True confessions: I had to call Father Toni Amato to get some help understanding the world of Sassafras Lowrey's Roving Pack. It's a world of transgender gutterpunks. The first word I knew. The second, not so much.
I sit on an advisory group committee for Father Toni Amato, a transgender Catholic priest and writing coach. That's where I heard about Roving Pack, because Father Toni was working on it. Full disclosure: I've been in digital connection with Sassafras Lowrey, although I've never met hir. So let's stop right here at "hir," a new-ish word denoting "his" or "her" without bowing to the gender binary most of us use.
Truth be told, I stand outside the edge of the transgender world. I am not transgender in any way, but I do bear witness to that culture. I was embarrassed that I didn't understand Lowrey's book. Father Toni laughed gently at me and wondered why I expected myself to understand.
I finally laughed and said that I guessed I was Margaret Thatcher compared with the characters in the story. He agreed that I was. The irony is, of course, that Ms. Thatcher would consider me, as a femme lesbian, way out there. All this said, everyone in Western culture needs to read this book.
I'll tell you why: because gutterpunks, leather families and trans-everything people are God's children, just like Margaret Thatcher is. At one point while reading, I came to the end of a line in the middle of a page that read, "...before I got kicked out of the Future...." The sentence continued on the next line, of course, but that phrase, that one solitary phrase, stopped me cold and made me cry.
"...before I got kicked out of the Future..."
That's what Click, the protagonist, and all these courageous young people in this story are fighting for: the right to have a future, and, furthermore, the future they themselves choose. Like all the rest of us who are God's progeny (and that includes everyone, no exceptions), these socially anarchistic young souls have what Madeleine L'Engle called "the terrible gift of free will," and they, just like us, want the right to choose their own futures. Duh.
Roving Pack tells the story of a group of youth in and around Portland, Ore. Many are homeless, parentless and without mooring. They dance together and blend into variations on families that made me see how much pain can be created by social norms -- whatever they are. This is not to say that norms must go, but it is to say that norms are limiting, and that those who choose to live beside them and outside them are no less human and often far more humane than those who conform to them.
At one point in the narrative, the author describes a white board in the Queer Youth Resource Center that forms the pivot point for these myriad souls. It has three columns, labeled "Old Name," "New Name" and "Pronouns." All visitors to the QYRC must declare their current reality on this board. Some of the names are gender-revelatory; others are not. Some use standard English pronouns; some insist on "ze" for "he" or "she," and "hir" (see above).
Lowrey delineates four gender aspects more clearly than I've ever seen them articulated, although I've known and proclaimed forever that gender is a spectrum. First, there is one's sex assignment, that being "what the doctors said when you were born." Second, there is one's gender's identity, that being "how you feel inside." Third, there is one's gender presentation, that being "what other folks think about your gender." Fourth, there is one's sexual attraction or orientation, that being "who you like."
Most of us never even touch more than two of these categories in our entire lives. This is why Click's story is as compelling as the It Gets Better campaign, which began after the devastating suicide of the college first-year outed by a roommate on the Internet. That campaign captured imaginations the world over. It drew attention to a worldwide problem.
I know that the trans subculture has sometimes felt dissed by It Gets Better founder Dan Savage, and they may be, but having read the novel, I cannot help but think that the trans world needs an It Gets Better model, and Click's story just might be that.
I had started to read the book when my beloved stole it right out of my hands because, as she said, "there's a picture on the front of a sweet dog and..." -- she got a little shy here -- "...a guy with pockets."
To my dearest, pockets signify the difference between her clothes and mine. Hers, according to her, are functional, whereas mine are frou-frou. My mother sewed my pockets shut when I was a child. The thing is, my sweetheart unwittingly showed me one of the major themes in this work through her statement. The dogs. Click even says, "[G]od knows that little dog [Orbit] is saving me."
What about having a dog saves Click? I'd say it's responsibility for someone weaker than hirself. Orbit needs care and feeding, and so does Click, and Click has only Click to rely on for that, at far too young an age, in my opinion. Click says, "[M]y whole world is going to revolve around making sure he's happy and healthy." Click could just as easily have said this about hirself, but because of the way our world handles difference, ze can't.
I was reminded of Andrea Jenkins' remarkable poem/diatribe called "Calling for the recognition of self-love as a legitimate relationship in the game of life," the final stark lines of which read, "Be It Much Further Fucking Resolved, / that self-love is indeed the only relationship that really matters / and anybody that tries to tell you different / don't know shit about love."
Click's relationships with hir dogs not only save hir, but they teach hir the only unconditional love ze has ever known.
Click aches, "That's what I want more than anything, just to be enough for someone. Mostly, it just scares me how much I know I want and need to be someone's boy, and to have them want to keep me." What Click learns through injecting T (testosterone), and eventually growing past that point in hir process, is that ze is not only enough but plenty. In fact, ze is a universe.
The director of the QYRC, Gus, "always tells us about how gender is a universe, and we are all stars," Click says. Sassafras Lowrey's Roving Pack is much more than just a star; it's a guiding light in the darkness of the false binary illusion of gender we've been too lazy to address. Sassafras, I'm so glad you introduced me to Click; ze is tattooed on my heart forever.
For more on the work of Sassafras Lowrey, please visit sassafraslowrey.com.
Rev. Dr. Susan Corso is the author of The Mex Books.