I’m trying to put into words the anger I have at schools banning books and works about transgender people. Now, more than ever, it’s so important for transgender people to have representation, in all kinds of media, and especially literature. As a creative writing and art history major, I try to write about my transgender experience as much as possible. But, in the end, it is not transgender people's responsibility to carry the weight of writing transgender stories, and characters. This is not to say that transgender people should not and will not continue to tell our stories through fiction and nonfiction.
I wondered how individuals can combat and rebel against book banning. An option is purchasing and reading books written by transgender authors. Cisgender writers, in particular, can use their privilege to write transgender characters into their books and/or short stories.
I was having a conversation with one of my older friends, who is in his fourth year of a creative writing degree. We were talking about writing — whether we enjoyed writing fiction or nonfiction better. I expressed how I enjoyed nonfiction, because I could share my lived experiences, and how I enjoyed the entire process. He then asked me, “How do I write transgender characters as a cisgender person? I want to be inclusive, and represent transgender people in a positive light in my story.”
At the time, I struggled to answer this question. I think I still do, since transgenderism is not a monolith, and all of our lived experiences are going to be different, especially when considering intersectionality.
However, I think there are some do’s and don’ts in regards to writing transgender characters, which are pretty straightforward. Here’s a few ways to approach this:
- Doing your research.
Confused as to where to start your research on how to write transgender characters? Google the questions you have, and research extensively. Don’t rely on transgender people in your life to be the basis of the transgender experience as a whole, although it’s great and important to talk to real transgender people about their experience. It’s super easy to do a Google search, when it costs transgender people so much emotional labour to educate cisgender people on what it’s like to be transgender. Research how to write characters with different pronouns, research what gender-affirming care looks like. Gender-affirming care does not need to be medical — it can be as simple as a haircut, or buying a chest binder for transgender individuals. In the end, the most important thing a writer can do is research effectively, so that their writing does not further transphobic rhetoric.
This is not to be confused with writing characters in a complex and dynamic way. Transgender characters shouldn’t only be defined by their transness — they should be complex, and have many different experiences and story arcs. Transgender characters should experience the same things a cisgender character might, while keeping in mind that transness will affect how that character will view the world and interact with individuals. Researching how to write different characters of all backgrounds will also help writers understand how to write complex identities, not just transgender characters. It’s also important to note that transness intersects with a lot of other identities, so researching all transgender perspectives — from a nonwhite perspective, an autistic perspective, a lower-class perspective, etc. — is super important.
- Note on politicization.
It’s important to note that transness is going to be politicized in society, whether we — as transgender people — like it or not. Our experiences with being trans will be politicized in order for transphobic rhetoric to be spread. Writers need to acknowledge that they can address transphobia in their writing in a way that is respectful for a transgender character, but transgender characters can also exist in their world without being politicized nor experiencing transphobia, especially when fiction tends to be an escape from reality for many readers. It's important for writers to research how politicization of certain identities occurs, and how transgenderism is currently being, and has always been, politicized in society.
I’ve experienced individuals asking me to write more political topics, after writing about transness for a long time. My answer to this was, “transness is political,” because people in political power want to take our rights away, and ban books about the transgender experience, as well as gender-affirming care. Individuals make transness political. Transgender people don’t make our identities political, which is important to consider when writing transgender characters. The question to ask is: am I politicizing transness, or am I representing how transness is politicized in society? These are two different things.
- Workshop your writing.
Ask your friend to read your story over, ask a professor to read it over, even ask transgender people to read it over if they are comfortable and have the emotional capacity to do that. The first step in attempting to write accurate representations of transgender individuals is to experiment and test it out. As a transgender individual myself, I often find that transgender representation in books is most effective when writers acknowledge that a character is transgender through a discussion between characters, a correction of pronouns, or through simply stating that the character has a different experience in the world because of their transness. However, the writer doesn’t necessarily have to center the story around the transgender experience, or transphobic experiences.
Listen to the feedback individuals give you regarding the character or the story, and build your new draft around the feedback from individual readers in your life. If an individual tells you your character's experience with transness is too broad or generalizes a lot about the transgender experience, then change the representation. State that the character you’ve written has a unique transgender experience. Maybe even write more than one meaningful transgender character into your story, so that the readers understand that transgender people can have different definitions of what it means to be transgender and still be valid.
- Read books about transness.
Don’t know where to start with reading about transgender experience? Check out my article “5 Transgender books by Transgender writers you NEED to read” in print issue #14, under “Issues” on The Phoenix News’ website. That article introduces fictional stories and nonfiction books about the transgender experience, and are all different with unique points of view. The best way to learn how to write transgender characters is to read about transgender experiences, from transgender individuals.
Writing this article, I reached out to Tash McAdam, a Welsh-Canadian author from Vancouver, who has written various Young Adult books with queer representation, specifically surrounding the queer and transgender experience. They are also a teacher! They were unfortunately unable to answer my interview questions, but were very enthusiastic about this article. Their new book, No One Left But You, comes out on November 7 and is a YA thriller featuring a transgender character. I would encourage readers to check out their work, and to check out various transgender authors who are from Canada or British Columbia. It’s important to support queer authors at a time when book banning is prevalent, and when the trans experience continues to be politicized.
In the end, every single transgender person will feel differently about transgender representation. What’s important is that writers attempt to write transgender characters in a way that does not forward transphobic rhetoric, in a way that makes the character they are writing interesting, and in a way that makes it clear that this is one transgender experience and not a generalization of every single transgender experience. It’s important to workshop said characters as well, because in general, writers will not improve without feedback from others.
With book banning, and transphobic rhetoric being spread in the United States and Canada, it’s important for transgender people to have representation through literature. It’s also important for transgender allies to advocate for that representation by writing transgender characters and reading transgender literature. If you’re reading this article, that’s one step towards advocating for transgender representation. If you’re considering writing a transgender character into your work and you take these tips into consideration, then you’re further advocating for transgender representation through literature, especially at a time when transphobic individuals desperately want to do everything in their power to restrict this kind of literature from the public.