I probably could have tacked this question onto the end of my Starting Questions post about how to write transgender characters, but I feel that the topic of why a person should write about trans characters deserves its own space. Plus, that first piece was already so long, and I still had way more I could say in it. This is a question that, though some of you probably know the answer to it, many people don’t. I hope my trans siblings can use this piece as a tool when debunking transphobic arguments, because I know how tiring it can get after the eleventh transphobe says it’s not “productive” or “realistic” to write diverse characters.
Note: I’m definitely using the gunshot method here, and not going in too deep. The goal of this piece is to make people look at it from different angles–I wouldn’t be able to convince a transphobe not to be transphobic if I tried. Now, if you’re one of the people who believes trans representation in media is unimportant, I encourage you to keep reading. If you feel that any singular argument here isn’t true, Google is just a click away.
First of all, let’s just start off with the most popular answer: representation is important to the members of marginalized groups. It can give a person hope and affirmation when reading or seeing a person like them. It’s often difficult for me to fully connect with cisgender characters because their experiences are so different from my own. That’s why, when I picked up Nevada by Imogen Binnie–the first book I read with real trans representation in it–I was so emotional. If this is an alien feeling to you, imagine having basically no choices for role models and being forced to either figure out your life and identity on your own or admire someone you don’t really understand. The latter option is particularly rough when those potential cisgender role models may turn out to be transphobic later on. I’m sure many cis women and cis people of color will be able to empathize with that, because narratives are so often centered around a single, cis, straight, white man.
Representation is also important because it shows people that being cisgender or being white or being straight or being able-bodied shouldn’t be equated with being “normal”. If trans people have to/can look up to cis people as role models, cis people should be able to do the same with trans role models. The problem is that many cis people haven’t read books with trans characters in them and often don’t know how to empathize with trans people as a result, meaning they couldn’t connect to trans role models if they tried. This, of course, also applies to members of other marginalized groups.
Now let’s say you’re the kind of person that doesn’t want to rock the boat because you still want to make sure readers like your stuff. There are going to be people out there who will refuse to read things with trans people in them. However, you’ll also be adding a ton of trans people to your audience who are hungry for good representation and will happily recommend books to other trans people. Plus, writing trans characters might get your book banned from particularly conservative schools, which in my opinion is a mark of good authorship. It also leads to a lot more press for your book.
I think you’ll also find that a number of readers have become bored with the constant narrative slog of white, cisgender, heterosexual men. We’ve had so many books (good and bad alike) written about them that it’s not even funny. Writing from other perspectives is a great way to interest your readers because of how refreshing it can be. That’s not to say you should sensationalize or exoticize trans experiences (or really any experience you haven’t had, yourself). You’ll have to do a bit of research, but your readers will love you for it and will probably come back for later books.
“But what about the realism, Ash?” You might ask. I don’t know–you and I probably haven’t met before, so it’s just a guess. But there are people out there who say this, though they may not be the ones reading this blog. I get it, there are people who think that there aren’t many trans people out there because they’ve heard the statistic that says that less than one percent of the American population is transgender. Except, those numbers almost all came from a study by the Williams Institute at UCLA that explicitly states in their introduction “Population-based surveys… rarely ask questions to identify transgender people and, therefore, cannot be used to provide estimates of the size and characteristics of the transgender population.” (2) Their numbers come from state-based surveys (not national!) which are flawed because of how many trans people are stealth or closeted–it’s not like all trans people go around telling the world about their identity like I do. GLAAD also recently released the results of a more recent state-based survey that indicates the numbers are much higher now that more people know what transgender means and now that they are more likely to be accepted by those around them. (That’s representation in action, let me just tell you!)
There are also people who will say that there can’t be very many trans people out there because they’ve never met one. While I was in undergrad at the University of Chicago, I made something over twenty trans friends, and I knew of way more than twenty trans people who were enrolled in the university. That’s not a small number. “But why haven’t I met one, then, if there are so many?” one of these people might ask. The truth is, you’ve probably met at least one trans person in your life but didn’t realize it because they weren’t out or were stealth. As well, people naturally gravitate toward was is familiar and comforting and safe. That means that cis people will often become closer friends with other cis people and trans people will do so for trans people. That’s not to say that trans people and cis people can’t be friends–I have plenty of cisgender friends. It’s just that I feel more comfortable talking about certain (often important and difficult to approach) matters with my transgender friends than with my cisgender friends. Trans people will also sometimes seek out other trans people to be friends with as a mode of protection; safety in numbers and all that. Just because one person hasn’t met many out trans people, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many of us out there.
In the end, if you really want to be realistic, you should add way more LGBTQIA+ people than you might think. This is particularly true for sci-fi worlds because our social trends shift more liberal over time, which means more people are going to feel comfortable addressing their sexuality and gender identity. As for fantasy writers, why do you even care about realism? You literally created a world that defies the laws of physics through magic or what have you. (cough, cough, George R. R. Martin–not that he was particularly true to medieval history, anyway)
I started with a moral argument, and now I’m going to end on one; it’s much more my style. Writing diverse characters can educate both the readers and the writers about marginalized groups. It allows readers to learn how to empathize with people who have different experiences and it allows writers to learn about other communities in their research. That kind of education will reduce the hatred trans people face, not to mention all of the other marginalized individuals out there. With more knowledge and empathy, there is more understanding and less hatred and fear. Reading and writing is all about expanding your worldview, anyway, so if you stick to just cisgender people, are you really doing your job?