When I was in my early twenties in the early part of the aughts, I gravitated towards anything with a transgender character. Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the bizarre zombie flick and Guitar Wolf vehicle Wild Zero, The Kink’s “Lola,” Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Because these books and films and songs were largely written by cis (non-trans) people, there was never anything about the day to day of these characters included. They were tragic, or glamorous, or both, but they were certainly not real to me. It’s no wonder that, though I devoured these depictions, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I realized I was trans myself. I didn’t know of any trans-masculine characters at all.
I began few years ago to discover the fiction of trans authors. Imogen Binnie’s Nevada is almost queer canon, and in it I was delighted to find a main character who was funny, smart, a jerk, and dealt with issues like working in retail and getting lied to by her girlfriend. And though Maria, the main character of Nevada, does her share of heroin, she’s a far cry from Selby’s overdosing Georgette. In the Brit Mandelo edited collection of speculative fiction Beyond Binary, I found characters who moved between genders and sexualities fluidly and, despite their far-flung and often fantastical worlds, spoke to my own identity as a genderqueer person. In Casey Plett’s collection of stories, A Safe Girl to Love, the characters face the broad violence that trans people encounter—from over-aggressive sex with a trusted friend’s roommate to being chased down the street by transphobes—but they are never defined by it. They are characters who take each other in, sleep with each other, lie to each other, befriend each other, work together, know one another’s parents—in short, they are characters bound by their transness, but it is not the entirety of who they are.
The project of many trans writers who write trans characters seems to be to bring these characters to trans readers—a demographic who rarely see themselves portrayed accurately in literature. But why do cis writers choose to write trans characters? Too often the answer is to present a symbol for the quest for self, because trans is the word of the moment, to sensationalize, or to present the trans character as a foil for the cis characters in the story. If a cis writer is to view trans characters beyond these ends, to write them as fleshed out humans with aspirations, who have overcome obstacles, who exist three-dimensionally, a great deal of work needs to be done beyond what currently exists in literature.
So how does one write a trans character? The big secret is that there is no such thing as “the trans experience.” Trans characters may have some things in common: some of them may have come out at some point in their lives, which can go a variety of ways, or happen at a variety of ages—others may be every bit as trans and never admit it to anyone; many have lost the love and support of their families, but others have not; some trans people experience dysphoria, the sensation of being at odds with the gender they were assigned at birth and elements of their physical body, while others do not; trans people may or may not choose to transition in any number of ways including socially (e.g. gender presentation, changed name or pronouns), hormonally, or surgically; trans people statistically experience high rates of homelessness, intimate partner violence, rape, and murder while other trans people live in mansions with people who love and support them. These are all important things to consider if you are writing a trans character, but, unless you are writing a story about their transition (which far too many trans narratives by cis writers seem focused on), a lot of these questions will just be deep character background. Furthermore, while trans characters will inevitably have common points to their stories, there are many things about them that need to surprise and delight the reader—they’ll need hobbies like knitting or strong political affiliations or literary heroes or undying dedications to brands of sneakers. It seems to be easier for trans writers to keep this in mind and not try to make trans characters symbols like Hedwig or wrecks like Georgette.
I recently wrote a short sci-fi story. In it, there are characters who change gender. Two of these characters are most comfortable in an agender presentation, but that is where their similarities end. One comes from an open-minded region with people who, even if they didn’t understand them, accepted them. This character is quiet, reserved, level-headed, always planning the best way of doing things, self-confident. The other is from a wild-west like outpost, experienced “corrective” rape as a child, and is constantly in fight-or-flight mode, looking for the best way to mold any situation to their benefit. Though their non-conforming gender identities mirror each other, their radically different backgrounds make them complete opposites.
I tell these stories because, in many ways, they are my stories. When these two characters find each other, they feel like they are the only people like them who ever existed—as my partner and I did after coming out to each other, and before finding the support of the LGBTQIA community. I feel a propriety over stories like these, and though I would never tell a writer they could not write a character who is unlike them, I would tell a writer that they must understand these stories deeply if they are ever to tell them with conviction.
Today, with trans books by trans authors to read, I don’t need Lola and I don’t need Georgette. I can’t change the writing about trans characters that I grew up with, and I can’t change the effect they had on me as a person. But I and the rest of the trans community can insist that we be portrayed accurately, even if that means we’re the main ones doing it.
Pamela Alex DiFrancesco is a queer activist, a writer of fiction and literary nonfiction, and a bookseller at NYC’s legendary Strand Bookstore. Their debut novel, The Devils That Have Come to Stay, is a radical Acid Western that completely flips the American Western on its head, and is available from Medallion Press. They are married to award-winning musician Mya Byrne, and the two live in Queens with their cat, Sylvia Rivera-Katz. Alex has most recently published short stories in The Carolina Quarterly, New Ohio Review, and Monkeybicycle.