(Note: Michael Thomas Ford’s work Love and Other Curses comes out in April 2019 from Harper Teen.)
Content warning: this review contains spoilers and references to NSFW content+suicidal characters. I am convinced that the spoilers and content is necessary for a complete review that will be useful to readers, librarians, and to the author.
Ford, Michael Thomas (2019). Love and Other Curses. New York, NY: Harper Teen.
AGES 14 AND UP. Sam is a gay boy in a small town in upstate New York, and his life–while fulfilling–is pretty full of secrets. At home, he avoids telling his three magic-practicing, pie-eating grandmothers that he spends much of his free time at the Shangri-La, his town’s only gay bar. When he’s at the Shangri-La, meanwhile, hanging out with drag queens Lola, Farrah and Paloma and trying on his own drag personas, he has to conceal the curse that has haunted his family for generations: whenever a Weyward child falls in love before age seventeen, their beloved inevitably meets with disaster. The curse has stalked Sam’s great-great-grandmother, his great-grandmother, his grandmother, and his father–Sam’s mother has been missing since his birth, and Sam believes her to be dead. Sam has almost made it to age seventeen, but just when he thinks he is safe, a new boy, Tom, shows up for the summer, and Sam develops an unfortunate crush that he’s afraid will turn into something worse. Readers of Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera, David Levithan and Mackenzi Lee will be interested in this realistic, magic-laced coming-of-age story about friendship, grief, family, and growing up.
What this book doesn’t advertise on the jacket–but what is revealed in the first page after the introduction of Tom Swift, Sam’s love interest–is that Tom is a trans boy.
As a gay trans man who came out in 2010, I can say with assurance that there has not been very much widely-consumed representation of trans men in fiction in the media I grew up with, and recent years have–despite much media coverage– not much changed that fact. When we appear, we tend to either be background characters or be exploited as a source of pathos and angst (Boys Don’t Cry, Cole on the Fosters in early seasons, Albert Nobbs, 3 Generations). Representations of transmasculine spectrum people also tend to still be written by cisgender people, resulting in portrayals that are focused heavily on transition narratives, pain, suicide attempts, and voyeurism. The best representation of a teenage trans boy (and one of the only gay trans boys in any popular art that I know of) is Max, the central character in Taylor Mac’s play Hir . Mac, who uses “judy” as a gender pronoun, is trans spectrum of some kind, so judy’s detail and emotionally visceral and authentic writing in Hir makes sense. When I first realized that the love interest in Love and Other Curses was trans, I was excited that for the first time there might be a fully developed trans gay boy love interest in a YA which could provide solace and hope to closeted or recently-out trans teens (plus reassurance and excitement to the boys and others who are into them). Unfortunately, at the end of the book, I came away disappointed.
Before I talk about issues I have with Tom Swift’s characterization in Ford’s book, I want to name the things in Ford’s book that he does well.
1. I LOVE the Practical Magic spin-off premise with a gay boy protagonist. If you could pick my subconscious for most-wanted YA novels, “17 year old weird drag queen with three generations of magic-practicing grandmas living in a rural house and working at an ice cream store and having conversations on the phone with strangers for fun” is pretty close to the top. In general I like the curse arc, and how it’s resolved.
2. I LOVE the feeling that Sam’s scenes at the small-town gay bar Shangri La evoke in me. I grew up gay in a small town with one gay bar too, and I know what it feels like to need mentorship but to not be allowed into any of the spaces of revelry or solidarity that provide gay community. Unlike Sam, I had an LGBT youth group and a lot of punk friends who invited me to gay shows –and I had an annual drag show to look forward to, and a yearly Queer Rock Camp. But the loneliness was still real! I love the mentorship and love that Farrah, Paloma, and Lola provide to Sam, and I like the descriptions of Sam’s own explorations of drag. These scenes are homey and touching and affirm how good gay family can be.
3. The scene where Sam dresses up as mysterious day-glo drag queen Kandy Korn for Pride is OUTSTANDING and captures really beautifully what it feels like to be in gay community and do drag and try on new faces. It reminds me somewhat of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s beautiful descriptions of club life, but it’s accessible and teen-focused and also feels like the scene in the Perks of Being A Wallflower movie where the characters are dancing to “Come On Eileen“. It’s an authentic image of queer youth, and the music references (MIKA, Scissors Sisters, Ariana Grande) are gleefully dead-on for small-town white gays.
4. I really like the initial meeting between Sam and Tom and the scene on the river. It’s sweet and has a great captivating sense of summer and possibility.
5. I like the fact that Tom is the first boy Sam has kissed and I like the frank sexuality of Ford’s books/the reference to the mutual jack-off session that is Sam’s only other point of comparison for sex.
I believe Ford genuinely wants to write a good novel with good representation, and I think he’s competent at this in the extreme–when it comes to gay boys and drag spaces. He is also good at writing about family, grief, and the eternally relatable rural feeling of driving long distances on foggy country roads for small errands.
That said, I think Ford’s trans representation could use work. I don’t believe he wants to be transphobic, but his laziness has resulted in transphobic tropes making their way into his book.
The issues I have with Tom, the “Love” in Love and Other Curses, are as follows:
1. Tom is obsessively focused on transition. This is the main issue I have with most trans representation written by cis people (for instance, the first season of Transparent). Cis authors seem to believe that trans people only think about our own bodies and our own identities, to the exclusion of everyone else in our lives. Tom’s obsessive focus on himself and his angry, disproportionately explosive outbursts at Sam when Sam makes predictable mistakes makes him an unlikeable, unsympathetic character who comes across as boorish, idiotic, and one-dimensional. This depiction communicates to readers that trans people are irrational, abusive narcissists, which can sometimes be true but generally isn’t.
2. Tom has an unrealistic lack of trans community or quality medical information. It’s 2018. Tom wears Dr. Who binders (a dorky and yes, realistic touch–the Adventure Time shirt is also something that a real trans teen would definitely wear). But having access to that means he is plugged in to some kind of online trans community. Because of the Dr. Who obsession, I think Tom would probably be on Tumblr, which would expose him to reams of good and bad information on transition, gender politics, safety, and resources. If he wanted to he could reference lists of books and films related to trans content and seek out information on people like him. He would likely find Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, or The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman or Morgan M. Page’s trans history podcast One From The Vaults. He could also access many comics and a lot of art by trans people featuring their ideas and ideologies. Tumblr is a weird mix of information resource and cesspool, and it’s true that there as many people trying to exploit teens as there are people providing good resources or sharing information. I think it’s reasonable that Tom would make bad decisions sometimes, including trusting people unnecessarily and having hypocritical ideas about gender (particularly transmisogynistic ones, like those he hurls at Sam after Sam tries to suck his dick). However it is ALMOST CERTAIN that Tom, like the thousands (millions) of trans kids around the world who are on the internet, would have read somewhere at some point that black market hormones are a bad idea. Spoilers: It is also almost certain that NO reasonable trans adult would sell black market hormones to a teenager. Most trans adults would instead try to direct a teenager toward an informed-consent medical provider which could legally and safely connect that teenager with consistent HRT or other services. Here is a link to Planned Parenthood resources in the Upper Hudson area, near where Tom and Sam live. In New York, Planned Parenthood provides HRT at a cost which, while steep to an uninsured teen, is not more than one would pay for online hormones. The experience of going to a doctor for the first time and explaining one’s needs around transition is one every closeted trans teenager will someday face. I don’t know ANYONE who buys their hormones online except during manufacturer shortages. Trans people also very rarely SELL hormones to other trans people, in my experience, particularly not closeted trans people in need. We’re a community and (not always, but usually) act like it. I can see an older trans man giving T to a trans kid while also referring them to a doctor, but not selling it to him.
3. Tom’s dysphoria is one-dimensional and not representative of the complicated feelings trans people often have about our bodies. While some trans men, especially straight ones, have extreme dysphoria about their bodies, many of us do not, and feel comfortable sometimes or all the time with our genitalia and our chests and the rest of us. Even if we do have dysphoria, we likely still experience some level of sexual pleasure and arousal even before transition. While you aren’t obligated to show Tom as comfortable with himself, I think it’s realistic to show him as capable of joy and self-love. As a gay trans teenager, I only got on hormones at age 16, and had my first sexual experience after that, but I jerked off prior to getting on hormones and had lots of crushes, and I even occasionally thought of my body positively. There are lots of things online about trans men being hot these days, and plenty of online validation available to transgender teenagers that can help assuage the shame or disgust we feel with our own bodies. There’s also a large amount of porn of trans men where trans men love women and men joyfully (though fetish blogs tend to prefer videos where trans men get fucked by cis men, which I imagine would make Tom, who thinks of himself as straight and has a lot of dysphoria around his genitals, fairly uncomfortable). Even if some days we wake up and hate the way we look or feel, that isn’t necessarily something we would share with someone we just met.
4. Warning: spoilers and NSFW: I am down with the scene of Sam sucking Tom off while Sam is in girl drag! It’s extremely corny, but it’s cute and plausible. What I’m not into is the discourse that happens immediately after where Tom yells at Sam for wearing drag and wanting to crossdress during sex. Tom would CERTAINLY know that Sam was having some kind of gender moment, and it’s only a truly despicable trans person that would react in such an extremely cruel way to someone’s gender experimentation, even if they were freaked out and in a sexual situation they were no longer sure about. There is bad drag discourse out there and trans mascs eat it up, but I think Tom would at least pause to ask if Sam felt like a girl–he HAS to realize that there is something complicated going on.
5. Warning: Spoilers and suicide attempts/cutting: Tom’s subsequent freakout and cutting feels bad an voyeuristic and deeply upsetting to me as an adult. It would feel even worse to a gay trans teenager.
I don’t know if you remember when gay men of all kinds were mainly shown dying, killing themselves, or wanting to die (Ray Bradbury’s “Tangerine” was one of my first encounters with gay representation). I don’t like it! I don’t think we need more of it. Discussing suicidal ideation is one thing; suicide attempts as plot points is something else.
6. We get no sense of Tom and his summer girlfriend Anna-Lynne’s connection. This is unfair to both characters. I want to know why they get along and what she sees in him and what he sees in her! All we get is details about how it feels to kiss her, which dehumanizes her. I want to know what she likes, what she gives Tom and makes him feel, and what she wants. She also seems exceptionally chill with trans people, and I want to know how she sees herself in relation to Tom in the future.
7. We get no sense of what Sam sees in Tom. All he ever does is talk about himself and his transition and angst. Sam’s a complex boy who likes a lot of music and has a lot of secrets and ideas about metaphysics–why would he be satisfied with that? The only thing left is physical attraction, which translates to voyeurism, and that feels really bad. I have had a LOT of cisgender men express attraction to me and my body for a range of reasons, but when they start waxing poetic about the novelty of my body, or the surprise of it, or whatever, I’m very frustrated and disgusted.
8. It’s the Trump era, and trans people are political. Even an extremely out of touch trans person would want to talk about the fear the government inspires in us. Bathrooms and other public spaces are places people want to legislate us out of. Tom would know about this.
So that’s my list. Basically: this book is not written for trans kids. It’s written for people who know we exist, think we can be hot, and might be interested in fucking us, but who generally see us as angst-vortexes in need of a pity hug, or as rage-machines irrationally lashing out at people who give us said pity hug.
That’s no fun!
I really hope that Ford thinks about these issues with his text. I hope he has time for revision before publication and that he will consult with more trans people about the content in his book. He may have already spoken to sensitivity readers, but I am here to say that the current text remains a problem for potential trans readers who are in the target age range for this book. As someone who was a teenager not long ago, this book would have distressed and frustrated me–it paints a picture of trans people totally hemmed in by our own pain and unable to relate effectively to others. While the main character obtains freedom, the trans character is stuck in tropes. What could be a really excellent, glittering LGBT YA is consequently made into a wet blanket of a book for me.