Trans Awareness Week Series: Day #6
Previous Posts: Second Trans on the Moon by Kyle Lukoff, How the Fox Became by Fox Benwell, Interview: Alex Gino, The Room Where it Happens by Parrish Turner, Trans Stories Are Human Stories by April Daniels, Center Trans Voices: Introduction to Trans Awareness Week Series by Vee S.)
by Elliot Wake
About 0.6% of the population of the United Sates is transgender. Which doesn’t sound like much, until you put it another way: 1.4 million people in the US are trans. That’s the population of a city like Philadelphia or Phoenix. And it’s a conservative estimate: many transgender people don’t publicly identify as trans due to safety or personal reasons. Many are kids fighting for basic human dignities like using school bathrooms and locker rooms in peace. Many make up a sobering suicide statistic: 41% of trans people have attempted suicide. In comparison, 4.6% of the general US population has attempted suicide.
Right now, a trans teen named Gavin Grimm is having his case heard by the Supreme Court. Gavin’s plea is simply to use the boys’ bathroom at his school—an issue so politically fraught it’s being tried in the highest court of the land.
There is a qualitative difference when you observe an experience versus when you live it firsthand. When you’re transgender, every moment in public is filtered through lenses of wariness and vigilance. Even trans folk who “pass” (i.e., are read socially as cisgender) are alert for those moments when we may be exposed as trans: passing through a TSA body scanner, for instance, or showing ID at a polling place when the ID doesn’t match our perceived gender, or seeking emergency medical care. (Let alone those who are unable to pass because their gender expression or their body doesn’t fit neatly into a binary gender archetype.)
There is a ceaseless tension while moving through the world as a trans person. We’re constantly on guard, switching into fight-or-flight mode dozens of times each day. We feel a tiny hiccup of fear every time we approach a pair of doors labeled MEN and WOMEN. We send up a dire prayer that the stall at the end of the bathroom, as far away from others as possible, is free. We muster all of our courage each time we open that stall door and step up to the sink next to a cis person.
But there are beautiful trans moments, too. There’s the warm glow when cis girls call us pretty and ask for make-up tips. There’s the incandescent thrill of being called sir when we’re sweating in our binders and wondering if our packers are sliding out of place. There’s the radiant dignity when we tell someone our pronouns are they/them/theirs and they remember, and use them, without fuss. These moments when our gender is reflected back at us socially mean everything to us. All of the tension and vigilance and performance pays off, and the world recognizes us—at least for a fleeting instant—as the gender we present.
Then there are moments that are best described as meta: when being trans forces you to see gender and gendered interactions from multiple POVs at once. As a trans man, when I sit on a crowded train I’m acutely aware of whether I’m taking up too much space and making others, especially those presenting feminine, uncomfortable—because as someone assigned female at birth, I spent decades dealing with manspreaders and creeps who invaded my personal space, who saw me as female and assumed I’d just endure it the way AFAB people are conditioned to endure an endless array of indignities and violations every day of our lives. But it’s not all negative: now both men and women will make space for me even when I don’t actively take it, are less likely to interrupt or talk over me, and are more likely to notice me first and address me as the decision-maker at restaurants and in other service situations.
On one hand, it’s a relief to finally feel like I’m being afforded respect after years of being ignored, interrupted, and silenced—but on the other, I recognize that that “respect” is actually male privilege, and is a result of patriarchal social structures. The misogyny that once hurt me now, in certain ways, benefits me. Yet in other ways I’m hurt anew by misogyny: taller, stronger men (which is most of them) physically intimidate and bully me; open displays of emotion are looked at with revulsion and ridicule; being sensitive and empathetic makes me “beta” or “gay” (and being a queer man on top of that is a little terrifying).
Holding all of these viewpoints in your head at once is dizzying. Being trans and having been perceived as both male and female in one lifetime is like a Matrix-style revelation of just how gendered virtually everything is, and it extends far beyond symbols on bathroom doors. These thoughts and feelings are with us without reprieve. We are hyper-aware of gender in every physical and social sense.
Cis writers have done good work in telling stories about trans folk, but there is an essential limitation to their portrayal of trans experiences because they don’t experience transness day after day. They don’t live through the litany of minor (and sometimes major) tragedies and victories, the stuttering progress of two steps forward, one step back, the way that sometimes it seems nothing has changed for the better until we look back at how far we’ve come.
As writers, it’s our job to cultivate empathy and do the research and put ourselves in others’ shoes, but this can only take us so far. For example, I will never know what it’s like to experience blackness on a daily basis, in every fiber of my being, the way that I experience transness—that authenticity can only be conveyed by a black writer. The YA book community is embracing this idea: authenticity and lived experience are just as important as what’s on the page; we should not merely seek diversity in fiction, but in authorship. It’s clear to see why, e.g., we should read not only books about black characters, but also books by black writers.
However, when it comes to transness in fiction, we often let authenticity slide. There are so few trans writers, after all. How many trans masculine authors can you name from Big Five publishers? (The only ones I know of are me, Fox Benwell, and Zac Brewer—a whopping three!) Trans women are doing a bit better in representation: Imogen Binnie, Jennifer Boylan, Juno Dawson, Janet Mock, Meredith Russo, Julia Serano…the list goes on. Nonbinary, genderqueer, or genderfluid writers? Alex Gino, Pat Schmatz—a grand two I can name off-the-cuff. But trans writers are still collectively a minuscule message-in-a-bottle in a sea of cis voices.
Why is it so important that trans voices, not merely trans characters, are heard?
On Father’s Day this year, as I was paying the cashier at a grocery store, she looked at my bearded face and started to say “Happy—” and then caught herself, amending, “Oh, I’m sorry.” My heart sank. She must mean what they all meant: I’m sorry, I mistook you for a man. At half a year on testosterone, with a goatee and an Adam’s apple, I still wasn’t passing. In that moment hopelessness surged inside me. I’d put myself through so much stress and pain to get here, and still I couldn’t make society see me as the person I felt like inside. Why even try? What was the point? What made her read me as “woman with facial hair” and not “man” and was I really going to spend my entire life angsting over these little yet devastating things?
Then the woman smiled, and said, “You’re too young to be a father, aren’t you?”
Immediately my despair became elation. I could’ve hugged her. I wanted to cry in sheer gratitude and relief. As warmly as I could, I said, “Thank you.” She probably thought I was flattered at the age compliment. She had no idea what it really meant to me, after thirty-odd years of being misgendered, to have someone flip the script and to see me how I want to be seen.
That moment is something a cis writer couldn’t feel deep in their bones. It’s something I experienced, viscerally, and its repercussions echoed through my life, shaped me from that point onward. Years of self-hatred surfaced in one second and were blessedly drowned out. It was a major emotional turning point. And hundreds of those moments have occurred since I began my transition—some positive, some negative. The fullness and scope of their impact is something a cis writer can’t quite grasp, because it innately changes how you see and interact with the world. It changes who you are. To truly convey the transgender experience, you must live it and be (pun not intended) transformed by it.
To that end, I’m focusing on exclusively writing trans main characters for the foreseeable future. My YA fantasy project Transgenderella (working title, obviously!) is, you guessed it, a trans retelling of the Cinderella story…except Cinder doesn’t want to marry the prince, he wants to be the prince. I also have a short story in Saundra Mitchell’s queer historical YA anthology, All Out, featuring a trans boy Robin Hood. And I’m working on an adult psych thriller about a trans man and his identical AFAB twin…who didn’t transition, and the strange ways their lives diverge and intersect.
My good friend Fox Benwell (who identifies as nonbinary and trans masculine) is bringing trans boy rep to MG and YA, too. He describes his next YA novel, Sinking to the Heavens, as “a dead-of-winter story, all a capella and angels, Christmas and close harmonies. It’s narrated by Dorian, a pre-everything-and-not-even-sure-he-wants-any-of-it transgender music geek who’s suddenly very, very uncomfortable with the altos and desperately wants to sing bass.”
Voice changes on testosterone are a major, irreversible part of female-to-male transition—a subject which is tender for many of us. The decision to take T involves either elation or despair (or both) at the inevitable ways our voices will change. So I cannot wait to read an own-voices (pun also not intended!) story about the hopes and fears of a pre-T trans maybe-a-guy, written by someone who’s pre-T, trans, and maybe-a-guy.
Fox is also working on a MG novel featuring a genderfluid pirate (which is possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever heard) and a short story about a trans teen dealing with chronic illness. Intersectional rep of trans folks is especially needed: my narrator in Bad Boy, an adult novel, is a trans man of color. Too often white trans lives are all we hear about; rarely do we hear about race, disability, and other axes of marginalization, except when it comes to tragic statistics. Not only do we need trans voices, but we need diversity within trans voices. We need to hear trans people of color, trans people with disabilities, trans people who eschew the binary, trans people from every corner of life.
A sea change is happening within literature. It’s slow, but we’re starting to see increasing representation of trans characters in fiction. Now it’s on us to demand and support work by trans writers, especially those who are under-represented and multiply marginalized. It’s on us to boost own-voices work. It’s on us to critique trans rep that isn’t up to snuff. Above all, it’s on us to listen when trans voices speak.