I had no idea how to describe the discomfort I started feeling in middle school. I would later realize it was gender dysphoria, but at the time I didn’t even know that term existed. I did my best to ignore the feeling because I had never heard of any similar experiences.
I would have felt less confused, lost, and uncertain about what to do if I had a glimpse of honest trans representation in my childhood, but the media I consumed wasn’t there yet.
When I first read a novel with authentic trans representation, it began my journey of having the words, comfort, and hope to happily be who I am.
However, authentic is the keyword there. The trans representation that existed resulted in trans peoples’ identities being the butt of a joke and ridiculed, or stories that just completely missed the mark of a real trans experience, which is why EveryQueer wanted to dive into the importance of having trans characters that are actually written by trans people.
The Joy of Reading and Writing
Growing up I clung to books. The escape, the connection, and the ability to enter entirely different worlds encapsulated me. I connected deeply with the characters, feeling happy, scared, nervous, and excited along with them. It amazed me, and still does, how words on a page can make you feel transported.
“I really love…the worlds that people can create…the stories…that touch me and move me,” says reader Avery Meyers.
Author Michael Gray Bulla says stories, “help us make sense of our own realities,” and “can foster empathy and creativity and growth within ourselves.”
Author TJ Alexander says, “making up stories and telling jokes,” is “how [they] relate to people.”
Reading and writing opens us up to new perspectives and experiences as well as creates a channel for us to relate and lean on each other.
As a kid, I related to a lot of the characters I read; Junie B. Jones has an excited first grader who sometimes felt out of place, the kids in The Magic Tree House series share my curiosity and hope for adventure.
However, as I got older and all things crushes and fashion started coming to the forefront of my friend’s conversations, I started to feel out of place. I had some sense of the LGBTQ+ community, but mainly because of Glee and the episodes of Ellen I’d watch with my mom. That mainly only exposed me to the terms lesbian and gay, and the representation wasn’t great.
Growing up with no representation or bad representation is harmful to the experience of a lot of trans people in their youth and beyond. It makes it harder for people to feel like their existence should be respected and to believe that they can live happy, full lives being who they are.
Reader Zach Humphry says truthful trans representation in media would have made them “[feel] much less alone,” and, “it would have been so healing, to see anyone like [them] living their truth.”
“I would’ve figured myself out a lot sooner, had I had representation in any type of media growing up but especially in books. I don’t think I would’ve felt as lost and confused…” author Ronnie Riley says.
“I spent a good 20 years searching for why I felt so empty and unhappy; seeing transmascs in books and movies (especially in a positive way) would’ve helped me so much,” says author Gabriel Hargrave.
TJ Alexander recalls that “the tiny amount of exposure [they] had to trans people in media were as punchlines.”
The lack of decent trans representation leads to trans folks feeling confused, lost, upset, and out of place in the world.
Importance of Trans Authors and Authentic Storytelling
Having trans characters written by trans authors is beneficial in a variety of ways. Authenticity and a more genuine storytelling experience are reasons that a lot of trans readers and authors prioritize.
Ronnie Riley says that “no amount of research can equal lived experiences.”
TJ Alexander says having trans authors allows for “the depth and breadth of our experiences [to] be explored, so we can be main characters.” They go on to say that “trans representation should not be shouldered completely by trans creators, but we can lead the way. And that would benefit folks of all stripes.”
Gabriel Hargrave voices that “trans authors writing from their own experiences or the experiences of people they know are more likely to create trans characters that feel real and unique and three-dimensional.”
“There is a lot of nuance that can’t be captured in only a few characters which is why it’s so wonderful for more and more trans authors to include their own identities in their stories,” author Quinton Li explains.
Having characters written by someone who actually shares part of their experience allows for a more honest character and story. It’s also powerful for trans people to be free to share their experience.
Michael Gray Bulla beautifully states that this “gives some autonomy back to the trans community…because trans people have historically been on the margins, we’ve not been allowed to tell our own stories…when we have control over our own representations, we’re able to show our lives as they really are, to dispel some of those misconceptions and stereotypes, and to imagine alternative futures for ourselves that are full of hope, compassion, love, and humanity.”
Reader Ron Ward also brings up the wonderful point that “as long as trans people continue to be marginalized, they should be given the loudest voice in telling their own stories.”
Authenticity, autonomy, power, and the ability to show a true facet of a particular trans experience are crucial reasons to uplift trans stories by people with the actual experience. This is not to say cis folks can’t write trans characters, but if they do, hiring sensitivity readers would be an important addition to the process, and trans authors should be uplifted and brought to the forefront.
Author Page Powars says when he writes stories, he’s, “writing love stories starring someone like [him], just like every other author gets to do. What comes out of this, [he] hope[s], is the most important part: others like [him] feeling at home in a rom-com, even possibly for the first time, and others who aren’t quite like [him] also getting to escape into my rom-coms.”
Writing as a trans author most certainly does not have to be something you do to educate cis folks. Like Powars and many others, it can be because that is your experience and what you know, and in sharing that, you will most likely find readers who connect to your writing.
What We Hope for the Future
As LGBTQ+ books are being targeted and banned and anti-trans laws and policies are being proposed and put into place across the country in the United States, continued education, empathy and representation is needed, especially for young trans kids who need to feel seen and heard. Cis allies need to fight and be loud against anti-trans agendas.
Specifically in media, the growing amount of trans representation we can see, specifically in Young Adult literature, is great. However, there is clearly still room to grow. More transfeminine representation is sorely needed, as well as more trans people of color representation, and more stories about trans adults.
It’s important to note that the lack of this representation that we see isn’t because people aren’t writing these stories. Part of the reason is due to companies not buying those stories and their voices not being given the opportunity to be heard. Additionally, while there are good things that come about with representation, there is also negative backlash, and sometimes violence that comes with more visibility.
It’s also important to remember that while representation is great, real trans lives are being targeted right now. Cis allies need to know that trans folks aren’t living in a utopia just because we have good stories in fictional media.
We need cis allies to be loud about their fight for trans rights and to constantly push back against the harm and violence being put upon the trans community. Trans people need cis people to help so that we all have the opportunity to live our fullest, longest lives possible.