A Changeling in My Own Skin
How stories about children swapped from the fairy realm helped me navigate being transgender
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As a kid I imagined my real home was some magic place — that maybe I wasn’t even human. When I found old piles of stones, they seemed not just mysterious but meaningful. Climbing through snarling blackberry brambles into the woods, I was paying attention. (Remarkable for me then.) I was looking for echoes of stories: places where selkies were trapped but might find their ways home. Where weird girls and women — as I was told I must be — could be witches instead of just crazy. Where an owl might give me a life-changing letter, where anything could be a doorway to a different fate. Where if you joined the dead’s dance you might never leave. Would I want to? I wasn’t sure.
I had plenty of models for my half-serious conviction that I belonged to some other realm. Folklore and fantasy are full of characters claiming their identity and becoming other than what they seemed. From changelings to selkies to The Little Mermaid, they persist. Some recent urban fantasy is both extending and transforming that tradition with an inclusivity that is deeply true to it in some ways. Folklore — which includes fact and fiction — is not decided by cultural authorities. The stories most fantasy draws on have been passed along by everyday people. Gatekeeping breaks the spirit of that tradition.
The traditional idea of a changeling is not literally about a transformation. It’s about replacement and loss: a human child is replaced with something else that’s unwanted. A changeling could be an ugly, distorted one of the good folk themselves, or something that was never alive at all — just a wooden doll.
Historically, someone might be accused of being a changeling if their family considered them shameful, deformed, or unwanted. Sometimes, it was an excuse for abandonment or violence against a family member. The case of Bridget Cleary is one horrific example — she was murdered by her husband and he got away with it because he seemed to really believe she’d been replaced.
These stories resonated with me, because I knew I was weird, and I didn’t really know why. I knew I was bi, but that didn’t explain enough. I didn’t know why I felt lost when at school we were split into gendered groups, or why the body language and outfits that seemed natural for others felt like acting in costume. I was happiest drawing or reading alone, or exploring the woods by my house where no one could see or categorize me. No one fits gender stereotypes fully, but even when I knew I could be a bi gender-nonconforming girl my shape and identity didn’t feel like my own.
I was about fourteen before I met other trans people at summer camp and realized that maybe this was the mythical “other world” where I might fit. I remember sitting on the floor of a crowded LGBTQIA+ group my first year at camp, too nervous to speak. Introducing oneself was optional, andI was afraid of being seen as an impostor. What if I didn’t belong here, either? But I started to suspect I might. And eventually I found names for what I was. I still daydreamed for years about finding my way back to somewhere else — but then it was sometimes summer camp that I pictured, not just fantasy.
Discovering why I felt like a changeling didn’t end my social isolation. I had a few amazing friends, but that didn’t take the sting away from being called “it” by classmates, or having my notebooks stolen, or having people pretend not to hear me speak (especially if I’d corrected their use of pronouns). I remember barely sleeping in my efforts to be good enough at school and art and everything else to make up for who I actually was. But I had some hope of my life improving again, and knew that even if I was somehow not made for the world I found myself in, it didn’t definitively make me a monster. So I would live differently; at least it was something.
Seeing other people like me who could survive, and even be happy, in this world helped me think I could exist fully here. But I still was sure I had something to prove, and I still couldn’t explain all of the wrongness I sometimes felt, especially my desperation to be anywhere but where I was. I still sometimes wished I was actually from somewhere else where I fit, even if I could never go back there.
I spent more time in the woods, and read the ghost stories I remembered from when I was younger. I especially sought out stories about selkies, seal-women who were sometimes trapped on land, because they weren’t evil and often they returned to the sea someday. There were no happy endings, but at least if I was like the selkies, then being other wouldn’t mean being horrifying. It hurt to feel inhuman, unwelcome by humanity, because I didn’t meet other people’s expectations. Changeling stories made it less painful. There wasn’t a place in this world for me, but maybe in another world there could be.
When I got to college, I found both community with other trans people, and a new kind of changeling story: stories written by the changeling herself.
At college I was consistently among trans people, and it was like the world shifted under my feet. For the first time I got used to not being out of place because of my gender. I slowly, awkwardly learned how to let myself be a distinct person for who I was beyond that. Changelings in stories are faced with tests of humanity, and I had felt like every interaction was a test of my own. Finally, though, I knew there was no actual failing answer.
Sometimes I still felt like I was being tested, but I had new narratives to back up my own confidence. One of them was a new variation on the changeling story. The October Daye series wasn’t about a human family dealing with a changeling, but was written from the changeling’s own perspective. I remembered the first book, and started the rest, right as I began a semester in a new country with completely new people. Living in Dublin, Ireland was the safest I had ever felt, but it was also extremely lonely at first. It had been three years since I was the only trans person I knew at school. Old fears of wrongness tried to come back with the isolation.
When I couldn’t sleep from anxiety, I would instead listen to audiobooks of October Daye’s adventures clumsily navigating both the human world and Faerie, and feel more comfortable with my own uncertainty. I was struggling all over again with how much to try and blend in. Who to tell my actual identity to, who I could try and be friends with, when it was safe not to pass (more often than it had been, which was in its own way hard to get used to). Those were all problems October (also called Toby) had, but in different enough ways that it was still escapist for me as well.
The changeling protagonist October is constantly pulled between two worlds. Born to a fae mother and a human father, she’s not entirely accepted as either. That echoed how I felt being non-binary. At the time even in online trans communities there was pressure to say one was masc or femme, or even “female-aligned” or “male-aligned.” For me, though, only the ambiguity of words like non-binary fit; I was just me, and I still am. And for Toby and for a lot of trans people, neither world is run with people like her in mind, let alone in power. Nearly every time I have to fill out a form or talk to a stranger, I have to pretend alongside everyone else that people like me don’t exist. It’s rare that we get the chance to change that system a bit. That parallels a lot of queer and other marginalized experiences. What stands out though is how Toby stays in between. She has to make choices, and she does, but she doesn’t become what’s expected of her. She finds her own answers.
Like changelings in folklore, Toby is used as a replacement. Not considered good enough — fae enough — to be more than temporary, Toby is pushed to choose mortality. It’s Toby’s own fae mother though, not a human one, who no longer wants her when she resists. It’s a twist on the tale, but as in the older changeling stories of folklore, Toby is still blamed for not meeting the expectations of her family.
Toby is pulled back and forth from humanity to Faerie against her will, multiple times. She keeps trying to find her balance anyway, often in the mundane ways many of us do. When she’s less able to use magic than most fae, she relies on marsh-water charms and sheer stubbornness instead. She could live in Faerie and not have to wear a disguise, but it wouldn’t be on her own terms. Reading as a non-binary person, I felt for Toby every time someone tells her she should have been more of one thing or of the other. There is no right answer for the rest of the world.
Part of Toby’s choice is a choice between parents and homes. When she chooses fae, her human father thinks she’s died. In folklore being taken by the fair folk is often essentially a death. But Toby isn’t dead — just different than she seemed. Parents of trans kids sometimes lament that it feels like a son or daughter has died, or insist with more kind-sounding rejection that their child will always be their son or their daughter, instead of what they actually are. The problem for so many of us, and for Toby, is not who we are. It’s what other people can see us as.
The October Daye series takes the theme of not belonging and switches the perspective, makes it into something deeply empathetic. There are things Toby can’t do that other fae can. She has to find who she is and how she works on her own terms. But her perspective as a changeling leads her to answers someone else wouldn’t. She’s not a particularly talented detective, but she’s willing to question assumptions.
Her story doesn’t end with rejection. It starts with rejection, and then she makes hers a different story. She’s not on her own; she also finds her own sort of family, a bit at a time.
In real life rejection is commonplace for trans people. But for me it was less painful to see that in Toby. If it happened to the trans character that collective trauma would be thrown back in our faces for what feels like the millionth time. When McGuire writes it happening for different reasons than usual, it’s easier to look closely at. It’s like seeing deeper into calm waters then you could in a churning storm.
There are other new stories being told that draw on the same kind of folklore. My focus is on this series largely because it’s what I’ve read the most of so far, but also because it also has more to say than I could skim the surface of here. McGuire’s extensive knowledge of Irish and Scottish folklore is apparent, and she uses it brilliantly. She doesn’t leave old stories in their past forms only. Instead she grows vital new worlds from them. From stories that mostly had pain for some of us, new stories can include possibility.
Being something unexpected isn’t a weakness, even when it’s stressful. Sometimes — and this is how I usually feel about being trans and non-binary now — it’s pretty special. The oft-made point that we’re normal people is vital and true. I’ve found too though, since starting to discover my trans identity from the strangeness that first made me feel like a changeling, that it’s not the whole story. Finding our own identity, new perspectives, and new community can be magical.
Adapting folklore and creating new stories, as McGuire has, helps with that discovery. I only hope that more of us create worlds so welcoming — in the stories we tell and in real life.