Grace Mead is one of America’s leading trial attorneys, and four years ago she came out as transgender and began presenting authentically full-time. In November 2018, she published her debut novel “Defense of an Other” (Clink Street Publishing) — a legal thriller which explores what it means to be gay in modern America.
In November, The Nopebook’s own Mia Violet — fellow trans woman and author — spoke to Grace about writing the book and her experiences as a queer woman from Louisiana.
Before we even start, I wanted to say I thought the book was really good, so congratulations! How would you choose to describe the book to someone who hasn’t heard of it yet?
Grace Mead: “Defence of an Other” is about a closeted gay lawyer in New Orleans who’s attacked in an alley, kills one of his attackers… and after chapter one it gets interesting! [laughs].
Mia: [Laughs] So the first thing I wanted to ask about is that I imagine writing a novel alongside your job as a defence attorney must’ve been quite stressful, how did you manage to find the time?
Grace: Well, I worked for five years in New York and then moved to Miami, and I took a couple of months off before starting at the new firm. So, I wrote an initial terrible draft and then, over eleven years, found the time to rewrite it many, many, many times. And I generally, in retrospect, wrote for about three to four years total, pieced together. Usually I would write for a couple of hours before my day job started.
Mia: When I read that you had this draft for about ten years, that was so fascinating to me. How did that actually happen? Where did the idea initially come from?
Grace: The initial source of the idea,was having studied the evolution of civil rights. And really, there was a point in the 1930s where there was just a series of horrific criminal cases and that is really what culminated in Brown vs. the Board of Education. The Marshall who won that case, and later became a Supreme Court justice, spent the bulk of his career dealing with some really horrific criminal cases.
Meanwhile, I began the book in about 2007, before Marriage Equality was even really on the horizon, and I thought it was a different perspective on the issue. Unfortunately as I delved a little further, I think it’s a more realistic perspective than I’d first thought. I mean, I’ve seen instances where this has happened. Where people fight back after they’re attacked.
Mia: Yeah, I mean it’s something that I thought about a lot when I started my transition. When I was outside I was always thinking ‘What do I even do if I get confronted?’
Grace: Oh yes, it’s constantly at the top of the mind for queer people. And especially trans women. It’s dangerous, and it’s particularly dangerous for trans women of colour and poor trans women.
“When I was presenting inauthentically, I was very locked down. In terms of body movement, facial expression, it was all neutral. The perfect poker face 90% of the time.”
Mia: Exactly, yeah. I was curious, as you transitioned between drafts, did Matt’s character change at all during the rewriting of the book?
Grace: So, the overall arc of the plot did not change. Matt’s character, I think is still very much rooted in version 1.0 of myself. And I kept that intact, but I wrote it and revised it with a very different perspective later on, and it was things as simple as being able to write about facial expressions and movements more readily.
When I was presenting inauthentically, I was very locked down. In terms of body movement, facial expression, it was all neutral. The perfect poker face 90% of the time. I sort of brought a sense of humour that enabled me to get along with people, and I tried to be nice, you know? Because people don’t want to, necessarily, spend a lot of time with depressed people. Like, there’s this natural distance, and I found a variety of coping mechanisms, among those was rather than gesturing effeminately, I just didn’t gesture. I had a wry sense of humour, sardonic, you know?
And so, my presentation has changed, and really, for me the body movements are the most natural part. So I moved from cynical to more relaxed and happier.
Mia: Yeah, I can totally understand what you mean, because I kind of went through the same thing. People I meet now say ‘Oh you seem like such a smiley, happy person, Mia.’ But I was always being told pre-transition that I was a very sarcastic person, a quite serious person. So I saw that same thing when you mention Matt’s sense of humour, I thought ‘Okay this is his coping mechanism’
Grace: It is a good coping mechanism, if you’re in a bad place.
“I have read and I have heard, that trans people are some of the happiest people that you’ll ever meet. And, intellectually, I processed that. But to feel it’s a very different thing.”
Mia: Yeah, definitely. One other thing that stuck out to me that I thought was a really good line, is where Matt is thinking to himself and and he wonders if other gay people will be angry at him for not being sure if he’s ‘really gay’ and I was… I had to stop and read that line twice because, that’s such a common thing that we don’t hear about much. Like, I did the same thing, and I’m sure lots of other people do it. I thought ‘until I’m 100% sure I’m queer, I can’t say anything’.
Grace: And that’s wrong [laughs].
Mia: [Laughs] Exactly, yeah! We should point that out.
Grace: Right, yeah. It’s very important to know. Never once did my gay friends, many of whom had no trans people in their lives, never once did they say that to me, I don’t think they even thought it.
Mia: Exactly, yeah. The queer community, as soon as anyone says that they’re exploring their identity we’re all like, ‘Oh that’s great!’ And we welcome them in.
On a slightly different note, I’ll be honest, reading the premise at first I was a little bit nervous and I thought ‘Oh no, is this going to be a really bleak book?’ But I actually found it quite a hopeful book, was that intentional or…?
Grace: Well… Yes. But I do think if you were to compare the 2011 draft to the final, it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.. But I’m heartened to hear that, because that is one of my fears. That it’s too bleak, and of course, you know, happiness is defined by sadness and vice versa. And, I wrote about this, to some degree on my website, but I had no idea that it was so positive to be content and at rest… or to be so happy and to have that as your default state. You know, you literally don’t perceive it. Or I didn’t. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I certainly didn’t.
Mia: No, I agree. I’ve often said to people before. My understanding, now, of happiness is completely different to what it used to be.
Grace: And you know, I have read and I have heard, that trans people are some of the happiest people that you’ll ever meet. And, intellectually, I processed that. But to feel it’s a very different thing.
“No one is normal in this whole world. Weird is wonderful.”
Mia: Yeah. Absolutely… I understand if you don’t want to discuss it, but I am curious about your own transition. Because one thing that really stuck out to me was the line that you put in the notes at the end, that you ‘had no choice but to stop hating yourself’. That to me, I thought ‘there’s got to be a story behind that’, I’d love to just hear more about that.
Grace: Sure. I mean, I’ve been very fortunate in that… I’ve lived in Louisiana, went to school in Chicago, went to school in New York City, I was exposed to a reasonable variety in terms of racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds, geography. You know, there are, especially right now in America, there are some significant geographic thoughts. And you know, there are an awful lot of really great people out there. As I went through those experiences, I am someone who needs to be aware of the history of discrimination against many of the groups within the straight and cisgender populous.
And so I was like, is there any basis for queer discrimination? I mean, not where does this come from, because there are some kinds of explanations for that, but I mean is there any kind of moral basis for this? And I went in with the presumption no, and I thought very long and hard about it and as I write I wasn’t close to anyone who was openly gay until I was, like, twenty years old, in New York. And, so… it literally was this progression and the novel was a piece of that progression as it addresses being gay. In many ways one of my greatest things with the book is because where I started was so mainstream, so white, so cisgender, I thought that maybe this would help span some of those groups.
Mia: That makes sense. It just reminds me of, like I was saying before… I don’t want to talk about myself too much, but when I was twenty-two, twenty-three years old, I knew of queer people, but I didn’t really know any personally. It felt like those people had grown up around queer culture. I felt I was separate from it all, and I really didn’t feel like I could integrate myself into that community, so I see what you mean about having a, kind of, “normal upbringing”, and I use that with inverted commas.
Grace: I love your air quotes there with normal. Which are appropriate because no one is normal in this whole world. Weird is wonderful.
“For trans people transition is necessary, transition is incredibly hopeful.”
Mia: As a last question, I just thought that I can’t talk to an American trans woman without asking about the state of American trans rights. So, I’m thinking about, recently there’s the leaked memo that came out for instance, but then also Massachusetts voted to uphold trans protections. And I’m wondering about all of that together. I don’t want this to sound so simple, but, do you think there is a real risk of trans rights going backwards or getting worse? Or do you think that public opinion is going to protect us going forwards?
Grace: I think there are significant short-term risks with many areas. Including employment, discrimination, the Twitter trans ban, the memo that would divide sex and gender in ways that are false or inviable by intersex people. Longer term, I think that the overwhelming consensus about conversion therapy of all types, and the overwhelming medical consensus, is that for trans people transition is necessary, transition is incredibly hopeful, if one puts aside the negative influences created by society per transition. I think that those will drive us to a far better place, but again, it’s a question of ‘how long is it going to take?’ and ‘how many people will be hurt before we get there?’ But I was a pessimist on marriage equality, so once again, I hope I’m wrong.
Mia: Yeah, I totally understand what you’re saying. It’s going to take time, but I hope it doesn’t… So that was it for all the questions that I had, thank you for your time!
Editor’s Note: The this article is a transcript of the interview between Mia and Grace, but it has been edited and cut down for clarity.