Queer YA novel In the Defense of Liberty breathes life into Trans histories

This article contains mention of suicide and transphobia.

When it comes to Trans rights, there is good attention and bad attention. The good attention is the sort of positive awareness that allows Trans kids to be who they are. But there is also the bad kind of attention, which attracts hatred and violence. Those who spread the bad kind of attention try to relegate Trans identity to a sort of modern fad, rather than accept that Trans folks have always been here.

UBC creative writing professor Keith Maillard’s 2023 book, In the Defense of Liberty, is a new entry in a growing field of historical fiction that challenges the retrograde idea that Trans and genderfluid identities are something new. The characters of the book are forced to fly under the radar of their historical moment of the 1960's USA, while their growing awareness of themselves and each other offer a form of private liberation.

The book’s protagonist, Mason Macquarie, is a honours history major spending the summer at his off-campus university flop to begin writing his thesis. Maillard uses he/him pronouns for the character throughout, although the dysphoric Mason seems to wear them uneasily. It is 1964 and he is attending the fictional Merida University in the fictional Merida, Ohio.

Suicide haunts every corner of this book, as Mason feels unable to go on living as a boy. After a suicide attempt, and later staring down from the height of the university’s library tower, Mason decides to keep living, but shifts into “f— it” mode. He begins to wear women’s clothing and makeup, and chases the memory of a day in which he pretended to be his sister. He encounters opposition, but also community.

A large share of the book is concerned with questions about how people interpret history, both within their university setting and in the fiery political climate of the Civil Rights era. Though Maillard is not a historian, he offers parallels between the past and present, and asserts that the historical narratives each characters tell are inherently political.

The title references Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who said at the 1964 Republican National Convention: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” If that sounds familiar, it's because today's conservative movement grew out of the radical right-wing evangelicalism of the 1960's.

Where Goldwater and political allies raged — and continue to rage — against 2SLGBTQIA+ rights, abortion and gun control, the title expresses a different sort of liberty — the liberty to be Queer, even privately, as exercised by the protagonists of the book.

The protagonists do not engage in the sort of extremism that we might associate with Goldwater’s quote. Re-reading the title, their “extremism” is in their life-threatening practice of Queerness, cross-dressing and gender fluidity.

To associate these two is a false dichotomy that we see touted by conservative pundits of the present, who assert that Trans peoples’ right to exist (and any steps they might take to defend it) are just as extreme as white supremacist action carried out by hate groups or lone gunmen.

This book reminds its audience that Trans people have always existed, and that the threat of death has never been far off. It still isn’t.

This is a book that deals with heavy subjects with faith in its young-adult audience. It's written in accessible, simple language reminiscent of a more classic form of (very competent) young adult fiction, like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Mason’s West Virginian dialect feels both realistic and stilted, much like Hinton’s representations of contemporary youth vernacular.

Maillard’s earlier work — including 1976’s Two Strand River and 2021’s The Bridge — shows that he has long wrestled with the gender binary. He works to unsettle that binary in The Bridge by examining his relationship to gender as an 81-year-old father of two. He uses male-leaning language while situating himself outside of anything too deterministic. UBC professor Daniel Heath Justice praised The Bridge, saying that it “speaks with particular generosity to all of us who’ve been deemed ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ in our gender expression.”

Truly, the strength of In the Defense of Liberty is the great empathy that Maillard brings to each character, whether it is his protagonist or the thwarted, ambitious women of the rural 1960s — or even his attempt at humanizing the character of an entitled white extremist.

Liberty is a thoughtful, moving rendering of Maillard’s struggle against societal perceptions of young men, pierced by the protagonist’s impressions of what sort of girl he would like to be.

When older folks first encounter Trans community-members, many try to get around their more difficult feelings by claiming to be too old to understand, having been brought up in a different time. Keith Maillard, being both Queer and a senior citizen, is constantly reappraising and unraveling the standards that repressed his gender identity in his youth.

The book is well worth a read, and is a refreshing reminder of the existence of open-minded counter-culturalists who are still standing by their principles.