On Transgenderism and Transition: The Case of Julie Anne Peters’ Luna

Front cover of Julie Anne Peters's Luna (2004)

Front cover of Julie Anne Peters’s Luna (2004)

Locating narratives of transgender persons (particularly teens) is no easy task, especially when considering that fictional works (excluding film and television) with central transgender protagonists didn’t really surface until the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the first fictional attempts to portray issues transgenderism is Bill’s New Frock, a children’s book written in 1989 by Anne Fine. Bill’s New Frock tells the story of a boy named Billy, who wakes up one morning to find out that he is now a girl–and must confront the difficulties of being a girl while consciously feeling like a boy. Though the amount of novels with central transgender characters has remained relatively low when taking the entire scope of LGBTQ literature into consideration, the visibility of transgenderism has increased dramatically in the twenty-first century, especially with the publication of the Pulitzer Award-winning book Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Within the scope of transgender fiction, Julie Anne Peters’s Luna is arguably one of the first young adult novels to thoroughly capture the trials and tribulations faced by teenagers with Gender Identity Disorder (GID), as distilled through the perspective of a family member. The novel is narrated and centered mostly on Regan O’Neill, a “genetic girl” or “g-girl” who desperately tries to understand and protect her brother, Liam, as he begins his transition into Luna, his [1] true female self. When first reading the book, I was curious as to why Peters decided to tackle the “reality” of transgender teens through the lens of a straight, female protagonist rather than through the lens of Luna herself. According to an interview conducted by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Peters asserts that:

I’m not trans. I never will be. My authenticity bias couldn’t be compromised. To be authentic and honest, the narrator, the main character, would need to act in the role of observer. I decided to create a sister for Luna, Regan. Regan would be Luna’s confidante throughout life and in that way she could see, and relate to the reader, the childhood manifestations of being born transgender.

I thought that this choice to tell Luna’s story through the perspective of her sister was effective, because it allows the reader to not only understand the frustration and pain that Liam goes through in order to assure that Luna can exist, but also how this frustration and pain can affect a person who isn’t transgender.

In terms of Luna‘s narrative structure, the plot is told through Regan’s real-time experiences, and also through a series of flashbacks that are triggered as she witnesses Liam’s struggle to unleash Luna. These flashbacks (indicated in the narrative via the use of italics) ultimately serve the purpose of pinpointing moments in the past in which Regan notices Liam’s dissatisfaction with his sex at an early age, and how he was coerced to perform masculinity even when he felt this was hypocritical and downright contradictory to his being. These flashbacks are crucial towards delivering the novel’s message of acceptance by highlighting the physical and emotional toil of being born into a body that one does not fit into.

There was one particular flashback that was striking to me, due to the immense physiological reaction that Liam develops when he compares his own naked body to that of his sister and a friend. When a young Liam encounters his younger sister and his friend Kate waddling stark naked in a kiddie pool, he removes his swimming trunks and stares at himself. He then begs his sister and his friend, Katie, to “Take it off” (226) repeatedly, thrashing back and forth as he tries to yank off his penis. His friend Katie, after giggling, assists him in pulling his penis, much to the horror of their parents. Liam’s mom pulls him away from the pool and punishes him. When the mother later enters the home to answer a ringing phone, the following exchange happens:

“What have you done? Oh my God. Put that knife down.” She [the mother] appears behind the screen, clutching Liam in her arms. “Connie, I need to run Liam over to the emergency clinic.”

Mrs. Camacho rushes across the yard. “What happened?”

“He cut his . . . his leg. Will you watch Regan?”

“Of course. You want me to call Jack [Liam’s father]?”

“No,” Mom replies quickly. “No, I can handle it. He doesn’t need to know.” Mom says something else, but all I see is the blood running down her leg. (227)

The passage above is quite violent, and it definitely stand out as one of the most memorable scenes within the novel. Despite its heartbreaking and violent nature, this scene does an effective job of portraying an anti-essentialist view of gender, in which biology does not always correlate with sexuality or identity. Regan, as a narrator, goes at lengths in order to demonstrate that at some level, her entire family is aware that Liam is different, and that he has always deviated from the normative expectations of masculinity. Regan’s father actually confronts Regan about Liam, asking her if she happens to know whether or not Liam is gay. Regan answers, truthfully, that Liam is not gay, but she thinks about how he does like men because he truly is a girl. It is important to note that in Luna, Peters makes a split between sexual orientation and gender identity, ultimately arguing that attraction to a particular gender and one’s own sex are not enough to account for the complexity of the (sexual) self.

As with most texts that discuss transgenderism, it seems that a split between the body and the mind is a prominent (and perhaps necessary) motif. This separation between the body and the mind is noticeable early on in Luna, when Regan notes that Liam usually drives in his convertible car with the top down, even during the winter: “As if he couldn’t feel the cold; as if his body wasn’t connected to his brain” (18). The novel also seems to depict a separation between Liam/Luna that is interesting in terms of performance and binaristic thinking. On one hand, Luna can be approached as a constructed persona. After all, Liam and Regan are aware that in order to Luna to reveal herself, Liam must change his clothing, put on a wig, and overall go through a transformation process that takes over an hour. Nonetheless, Luna simply approaches this process, despite the layering and construction, as an embodiment of the self, whereas she views Liam as the performance:

“Liam.” He let out a short laugh. “Who’s that? A caricature I’ve created. A puppet, a mime, a cartoon character. I’m this male macho version of a son that Dad has in his head.” (20)

Luna believes in the ability to shape the self rather than suffering from the woes of biological determinism, unlike Regan, who initially believes that “You can’t change your destiny” (60). What Regan learns throughout the course of the novel is not only how gender is in no way deterministic or tied to destiny, but also how binaristic thinking leads to limitations and judgments that do more harm than good. She initially is unable to understand Luna’s attempts to collapse her two selves by choosing truth (Luna) over performance (Liam); Regan is also unable to understand why Luna decides to run away to Seattle in order to begin her new life. Ultimately, Regan understands that these are necessary steps that Luna must take to be happy in life.

What caught my attention in terms of Luna’s escape to another state is that–alluding to ideas posited by Judith Halberstam–we encounter a moment in which an individual must escape the influence of the heteronormative family in order to discover alternative ways of being that aren’t tied to normative notions of success or development. This is made definitely apparent when we consider the fact that Liam is a depicted as a genius: he designs computer code, he aces all of his classes, and he is paid to find bugs and programming flaws for a video game company. Luna makes it clear that by leaving to Seattle, she won’t finish high school, and she will be giving up college and the scholarships that were given to her. Although this might be considered a failure according to normative standards, Luna views it as a success because it is her only chance to  can stop performing and start being:

“This isn’t good-bye. It’s hello. I think of it as a new beginning because that’s what it is for me. A rebirth. I’m starting my life over. The next time we meet, you won’t even know me.” (247)

All in all, this was an insightful and enjoyable read, and you can definitely tell that Peters went through a lot of research and reflection before crafting this novel. I definitely recommend this text as a segue into transgenderism as represented in fiction.

You can purchase a copy of Luna by clicking here.

– – –

[1] The protagonist of Luna refers to her sibling Liam/Luna using variable names and pronouns. Although she refers to Liam/Luna as both her sister and brother, there are times she refers to him as her brother even though she dons female attire. In an effort to replicate the use of pronouns in the novel, I will refer to Liam/Luna as both a he and a she.

Work Cited

Peters, Julie Anne. Luna. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005. Print (Paperback edition).

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3 thoughts on “On Transgenderism and Transition: The Case of Julie Anne Peters’ Luna

  1. Storm Persephone Tara says:

    I am beginning my journey as a transgender female, and writer, in addition, I am adult but love writing and reading YA, and now am writing a new story featuring a transgender female lead in the sci-fantasy genre as well as those LGBTI categories, on top of all that, I am blind, so that’s something that adds an interesting mix to my life – I really want to ret the audio version of this fascinating novel.

    • Angel Daniel Matos says:

      Good luck with your novel, Storm! I would love it if you kept me posted with how your novel is developing as your write it. By the way, you should also check out Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish], Cris Beam’s [I am J], and Brian Katcher’s [Almost Perfect] if you’re interested in issues of transgenderism in YA fiction.

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