual” or “male/female experience”. Rather, every person is an individual with their own experience of gender, sexuality, and love.
I’m in the early stages of educating myself about transgender issues and one thing I’ve observed is that the vocabulary people use to discuss transgender issues and experiences is important, controversial, and constantly changing. For the purposes of this review, I’m using the same terminology that Jacob and Diane do in the book.
Jacob and Diane are both experienced writers, and because they are the co-authors of the Blind Eye mystery series they are accustomed to working together. This comfort level shows in the quality of the book. They are personable and warm, even when they are revealing something annoying about themselves, as they sometimes have to do. The have an easy back and forth rhythm. The tone is conversational.
The book is at its best when it stays focused. This is most evident towards the end of the book, when Jacob and Diane discuss their struggles with foster parenting. There’s plenty of interesting and sometimes horrifying material in that section, but feels like it belongs in another book. The narrative is better when it focuses on Jacob’s transition and how Jacob and Diane work as a team to adapt to this change in their lives.
This book looks at some, but not all, of the medical procedures involved in gender confirmation treatment, but Jacob and Diane try balance being frank with avoiding contributing to the obsession many people have with whether transgender people have male or female genitalia. Jacob points out that it really isn’t about the medical procedures, saying pointedly,
I’m an XX boy. My chromosomes still say I’m female, but my hormone levels and appearance indicate I’m male. Am I a real man? If a man loses his penis to accident or disease does that make him a real man? If I haven’t had the bottom surgery, does that mean I’m not a man but if I’ve had the surgery I am one? Is it having the money or access to medical care that determines whether or not I’m real?
Later he adds:
There’s something dehumanizing about reducing another person to a single body part. If you’re going to reduce me to one, I would prefer it be my brain.
The book focuses more on the changes in their relationship, the changes in their careers, how their families react, and how going from two (self-identified at the time) women in a relationship to one woman and one man changes the patterns of their lives (pro: less street harassment, con: no more sharing a locker at the gym in the bathroom). There’s a lot of heartfelt handwringing, as when Jacob struggles with the idea of giving up his breasts when many of his friends are losing breasts to cancer. But there’s also a lot of humor, as when Diane sees a commercial on TV about prostate cancer and tells Jacob he needs to get his prostate checked, momentarily forgetting that he doesn’t have one.
“That’s not going to happen, honey,” he says.
Jacob and Diane met when Jacob was identifying as Suzy (to himself as well as too the rest of the world). At that point, both Jacob and Diane identified as lesbians. When Jacob came out, Diane continued to identify as lesbian although she was (and is) sexually attracted to Jacob. Labels are important to Jacob and to Diane – they matter personally and professionally. Sometimes the labels reflect inside jokes and make their relationship stronger. They refer to each other as “Queerly Beloved” because it’s a line from a Simpsons episode, a show they both adore. Sometimes labels are vital to their professions. They began their careers as self-identified lesbians who worked for lesbian and other LGBT publications, and they faced career challenges after Jacob came out. Sometimes the labels have to do with owning one’s past. Jacob supports people who do not refer to themselves as “transsexual men” but merely as “men”. But he prefers to refer to himself as a “trans man” because he feels it more accurately describes his life experience and identity.
So much of this book is about the search for identity, much more so than it’s about the specifics of gender and sexuality. How do we define ourselves? What happens when our definitions of who we are offend others, or cause them pain, or confuse them, or simply don’t fit? Why do we love the people we love, and what keeps us together or drives us apart?
One reason that Diane and Jacob have been able to stay together as a romantic couple is that they consistently define themselves as a couple. While their sexual and gender identities are fluid, their identity as a couple remains constant. Diane points out that Jacob is not the only person to have changed in the relationship:
I came out as bisexual twenty-six years ago, then as queer a year later (I love still love and defend that term because I use it today, as does Jacob, even though he is only attracted to women). When I was working at lesbian magazines I started using the term lesbian because those were the women with whom I was most closely aligned, devoted to even, and to whom I was attracted. Then, eight years ago, I was forced to revaluate what many of those terms mean. I still use many interchangeably (lesbian-identified bisexual, queer, lesbian, bisexual-identified lesbian, and so on…)
What I do know, what is my baseline through all of this, is that I love Jacob, and have since we met in 1991. I’ve always found him one of the most attractive people I’ve ever seen. And while I mourned the woman she was as she was cast away, I embraced who he became on the outside so readily because, for the most part, the person on the inside didn’t fundamentally change. There has been a masculine person in that body since we met; that person has just evolved, morphed, adapted, and changed in ways that are, in large part, purely cosmetic. In the duration of our relationship, I’ve gained and lost nearly 200 pounds, gained wrinkles, lost sight, and gone from a brunette rockabilly chick to a blonde cardigan-wearing bookworm. We all change. His just involved his genitals, too.
And Jacob says this about their marriage:
What keeps us together? Sharing private jokes, quoting the Simpsons, saying one word or sentence that references an entire experience. All our shared experiences build on each other, like geological layers in the Grand Canyon, until they add up to be more than what they are, greater than the sum of their parts. The things we both laugh at, the things we don’t. The crazy stories we share, our tradition of no traditions. The pets we’ve raised, the grandparents we lost.
Jacob does not present his story as being representative of every transgender person’s story. He’s very affirming of other journeys. I think one of the strengths of this book is it builds understanding and empathy towards transgender people while also challenging any notion of a standard transgender experience (or lesbian or bisexual or straight experience). Above all, this is a beautiful, funny, touching love story.