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BOOKS Trans author talks 'layered identity' in new memoir
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2019-03-27

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"I wanted to be two things when I grew up: a writer and a boy."

Life has never been easy for Nate Cannon. Diagnosed with major depression and bipolar disorder at 12 years old, the trans author lost his "sense of gender identity" at the same time. His mother did her best to raise him as a girl because "she thought society wouldn't embrace me," he said.

What followed were life-changing sports injuries, a teenage suicide attempt, substance abuse and a neurological disorder diagnosis—all while Cannon realized his gender-identity disorder wasn't going to fix itself. Dying to Hang with the Boys, the author's second memoir, chronicles Cannon's transition and his journeys in physical and mental health.

"This is a book that explores the consequences of being unable to express one's gender identity," Cannon said via phone from his Minnesota home. "If I had been able to transition earlier, would my life have gone differently? I don't know the answer to that."

While identifying as a lesbian, Cannon wrote Running on a Mind Rewired, a memoir of his time as the only girl on an all-boys hockey team, his slide into drug dependency and near-death experience at 17 and his subsequent recovery. The book is used as a teaching tool in high schools, colleges, hospitals and treatment centers—and is still published under Cannon's birth name. The author prefers it this way: "I feel like that was a story that belonged to who I was when I was Jennifer," he said. "And that portion of my identity and my life needs to be honored."

Dying to Hang with the Boys takes a deep dive into Cannon's suicide attempt, something he was initially discouraged from writing about. "When I first pitched this book, I was told, 'You should leave [suicide] out entirely,'" he said. However, Cannon knew he couldn't leave out his experience. "The book is not intended to glamorize suicide, [but] this is the gory stuff you don't want to hear," he said. "I'm hoping not to put out a story that's going to lead someone to engage in similar acts … but I hope it will give people the courage and determination to stay with us and keep fighting."

Fighting is part of Cannon's daily routine: since he was diagnosed with acquired dystonia, he has to contend with his own body.

"A mix of Parkinson's and MS is how I describe [dystonia]," Cannon said of the neurological disorder. "It feels like someone is reaching in and twisting my muscles with a dishrag." Though dystonia can also be genetic, Cannon feels his is a result of "rewiring my brain: chemical dependency, playing hockey and trying to hang with the boys," not to mention the damaging shoulder injury he sustained when another player gunned for him on the ice.

Running has helped both Cannon's recovery process and his dystonia: sober for 15 years now, he has also completed 14 marathons in the past decade. "It started early in my sobriety [as] putting on a pair of running shoes and getting on a treadmill, figuring out a natural way to boost those brain chemicals and feel good," he said.

"I'm glad I had that training when I developed dystonia in 2006. Dystonia pulls you off to one side. The muscles create push and pull, similar to Parkinson's, causing erratic signals to be sent to the muscles," Cannon said. "The reciprocal motion [of running] has been very helpful for me."

Cannon said running helped with gender issues as well. "Running brought to the surface that I had been confusing my sexual orientation with my gender identity," he said. "As a result of my sports bra, I was chafing. I thought, 'if I didn't have [breasts] this wouldn't be happening.' And that triggered another set of thoughts." Though he still wears women's running shoes, Cannon said "I think companies have gotten better about gender-neutral colors."

Next month, Cannon will run another marathon, do promotion events for Dying to Hang with the Boys and further his successful career in public speaking.

"Something about being on the stage feels comfortable for me," Cannon said. Though he did a bit of public speaking in college—mostly centering around the chemical dependency he was battling at the time—Cannon's career really took off in 2012, after he connected with the National Alliance of Mental Illness ( NAMI ). "I started in small residential mental health facilities, which became conferences," said Cannon, "and suddenly I was getting requests to come in and talk on a variety of issues: mental health, suicide prevention, neurological illness and the layered identity of being a transgender man living with a physical and mental illness."

While Cannon's audiences have ranged from social service professionals to the "brain health" community, he's done a lot of work with corrections employees of late. "When I first got connected with NAMI, I indicated I wasn't comfortable speaking with police," Cannon said. "And yet, [police] seem like an audience that has been able to hear my message about how you work with someone who's transgender to best honor their identity." Most recently, the police department of St. Paul, Minnesota hired Cannon to train 600 officers on its new transgender policy.

This spring, Cannon will have an essay published in Queer Voices: Prose, Poetry and Pride. The anthology "will feature artists primarily from the Twin Cities involved in the Queer Voices reading series, which was one of the longest-running reading series in the country," Cannon said. "Pretty excited about that!"

When asked what he'll write next, Cannon said, "I do think having finished this book, I set myself up for a trilogy and I didn't even realize it. I may have to write a third book—you never know!"

Dying to Hang with the Boys is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.

For more about the author, visit RunningRewired.com .


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