Old people: one of the demographics most often ignored when it comes to character development. They’re used as a beacon of guidance and tradition, and their deaths are a symbol of the new generation’s growth. I’ve been reading an ARC of The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg, and I realized right when I was smack-dab in the middle of the third chapter, that this was the first time I had ever read about a trans or nonbinary elder character. Today, I’m going to tell you a little bit about the unfortunate reasons why trans characters are perpetually young. I’m also, hopefully, going to convince you to add an elder trans character to your story.
Why are there so few elderly trans characters? Because, plainly speaking, there aren’t a lot of elderly trans people. Between the AIDs crisis, transphobic violence, high rates of poverty, and high suicide rates (not to mention all of the other things people in general have to worry about what with being mortals), older transgender people have by and large been eradicated by a society that sees no place for us. It’s why I cried so much when I read Lou’s diaries. So when you have a community of people who are generally younger than the average cis person, you’re going to get younger characters. And because of the nature of transness being an identity not passed down generationally, a lot of our elder community’s stories are lost. I have yet to meet a trans person over the age of fifty. That’s not to say they don’t exist–there are definitely older trans folks who are still alive today. It’s just that there aren’t a whole lot of them, and the trans community’s historic oppression has made it so that a lot of older trans people went stealth.
But why, you might ask, are elderly trans characters so important? To me as a young trans man, hearing about living trans elders is so much more than just a person who’s really old and has a bum hip. Living trans elders represent resilience through some of the most wretched periods of our history. They represent hope for a better future. Knowing that there are old trans people out there who survived so much terrible stuff gives me the hope that I need to get through difficult days.
Their guidance is also something I have perpetually needed but never had easy access to. I have mentioned this before, but I grew up and transitioned as the only trans masc person that I knew–the only transgender person I knew for much of that time. When I found other trans people and made connections with them, I was often older, or at the very least I had gone through much more of my transition than them. With a great respect for the honor of this title, some of my trans friends referred to me as the “dad” or the “grandpa” of our little community.
It has only been in the past year and a half that I have finally felt younger than another trans person in reading works by folks like Bogi Takács, J. Y. Yang, Susan Stryker, Imogen Binnie, Akwaeke Emezi, and more. Out of all of those, I believe Susan Styker is the oldest at 59 years old. She’s a little older than my father. Even Lou Sullivan, who would have been–as I’m sure he would have loved–69 years old this year, would only just barely be considered “elderly” if he were still alive.
Let us add onto this the prevailing misconception that transness is a recent fad: it becomes all the more important to show images of older trans people because doing so reminds your readers that trans people have always been here–we were simply silenced.
So now that you have a working understanding of why it is so vital that you include elderly trans characters in your writing, I suppose I should get around to talking about how you should write older trans characters.
There are, as I mentioned at the start of this, the iconic archetypes of the old and wizened guide for the young protagonist. As with all of my posts, I would not recommend you go the route of killing off your trans elder, as this would bring back up the historic traumas the trans community has faced. I would also recommend that you make sure that you get trans bias readers to check over before you throw your manuscript off to the wolves of the publishing world–particularly if your trans elderly character gives any advice (whether it be life advice or day-to-day advice).
Another trans elder character development tip that I would suggest is to take a page out of Lou’s book. Trans elders may now be wizened by the hardships they faced in their lives, but it’s important to remember that they actually have had a life that led to this point. Let them have messy backstories with drama and protests and decades-old grudges and loves that past like ships in the night. Give them some texture so we trans readers know they’re real.
And if you want to go about this in the best way, make them a person of color and/or disabled. Of all of the people affected by high rates of death within the trans community at large, trans people of color and disabled trans people have been and continue to be the most impacted. Everything I have said thus far about what living trans elders represent to the trans community goes threefold for them.
[NOTE: That last bit of advice comes with the highly stressed additional caveat that you will need to find intersectional bias readers who have both or all of these identities. While I can tell you about my own experience of being a trans person, I cannot begin to fathom what being a trans person of color would be like, nor would I be able to understand what being a disabled trans person would be like. The same goes for your bias readers.]
Being in line with my 2020 goal of engaging with people more, I have a question for you all:
What was the best piece of advice that you have ever received from a person over the age of 50? Where would your life be if that moment of guidance never happened?
What is this “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing?
I’m glad you asked! I’m a part of this author blog hop where a group of 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!