How To Write About Trans People

Cis writers must de-centralize their gaze if they want to successfully include trans characters in their stories

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“The way we see things,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “is affected by what we know or what we believe.” I always liked that line, but I only felt the full weight of it after I started transitioning: every day I watch other people cut me into parts and put those parts together in ways that make sense to them. Old straight people are visibly confused by me, or else overcompensate and call me “lady” over and over, as if to convince themselves. Transphobic people look at me and insist I must be a delusional girl trying to escape the traumas of womanhood. Some people find me pitiable, or threatening, or exotic, and they’re usually hungry for gory details about bodies like mine, which form the basis for their feverish and alienating fantasies. But their responses to me inevitably reveal more about themselves than they do about me.

In the first part of this series, I talked about how trans characters have become a common feature in literary fiction novels by cis authors, but this decision is rarely acknowledged or discussed by cis reviewers and critics, because people are uncomfortable talking about transness and implicating themselves as they discuss it. In this second part, I’m going to look at how cis authors use trans characters, how their ways of seeing trans people shape their writing, and how trans rep might be done better, more interestingly, and more authentically.

To break a certain taboo: cis authors gain something from writing about trans people. That isn’t meant to imply that cis people shouldn’t ever write about us, or that cis people’s relationship to transness can only be mercenary and cruel. (Some of my best friends are cis, you are valid, etc.) It just means that most cis people must reach substantially outside their comfort zone and lived experience to write about transness, so, when they choose to do so, it tends to be for a few common reasons. Transness has plot utility and immense cultural power; it’s connected to modernity and a liberal, cosmopolitan sensibility that values diversity; it’s a key source of fascination and existential anxiety; and it’s the source of an ongoing liberation struggle, so it can genuinely be impactful to include trans people non-pejoratively as book characters.

To break a certain taboo: cis authors gain something from writing about trans people.

But talking about a complex and fraught phenomenon like transness means being honest about the roots of the discussion: what do trans characters do for cis people? What messages, anxieties, and ways of seeing are being encoded in trans rep today? And where does that need to change?

Use 1: Plot

Transness can be very useful for instigating plot. In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, a riot at a women’s prison over Serenity Smith, a trans woman, joining the prison provides a distraction so the main character can escape, while transition itself is the core plot arc for the “Gender Novels” I mentioned in Part 1. Transness also has a lot of metaphorical and magical dimensions surrounding transformation, though I’ve generally seen trans writers explore this more than cis writers (Callum Angus’s A Natural History of Transition and Jess Arndt’s Large Animals both craft magic and horror out of a wider sense of changing, unstable bodies). When cis writers use transness as a plot instigator, they tend to be interested in the violence and conflict that transness draws, from the position of a witness. We see Serenity endure a lot of violence in The Mars Room, but we see little of her character when she’s not being attacked, and little of her attackers’ thinking. Ultimately, the whole riot just serves to progress the main cis character’s arc. 

Anti-trans violence and the anxiety that prefigures that violence is, to me, a very apt subject for a novel (note: this is a plug for Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless, please read Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless). But you have to get your hands dirty, by which I mean you have to chase that violence to its roots, to the people who derive pleasure and comfort from that violence. Even liberal, accepting cis people are voyeurs of trans pain; we’ve seen the movies, we’ve seen how “pre-transition photos” auto-completes every time you type in a trans person’s name on Google. And anti-trans violence can often trace its roots back to respectable people with reasonable concerns about the safety of young children, the same as anti-gay violence can. Portrayals of anti-trans violence are neutered if anti-trans violence is just a plot device or a mute, inevitable event, like the weather, and if the only people who contribute to that violence are individual extremists.

And anti-trans violence can often trace its roots back to respectable people with reasonable concerns about the safety of young children, same as anti-gay violence can.

Plus, if trans characters just come in to advance the plot arc of cis characters, there’s a similar problem to the “Black side characters assist the white protagonist and then die” or “saintly disabled person imparts wisdom to the abled protagonist and then dies” phenomena. It implies that trans life, Black life, and disabled life only meaningfully exists when white, cis, abled people are basking in its inspirational light. It’s not difficult to evoke a character’s independent life, even if the book doesn’t have space to talk about it much.

Use 2: Setting

It’s the 21st century, baby, and you can tell because the transgenders are here! Put a trans person in your book and it works as an immediate tone and setting marker: your book is now modern, cosmopolitan, clued-in, identity-conscious, wise to the diversity of the world. It possesses that earnest liberal flavor that conservatives sometimes mean when they talk about “wokeness.” Nostalgia Nalan, the trans sex worker character in Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, is an effective microcosm of Shafak’s Istanbul and its bright underbelly: contemporary, scrappy, smart, motherly, she’s the heart of Istanbul, though Istanbul wouldn’t want her on its billboards. Her transness, as well as her status as a sex worker, immediately signal a certain authenticity of the underclass, the kind of person that chimes with the story about Istanbul that Shafak wants to tell. You get a sense of Shafak as a writer: warm, kind, socially conscious.

The problem I have as a trans reader, I suppose, is that if a book is using trans and sex-working and refugee and disabled characters to signal a certain worldliness, then it’s automatically addressed to people who don’t hold that status. The characters in 10 Minutes can express anger at femicide and at generalized hatred of LGBTQ+ people, because those are angers that the intended reader – likely a white, liberal, middle-class woman – shares. But they don’t get to have the kind of insights and angers that might cause discomfort in such a reader. I can’t even imagine a character like Nalan using the word “cis,” because cis people don’t use that word, and it would separate her from the reader who is supposed to happily pour their warm sympathy over her head.

Use 3: Anxiety

Hm. So. Transness takes what are considered the foundational texts on being alive and makes some significant changes. This can freak people out. What does it mean to be a woman now? To be a person? To anticipate your own gendered future? To address and relate to others? I don’t know! But I sure am going to worry about it. And if I write about a trans woman being rude to a plucky moderate cis woman who just wants to understand her, maybe I can work out my anxieties about trans people in the privacy of my own New York Times bestseller.

What does it mean to be a woman now? To be a person? To anticipate your own gendered future?

Trans characters often ventriloquize cis anxieties, either to combat them or stoke them. This can manifest as trans characters giving rehearsed spiels – I knew from a fetal age that truly, my brain was male – and pleading for their lives and dignity while elegantly countering common transphobic talking points. It can also manifest as Bibi, the trans woman character in Girl, Woman, Other described as “a woman with male confidence,” who over-explains feminism to an AFAB character, then apologizes for presuming to know more about womanhood than someone who was born a woman. The former is saviorism; the latter is indulging the fantasies of an in group (here, cis feminists over 40 who are suspicious and resentful of trans women and wish to relegate them to second-order womanhood, if that). Both are a way of using trans figureheads to communicate with other cis people over the heads of trans people.

Girl, Woman, Other would be a better book if Bibi was a full character who could talk to the other main characters, and they could discuss their mutual anxieties around the history of feminism and the realities of womanhood. So many books would be better books if they understood trans people for what we are, canaries in the gender coal mine, rather than thinking of us as disturbing the gendered life that was definitely super peaceful and fine before we got here.

Use 4: Inclusivity

Some books just have trans characters because they want to; they want transness to be an ambient part of their world. So, how do you make transness an ambient part of your world? You casually make some characters trans. But how do you recognize a trans person? How do you convey that a person is trans?

Cis authors tend to have a default answer to this question, as we can see in our introductions to the transness of two characters in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season:

One girl has sharp teeth because it is her race’s custom to file them; another boy has no penis, though he stuffs a sock into his underwear after every shower.

She does this in front of you, shamelessly stripping down and squatting by a wooden basin to scrub at her pits and crotch and the rest. You are a little surprised to notice a penis somewhere amid this process, but, well, not like any comm’s going to make her a Breeder.

I’ve seen people cite The Fifth Season as a favorable representation of transness, presumably because these descriptions explicitly include transness in a way that is designed to be matter-of-fact and accepting: yeah, this woman has a penis and this man doesn’t, that’s fine. What they miss, however, is that these gestures of acceptance are endorsing cis-normative, objectifying ways of seeing trans people, in which trans people are dissected by a cis Eye and that Eye goes straight to the groin area (or the stubble, or the breasts, or the relative diameter of hands/feet). It’s the same kind of base impulse to gawk and fetishize that drives so many male authors to over-describe their female characters’ bodies.

A slightly better introduction to a trans character might be Fiona in Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, who is initially introduced through affinity: Margot, who later turns out to be trans, is drawn to Fiona, though his mother is unsure why. Then, a few years later, this exchange happens:

Once – she was eleven or twelve – Laura sat her down and told Margot that Fiona used to be a man.

Sometimes, Laura said, we don’t want what we’ve got. Eat your porridge.

The next time she saw Fiona, in her garden hacking at weeds, Margot put her mouth to the earring-heavy lobe.

Secret? Margot said.

Fiona nodded, raised her hand and pressed it loosely over her chest. Not a soul.

Margot told her what Laura had said, that Fiona was a woman in a man’s body.

That’s the truth, Fiona said, like a fish still alive in the body of a heron.

It fascinated Margot. For weeks she thought about that fish, pushing through the feathers, searching for salt water. In the mornings Fiona would be sitting in her garden and Margot would hand over a cup of tea. Can you? she’d say, and Fiona would take the eyeliner from her pocket, bend down and draw a thin mustache over Margot’s lip.

This is so interesting to me because space is given here to trans perspectives: we get to see Fiona’s evident discomfort (“like a fish still alive in the body of a heron”) at the description “a woman in a man’s body,” and we get to see Margot processing Fiona’s discomfort, seeing Fiona push through the reductive terms given for her existence and finding space for her life. Fiona’s perspective and Margot’s interest in Fiona give Fiona’s transness meaning and complexity, and they mean that Laura’s perspective – generally accepting, but oversimplified and a touch outdated – is given context. Unfortunately, thirty pages later, we get a gratuitous reference to Fiona’s “bulge.” The impulse to gawk so often wins out.

Avoiding reductive ways of seeing and representing trans people requires engagement with how trans people see and represent themselves. With trans characters, it depends a lot on the specific character and their relationship to the world around them. Are they very publicly out, and likely to crack jokes about transition? Do they have an affinity with another trans character; might they subtly signal to another trans person (“Hey, I think I know you”)? Can you cue their transness situationally rather than siting it in their body: awkward reunions at the all-girls school, moving cities to access healthcare? How might the character introduce their transness to you if you asked them? Would they just say they’re trans? Including transness is good, but doing it casually without examining these cis ways of seeing risks perpetuating the exact same cruel standards that casual inclusion of transness is supposed to oppose.

Can you cue their transness situationally rather than siting it in their body: awkward reunions at the all-girls school, moving cities to access healthcare?

The binary of “anti-trans” and “pro-trans” people is facile when it comes to art. It fails to account for the thornier issue of people who accept that trans people exist, and that we deserve rights (thanks!), but who think that belief frees them from introspection and responsibility. A lot of pro-trans people are letting their id run unchecked in their books, and it is embarrassing to watch. Sorry. But I don’t like the idea that we should just expect cis authors to zone in on the penis, like that’s the only thing they’re capable of doing. It isn’t. I really do have cis friends! And I genuinely would be excited to see more authors talk about transness after engaging with their own cisness. We’re all in this gender coal mine together, after all.

It is intimate and humbling work to examine your own eyes, to try to alter how you instinctively see people when it conflicts with new knowledge. It’s the same work, non-coincidentally, that people often do when they or their loved ones come out as trans. It’s slow, but transformative. It’s good work, and worth doing.

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