by West Anderson, Content Writer
[Image description: The image shows a person from behind with long blond hair in a white long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans. They are standing in front of a row of white metal bookshelves that are empty except for a single thick red book. Empty stacks are visible on either side of them.]
There is a distinct lack of LGBTQ+ characters in written fiction, and even fewer that are portrayed respectfully and accurately. I’ve read a few good novels with LGB characters – not so much with T characters. The things I have read that focus on the T leave a bad taste in my mouth. There’s a common thread through all of them that is difficult for me, as a trans person, to read.
Here’s the issue in a nutshell – they’re all about how hard it is to be transgender.
Many of them aren’t even about how hard it is to be trans. They’re about how hard it is to know someone who is trans. Too many novels that find their way to Trans Lit lists focus on a cisgender protagonist’s crisis when they discover someone they like is transgender. One such book, Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde, describes the protagonist Elle falling for a man named Frank. “But Frank is different in a way that Elle was never prepared for: he’s transgender. And when Elle learns the truth, her world is turned upside down” (goodreads). I know that many cisgender people do deal with these emotions when they learn someone they’re interested in is trans. But, and this may be shocking, the assumption that everyone is cisgender is one of the tenets of cissexism and transphobia. As a trans person, it’s hard for me to care that someone’s world is turned upside down by finding out someone is transgender. Trans people are just trying to live their lives. I care more about the pain brought to a trans person when someone has to “come to terms” with them being trans. It’s clear to me whenever I open a jacket cover and read this kind of summary: this book isn’t mean for me or other trans people. It’s meant for cis people.
In other books, such as Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, the story is not only written from the perspective of a cisgender protagonist, but when he develops a crush on a trans girl, he lashes out at her when he finds out the “truth.” Take a peek at this synopsis: “One day, Logan acts on his growing feelings for Sage. Moments later, he wishes he never had. Sage finally discloses her big secret: she’s actually a boy. Enraged, frightened, and feeling betrayed, Logan lashes out at Sage and disowns her” (goodreads). In this story, we’re supposed to identify with his struggle to come to terms with Sage’s gender. That’s just about the opposite of the kind of stories I want to read about trans people. That situation happens all too often in real life, often with much more deadly consequences. In this list of murdered trans people, at least three out eight were killed because their killer discovered they were transgender after being sexually attracted to or intimate with them.
In novels that actually focus on transgender protagonists, things aren’t much better. On this Booklist for Trans Teens, almost all deal with transgender characters dealing with bullying in their in small towns or high schools. I dug through that list and didn’t see anything I would be interested in reading as a trans teen or a trans young adult. To give an idea of the general themes of these books, here are three synopses:
Being Emily by Rachel Gold - “They say that whoever you are it’s okay, you were born that way. Those words don’t comfort Emily, because she was born Christopher and her insides know that her outsides are all wrong. They say that it gets better, be who are you and it’ll be fine. For Emily, telling her parents who she really is means a therapist who insists Christopher is normal and Emily is sick. Telling her girlfriend means lectures about how God doesn’t make that kind of mistake.”
Run, Clarissa, Run by Rachel Eliason - “Life in a small town can be tough when you’re a little different, but for a fifteen year old transgender kid it can truly be hell. Clark is harassed daily at school for his effeminate behavior and appearance. He has no friends and a brother that is as likely to be on the teasing as to prevent it.”
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger - “While coming out as transgendered feels right to Grady, he isn’t prepared for the reaction he gets from everyone else. His mother is upset, his younger sister is mortified, and his best friend, Eve, won’t acknowledge him in public. Why can’t people just let Grady be himself?”
I’m not saying all of these stories aren’t important, or that no trans person could read them and find enjoyment or comfort. Many trans teens struggle with situations similar to the ones in these stories, and it can be helpful to read about other people struggling with the same problems and coming through the other side whole. But these are the only kinds ofbooks with trans characters. Where are the stories about trans people where their gender is accepted, respected, and celebrated? For that matter, why are all these stories so limited in scope? Where are the trans people in space, battling aliens? Or saving the world? There are no limits to the kinds of worlds and situations one can explore in fiction, so why does it keep coming back to trans people dealing with rejection and abuse? I want stories about trans people thriving, I want stories that I and other trans people can read and come away feeling good about. For me, reading is a both a way to escape, and a way to imagine possibilities. I want more worlds with trans people kicking ass, where their gender isn’t the major crisis of the book.
It’s important for the trans people of today, and for the transgender kids of the future, to have more role models, real and fictional, to see themselves in. For as long as I live, I will keep working for a world that loves and cherishes trans people.
While I wait for my trans space pirate captains parlaying with non-binary aliens, here are a few books of poetry and fiction that move away from the “bullied in high school” trope.
Roving Pack by Sassafras Lowrey
And because I want to provide some resources for further learning about transgender lives and history, here’s some non-fiction as well:
Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
decolonizing trans/gender 101 by b. binoahan
Nobody Passes by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore