by Cheryl Morgan
There are many things about the lives of trans kids today that leave me a bit misty-eyed. When I was at school hormone blockers were unheard of, and coming out as trans was liable to land you in an asylum getting electroshock treatment. YA wasn’t even a thing back then, so there was no point in asking for diverse characters.
We did have books, though. Paper had been invented. Reading was pretty heavily gendered. I don’t think I could have got away with reading books like Little Women or Anne of Green Gables. I was grateful for the girls in Swallows and Amazons, who seemed rather more like my sort of people anyway. I clung to Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings, but if I wanted stories with girls in that I could read I had to look to comics.
Back in those days British kids TV was all about Gerry Anderson’s puppet shows, and there was a tie-in comic that I read avidly. There was Doctor Who as well, of course, but the girl companions were a bit screamy in the early days. On the other hand, characters like Venus in Fireball XL5, Atlanta Shore in Stingray, and of course the inimitable Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward in Thunderbirds, showed that women could and did take part in thrilling adventures. I suspect that I have Sylvia Anderson to thank for much of this.
The other place I could find female characters with whom to identify was in American comics. Amazingly I was allowed to buy Supergirl comics, even though the main character was a girl. Batgirl was even on television occasionally, and I retain a fondness for Babs even now. But at heart I was a Marvel girl.
Janet van Dyne – the Wasp – was the sort of woman I wanted to grow up to be. She was rich, smart and successful. Goodness only knows what she saw in Hank Pym, but someone had to keep him in order. What’s more she was a total fashionista, changing her costume on a regular basis.
The girl I identified with, however, was Jean Grey. Like me she was a teenager with a special secret that she could not tell anyone about. If only Professor Xavier had opened a school for talented trans kids rather than for mutants I would have been right there begging for a place. X-Men, when it started, was a teen comic, which made it about as close to YA literature as I could find save for awful school-based soap operas.
Jean and I grew up together. From the shy, prim kid who was somewhat overawed to find herself the only girl in a special school, to the elegant, confident young woman of the Neal Adams era, she lived my life for me. I would have married Warren, of course. He was rich and looked a bit like Pygar in Barbarella (that is, mega-cute). Superheroes, of course, don’t get to have happy relationships. All I can say is that I’m glad I was older and had mostly deserted comics for books by the time the whole Dark Phoenix thing happened.
What all this nostalgia means for today’s trans kids I don’t know. We are all busy asking for believable, non-tragic trans characters in books so that they have someone to identify with. What I think it means, though, is that we find a way. Even when there is nothing; even when you don’t have a word to describe how you feel about yourself (I was a teenager before I even heard the word “transsexual”); you can still find something to latch on to.
I want to take this opportunity to say Thank You! to my big sister, Jean, for being there when I had no one else. Fiction is an amazing thing. We’d all like it to be better, but not being perfect doesn’t make it useless.
Cheryl Morgan is old enough to have grandchildren who are teenagers, but tries not to let that be an excuse for being grumpy. Amongst other things she writes, writes about, and publishes speculative fiction; writes about trans history; and co-hosts a women’s interest radio show. You can find her online at Cheryl’s Mewsings and on Twitter as @CherylMorgan.