Welcome to Were We Ever So Young, a series where we revisit gay/queer books we read as young people that were Very Significant for us and rereading them as adults, noting the differences in our reactions.
When I first picked up Luna almost a decade after I first read it, I could feel the buzz that I used to get from reading it spreading all throughout my body. It’s the same feeling that you get when you’re going up on a roller coaster right before the first big drop. My entire body remembers what it felt like to be afraid and nervous and excited — mostly excited — to finally read a book that was about someone like me.
Luna, by Julie Anne Peters (who’s book Keeping You a Secret was the second ever lesbian book I read, after Annie on My Mind), was not just the first book I read that starred a trans character, it’s the first piece of fiction I can remember seeing that treated its trans character as something other than a one-dimensional victim, a freak, a predator or a joke. Instead, it’s about a high school girl named Regan, just your Average Girl. She’s not too great at school, she has few friends, and she has a crush on a guy who’s way out of her league — but has a crush on her anyway. What makes the book stand out, though, is that she also has a sister named Luna who’s a trans girl stuck pretending to be a cis boy.
The book is kind of three stories woven together. There’s Regan’s story about trying to get the guy and find her place in high school, there’s the story of Regan and Luna trying to find out how Luna can be herself, and there are flashbacks that help Regan remember that Luna’s always been this girl, not the older brother that everyone thinks she is. Because of this, we see Luna through her sister’s eyes, and so we read a lot of Regan being confused about what it means to have a transgender sister.
Still, the book is largely positive in the way it treats Luna. Luna and Regan are both very insistent that she’s a girl, the book talks about how gender and sexuality aren’t the same thing, it talks about how gender isn’t necessarily a binary, it even mentions Two Spirit people and other indigenous genders that don’t exist within the confines of the Western Gender Binary. But it’s also pretty outdated. The book, and even Luna herself, calls trans women “TGs” and “transgenders” and calls cis women, “GGs — genetic girls.” It talks a lot about following the Harry Benjamin standards of care, and there’s a huge emphasis on passing, getting surgery and going stealth.
Luna is a complicated book and Luna is a complicated character. There are some really, really sweet moments, like when Luna and Regan go to the mall, as Luna and Regan, and Regan reassures her nervous sister that no one will stare at them because “we’re just two sisters out slumming the mall” and moments where Luna gets to be herself. It is a really nice story about two sisters.
However, there are also moments that make me cringe. At one point Regan jokes that Luna and a trans woman she met online are going to “compare the size of your Adam’s Apples, or whatever it is tr***ies do when they get together.” Yeesh. Luna also kind of dresses like she’s two decades older than she is. At one point she says that her blonde wig is “too bold to wear with casual slacks” and at another she asks her sister to buy her “Maidenform high-cut in beige” underwear. What kind of 18-year-old girl is she? Many other times it seems as though there are no options for trans girls other than to lose their families and past lives. In a lot of ways, it paints a pretty bleak picture for trans readers.
Starting my junior year of high school, I was far enough ahead of my required credit load that I was able to take a free period, and was a big enough nerd and loner that I spent that free time at the local public library, just two blocks away from my school. At this time I was still sort of figuring out that being trans was a real thing people could be. I knew I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wished I was a girl, but I was also too afraid to admit to myself that maybe I was transgender myself. It was a very confusing time for me.
I still remember the exact moment when I learned about Luna. The library would get this magazine that was all about upcoming books, and I would dutifully read each new issue, looking for anything that caught my eye. If I’m being honest, I was mostly looking for novels about queer women. One day, I saw a preview for a YA novel about a teenage girl whose brother was really her sister. This set something off inside me. I had to read this book as soon as my library got it.
I read the book, not by checking it out and bringing it home, but by taking it off the shelf, going upstairs and to the back corner of the library, and reading it, forty five minutes at a time, always putting it back where I found it before going back to class. I was afraid that if I checked it out, the librarian would give me a look that meant she saw who I really was, even if I couldn’t admit that that part of me existed. So I sat up there, alone, constantly looking up from the page, devouring the book and being terrified that I would be found out.
After I finished the book, I remember being kind of furious and terrified. This was how Luna’s story ends? Abandoned by her friends and family, running away from home and skipping college? I didn’t want that, that’s not who I wanted to be. So I was able to convince myself that I wasn’t transgender.
At that point in my life, the only thing I liked about myself was that I was a good student and that I was going to go to college and be successful there. So when I finally found a character I related to this much, a character who was a smart and depressed trans girl, and I saw that the only way she was able to be herself was to leave her life, and her future at college, behind, I lost all hope that I could be happy.
Now, I’m on page one of my re-read and I’ve already got a stomach ache. I’m so anxious for Luna. It’s weird, because I know exactly how this book goes, but I want her to be happy and safe and herself so, so badly. I also feel an intense feeling that’s adjacent to, but not quite aligned with, jealousy. I feel like I’m in high school reading this again, wishing that I could be like her.
This book makes me cry a lot, both tears of happiness and tears of sadness and fear. I cry when Luna almost outs herself as she dances and sings along to Madonna at her sister’s sleepover. I cry when Luna gets clocked and then harassed while shopping at the mall. I cry when Luna talks about the dress she wants to wear to prom. I cry a lot when Luna comes out to Aly, her best friend, and at first it seems like it’s going well, then it goes horribly, then, on Luna’s birthday, Aly comes back and says, “I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to be okay with this… It’s hard, you know?”and you can tell that she’s really trying to be a good friend. I cry and have to stop reading when Luna shows up to family breakfast on that same birthday in “girl mode” and her father tells her that if she walks out the door dressed like that, she shouldn’t bother coming back, and Peters writes that “Luna’s arm fell to her side. Every bone in her body seemed to disintegrate as her shoulders slumped. She said, ‘I realize I’ve been a big disappointment to you dad. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the son you wanted. I’m sorry.'”
Honestly, sitting here having just finished Luna for the first time in a decade, for the seventh time in my life, I think I hate it. I’m shaking, I’m crying, I can barely type. And this is after I’ve calmed down. But I don’t hate it because it’s horrible, I hate it because it’s able to so successfully bring me back to who I was when I first read it. My whole body, my whole mind, my whole soul feels like a scared 17-year-old girl trapped in a lie that she has to live every day. I’m depressed, angry, frustrated, self-hating, suicidal girl who can’t picture a future for herself. I’m sitting in the library reading Luna and then two hours later praying to God that I’ll be kidnapped and that my kidnappers will force me to dress like a girl because that was the only way I thought I would ever be able to be who I wanted to be.
As much as I hate Luna, though, I kind of love her. Like the book’s protagonist, Regan, I find myself fighting with mixed emotions. I’m jealous of Luna, terrified for her, happy for her, angry at her. I’m exceedingly glad I read this book as a teenager and I hate myself for ever picking it up in the first place. But in the end, I honestly wouldn’t be the person I am today without Luna. It will never leave me, I’ll always think about it when I think about how I became the woman I am today. It’s not a perfect book, but it was there for me, and I’m sure other trans teens, when nothing else was. Luna opened a door for me — no, it opened a thousand doors, doors that I’ve been confidently walking through ever since I came out.
Thank you for sharing this. <3
Oh, Luna… I was 19 when this book came out, was working in the YA section of a library, had been out for four years (as a queer trans girl), and had a newborn son. The librarian I worked with most bought it for me and had it signed ("To Katie: Let your spirit fly free! Xo, Julie Ann Peters," which was… Weird?;). Despite that bumpy introduction, I liked the book.
I just loved that it existed, because I knew kids would find it.
This is so moving. I wish I could give a hug and/or more queer books to your teenage self.
This was gorgeous, thanks for writing it. It was really interesting to hear your experience reading the book, which I only just read last year.
Goodreads says that it was first published in 2004. I was surprised when I read it that the terminology was so outdated. I wish that it were easier for writers to update the language in their books without putting out whole new editions — this would especially be helpful for YA writers and writers about LGBTQ stuff — because as a teenager, for some reason, there was nothing that took me out of a book more than a reference to a tape deck or a neon sweatshirt…and more importantly, books like Luna, of which new copies are still printed, and which get new covers etc., still have language like “genetic girls” in them (not to mention slacks, lol).
Yeah, some of the language and other stuff was so outdated that i thought for sure it had to be older than it was, but nope, it was published my junior year of high school.
I wonder how old Julie Ann Peters is, and also when she started writing it — sometimes it takes books forever to get published…
Over 50 when Luna was published, and she’d had a lot of quite successful books out before Luna.
I didn’t read Luna as a young person… and that’s a huge difference in perspective. But what always bothered me about it is that, like many books written by cis authors about trans characters, the trans person is being viewed through the lens of a cis character, there’s something tragic and hopeless about them and, ultimately, they seem to have less developed characters than a number of the cis characters in the book. Luna (okay, she likes computers and gaming too) is mostly about being a trans person. I could say much the same thing about Maura in Transparent or Lily in The Danish Girl, Roberta in The World According to Garp or, for that matter, Sophia in OITNB. They’re plot points for cis characters, not flesh and blood.
Compared with what I had to read about trans people when I was young (which was all non-fiction or cheez/sleez rags) I can imagine Luna must seem like a big step (or Parrotfish for transmasculine spectrum people) I really don’t think it’s an especially good book and I have to wonder how Julie Ann Peters actually researched it or did she actually meet trans youth?
I did really connect with your description of reading it in secret out of fear of being discovered, which pretty much sums up all my trans-related reading from youth well into adulthood… all done within the context of intense shame, isolation, fear and hopelessness. So, I suppose, if Luna did anything to chip away at those feelings, it’s a worthwhile read.
I remember reading this book, not even too long ago actually. Even as a ciswoman, I recognize how Luna is portrayed not through her viewpoint, but mostly through the discomfort and difficulty her sister faces because of her. More than once, Regan, as a selfish young girl, wishes Luna was normal. While she does accept and agree that she has a sister and not a brother, she wishes she did not have to be a part of this. I agree with you Mey; reading Luna is painful. The worst part is, that on top of Luna’s struggles portrayed in the book, we don’t even get to see them from Luna’s eyes.
This book… funny that I read this review as I sit in my hometown mall, being gawked at by bratty teens. I didn’t read Luna as a kid, I read it much later when I was about to make my own leap into womanhood. When I was absorbing every trans lit piece I could come across. It certainly is a hard read, even more so for me because I was dating a girl named Regan at the time. Although not exactly the same as a sister, I couldn’t help but see the wishy washy acceptance from the girl of a similar name in my life. So much of that book fueled my fears, that I would have to cut myself off from everyone (I didn’t though) or that my dad would never accept it (that part did come true)
For better or worse I’m glad I had that book, even if it was from a cis gaze, like so many other stories before and since.
oh my gosh, i can’t even imagine what it would’ve been like to have someone so close be named regan! I’m really sorry. And yeah, this book made me so, so terrified that my dad would hate me forever and that i would have to completely abandon everything from my life if i ever wanted to transition. jeez, this book freaked me out.
I don’t think the book has held up well at all over the years. I cringe at how heavy handed it feels when I’ve gone back to it. Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect or Rachel Gold’s Just Girls are a lot better options.
Has anyone read I am J, by Chris Beam? The focus held a lot more closely to the trans person in that one — he was the protagonist, for one!
For what it’s worth, here’s a review I wrote of I Am J when it came out.
I didn’t find the character that compelling.
Sounds nothingspecial, i won’t read – but i can relate to the feelings. Pretty much like when i played DXHR. Kind of makes sense – but you’re seeing it through the eyes of some kid who is kind of onboard but ‘didn’t ask for it’ – and you got to kill a lovely proper cyborg lady (Yelena) without any of the sadness reserved even for pond scum like Humanity First. And of course one visceral animal script after another, killing random folks for someone who’s not worth it because mating.
But then it gives you a moment of being (well male version of) yourself and gives all the muppets at least a glimpse of what it is to be a cyborg and live in a semi-artificial shell. So you forgive… and add it to your all time top 10.
Thank you so much for posting this <3
Luna was the first book I ever read (that I can remember) with an openly LGBT character. I was in middle school and I adored it, though at the time I had no idea how relevant it would be in my life.
I still think about it a lot, and it is still on my bookshelf. :)
My Intro to Women’s Studies course in undergrad read Luna. Although I knew there were some parts that were kind of eh, I was so happy that our professor dedicated a unit to transwomen which stressed the fact that transwomen are women. I went to a very small public university in a rural area and most of those kids probably had never really thought about how it might feel to be trans. I’m so thankful for having a Women’s Studies department that didn’t suck. I’m also thankful that you have shared a part of yourself with us in this essay.
I read “Luna”, in my junior year of high school as well. I had a lot of the similar feelings that Mey did growing up – the fervent wishing, hushed prayers to God at night, and more I’m sure I’ve repressed during that time.
And there sitting in my school’s library, was “Luna”. It was the first book that had a character who was me. A girl who everyone saw as a boy. A girl who wished to be herself but didn’t know how.
I attempted a re-read a few years ago. I didn’t finish because it was just too hard. It brought up so many memories and feelings of being that scared and depressed teenager looking for herself.
I read this book when I was maybe 14 or 15, when it first came out. At the time I had just (barely) heard of trans people through honoring Trans Day of Remembrance with my GSA and seeing the word in the LGBT acronym, but I didn’t really get why trans people were grouped with cis LGB people or really understand much about gender. I sure wasn’t talking to anyone about it. This book turned me from a yeah let’s accept everybody but what’s this got to do with me/what’s it about person to someone who passionately wanted to support trans people. It was my first window into trans experiences. In the next year or two, I would meet many trans people, including my high school best friend, and learn a lot more. I also came to feel quite a few of the things you’re mentioning about the story. But I do credit this book for laying the groundwork for me so that I was approaching people with love and a drive to understand and support, and for introducing trans people to a lot of cis people with their heads up their asses.
I will say that at the time the book came out, a lot of the trans people I knew used the word tra**y as a positive, friendly word. Big language changes over a small number of years. My guess is the author would write this differently now. I do also remember her saying in an interview that she initially wanted to write from a trans person’s perspective and then felt she really couldn’t do it justice as a cis person, so that’s why the narrative came through the cis sister’s eyes.