I’ve noticed that when people write about a marginalized identity they aren’t a part of, it’s the little things that trip them up. Certain terms are outdated, a passage of description seems to be virtue-signalling, etc. One of these little things that bothers me when it comes to transgender representation is how the author goes about signalling to the reader that one of the characters is trans. For cisgender writers, particularly, but also for some trans/nonbinary writers, it can feel like they’re trying so hard to write it properly that it doesn’t feel natural. Other times, it’s just downright insensitive, and it’s clear that the author didn’t put very much thought into how to approach the topic. Hopefully this post will help break down where writers can go wrong and where they can go right when they introduce a character’s transness.
One of the most well-known ways to do a terrible job of introducing a character as transgender is to make it a surprise for comedic effect. Think of Ace Ventura, generally known among trans folks as one of the most transphobic movies of all time. It reveals that Lois Einhorn, who is treated with the sexualized male gaze during the first portion of the film, is transgender when Ace Ventura reacts in extreme disgust that she’s “a man?!” It’s just a *wonderful* moment for transgender representation. Really. 🙄 So yeah, please don’t do anything like that. Any writer who makes jokes out of a character’s transness being revealed can–to speak bluntly–fuck off. Think about the moment you signal that your character is transgender as a kind of coming-out moment for them with your readers. It would be insensitive and downright rude to laugh at someone when they come out, so why try to make your readers do that to your character?
Similarly, letting your readers know that a character is transgender by making it a huge dramatic revelation is not the way to go. Both with the comedic reveal and with this, the element of surprise is not something you want your readers to feel when they find out a character is transgender. There’s a thread of transphobia that hinges on the belief that trans people are “deceivers,” and that cisgender people have a “right” to know the gender a trans person was assigned at birth as well as all of the details about that trans person’s genitalia. If you as a writer were to show that a character is trans through the element of surprise for some major plot reveal, you would be feeding into that harmful transphobic narrative.
One way you can do this right, though, is by just stating it immediately. This takes away the chance to make a whole dramatic ordeal out of the reveal. If you go this route, I would suggest you state it in a matter-of-fact way. Especially if the story is in first person (though this still applies to third person narration), you can run the risk of the narrator having an implied opinion about the person’s transness. This can be good, bad, or neutral. If you just say “She’s a trans woman,” then you take out the chance of negative biases coming through. You may be tempted to say, “He’s trans, and I’m so proud of him,” and so forth, but in this case, you might end up coming across as virtue-signalling or just being over-the-top which could end up being infantilizing. If you want a good example of a first person narrator who discovers that another character is transgender, I would suggest you read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, she did a very respectful job with it.
Now, what about if you want to write something where they wouldn’t have conceptions of gender in, say, certain science fiction or fantasy worlds? Or even just if you can’t find a good time to mention that the character is trans directly without it feeling out of place or forced? You can always follow the show-don’t-tell rule! There are tons of different things that people do that can signal to your readers that a character is trans. These are things like binding, taking hormones, packing, tucking, and having surgeries in order to pass, which I’ve talked about before. You can also do this by giving your character alternative pronouns which I’ve discussed here. It can also be directly visible, such as wearing transgender visibility t-shirts. I have three different trans t-shirts, a pair of trans-colored boxer-briefs, a trans flag, and a bunch of heart-shaped trans stickers. I also know a friend who bought a pair trans pride converse that I’m considering buying for myself. If you want a good example of this, I would suggest you check out J. Y. Yang’s Tensorate Series.
If show-don’t-tell doesn’t work for you, there are other ways to say that a character is transgender without saying the word “transgender”. For instance, in a WIP of mine, the main character is shown in women’s clothing, but the omniscient narrator continues to refer to him masculinely. This is a very narrow line to traverse, though, for the same reasons there might be an issue with a first-person perspective: you might have some implicit biases against trans people that you haven’t yet addressed in yourself. At the end of the day, I can only tell you what to look out for. In the same way that I can’t write your book for you, I also can’t clear away all of the biases our society has put in your head. If you’re reading this post, though, you’re probably on the right track. Just keep up with your work, make sure to research thoroughly, and get some transgender bias readers while you’re at it. If you treat this with care (a major theme of this blog), your readers won’t even bat an eyelash at your character’s transness, which is really the end goal for all trans representation.
What is this “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing?
I’m glad you asked! I got invited to this author blog hop where a group of us bloggers write about the same theme (in this case, resources & advice for writers). There are some requirements so other participants can know which posts are for the blog hop and which are not. If you want to learn more, you can check out the details and the list of other participants here!