When a new friend asks if I still experience the gender euphoria commonly associated with top surgery (now that I have had my post-op chest for over a year) I respond, "Every single day." Their eyes widen with delight and I hug them goodbye gingerly; I am keenly aware of the sutures that are holding together their new mosaic of bruises, skin, and pectoral muscle. It feels special to be an ambassador of this unique flavor of joy–a sacred knowledge of how pervasively good it feels to have something aligned that was once askew. 

So often for trans people, these sorts of kindred cultural experiences are comprised of grief and dysphoria. The absence of bio family members who opted out of loving you. The formal events you dread because of the ill-fitting, triggering garments required for attendance. The constant misgendering you endure, and the limitless patience you're expected to conjure because another person is "trying" but it's "just so hard." So, like this brief moment of conversation with my friend about my chest, the moments of my life wherein I have felt truly euphoric—radically seen—regarding my gender tend to stick with me. One other such moment was when I first encountered Kyle Lukoff's children's book When Aidan Became A Brother. 

When Aidan Became a Brother: Illustrated by Kaylani Juanita.
Illustrations by Kaylani Juanita.

For context, before last year, my experiences with children's books were limited to my own early childhood over 20 years ago. But when I started dating the parent of a young child, I was suddenly thrust back into the genre. One night, as I watched my then-partner read her toddler a bedtime story, I was immediately struck with a pang of resonance as she read the first line, of the book: 

"When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl." 

I leaned in closer to study the accompanying illustration, featuring Black parents, and a small Black child with a disgruntled expression, adorned in a pink dress. In an instant, I felt transported to my youth—I still remember the skirt I was forced to wear on picture day in third grade and the hot tears of shame that rolled down my cheeks as I struggled to articulate why I felt so deeply humiliated. 

It was incredibly emotional to see my Black, gender-nonconforming child self represented in this book. However, Aidan's story isn't solely one of forced cis-heteronormativity. It's also a story of reimagining and self-determination. While "everyone thought he was a girl" (Lukoff is very intentional in the word choice that shapes this narrative) the story makes clear that Aidan was never a girl, and that his parents were mistaken about his gender as a result of widespread cultural assumptions.

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Despite a growing lexicon of trans-affirming terminology and discourse, it is still surprising and refreshing to me when trans people in books are not retroactively misgendered, or described as "born x to later become y." The unfurling of Aidan's boyhood allows the reader to simultaneously embrace the fact that some children who deviate from gender stereotypes are not trans:

 "Lots of girls didn't wear dresses."

But it still allows for Aidan's self knowledge to prevail: 

"It was hard to tell his parents what he knew about himself, but it was even harder not to." 

After Aidan reveals to his parents that he is in fact a boy, they allow him to change his room, his aesthetic, and his name to better reflect who he is. My heart swelled as the illustrations began to depict Aidan with his hair shaped into locs, and his form adorned with gender-affirming clothing featuring bold patterns and bright colors. 

Somehow, the second half of the book manages to be even more profound: Aidan's parents announce that they are going to have a second child, making Aidan a soon-to-be brother. At first, the prospect of a forthcoming sibling and the subsequent preparation proves stressful for Aidan. He doesn't like that folks incessantly inquire about whether the new baby is a boy or a girl. He worries that pre-selected clothing, paint colors, and generally, the pressures of society will cause his future sibling to struggle as he had. 

When Aidan Became a Brother, by Kyle Lukoff. Illustrated by Kaylani Juanita.
When Aidan Became a Brother, by Kyle Lukoff. Illustrated by Kaylani Juanita. Buy it on Bookshop.org

For me, this portion of the story is both palpably relatable and symbolic; it feels like an allegory on the ways trans people learn to better advocate for ourselves and each other once we become self actualized in our own genders (or lack thereof). After coming into my trans and nonbinary identities, I became suddenly aware of how I had been upholding cisgender-as-the-default paradigms, and how doing so likely made it harder for other gender-nonconforming folks to feel affirmed in their daily lives. I remembered how frustrating it was when people incorrectly "guessed" at my gender, so I started using gender-neutral language to refer to all people before I learned how they identified. Similarly, Aidan brainstorms names that are less commonly associated with particular genders in the hopes that the baby will have more room to grow into the name regardless of how they identify. 

Once, a few years ago, after I had grown out my beard, a friend of mine balked at an instance of my being misgendered. They meant well, but they essentially cited my beard as evidence for why someone should have never assumed me to be a woman. "But, I don't want a world in which all bearded people are presumed men," I remember saying. "I want a world in which, beard or no beard, people don't assume anything about someone before getting to know them." Like Aidan, I felt a heightened sense of responsibility to make life less cumbersome and constricting for the trans youth coming up after me. 

As the story continues, Aidan articulates a familiar anxiety as he wonders aloud if he is doing enough to ensure his younger sibling's comfort. He frets over the idea that, despite his best effort, he might fail to facilitate a safe place for his future sibling to exist. His mom comforts him and dispels this worry, recounting how she and Aidan's dad also had their missteps in understanding him, and that they had learned from Aidan the importance of loving someone for their authentic self. 

I reveled in the idea that a book like this could even exist, and moreover, that the types of love illustrated in the book could too… It is terrifying to think that a story about a kid who is loved by his parents for being exactly himself could be painted as menacing.

The story ends with an idyllic scene: Aidan, holding his new sibling, at a party that looks to be a debut of sorts—attached to a table of desserts are balloons that spell out the words, "It's A Baby." As my former partner read the final words of the book that night, my eyes filled with tears. I looked at her child, and imagined them growing up in a context where they might have the ability to articulate whoever they are without condemnation. I reveled in the idea that a book like this could even exist, and moreover, that the types of love illustrated in the book could too. 

I thought back to my own youth, and how painful it had been to struggle against the currents of familial pressure, transphobia (both external and internalized), and broadly, where we were as a society. And, in some ways, not much has changed. Despite winning the Stonewall Book Award, When Aidan Became A Brother, has landed on banned book lists across the nation. It is terrifying to think that a story about a kid who is loved by his parents for being exactly himself could be painted as menacing. Ultimately, however, it is clear to me that this book and books like it will continue to find their way into the hands of people who need to read them. For my 30th birthday, I was gifted my very own copy of When Aiden Became A Brother. Like Aiden, I will do everything in my power to ensure that the people around me have the space to show up as exactly who they are, whoever that may be.


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Kelsey (they/them/he/his) is a PhD candidate in American Studies. Their work and writings explore the process of identity formation at the nexus of race, gender, and sexuality. He is a cultural and gender theorist, a writer, an advocate, and a poet. Having grown up bicoastal and spending the majority of their adult life in a state of transience, they draw from their eclectic life experiences both deep fear and great optimism regarding what people are capable of. Kels seeks to illuminate the experiences of Black queer folks, navigating the contemporary U.S. sociopolitical landscape.