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Sorted

Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir)

An unflinching and endearing memoir from LGBTQ+ advocate Jackson Bird about how he finally sorted things out and came out as a transgender man.

When Jackson Bird was twenty-five, he came out as transgender to his friends, family, and anyone in the world with an internet connection.

Assigned female at birth and raised as a girl, he often wondered if he should have been born a boy. Jackson didn’t share this thought with anyone because he didn’t think he could share it with anyone. Growing up in Texas in the 1990s, he had no transgender role models. He barely remembers meeting anyone who was openly gay, let alone being taught that transgender people existed outside of punchlines.

In this “soulful and heartfelt coming-of-age story” (Jamia Wilson, director and publisher of the Feminist Press), Jackson chronicles the ups and downs of growing up gender-confused. Illuminated by journal entries spanning childhood to adolescence to today, he candidly recalls the challenges and loneliness he endured as he came to terms with both his gender and his bisexual identity.

With warmth and wit, Jackson also recounts how he navigated the many obstacles and quirks of his transition––like figuring out how to have a chest binder delivered to his NYU dorm room and having an emotional breakdown at a Harry Potter fan convention. From his first shot of testosterone to his eventual top surgery, Jackson lets you in on every part of his journey—taking the time to explain trans terminology and little-known facts about gender and identity along the way.

“A compassionate, tender-hearted, and accessible book for anyone who might need a hand to hold as they walk through their own transition or the transition of a loved one” (Austin Chant, author of Peter Darling), Sorted demonstrates the power and beauty in being yourself, even when you’re not sure who “yourself” is.

This reading group guide for Sorted includes discussion questions and extension activities for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Questions for Group Discussion

1. Before beginning the book, lead a general discussion about gender. Ask students to offer ideas about what the word means to them, and also what they know (or think they know) about the general topic. Given the prevalence of misinformation, misconceptions, stereotypes, and confusion around gender-related language, having a preliminary discussion will activate prior knowledge and create a baseline from which to form new and accurate meaning and understanding.

2. In the introduction to Sorted, the author writes, “Growing up as someone who felt different but didn’t have the words to describe or understand that difference, I was drawn to labels that could define me in other ways” (p. xxiii). What does it mean to be given, or to take on, a label? How is labeling a form of sorting? Think about yourself in the context of your family, school, social, and personal life. What labels have you acquired or have been applied to you? What labels are self-imposed? Are these labels helpful or important or, as the author writes, “oppressive and limiting” (p. xxiv)?

3. The author recounts a memory from an early childhood tantrum after trying to urinate standing up: “But I wasn’t just throwing a normal toddler tantrum, my mom says. I was telling her, very soberly, that it was wrong. It was wrong that my body couldn’t do that” (p. 5). He goes on to share additional examples from childhood “moments,” such as wardrobe “compromises,” but makes clear that “these early revelations about my gender may make it seem like I experienced the most stereotypical transgender narrative . . . I knew from my earliest memories that I should’ve been born a boy. I felt trapped in my own body. My life was nothing but misery until I transitioned. This is not one of those stories” (p. 8). Discuss the importance of looking beyond the often prepackaged media narratives about transgender people. Why do you think that “transgender people are rarely shown in a positive, accurate light or as having vibrant, fulfilling lives outside of being transgender” (p. 9)? How is this beginning to change?

4. Discuss the events the author describes in chapters two and three that led to his decision to “give being a proper girl a shot” (p. 27). How did family and societal pressures, shame, and the desire to be perceived as a “normal” person contribute to the author’s prepubescent phase of presenting as a girl?

5. In chapters four and five the author describes his unease with the physical onset of puberty. How did the rite of passage of wearing a training bra lead the author to create untrue reasons for not wanting to wear it? How did wearing a bra make him feel “marked” as “one of the girls” (p. 33)? By eighth grade, the author’s “motivation to fit in as a societally accepted image of a girl was steadily waning” (p. 43); in your opinion, what is a societally accepted image of a girl? Of a boy? How can deviations from these “acceptable” images lead to anxiety and other negative feelings in people who can’t or won’t strive to achieve them? Discuss the author’s statement on page 50: “I want to believe that kids are born without judgment and that gender variance seems natural to them, but I suppose the prejudice of the world can seep in at a very early age.” What are examples of prejudices and attitudes that “seep” into young children as they develop their early worldviews?

6. Discuss the mixed emotions the author experienced after watching the Oprah Winfrey special on transgender kids. By asking the older boy if he liked girls, how did Winfrey conflate sexuality and gender? How did this inaccurate association between gender and sexual preference lead the author to feel like “some extra-special kind of freak” (p. 53)? Reread the boxed section “Where Are All the Trans Guys?” on pages 55–59 and discuss some of the reasons why “Western society writ large is much more willing to accept what they see as a woman being masculine than what they see as a man being feminine” (p. 56).

7. What is meant by “body image”? In puberty, all adolescents, regardless of gender, grapple with physical changes, and often the emotional challenges that go with them. Bird recounts how in high school he strove to be a “perfect girl. The kind of girl boys would be tripping over themselves to date” (p. 62). Discuss and cite examples of how his struggles with body image contributed to his sense of gender dysphoria, and how ultimately, by transitioning, he began to feel at home in his body. On page 67, the author describes a decision he made during a game of Truth or Dare: “In an unexpected way, being sexualized gave me the permission I needed to be proud of my body. . . . My brain’s jury is still out on whether it was actually empowering or just objectifying” (p. 67). Discuss the difference between empowerment and objectification.

8. Cognitive dissonance—a psychological term—is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as related to behavioral decisions and attitude changes. Reread chapter 8 and discuss the examples of cognitive dissonance described therein. How did Bird’s repression of his true gender and his “playing the game so well as a girl” (p. 77) lead to mental health issues toward the end of high school and into college?

9. The author writes that while in college, his “gender dysphoria . . . manifested in a steady contemplation of my sexuality” (p. 82). Discuss the difference between sexuality and gender, and how uncertainty around one’s sexuality could compound feelings of confusion and, in Bird’s case, the repression of his true gender and sexual preference. Consider and discuss the following question that Bird posed to himself while trying to make sense of the “nuances between the terms sex and gender”: “If all these things—sex, gender, and sexual orientation—were disparate parts of a person’s whole, could it be true that it was possible to be a person who was assigned female at birth, who was mostly attracted to guys, but who also felt more like a guy herself?” (p. 101) Reread the Ace bandage scene on page 105. Why did this experience cause Bird to feel “as though the world was exactly how it always should have been”? Why did this experience and others that affirmed his authentic gender produce euphoria?

10. Discuss Bird’s friend’s reaction after the author’s disclosure that he was “probably a trans guy” (p. 117). How was coming out to his friend, in retrospect, a major step in his transition journey? How did the friend’s acceptance and support bolster the author’s confidence and help him move forward in his transition? Reread pages 133–36. Discuss what Bird risked by coming out to his mother, and the immensity of her love and acceptance.

11. How did the author’s need for “social capital” lead to feelings of doubt and self-denial? Discuss the statement “Even though I’ve never wanted to fit in as far as my personality and interests go, I have always felt a strong desire to pass as ordinary” (p. 161). What does “passing as ordinary” mean in your life? How did this desire further Bird’s feelings of gender dysphoria? Why was getting his first short haircut such a daunting and emotional step for the author? Discuss how advertising and media representations of female hairstyles reinforce notions of stereotypical femininity. How was making the decision to cut his long hair an empowering act?

12. A “stigma” is a mark of shame or discredit (merriam-webster.com). In chapter 17, Bird writes: “I still hadn’t really accepted that I was transgender, that all my desperate attempts to live a normal, successful life would now be marred by this stigma. I had fully internalized the world’s shame surrounding trans people and was embarrassed by the thought of people knowing this part of me I had kept so deeply hidden for so long” (p. 173). What does he mean by the “world’s shame”? How did this feeling of potential stigmatization delay his eventual transition?

13. Spend some time discussing the use of pronouns as part of one’s gender expression. How was the author’s consideration of using the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them” a “good experiment to see if, perhaps, I was not a man or a woman but maybe nonbinary” (p. 174)? How was the author’s deeply felt negative reaction to wearing a dress to the Esther Earl Charity Ball the catalyst to his realization that “transitioning was no longer a choice. It was a necessity” (p. 179)?

14. How did developing an honest relationship with a gender therapist set the author on the road to “real progress” (p. 183)? In addition to the loss of important relationships as a result of coming out as trans, what other risks did Bird consider during this phase of his transition? Discuss the author’s brother’s reaction on page 198. Do you think this is a common reaction? Why or why not? How are trans celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox “cultural reference points” (p. 200), and why are these reference points so important to societal acceptance of transgender people?

15. Even after the author had come out to his brother, he experienced “a fair amount of doubt” (p. 202). Discuss his statement “We feel like we’re not man enough. Not woman enough. Even not trans enough” (p. 202). And on page 203: “The process can be so daunting, so all-consuming, and the reactions from people so severe that it’s no wonder over 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide. It has nothing to do with transition being a mistake, but rather—in part—because of the prejudice and stigma still attached to being transgender and the emotional toll it takes to be yourself in a world that pushes you down at every turn.” What do you think the author means by “the complexities and blurs and nuances of brain soup and lived experiences” (p. 203)?

16. What is meant by “male privilege”? Is all male privilege equal? After taking testosterone and beginning to look and feel more physically male, what discoveries did Bird make about being a man in society? Discuss the following statement on pages 208–9: “Even if I didn’t get read as male all the time, just knowing I was a man made people listen to me more than they had in the exact same situations when I had been presenting as a woman.” How is this an implicit example of male privilege?

17. Why was it so important for Bird to come out publicly on his social platforms? Why is it imperative for young people questioning their gender to have representation and healthy role models?

18. Going to a public restroom presented new challenges for the author, as it does for many transgender people. Discuss some of these challenges, including safety, shaming, and discrimination. Discuss how your state has or has not tackled the issue of public restrooms in regard to trans rights.

19. Early in the book, the author felt uncomfortable having to wear dresses, feeling pressured to conform to societal norms and expectations around femininity. After coming out, he describes an event where he was finally wearing—indeed, was expected to wear—a suit: “I can’t begin to explain the relief I felt to have that certainty and to want to conform to the social custom being imposed on me” (p. 227). Discuss examples of social customs, gender-related and otherwise, that young people are expected to conform to.

20. Reread the opening paragraph of chapter 23. How does this description challenge or affirm your beliefs and ideas about transgender people? On page 242, Bird explains why he was so dysphoric about his chest: “Because breasts are so sexualized in our culture. I didn’t like having giant gender markers attached to my torso, both because I didn’t identify with the gender they were associated with and because I didn’t like that they were associated with gender at all!” How is the female body sexualized in our culture? The male body? How do images of the “perfect” sexy body, either male or female, reinforce stereotypes and, in some cases, lead to body dysmorphic disorder (also called body dysmorphia)?

21. Discuss the author’s statement on page 255: “So much of existing as a trans person in this world feels like a fight that other things in life start paling next to in comparison.” How is this an example of perspective gained by years of experiencing adversity and overcoming challenges?

22. Jackson Bird uses his voice and social media platform to “break stereotypes, one episode at a time” (p. 264). Consider the following: “It was clear how even the most well-intentioned cisgender people could trip up due to their lack of exposure to trans people. People needed to understand how to talk to us, how to listen to us, and how to support us” (p. 265). After reading Sorted, discuss how you can be an ally to transgender people.

23. On the last page of Sorted, the author writes, “I refuse to live my life in fear” (p. 284). Discuss examples of the courage it took for Bird to attend his high school reunion. What examples from his journey can you apply to help you live a fearless life?

Extension Activities

1. Given the attention to transgender issues in media, one might think that transgender people are a phenomenon of the twenty-first century. Conduct research about transgender history, as Jackson Bird wrote, “across time and cultures” (p. 102). Begin by consulting the Further Learning section at the back of Sorted. Choose a specific time period, person, or culture to focus on. Report your findings to the class.

2. Jackson Bird references “cultural competency” in relation to trans people and health care (pages 126–27). According to apa.org, cultural competence is “loosely defined as the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own.” Work in pairs or small groups to research the components of cultural competency. Create a presentation to introduce the principles of cultural competency and how they can be applied to support the transgender community.

3. On page 203 of Sorted, Bird cites a startling statistic: over 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide. Dig deeper into this statistic as it relates to the transgender community. Use the information you find as a basis for a public-service advocacy campaign.

4. Issues important to the transgender community have recently been more visible in the mainstream news media than ever before. Gender-specific or nonspecific restrooms, transgender people in the US military, and trans rights are just a few of these issues. Dive into the national and international news for timely articles pertaining to the transgender community. Create a current-event space to display the articles and provide summaries.

5. On pages 255 and 256, Bird describes how he decided to have a small dagger image tattooed on his Achilles tendon, symbolizing how he faced his fears and, in so doing, became “invincible.” Create a tattoo that symbolizes a fear you’ve conquered or something you’ve achieved that makes you feel proud.

This reading group guide was created by Colleen Carroll, literacy specialist and author of the twelve-volume series How Artists See (Abbeville Press). Contact Colleen at www.colleencarroll.us.
Photograph By Sloane Taylor

Jackson Bird is a YouTube creator and LGBTQ+ advocate dedicated to demystifying the transgender experience. His TED Talk “How to talk (and listen) to transgender people” has been viewed over a million times. Jackson is a recipient of the GLAAD Rising Star Digital Innovator Award and lives in New York City. You can follow him online @JackIsNotABird.