I Am J begins as J Silver complains to his only friend, Melissa, that someone called him a dyke again. This insult hurts J even though he is not a lesbian. He has female body parts, but in his head he is male. When he was a small child, he used to pray that he would go to sleep and wake up a boy. Now he is seventeen and he knows this is impossible, so he just covers his body in layers of clothes and tries not to think about his gender. Other people, including Melissa and his parents, think of him as a girl.
Melissa begs J to come with her to a party because she is pursuing a new relationship and wants moral support. When they get there she disappears to talk to her crush, a pretentious boy named Daniel who brags that he is reading Proust. J wanders around drinking straight gin and alienating everyone who tries to talk to him. When he sees Melissa and Daniel kissing, he vomits into a plant. Melissa takes him home to her house, where she comforts him and falls asleep.
For J, the only good thing about being born female is that girls trust him. Melissa, whom he loves deeply, confides in him and lets him share her bed. J inches closer to her, enjoying the feel of her breath on his face. Suddenly they are kissing. At first Melissa’s tongue plays in J’s mouth, but then she sits bolt upright and asks what he is doing. J claims that he was asleep, but Melissa does not believe him. She kicks him out.
A few days later, J gets an e-mail from Melissa that says she wants to put their friendship on hold for a while. She says she has wanted to take a break from their relationship for a long time so she can focus on her dance, which she takes very seriously. She also says that if J were a guy, what he did would be “almost like rape.” J refuses to talk to his parents about his problems, but his mother, Carolina, can tell he is upset. When she tries to comfort him, he realizes she thinks he is a lesbian. He decides that if his parents think he is a “dyke” and his best friend thinks he is a “monster,” he has nothing more to lose. He makes his decision: “I’ll become a real freak.”
For the next several days, J skips school and spends his time researching gender transformation. Following a website’s instructions, he makes a chest binder that makes his chest appear flat, like a boy’s. One day he wears it to a downtown Starbucks and chats with some girls who seem to believe him when he claims J stands for Jason. He goes back to the Starbucks several times. When a pretty artist girl named Blue develops a crush on J, he is torn between giddiness and horror. He likes her back, but he is not sure he has a right to pretend to be a boy. So far, he is not even taking the testosterone treatments that could change his voice and make him grow a beard. When he is around Blue and her friends, he hardly dares to speak more than a sentence at a time for fear his high-pitched voice will give him away.
One day, Melissa and J finally get together to talk. She seems ready to accept him back as a friend, but she says she gets “confused” because
I know you’re a girl, but sometimes you seem more like a guy.... And when you seem like a guy, I am attracted to you. But then I remember that you’re a girl, and I just can’t go there.
Hearing this, J’s thoughts come to him in a rush. He is thrilled that Melissa thinks he is like a guy—but he also knows she will never consent to be in a relationship with him. He wonders if he should tell her that he is a transsexual, but it is too hard to say. He is a photographer, so he promises to take a picture to show the feelings he cannot say out loud. He spends the night roaming the city, breaking into a construction site and taking a picture of his shadow being pierced by a jackhammer, hoping that Melissa will understands that he is killing off a part of himself—the girl part—to make room for him to be himself.
The next day, Blue takes J to her house to see her paintings, which are all in shades of blue. He is charmed by her cute weirdness, and he longs to kiss her. However, he is afraid that if they make out she will take off his shirt and see his breasts. To avoid this, he lies, saying he is getting over an old relationship and is scared to start a new one. At first Blue seems confused by his strange behavior, but she seems to buy the lie about the girlfriend. If anything, it makes her like him even more.
When J goes home that night, Carolina confronts him about skipping school. His father, Manny, is uncharacteristically understanding. He says J can be anything he wants to be, and for a moment J thinks it might be okay for him to be a man. But soon it becomes clear that Manny is only talking about jobs and education. He explains that his biggest regret is that he never finished college. “You’ll always be my baby girl,” he says. Hearing this, J decides there is no chance his parents will accept that he is transgender. He resolves to run away.
J packs clothes, his camera, and all his money, and he gets himself a room at a cheap hotel. He feels sure that everything will be all right once he starts a real gender transition, so he goes to a clinic and asks for testosterone, which he calls T. A worker at the clinic explains that she cannot help him. To...
(The entire section is 2185 words.)