Lily and Dunkin
"Lily and Dunkin" (2016) by Donna Gephart is one of several recent books by cis authors that pair a transgender girl with an otherwise-marginalized cisgender boy. It’s weird that this is such a popular pairing—I can think of two other books with the exact same idea behind them. I want to write an article, or maybe just a parody, called “Trans Girl + Weird Boy,” but for now I want to talk about why the huge problems I see in "Lily and Dunkin". I know this book is trying to represent a possible future for trans fiction: by giving a trans character a motivation beyond just transition (saving her beloved tree from being cut down), and showing how there are lots of different issues that children might face (her friend Dunkin is bipolar and struggling with his father’s recent suicide), and being trans is just one of them. But this story still relies on tired and damaging ideas of trans children created and perpetuated by cis authors.
One of my biggest concerns is how often the author talks about Lily's genitals. Cis people are obsessed with the genitals of trans people, especially trans girls and women, and it's obvious that the author shares this fixation. There are so many times when Lily refers to herself has having "male parts," "male anatomy," "a boy's body," and often refers to hair and growth "down there." I find an adult's fixation on the genitalia of a child, and then putting this fixation onto the child herself, and thus giving readers permission to similarly fixate, troubling and dehumanizing. I hope you know as well as I do where this obsession with trans people's genitals can lead: discrimination, marginalization, violence, and death. Also, Lily doesn't have a male body. She's a girl. She has a girl's body. I understand why Lily doesn't realize that, but it seems like the author doesn't realize it either, or else she would have done something to push back against her character's internal monologue (I hope).
It's also very revealing (no pun intended) that the author doesn't talk about Dunkin's genitals at all. He talks a lot about his body too, how much bigger he is than other kids, hairier, and how awkward and uncomfortable he feels about that. And yet we don't see him ruminating about how maybe his penis is bigger than other boys, how he has pubic hair that he feels weird about, maybe he has erections at unwanted times, or wet dreams. For some reason Dunkin gets his sexual privacy respected in a way that Lily does not. Which says way more about the author's discomfiting fascination with the genitals of trans people than anything else.
It also just continues a highly medicalized and pathologized view of trans bodies. It is almost an interesting comparison, Lily's desperation to get on hormones vs. Dunkin's desperation to get off psych meds. I see the parallels she's trying to draw. But it also worries me, Lily's constant agonizing about puberty and her obsession with medical intervention. What about trans girls who are 16, in puberty, reading this because some well-meaning adult was like "This is about a trans girl so it's great for you"? What does it say about their voices, their height, their bodies? I know that the author isn't trying to speak for all trans girls, but I think Lily's terror about puberty, and her conviction (which is never questioned or alleviated by anyone in the story) that if she doesn't get on blockers soon her life as a trans woman will be over before it starts, is actively harmful to just about every trans girl or woman who transitions after puberty.
One could compare this book to "Almost Perfect," by Brian Katcher. This book is from 2009, and won a Stonewall the year it came out. It was also published by the same imprint as "Lily and Dunkin," and often pops up on lists for books about trans teenagers. It's tempting to point towards "Lily and Dunkin" as a step forward, but honestly, it differs in scale from the violence and hatred in "Almost Perfect" but doesn't differ in execution. One huge complaint about "Almost Perfect" is how the trans character, Sage, keeps coming back to the main character Logan even after he treats her like shit, over and over. Which is exactly what Lily does for Dunkin. He blows her off, sucks up to the boys who bully her, pretends like he doesn't know her, and she keeps coming back to him with forgiveness. And, like I've seen so many times, Lily deals with an unsupportive parent, is subject to verbal and physical abuse, and, of course, gets sexually assaulted in a locker room. I'm not saying that those things don't happen, of course. But it's a trope. A harmful, scary trope that is not inevitable but is constantly being enshrined in fiction like it's just a natural, typical part of growing up trans, that trans kids can expect to get assaulted. That won't make any trans child feel less scared. I want that mindset to stop, especially when it's cis people who are responsible for transphobia, both in action and in creative imagination.
Lily is such a passive character the whole time, letting even her best friend bully and push her around, and the one moment she shows some backbone, trying to protect her favorite tree, she still caves. And she doesn't only cave about the tree. When Dunkin is all prepared to start calling her Lily, she tells him to keep calling her by her birth name, which she hates. Everyone seems to have power over Lily's life but Lily. And as soon as she starts to take some power, she gives it right back up.
There are other issues in this book that deserve further exploration, particularly from a mental health standpoint and critical approach of how race is treated; specifically Lily’s best friend Dare, who is referred to as "dark" and "brown," with the occasional use of AAVE, but is given no context or reality as a Black child in Florida, and exists solely to prop up her white trans friend. But from solely a trans standpoint, the issues in Lily and Dunkin exemplify why cis people should not be the creators, gatekeepers, and arbiters about which trans stories are allowed into the world.