A Critical Introduction
(This was written for an assignment during my senior year of college and I thought some people may be interested in reading it, but you are more than welcome to skip it!)
In the summer of 2016, right before my senior year of high school, many of my closest friends, whose sexuality I had never really thought about, began coming out as gay, bisexual, and pansexual. Around this same time, I also met two freshmen, who I immediately became good friends with, who happened to be in the process of socially transitioning into the gender they had been on the inside for as long as they could remember. Despite the fact that some of my best friends through late elementary school and middle school had two moms, I knew essentially nothing about what it was like to identify as LGBTQ+ and I really did not understand some of it at all. Instead of asking my friends about it, as I did not have the confidence to bring it up and I did not know if they would be willing to talk about it, I started doing my own research.
I began looking for shows and books with LGBTQ+ people in them, because the only book I could think of that I had read with a gay chracter was The House of Hades by Rick Riordan (and, technically, every other book that he had written with Nico DiAngelo in it, though Nico was not openly gay until the aforementioned book). Outside of fictional shows and books, I searched YouTube for information. At that time, there were not as many documentaries about transgender people on YouTube as there are now, but there were many short news clips about a little boy named Ryland Whittington. I ended up watching all of them and reading the book that his mom wrote, called Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No Strings Attached. Of course, Ryland’s story was not everyone’s story, but it gave me some insight into what my transgender friends may have gone through on their journeys before I had met them.
Besides reading and watching videos, one thing that had always helped me work through anything difficult, such as emotions or situations that I had experienced but did not quite understand, was writing. I wanted to understand my friends and all other LGBTQ+ people better, so I decided to write about it. Of course, this was not the first time that I had decided to write a book. I had been working on novels since I was twelve years old, and I had plenty of ideas that I had written down and never done anything with. The story I loved the most at the time was one that I called Troublemakers, and I had finished a draft of it and began writing two spin-off novels, one of which followed a character named Jed as he ran away from home and found somewhere that he could hide safely. In the few pages of his story that I had written, Jed met four boys. I had written down a few defining characteristics for each of them, but one of them was more underdeveloped than the others. His name was Cameron.
Now, I knew that some of the other kids that I planned to include within Jed’s story had troubled backgrounds like Jed himself, and I knew that all of those backgrounds were very different. I decided that Cameron was going to be my transgender character, but I knew that it was not his whole story. Another YouTube rabbit hole that I had been going down that summer was based around the foster care system. I knew from my limited research that the system had a lot of flaws and that there were people who became foster parents just for the money. What I could not find much of online was answers to the question: What happens if a foster child runs away and is not found? The only examples I could find of a foster kid running away at all within fiction that I had read were in Alabama Moon and Dirt Road Home by Watt Key, where the three main characters Moon, Hal, and Kit are wards of the state and run away from the home they were placed in. However, their situation was different from the scenario I was wondering about, because Moon ended up being placed with his aunt, uncle, and cousins and Hal ran back to the biological father he had been taken from, not out onto the streets.
The more I learned about LGBTQ+ youth, the more I heard about the high numbers of them who get kicked out of their homes and are forced to live on the streets or couch surf with friends and family members until they feel they have overstayed their welcome. Those who were in foster care were often categorized as “hard to place” and faced similar situations of LGBTQ+ youth that had been kicked out of their homes, as well as some of the harsh realities of foster care. I questioned the legality and logistics of minors couch surfing and how they would get ahold of important information, such as their birth certificates, social security cards, and other legal documents if they could not or were too afraid to ask their parents for them. Then I wondered, if teens could couch surf because their parents kicked them out, what would happen if teens who ran away also couch surfed without their parents knowing where they were? What if there were kind-hearted and open-minded people, strangers even, who took in these children who had no other safe place to go? Without realizing it, I had been asking this question in Jed’s story, as Jed ran away from his emotionally abusive parents and ended up at a house with a family who hosted and hid children who could not go home for one reason or another. I knew that this was the perfect setting for Cameron’s story to play out, even if his story did not begin there.
Cameron begins his story in a house where everyone knows him as Tia, a six year old girl. Because of his insistence that he is a boy and the emotions he had been experiencing as everyone ignored and denied his true feelings, his foster parents, Nancy and Phillip, feel that it is best that he is taken to another placement. This leaves Cameron at a new house with a large, Catholic family with his new foster parents Mary and John Paul, who teach him that God made him a girl for a reason. While Mary allows Cameron to play with the boys and calmly defuses his feelings about his gender identity, John Paul has zero tolerance for any of Cameron’s ‘odd’ behavior and makes sure that he is staying strictly within the boundaries of being a girl and doing ‘girl’ things. Just when Cameron thinks he is completely alone, one of the other foster kids, who everyone knows as Chet, tells Cameron his big secret — that Chet’s true name is Chelsea. Together, Cameron and Chelsea explore their emotions and identities, planning to run away together and start new lives where no one knows their secret. However, before they can escape together, John Paul discovers Chelsea’s secret and kicks her out of the house. Heartbroken and scared for his own life, Cameron packs a bag and leaves the house to find his friend. Despite searching for hours and sleeping outdoors in a park, Cameron does not find Chelsea. Instead, he meets a boy named Oliver and a woman named Patty Parker who offers them a place to stay. Cameron and Oliver accept and, for the first time, Cameron enters a house where they only know him as Cameron and, though the situation is better, he still has a huge secret to keep.
While parts of Cameron are easily recognizable from other books in the middle grade and YA LGBTQ+ genres, other parts step off of the beaten path. Over the years that I have been working on Cameron, I have read more and more books within the same genre and I have discovered many patterns within these books. For example, in both Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky and Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, Grayson and Lily realize that they are different at a young age, much like Cameron. However, at the point in their life that their story is being told, neither of them have officially socially transitioned and neither of them fully transition or “come out” to everyone before the end of the novel. Though some people within the books do know Grayson and Lily’s true identities and learn to accept them, neither of them grow past that moment within the novel because the story ends soon after. In Cameron, I knew that being transgender was not his whole story or his whole identity. Despite the fact that, throughout his story, Cameron comes out to and is accepted or denied by many different people, I wanted to showcase other parts of his identity. Not only is Cameron transgender and gay, but he is wonderfully intelligent and he is a gifted musician. Sometimes he struggles with anger and anxiety, but he is also extremely empathetic and loves with his whole heart. Do not get me wrong, I loved Gracefully Grayson and Lily and Dunkin, but I felt that Lily and Grayson were somewhat one dimensional, and I hoped to make Cameron more than that.
Another important part of Cameron’s identity as he grows up is that he is a foster kid. Some of his experiences in the system continue to haunt him for years down the road, though it is important to note that any children go through worse things in the system than he did. In my attempt to capture this of him in a way that does it justice, I had to do additional research. Much of my foster care research came from the YouTube channels Crazy Middles and Crazy Pieces, “The Picnic (Adoption Documentary),” the movie Instant Family, and the book To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care. Because a lot of the content within these resources were specific to different states than I was writing in, many rules and regulations of the system within these resources differ from the experience Cameron has in foster care, which meant that I had to do extra research to stay within the foster care laws of the state that Cameron lived in.
A question some may ask is: what qualifies me to write this narrative? After all, I am not transgender, I am not gay, and I have never been a foster kid, or a foster parent, or even a foster sibling. Writers in my situation have to make sure that they do so much research — reading and watching anything by experts as well as interviewing people with similar life experiences and reading the stories they have written — that they are nearly experts on the subjects they are addressing in their books. After all of the research, there is also the option of using sensitivity readers, who are beta readers specifically chosen because of their own life experiences to make sure that a novel represents diverse people accurately and does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Readers like these are important because sometimes writers without diverse backgrounds end up writing harmful representations of people with underrepresented identities simply because the author does not know anything but the stereotypes were taught as they grew up. This becomes harmful to society when these flawed books become popular and thus cause more people to believe the stereotypes perpetuated within the novel. This problem is one reason that the #OwnVoices movement exists and continues to gain traction, because there are many benefits to reading stories written by underrepresented people about underrepresented people including the lack of harmful stereotypes. However, there are still a lot of writers without diverse backgrounds trying to diversify the characters and experiences in the books they write, so holding them accountable for doing proper research and writing accurate stories is something that could benefit us all.
All of that means that, perhaps, despite all my research — as research can never equal experience — I should not be the one to tell this story. Yet here I am, trying anyway, because, despite the ways Cameron and I are different, the things we have in common draw me to his story. Cameron and I both love music and reading and we both feel fierce loyalty to our friends. We both learned that, even though it is difficult, sharing our secrets and emotions with people we have learned to trust has more benefits than drawbacks. We have also both come out on the other side of traumatic or potentially traumatic situations as stronger people. And, perhaps, most importantly, understanding Cameron helped me understand why I began to feel uncomfortable in my own body when I hit puberty and why I have faced related obstacles every year since. Maybe Cameron and I took different paths to accepting ourselves and to how we choose to present, but much of our emotional journey has been similar. Of course, since many elements of his story are not mine, they should not be used as the ultimate representation of what foster kids go through or what female-to-male transgender people go through — though I will take the necessary steps to make sure this book does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes. However, even if Cameron’s story is not written by someone who had Cameron’s exact experiences, it can definitely serve as a stepping stone — for people who want to know more — to understanding people like him.
Beam, Cris. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care. Mariner Books.
Gephart, Donna. Lily and Dunkin. Delacorte Books for Young Readers. 2016.
Instant Family, directed by Sean Anders, Paramount Pictures, 2018.
Key, Watt. Alabama Moon. Square Fish. 2006.
Key, Watt. Dirt Road Home. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2010.
Pettit, Aaron and Crystal. YouTube, uploaded by Crazy Pieces, 12 February 2015 to present,
“The Picnic (Adoption Documentary).” YouTube, uploaded by Real Stories, 15 November 2016,
Polonsky, Ami. Gracefully Grayson. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 2014.
Riordan, Rick. The House of Hades. Disney Hyperion. 2013.
Wallace, Jared and Shelly. YouTube, uploaded by Crazy Middles, 6 February 2015 to present,
Whittington, Hillary. Raising Ryland: Our Story of Parenting a Transgender Child with No
Strings Attached. William Morrow Paperbacks. 2016.