If I Can Give You That: An ARC Review
*Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an early copy in exchange for an honest review.* If I Can Give You That follows seventeen-year-old Gael, a transgender high school senior whose social life consists of waiting tables part-time at Joey's Pizzaria, hanging out with his twenty-year-old best friend, Nicole, and doing his best to care for his mentally ill mother. Nicole has been Gael's only real friend since he and his mother decided to relocate after his parent's divorce and he left behind his middle school friends to begin his transition on his own terms. All Gael wants is to keep his head down and get through his senior year unscathed so that he can start his real life outside the walls of his conservative Tennessee high school, but when Nicole drags him along to a meeting of Plus, an LGBTQIA+ support group for teens, he gets to know the sweet and charming Declan, who opens up his world in ways he never could have expected.
As the two boys get closer and Gael is pulled into a group of friends that make him feel comfortable being himself, he finds himself feeling a sense of belonging that he had never let himself believe he could have. As time passes and his friendship with Declan starts to become something more, the secret of his mother's worsening mental health still looms over them, complicating everything. When things take a turn for the worse, Gael must choose between the familiar comfort of retreating inward and finally opening himself up to the love he's never quite believed he deserves. There is so much to love about this book. The trans solidarity that Nicole and Gael's friendship is built upon was incredibly heartwarming, and how everyone came together to fight to keep their queer safe space open was nothing if not an accurate representation of the resilience of the queer community. Gael and Declan's journey was beautiful, the amount of patience and understanding that Declan shows when Gael is at his worst is something we should all aim for. And despite being at times difficult to read, Gael's mother's mental health struggles are written with respect to the characters, as well as compassion for those actually experiencing depression and suicidal ideation.
With this debut novel, Michael Gray Bulla has written the coming-of-age story I needed as a queer trans teen. Like so many trans folks, Gael holds himself back by doing everything he can to make his identity easily digestible for others. He is so concerned with being the kind of man that he thinks he should be that he doesn't allow himself the freedom to discover who he is for himself. He closes himself off to the love of those around him because he doesn't see himself as worthy of it. We watch him, like countless queer trans men before him, repress thoughts of romance and attraction because he hasn't allowed himself to even consider that he may be anything but straight. Gael's view of his own masculinity is so tied up in the false limitations society puts on men, and without any gay trans men around him, he has a hard time even considering that he could live as one.
Gael's journey with his sexuality really hit home- it is undeniable that trans male representation has historically been that of straight men, only in recent years are we seeing more diverse representation, and it's still not the mainstream. Because of this, I, like Gael, spent so much time questioning my trans identity because I wasn't what I thought a trans man should be: devoid of femininity, same-sex attraction included. Like Gael, I spent way too much time questioning if I was trans enough, or man enough, because books like this, and representation like this, just didn't exist. Here we are over ten years later, and stories like these are finally hitting shelves, where they wait to be picked up by a new generation of trans teens. I am so glad to know that they will see themselves reflected back at them in these pages. This book hits shelves on February 28th, 2023. Links to pre-order it can be found here.