Both Sides Now
Both Sides Now
You’re never just for or against at Nationals, is the thing. You take turns. In the first round, you’re yes; in the second, you’re no. Both sides. No getting around it.
I’ll have to argue against people who’ve never met a trans person. Who don’t know the first thing about who I am. Who believe everything J. K. Rowling posts on Twitter. I do daily backflips not to engage with these people. Almost no one at this school knows I’m trans, and for good goddamn reason: I wouldn’t be a person anymore. I’d be a political issue. (p. 62)
Finch Kelly (white) and Jonah Cabrera (Filipino) are normally unstoppable on the debate stage. But this year as they prepare themselves for the National Debate Championships, everything starts to fall apart. Jonah finds out that the play that his boyfriend Bailey is starring in contains racist depictions of Asian characters. But when Bailey is confronted, things start to become very awkward. Finch is trying to be supportive, but family drama is distracting him: his father has been on unemployment for a few years, his sister is being overly dramatic about his moving away for college, and then his mom loses her job at the newspaper. At least Finch and Jonah have the upcoming debate to keep them distracted. But when the topic gets released, Finch wonders how he’ll ever compete. The topic is arguing for or against the fact that transgender students in public schools should be able to use the bathroom of their choice. This time, Finch won’t just be arguing an abstract topic because, this time, Finch is arguing about his own rights as a trans man.
Both Sides Now is not a typical trans narrative that revolves around coming out or struggling for acceptance from family and friends. Finch is out to his family and to his friends. He is not out publicly because he knows the potential risks to his safety and psychological well-being. This approach to transness allows the narrative to be driven forward not by fear or the risk of external violence, but rather by the larger discussion around prioritizing safety over being out publicly. This is, of course, complicated by the subject of the National Debate Championships, and so Finch and Jonah need to make decisions about how they will move forward and whether or not they will argue what they must in order to win, even if it goes against their own beliefs.
Peyton Thomas’s debut novel is a wonderfully nuanced exploration of what it means to be a transgender teen, how difficult it can be to understand and explore sexuality within that context, the barriers to medication and surgeries, and how normalized “debates” about gender and sexuality have become, to the point where they are seen as acceptable topics of debate in the classroom or in recreational scenarios like debate championships. In addition, Thomas’s novel is populated by a diverse cast of secondary characters which allows him to also engage with subjects of racism and religious discrimination within the larger narrative. Jonah’s father is a pastor, for example, but his entire family is accepting of his queer identity, and his father ensures that the church is an inclusive space for people of all genders and sexualities.
One of my favourite aspects of Both Sides Now is the fact that both Jonah and Finch are given rein to be complicated and messy. Jonah feels the need sometimes to be perfect, an ideal image of a happy queer person. But Finch points out, “You don’t have to be happy all the time…. You’re allowed to fight with your boyfriend […] and just . . . be messy. Like anybody else” (p. 193). All too often queer and trans characters are expected to be “perfect” to prove that they are worthy of being loved and respected. To see Finch and Jonah given the space to be messy is powerful and will speak to many young readers.
Both Sides Now is an impressive debut that focuses on fully realized trans and queer characters, with a high-stakes plot that will keep readers invested until the very end.
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (Simon Fraser University) and is also a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. He loves reading a wide range of literature but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.