We all know theater in high school is almost always filled with LGBTQIA+ teens, and so does Ray Stoeve, the nonbinary author of the realistic fiction young adult novel Between Perfect and Real. Over the course of this story, closeted trans guy Dean Foster gets cast as Romeo in his school’s upcoming performance of Romeo and Juliet. As he practices for the part, Dean realizes he can’t go back to playing the part of a lesbian in high school in real life. Unfortunately, coming out may not be so easy. With the help of the people around him and seeing what not to do from certain people in his school, Dean may just be able to overcome his own expectations of what it means to be “trans enough”. Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve is a meditation on masculinity, identity, and being human, wrapped up in young adult drama, romance, and theater.
At the start, Dean struggles with expectations of what it means to be trans and if he is “trans enough”. He’s not sure if he should be allowed to come out, to transition. He’s not sure if he can play the role of Romeo not as a genderbent version of the character but as a man.
At one point he even says, “How many YouTube videos do you have to watch before you know for sure you’re trans?” (pg 13) I know this happens for a lot of trans people. Because of the way trans people are represented in a lot of cisgender-created media, society has a certain image in mind of what a trans person looks like. This causes a lot of issues for trans people who don’t fit that binary mold. And because of the policies (both within the legal realm, but also in the medical field and in many other settings), trans people are confronted with heavy restrictions on what “counts” as trans, whether that be the requirements needed to change a gender marker on an ID or those that determine whether or not a trans person can go on hormones. In Dean’s case, those kinds of restrictions came up with casting in his school’s theater and with personal essays on college applications.
As he meets and interacts with all sorts of people, some good, some bad, Dean comes to learn that there is no perfect way to be a man, to be trans, or to be human. While he already knows people with quite a few different racial and sexual identities at school, he meets some people in the downtown area at a trans therapy group, where he gets to know just how different trans peoples’ experiences can be. I really liked how Stoeve addressed the fact that even within the same city, the experiences of a trans femme person and a trans masc person are incredibly different, especially considering how difficult it can be to explore the many different ways of experiencing transness in such a short format.
Dean also comes into contact with a lot of different kinds of men, from his issue-avoidant father to his allied theater director to his misogynistic and transphobic bully. Stoeve’s narrative structure really confronts the question of what it means to be a trans masculine person in light of toxic masculinity. There’s this anxiety that I’ve talked about with other trans masc people about not wanting to become or be perceived as men like Dean’s bully, Blake, and more generally about figuring out what many boys and young men have to figure out: what kind of men we want to become.
This expands even further for Dean into the question of what he wants to do after graduating–a common concern among high schoolers, given the immense pressure of college applications and job hunting. For trans teens, this can be even more of a difficult process because they have to decide whether or not to come out on their applications, and they may–like Dean–be dealing with a lot of other incredibly stressful circumstances because of how society treats trans people. I, for one, was suddenly reminded of the time I was urged not to talk about my gender identity on my college applications, because it “might adversely affect my odds” (a paraphrase, but it’s been a few years, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I got the exact wording wrong).
What I really loved, though, was that the ultimate answer to all of these questions was that “The possibilities are endless”. (pg 296) I won’t get into spoiling anything, but I think Stoeve wrapped things up nicely. Had I been Dean, I may not have been as forgiving about certain things, but I think this just goes to show how many different possible experiences exist out there.
Overall, I felt that Between Perfect and Real was very approachable and well-crafted. Also, as someone who has lived in Seattle for the past 2+ years, I think that Stoeve portrayed what a white trans teen’s experience in Seattle might look like with incredible realism. This is a good pick for trans and cis readers alike, but this would be a great read for trans teens in particular! That said, I encourage trans readers to mind the content warnings as usual, since this does engage with some dark topics at times, and it may be stressful for readers at times for those reasons.
Between Perfect and Real by Ray Stoeve
Publisher: Amulet Books
Page Count: 304 pages
Content Warnings: Outing, misgendering, bullying, transphobia, threat of transphobic violence, transphobic bullying, transphobic violence, violence, coming out, mention of suicide, dysphoria