It isn’t that long ago that it was almost impossible to find representations of trans people in speculative fiction. There were honourable exceptions, of course. Samuel R. Delany clearly knew what he was talking about when he wrote Triton. But, for the most part, if a book did include a character that transitioned between genders it was plain that the author had never knowingly met a trans person in their life, and had no idea how one felt or thought.
These days there is a lot more awareness. To start with there are a lot of prominent trans people in the media. The likes of Laverne Cox have done wonders for the public profile of trans folk. Also there are many openly trans people in the speculative fiction community (including some of our best writers). If an author wants to put a trans person in a book, it is easy enough to seek people out and do some research. (Assuming, of course, that they are willing – many trans folk rapidly get tired of being expected to play the role of educator.)
One example is Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun series. Book 3 (The Book of Transformations) introduces a trans character, Lan. Mark wrote to me for advice on how to present the character, which I was happy to give. Of course even if you do ask things can go wrong. Lyda Morehouse talked to a trans friend while writing Resurrection Code, but when I came to edit the book for the Wizard's Tower edition I noticed that some of the terminology was outdated because fashions in trans politics change quite fast. Lyda and I ended up going through and re-doing some of the passages involving the trans character.
However, a willingness to include trans characters, and the opportunity to do good research, does not necessarily result in the sort of stories that trans people will want to read. Sure the characters might be sympathetically and accurately portrayed. But they may still be shoehorned into clichéd roles. There is a tendency for authors to focus on the crisis of transition, and on the bravery and fortitude of people in overcoming the tragedy of their condition. This gets very wearing.
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On representations of trans people in speculative fiction
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Focusing on crisis moments is particularly common in YA books. They also tend to use LGB characters primarily in coming out narratives. But with trans characters it is often common in books aimed at adults as well. The Book of Transformations, as one might expect from the title, includes the narrative of Lan’s transition. Equally, in River of Gods, Ian McDonald describes the fearsome surgeries that the “nute”, Tal, undergoes in order to become genderless. While both of these books are sensitively written, I much prefer Caitlín Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, in which the trans character, Abalyn, is well past the period of transition. Rather than focus on transition, Kiernan looks at how being trans, in a society that often reviles trans people, creates scars that never heal, no matter how successful the transition process might have been. Yet even that focuses on the negative side of being trans, rather than the many positives.
Maybe I sound a little ungrateful here, but let me explain what I mean.
I can absolutely understand the obsession with the process of transition. It is, after all, a time of potential drama, which is what fiction needs to drive plot. Also it is something that cis people find hard to understand. If they can’t imagine themselves ever wanting to transition to another gender, they can become fascinated by people who do take that step.
Transition, however, is rarely the simple watershed that you might imagine. The vast majority of trans people do not wake up one morning and suddenly decide to transition. It is something that we will often wrestle with for decades. There may be false starts, losses of nerve, crises of identity, ostracism by family, and sudden desperation to do something before it is too late. Equally the actual process, assuming you go through an officially sanctioned medical pathway, will take years, most of which is taken up by very frustrating waits for appointments with doctors.
This, however, is a temporary phenomenon. In a society that actually understands trans people – and there is no reason why speculative fiction should not imagine such a world – many of those who transition fully will do so in childhood, with the full support of family, friends and knowledgeable specialists. In such a world, there would be no crisis, just straightforward medical treatment for a known condition. There would also be no social stigma faced by those who have non-binary gender identities. Why would we only want to imagine worlds in which we are discriminated against?
Finally, medical transition tends not to show trans people in their best light. It does, after all, involve the application of significant doses of hormones. In this, it is rather like a second puberty, with all of the emotional turmoil that involves. Writing solely about trans people during transition is rather like writing solely about cis people when they are teenagers suffering from existential angst. Of course there are plenty of books that do that, but they are by no means the only books written about cis people. It would be nice to have some books about trans folk that do not focus on this particularly tumultuous phase of our lives, and show us doing other things instead.
Then there is this whole issue of tragedy. I touched upon it briefly above when I asked writers to imagine a world in which trans folk are not despised and discriminated against. However, if you are locked into a way of thinking that says that being trans (finding yourself “in the wrong body” as the cliché has it) is inherently tragic, then you will inevitably write books in which the trans characters are seen as tragic.
I understand that similar issues are faced by people with disabilities. Fully-able-bodied writers assume that it would be awful for them to lose the use of their legs, or their sight, or some other facility on which they depend. Consequently characters with disabilities tend to be portrayed in books as tragic. Like disability activists, trans activists understand that the key to social acceptance is establishing that whatever difference you have from other types of people is not a source of shame, should not be a cause for pity, but is simply another variation in humanity.
It is often said that writers of speculative fiction find it easy to imagine worlds in which faster than light travel, or dragons, exist, but that they have great difficulty imagining worlds in which women are not seen as second class citizens. It is also true that many people find it difficult to imagine a world in which being born trans is not a tragedy, not only for the child, but for the entire family. Difficult, but not impossible. We can, and we should, try to imagine a better world, one in which trans people are just people, and not marked as the inevitable subjects of crisis and tragedy. If we do so, we can start to produce books in which trans people see themselves, not just books in which trans people see how others regard them.