Arts·Year in Review

'A bright and shimmering expanse of hope': Celebrating the voices of trans women in 2016

Coming out and transitioning made 2016 the most difficult year of poet Gwen Benaway's life — but she found herself between the pages.

How a poet in transition found herself between the pages

Vivek Shraya and Gwen Benaway. (Gwen Benaway)

This is part of a series of personal essays in which CBC Arts asked Canadian artists to reflect back on the year that was. This essay is by award-winning author and poet Gwen Benaway

2016 was the worst year of my life. It was not because of the American election results or the many celebrity deaths, but because 2016 was the year I came out as a trans girl. I knew my transition to womanhood would be difficult. I have thought about transitioning for as long as I can remember, doing extensive research and eavesdropping on online trans forums. But nothing prepared me for the reality.

I lost friends and my dignity. Every day became a struggle against street harassment, a constant violence which follows me everywhere I go. The medical side of transitioning — hormones and the process of removing my facial hair — has been painful, expensive and dehumanizing. People I thought would be my allies have quietly stepped out of my life as my intimate prospects have disappeared. I have become a social outsider, stared at, mocked and judged in every moment. I have no shame in saying there have been many moments where I felt so alone I could not imagine living through another day.

Gwen Benaway's new book Passage. (Gwen Benaway)

But the one constant positive force in my life has been the voices of other trans women. Part of my experience as a trans woman is the daily erasure of my humanity by lovers, friends and strangers. The only safe space has been literature written by other trans women. Between the pages of their works, I can see a world where trans women are active agents of our lives, human and whole. I have kept their books around me throughout my transition and turn back to their words when it feels impossible to imagine a better life for myself. They give me hope and speak honestly to the experience of living in this body and gender.

There are many writers I could speak about, but I want to focus on three books which came into the world in 2016. The first is Vivek Shraya's poetry collection, even this page is white. The work is striking and focuses on exploring the intersections of race, gender and intimacy. Shraya was one of the first trans women to reach out to me when I announced my transition on Facebook, and we have stayed connected through social media as she transforms understandings of what being a trans woman is. I always value her contributions to the world.

Another trans woman who explored the intersections of race and gender in 2016 is Jia Qing Wilson-Yang. She published a novella, Small Beauty, a beautiful trans spin on the classic gothic story. Her trans protagonist is remarkably human, confident in her gender and navigating a difficult world with grace. Reading Small Beauty was like coming home to myself. When you are told everyday that you are undesirable and dangerous, a story like Small Beauty is such a rare gift. Between its pages, trans women are capable and filled with light.

"What I loved about 2016? The brilliance and vitality of othertranswomen writers —the girls who get up, face it alland somehow make beautiful and necessary art."- Gwen Benaway

Finally, Kai Cheng Thom's book Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir — a modern fairy tale parable about being a trans girl — is magic. Trans women are shown in the full complexity and diversity of our experiences. Like Shraya's and Jia Qing's work, Cheng Thom creates powerful characters who break through the world with radiance and a fierce love. This book is burned in my mind, a bright and shimmering expanse of hope.

Kai Cheng Thom and Gwen Benaway. (Gwen Benaway)

I have no regrets about my transition. I have always known who I am. The parts of me I love are the ones growing as hormones change my body. I celebrate every moment through Instagram selfies and blog posts, because this transition is my sacred return to life. But it is more difficult than anything I have ever done. Most days, I can't see past 5pm. There are a few moments when light falls through the sky and finds me, moments when I still believe it is possible to be a trans girl and be loved, safe and whole. These moments of grace come from the writing of other trans women. I hold them with me through doctor appointments, bad dates and every hateful word shouted at me.

What I loved about 2016? The brilliance and vitality of other trans women writers — the girls who get up, face it all and somehow make beautiful and necessary art. I can't change the world. I can't make my life any easier. What I can do is speak back to the violence and erasure of the world and hold up the voices of other trans women writers. The role of a writer is always to look at what we don't want to see and find truth in it. These women I've listed above accomplish truth telling with consummate skill and wonder. Read them in 2017 — you'll be better for it.

An emerging two-spirited trans poet of Anishinaabe and Métis descent, Gwen Benaway has been described as the spiritual love child of Thomson Highway and Anne Sexton. In 2015, she was the recipient of the inaugural Speaker's Award for a Young Author and in 2016 she received an Dayne Ogilvie Honour of Distinction for Emerging Queer Authors from the Writer's Trust of Canada. Her work has been published and anthologized internationally. She and her many vintage dresses can be found on Instagram and Twitter.​