Ink-Stained Scribe

Guest Post: The Best Way to Write a Trans Character

Around the YA Literary blogosphere, the current buzz is all about YA Authors being asked to straighten gay characters. Publisher's Weekly published an article by two Young Adult authors who, without naming names, revealed that they had been asked (and not just once) to remove a gay character's viewpoint, or at least all reference to his sexuality. Well, the agent stepped forward with a totally different story...You can read about the whole mess here and form your own opinion.

The positive thing about the whole mess is that it started a dialog about LGBTQ characters in fiction with all the right people. Just after responses to this started cropping up, I was hanging out with my friend Morgan--a transsexual woman--and asked her not just what she thought about the notion of "straightwashing" fiction, but of the treatment by authors, agents, editors, etc of LGBTQ (which she refers to under the umbrella-term "trans") characters in general. Also a writer, Morgan agreed to share her thoughts on the matter in a guest post.


The Best Way To Write A Trans Character

Morgan can be found HERE and HERE
There isn't one.

Gosh, that sounded disappointing. Let me give specificity a whirl, for giggles. There's a lot of discourse (not to mention monocourse and meta soliloquies, when no one is around) going on about how to tackle LGBT characters in fiction. Some say burn any hopes of it, because there's that background radiation of fear that says “bigoted people will use words like 'decency' as a beating stick against me.” Some caution against the flip side, where you slap in FABULOUS characters sitcom-style willy, even nilly, out of a desire to be topically hip. Or hiply topical, it's hard to keep up (or is it down?). Some say your characters should be out and proud. Some say it should be so subtle it's barely there.

This Some person sure gabs, don't they? But I've been massaging my little lesbian transsexual noodle to conjure an answer, and I don't think there is one. We're still at the 1939 stage of the next great lexicon war as we try to excise terms like hermaphrodite, tranny and transvestite. It's still news worthy when a trans character is in a television show, even moreso when they're actually played by a trans person. I would argue that it's too soon for there to be a right way. Every form of media follows its own set of rules, and almost every form of media is transgender-free, or at least trans-lite, which may be low fat but it means the knowledge fat per serving goes with it.

For instance, take trans memoir “Conundrum” by British travel writer Jan Morris. It was written in the 70's when, if you thought bloody no one was trans now, there was practically negative trans mass in the universe in that dark, bygone era. (Can you tell I'm young and cocksure? Vaginasure?) There being a dearth of edumication about L, G, B and T during her personal coming out, Jan writes her story through the lens of a spiritual rebirth rather than through the more recent socio-medical view. So instead of a story about drawing strength from a community, it's more of a story about trusting yourself even when you're a solitary anomaly. It's a radical approach time-locked to that era, and a microcosm of a community that often prefers to stay hidden.

Because a truly globally connected trans community is something only recently realized, “Conundrum” is part of a heritage of stories on gender defiance. After all, transgender isn't just transsexuals, who pursue “transition” through medical or surgical means. There's bigender and trigender, who by choice spend part of their life as a male, another as female, perhaps still another as androgynous or even as a wholly separate personality. There are crossdressers (formerly known as transvestites) who change their dress and behavior for a certain degree of emotional or sexual satisfaction, while still retaining their assigned gender's identity. There are genderqueer people who blend or cast off the window dress (and duds) of both sides of the divide but don't identify either way.

Take the Japanese animation (anime) fairy tale mind screw series, Revolutionary Girl Utena. It's about the titular Utena who longs to become a prince so she can save the princess. She wears an outfit akin to the other males in the series, she kisses the princess to release the Sword of Dios, and she's weakened into a state of submission later in the series when she forces herself to adopt "feminine" traits and roles. Is she trans? Who knows? We didn't have that precise a language back then, so there's no convenient labeling to pin. All we can say is that the show built a foundation on the corpses of subverted gender norms. We can't say that she was male-identified because that hyphenated word didn't really exist, but we can say that the series revolved around a relationship between two women with opposing social roles. And opposing shades of purple hair.

Now look at the “Sofia Lopez” episodes of Nip/Tuck season one. Here we have a transsexual character seeking surgery, and her doctor, Sean (one of the show's leads), coming to grips with his discomfort, and disgust, with people who change genders. Not that Sean has a moral leg to stand on, since he fed the literal legs Silvio stood on to an alligator three episodes before. But in a sympathetic way he releases the bonds of old guard masculinity and comes to terms with his judgmental nature, and by turn the audience learns a little more about what it means to be trans.

Color bomb pretty and fascinatingly cynical show Paradise Kiss ends with lead guy George leaving the lead gal, George's final scene showing him on a boat alongside none other than his trans best friendgirl. It's platonic love that's in the air, as the show suggests that he needs a partner in crime more than a star-crossed love. While this Casablanca-esque ending doesn't teach you much about being trans, it never has transphobic sentiments, either, instead syncing its tone to the character's. She doesn't dwell on it, and the show leaves her alone about it.

Now “Sex Changes,” by the Dresden Dolls off their album Yes, Virginia.... The song can be read as a cautionary tale about your first sexual experience (“sex changes you”), a condemnation of people who change their sex, or the exact opposite: a condemnation of the way people talk about trans people as victims of a sickness. That said, it's a razor line to walk and should only be performed by professionally calloused razor walking feet.

Finally, the American version of Ugly Betty. The first soapy season involves a trans character who is played both as evil and ethical, as shock value and as a nuanced human being. Halfway through the season she announces she's a main character's supposedly dead brother whose come back from beyond the grave to exact corporate revenge. And in the same breath, admits to faking her death just so she could transition without the scrutiny of her family and peers. She has sex at one point in the series, and it's built up as this “ooh, how different” thing, and yet she and her lover never address it. They just admire each other's beauty and don't sweat what sex with her could be viewed as. Instead they sweat the regular, prescribed amount of sex sweat.

Quiz time: which one of those was the right way to write a trans character?

All of them. The thing is, there's no right way at the moment. Any interpretation is going to cheese someone off, because the community is made of a million pie slices of various thicknesses and crust integrity. Now this may be a scary prospect, because who wants to land on the wrong side of a civil rights issue, now or in the retrospect of history? Safer to just pretend trans people don't exist, because that makes everyone happy. But the thing is, for there to be a standard, there has to be a model. Everyone of you who has even imagined writing a trans character are forging that foot path, here and now. Any interpretation not born out of judgment is going to fit one of those models above, or millions of potential others, because the big secret is out. Trans people are as varied, diverse, strange, good, bad, beautiful, manic, womanic, wild and firework-laced as everyone else.

Further Reading: Writing Gay Characters, The Top 25 Gay TV Characters, Writing a Trans Character
(Edit: 6/18/2012): Check out Zoe E. Whitten's post on the topic here: On Writing Trans Characters and YA Fiction.
You can find more of Morgan's writing at: TRANSLABRYNTH
And her YouTube Channel: Translabrynth on YouTube