silvermarmoset said: I know that one of the characters in my fantasy novel is a transgender woman, but I don’t know how to properly handle her transition. Is it disrespectful to have the transitioning process be easy, by magic? I’ve read divided opinions on this. Thank you!
Short Answer: It depends.
Long Answer: Asking if a plot point, character, narrative arc, or other aspect of your story is disrespectful is a great way for any writer to begin a project, and I appreciate that you’re coming from such a careful place. Let’s back up a step and ponder a question you’ve probably already answered: why is this character transgender? Put another way, why are you writing a trans character? This is, of course, the question I ask myself when I’m in the weeds of my character sketches, and I ask it no matter what string of identities I layer into the actors in my story. After all every choice you make as a writer opens up some possibilities for the story and closes down others, so I ask myself: what am I trying to communicate via the characters I’m establishing to tell the story?
The final analysis answers the question, does this character have to be transgender? If your answer is no, then you are risking tokenizing trans people through the placement of this character, and you should probably reconsider making them trans.
If your answer is yes, then great, write them as thoughtfully as you can. To be thoughtful, however, isn’t a simple task. First, you need to avoid stereotypes that have so often been attributed to trans characters, especially trans women — here I’m talking about as victims of violence, as sex workers (think, Law & Order: SVU), as lonely and unloved, as perverts, gay men and/or drag queens who can’t deal, as narcissists, broken men, and on and on. You need to be familiar with these stereotypes because 1: they amount to lazy, bad writing, 2: they’ve been done to death and aren’t interesting subjects, and 3: they actively hurt trans women by making the myths about their community persist in an untrue way in the popular culture consciousness. It is not an overstatement to say that people ignorant of trans issues will turn to someone they know who is starting transition and use these stereotypes that they’ve seen on television (I’m looking at you, NCIS), and matter-of-factly explain that they’re doing it wrong because so and so on TV did it this other way, or that they shouldn’t transition because yo, they’ll wind up dead in the street, etc. When writing for a mainstream audience, authors need to think about how the marginalized characters they’re portraying represent that community, because readers are real people who take our stories into their hearts and minds, and because marginalized people read books.
For more reading about trans stereotypes, there are many folks on the Web who write about them in a nuanced, helpful way (Casey Plett, Monica Roberts, and Janet Mock are a good start). But there are also tropes to avoid — let’s think about tropes as tiny pieces of narrative that become overused and that sometimes support the stereotypes in question. For trans women, tropes include putting on makeup (Amazon’s Transparent does this almost the time, and while I know the show just won major Emmys, this is not a reason to continue the trope), buying pretty clothes (or shoes) in a boutique, getting shunned by some relative, and there are many more, but they largely do include some aspect about transition. How one presents a transition can be problematic, so I’m glad you’re wondering about it. And if you really want to go against stereotypes and tropes, do something really radical and don’t show it at all. As a trans reader myself, I love reading trans stories that aren’t about transition, just like many gay and lesbian readers enjoy stories that aren’t about coming out. Those are our beginnings, full of trauma and conflict and revelation, it’s true, but ultimately they turn LGBT characters into their genesis when there is so much more to relay. Don’t pick the simplest story to tell when there are far more compelling ones out there.
There are other problems with depicting transition: if you show transition as a magical experience, you may present it as easy, when in real life, transition is anything but. If you show it as super onerous (which I just said it can be), it may come off like one of those stereotypes about trans people. So I ask again, writer to writer: Do you have to depict her transition at all? If you’re looking to write respectfully, your trans character may be best represented in your story after (thus, apart from) her transition. Also, remember that every identity aspect of every character needs careful thinking through — we don’t write in Mexican characters just to have someone dropping Spanish into the dialogue, so we don’t really need to write trans characters in order to have a transition in the story, either. A great example of handling transition without making the story about transition is Susan Jane Bigelow’s story “Ramona’s Dreams” in The Collection from Topside Press.
So, as with any kind of character work, research, research, research. Beginning writers are told ad nauseum to write from their own experience. If all writing were limited to that mantra literature would be a pale cousin of its actual self. But the further afield you push from your own lived reality, the more preparation, thinking, and reading you need to do in order to respect the people that character represents. And happily enough, that you’re asking around is a good sign you’re already on the right track.
Everett Maroon is a memoirist, humorist, pop culture commentator, and fiction writer. He is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association and was a finalist in their 2010 literary contest for memoir. Everett is the author of a memoir, Bumbling into Body Hair, and a young adult novel, The Unintentional Time Traveler, both published by Booktrope Editions. He has an essay, “In a Small Town, Nothing Goes Wrong, in the anthology Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, from Ooligan Press, and a short story, ”Cursed,“ in the anthology The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. He has written for Bitch Magazine, GayYA.org, Amwriting.org, RH RealityCheck, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published here and there. Everett’s blog is transplantportation.com.