"Felix was gifted to me": Kacen Callender shares how their experiences of exploring gender identity inspired their latest novel
Published on: 23 May 2021 Author: Kacen Callender
Kacen Callender struggled to understand their own gender identity growing up. They explain the importance of LGBTQI+ people seeing themselves in stories, and how their latest book - Felix Ever After - sets out to help young readers on a similar journey.
Kacen Callender and the cover of their book, Felix Ever After
I didn't understand what it meant to be transgender or nonbinary
When I was young, I loved drawing characters where it was impossible for anyone to assume the person’s gender identity. I often wished that I was a boy, praying that I would be reincarnated as a man in my next life. I didn’t understand what it meant to be transgender or nonbinary. I’d never met a transgender person, and though I’d heard of them, vaguely—usually made fun of on TV screens and in movies—I never fully understood how their identity connected to mine
It’s funny to say, but my life was changed by Degrassi. As a kid, I’d watched what I consider the “millennial version”—the episodes I’d grown up with, featuring Drake’s character, Jimmy, along with Manny and Emma and Paige… and, my personal favorite, Marco, who was the first openly gay character I ever remember watching on TV. I’d stay up all night to watch Marco’s episodes sometimes, desperate to see any sort of queerness.
Thirteen-year-old me hadn’t even understood I was queer yet, and I wouldn’t realize this until I was in college and was able to form a queer community.
I often think back on my days as a child in St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, where queerness was often villainized, to the point where I was the only person in a classroom, yelling at anyone for saying that it’s a sin to be gay, or using the word gay as an insult. It feels so obvious to me, now, that I was both queer and trans, but I didn’t have a community of people to reflect my identity, and to validate that my identities were real. I didn’t have stories or characters to give me a language to who I was, and to show that other people like me existed.
How Degrassi changed my life
Degrassi was the first show that gave me this language. I was in my mid-twenties when I watched Netflix’s newest seasons of Degrassi. I’d forgotten how much I loved that show growing up. I decided to rewatch Degrassi from the beginning, wanting to feel nostalgic as I returned to Marco’s episodes especially. I began to reach storylines and characters I’d never seen before, as I’d grown older and went off to college and what had once been my favorite show dropped off my radar. I met Adam. Adam! I loved that he was trans, and I felt drawn to his story, though I still hadn’t made the connection when first ‘meeting’ him on the show.
But he, and the writers of Degrassi, changed my life forever when Adam sat down with his two friends and explained what being a trans guy meant to him.
I honestly can’t even remember the words he said that sparked an explosion inside of me. I only remember the feeling—realizing that everything he said resonated with me so deeply.
I’d buried away memories of drawing characters where no one could assume their gender identity. I’d forgotten how I’d wanted, so desperately, to be a boy, and that I’d imagined future reincarnated lives where I could be seen as the person I knew I was. I even told my mom, once, that I thought I might be a guy. She’d been dismissive, so I put the idea out of my head, too. I can’t blame her. She grew up in the same culture I did, where we didn’t have access to understanding my identity yet. (She understands now and is so beautifully supportive. Love you, Mom!)
Adam’s words in that episode shook me so strongly that I remember pausing the show to lie in my bed and stare blankly at my wall. It was the first moment I wondered. Am I trans? It was a question I’d go on asking, pretty much nonstop, for a few years after that.
Forcing myself into different roles
I couldn’t get Adam out of my head, but I also had imposter syndrome. I didn’t have the experience that many transgender people have when they’re young. I didn’t declare my true gender identity as a toddler, as many others had. What if I was wrong? Even more confusing: I didn’t always feel like I was a man. Yes, there were days when I did feel like I was a man, but these were rare. I only knew, without any doubt, that I definitely wasn’t a woman. I’d only ever tried to force myself into that role, knowing it was what so many people expected of me.
As I continued my research, I discovered the term nonbinary, and realized that this fit who I was so much more. I hated when people looked at me and tried to make an assumption about my gender identity. I felt like the characters I’d drawn as a child. The discovery of the word nonbinary helped me feel free.
Something still bothered me, just a little—a niggling, if you will, but the term nonbinary was definitely more accurate than woman or man.
I came out as nonbinary as my first two novels Hurricane Child and This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story were released. I tried to ignore the days when I felt like I was a man. My life continued, and I felt a lot happier and a lot more comfortable in my skin as I began to physically transition.
I’m sad, actually, that I can’t remember where I first found the term demiboy. It might’ve been in a roundup of various nonbinary labels that I hadn’t known existed, and something about this word caught my eye, and made me look at the definition curiously. Who knew you could have the same feeling of being struck by lightning twice in one life? Another explosion, much like the first I’d experienced with Adam, went off inside of me. This phrase—feeling mostly nonbinary, and sometimes like a binary man—was exactly me. I had no idea other people understood this same feeling, had no idea that this experience was validated enough to actually have language given to it.
Not very much time passed. I want to say it was even the very next day, after I found the word demiboy. It was a sunny day in NYC, and I was strolling through the summer streets, when I thought—how amazing would it be to write about a demiboy? The moment is burned into memory, because I still feel that same initial rush of excitement, the realization that I could possibly do for someone else what Degrassi had done for me.
I could help to share the term demiboy with others, to let them see themselves reflected, to help them understand their own identities, to give them a language so that they would realize they weren’t alone.
There’s no other way to describe it: Felix was gifted to me. His character, his passions, his wants, his hurts, his dreams—everything unfolded within me, and I knew I had to write his story. It was summer in NYC, pride month, and Felix’s story felt as alive as I did. I’d see Felix and his friends reflected in the people I saw in the subways. There was so much hurt that Felix had experienced, but so much joy as well, joy that I’d felt while writing the pages.
As I wrote, I always returned to the original spark, that one hope I had when I first got the idea: if this book could help even one person understand their gender identity more, then it would be a success.
It might be embarrassing to admit, but I cry every time someone tells me that Felix and his story have done just that. I get teary-eyed even just thinking of the people who have let me know that they have realized they’re trans, nonbinary, a demiboy or demigirl, because of Felix’s story. I’m so grateful for this experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Follow Kacen on Twitter.
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