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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2185

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.

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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 get T, he needs a permission note from his parents and a psychiatric referral. When he gets outside, he is so frustrated that he kicks everything in sight. In need of a distraction, he calls Blue. They meet and have their first kiss.

Melissa sends J a message saying she needs to talk to him urgently. He goes to meet her at the pizza place by her house, and soon his mother and the cops rush in. Carolina takes him home and pushes him to explain what is going on. He gives her a pamphlet on testosterone and locks himself in the bathroom. When he finally ventures out, Carolina calls J “selfish” and asks him, “Can’t you just be a regular lesbian?” She takes J for a drive and tries to convince him that his desire for a gender transformation is just a teenage act of rebellion. When J does not back down, she seems to edge slightly closer to acceptance. She offers to tell J’s father, but she warns that Manny will need time to come to terms with J’s transition. In the meantime, Carolina suggests that J stay with Melissa and her mother, Karyn, for a while.

Shortly after moving in with Melissa, J confesses that he is transgender. At first Melissa thinks this means he is a hermaphrodite. A few days later, after Karyn has explained what it is to be transgender, Melissa announces that she accepts J. She is working on a dance performance on the theme of “threshold,” and she wants to dance about J’s transition. This makes J angry. He says Melissa has no business dancing about something she does not understand.

J continues to work on changing his gender, but it is far too slow for his tastes. He sees a counselor, Philip, who insists on at least three months of therapy before he can prescribe T. Then, just before J’s birthday, he goes out for dinner with Carolina. They fight about Manny, whom Carolina says is refusing to see J. However, she finally gives her written permission for the testosterone treatments. This permission is no longer necessary because J will be eighteen by the time he qualifies, but he appreciates the gesture.

For the first time in years, J makes real friends aside from Melissa. He begins attending a “gay school,” where he meets a girl named Chanelle who used to be a boy. He also joins a support group for transboys and begins growing friendly with the leader, a grad student named Zak. However, his relationship with Blue is so rocky it hardly counts as a relationship at all. She confuses J so much that he soon stops calling her.

Chanelle helps J figure out how to apply to colleges as a transgender person. He cannot imagine explaining his situation to a college admissions official, so Chanelle offers to call the school he wants to attend and pretend to be him. He watches in awe as she explains the problem in just a couple of sentences:

See, I was born as a girl, but I live as a man. My older transcripts will say female, but the ones from my school now will say male. Will this be a problem?

As it turns out, the school already has a small transgender population. J only needs to submit an explanatory note and apply for a single room. J is incredibly thankful to Chanelle for making this call.

One night Melissa casually tells J that she has signed him up to do a photography exhibit at the performance space where she dances. J swears at her and fumes for a while, but then he thinks about the pictures he has taken lately. He has a series that revolve around transgender issues, including pictures of Chanelle and Zak, as well as a couple of others. Melissa has promised not to dance about his transition, but he knows he could do a photography exhibit on the subject. Tentatively, he agrees.

When J’s three months of counseling are finished, Philip finally approves him to take testosterone. By now J thinks of his first T treatment as a “spiritual rite.” He does not want to feel guilty when he receives the shot, so he goes to see Blue and tell her he is transgender. She is not sure what this means, but by now J is getting better at explaining. Blue is tentatively accepting, saying she is glad J was her first boyfriend. However, she is not willing to restart their relationship.

When he goes for his first T shot, J is simultaneously disappointed and relieved at how easy it is. At first, he does not feel any different—but he is moved when Chanelle, Zak, and Melissa arrive in the waiting room to congratulate him on his rite of passage. He realizes that these three friends are his new family, the people who love him, accept him, and stick with him. He loves them “so much, it could almost kill him.”

Melissa’s dance performance is the same night as J’s parents’ twentieth anniversary celebration. J has spoken to Carolina on the phone, and he knows he is not welcome at their anniversary party. He hangs his photographs at Melissa’s dance hall and stands amazed as people actually look at them. After he watches Melissa dance, he leaves and, on impulse, goes to his parents’ party. He plans to confront them in front of all their friends, but it does not work out as he expects.

When J arrives at the party, only a few of his parents’ friends are still at the restaurant with them. Manny confuses J by welcoming him and asking him when he got back. The friends, sensing that something is wrong, get up to leave. Carolina sees them out, and J faces his father. As it turns out, she never told Manny that J is transgender. J has felt angry at Manny for months, and now he is confused to realize that he should have been mad at Carolina at all along. His confusion deepens when he explains what is going on and Manny says, “Jesus, J. That’s disgusting.” J leaves with the impression that he is braver and better at facing reality than both his parents are.

As I Am J ends, J is still living at Melissa’s. He is slowly rebuilding a relationship with his parents, and he is growing in his friendships with Chanelle and Zak. For the first time in his life, he does not feel alone. Also for the first time, he can imagine a future for himself. One day he receives a letter addressed to “Mr. Silver” and gets confused, thinking it is for his dad. Then he realizes it is a letter from the college to which he applied. He, Mr. Silver, has been accepted to an excellent photography program in upstate New York.

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