Asexuality in YA Series: Day #3
Previous Posts: What’s So Important About Ace Representation? by Kazul Wolf | Navigating the In-Between: Demisexuality in YA Lit by Dill Werner | Introduction: Asexuality in YA Series by Vee S.
by Kelly Murashige
I thought there was something wrong with me. Some sort of genetic, chemical, or otherwise biological malfunction that made me so much different from every other girl in my grade. While my third grade classmates whispered about the boys they kissed in the girls’ bathroom stalls, I stayed silent. When my friend said she was in love, I didn’t know what to say. Even my best friends wondered why, by the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh grade, I had never fallen head over heels for a guy.
“Are you gay?” my parents asked me one day after sitting me down. “It’s okay if you are. We accept you no matter what.”
“I’m not,” I told them. “I just don’t have crushes.”
I don’t know if they believed me. I don’t know if I believed me, either. After all, it seemed like no one else was like me. All my favorite TV shows had at least a dozen different possible “pairings.” The movies I watched on Netflix used “who slept with whom” as a constant source of drama. My favorite series in middle school, The Hunger Games, featured one of the most iconic love triangles in young adult literature. And yet, I found myself unable to gush about a boy the way everyone else could.
Even once I had my first crush, an innocent and unrequited one on a boy four years my senior, I never imagined us kissing. I couldn’t even picture us holding hands. All I wanted was to talk to him.
I thought, by the time I was eighteen, my love woes would be over. But when I kissed my first boyfriend, it was quick. We didn’t open our mouths. We didn’t even breathe. And that’s exactly the way I wanted it to be. When we kissed for the third time and he started going farther, I didn’t move closer. I didn’t put my hands around his neck or lightly scratch my fingernails against the material of his T-shirt. I didn’t even feel a flutter in my chest, a warm feeling I should have been craving.
No, I stepped away. I pretended I didn’t understand. I pretended the very idea of something besides kissing didn’t make my throat close so much that I couldn’t breathe. I excused myself, saying I had to get home, but the whole ride up the elevator to my apartment floor, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. About what was supposed to be such a natural thing, another step in a relationship, but made me feel like bursting into tears.
Something was wrong with me. After years without crushes and a truly anxiety-inducing fear of anything past closed-lip kissing, it had to be the only choice: I wasn’t normal.
It took me days to finally confess to my best friend.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I texted her.
“maybe ur asexual,” she replied. And time seemed to stop.
I’d heard of the word before, of course. It’s impossible to get through high school without hearing it. But I’d always thought asexual meant no feelings of romance at all, something I eliminated during the summer where I fell for the older boy.
“But I’ve had crushes,” I told my best friend.
“look it up.”
I remember prying open my laptop, curiosity sending ripples down my spine. Could I finally have a reason for my abnormality?
Asexuality. I typed it into the search bar. And there, I found that asexuality doesn’t always mean a complete lack of romantic feelings. Asexuality, just like heterosexuality, homosexuality, and everything in between, has a spectrum. There are people who don’t feel attraction at all, and there are people like me: Though I like kisses and surprise gifts from boys, I don’t want anything more.
And that’s normal.
When I told my parents, they didn’t seem to understand.
“Those feelings will come in time,” they told me. “When you find the right person.”
I waited for my need for normalcy to take over, to reply with a meek “You’re probably right.” But that time, I didn’t. I said, “No, it’s how I feel, and there’s no changing it.”
For once in my life, I accepted who I was. I accepted how I felt. It didn’t matter if I didn’t want to sleep with someone, no matter how much I loved him. That’s my kind of normal.
Only days after my realization, I came across an article about an upcoming YA release: Tash Heart Tolstoy. Written by Kathryn Ormsbee and featuring an asexual protagonist, it made my heart race. Here, finally, was a story about a girl like me. A girl who knew who she was, even if she was still coming to terms with it.
I only wish the book could’ve been released when I needed it most. When I sat quietly on the side as my classmates argued over which jock was “hotter.” When I read about Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne and wondered why I didn’t ever find myself craving physical contact.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret discovering my asexuality, no matter how twisted its path. I just hope someday, people like me will be able to pick up a book without sex, without making out in the hallways or in a car, and say, “There. See? That’s my kind of normal.”
by Kazul Wolf
We all know that representation matters. This is a blog on diversity, I mean, it goes without saying. Asexual representation, however, is a tricky thing.
Growing up ace but completely ignorant of what asexuality is wasn’t a fun experience, as most asexuals would know. I was never into the things that other girls liked, but not in the I’m-better-than-them nonsense sorta way, I just didn’t get it. Why did the princesses always want princes when they could have DRAGONS? So I never got into Disney, I avoided anything that was pink or frilly because I knew what that entailed. Luckily I had a gang of friends that stood by me and my obsession with fantasy, video games and the weird books I dug out of the library.
At least until puberty hit. Oh yeah did that sucker hit me too, but not like them. While my interests flipped around a lot, how I perceived other people didn’t change like everyone else. At fourteen, I confessed as much to my best friend at the time, and he suggested I might be asexual. I was confused. I’d never heard it before. After searching Google for a bit, I found the Wiki article on it and I scoffed. I’m not that, I said. I’m not broken.
It took me seven years to come to figure out that I was an ace. Seven years of wondering why I wasn’t attracted to people like others were. That, yeah, I would develop feelings after getting to know someone, but I still didn’t want to have sex with anyone. It fed my depression and anxiety to dangerous places. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be like literally everyone else I knew, everything I’d ever known? Then, finally, I remembered that Wiki article that had scared me so much.
I cried for about a day. I was broken. Since I was born, I’d been broken. In everything I’ve read, everything I’ve watched, everybody kissed and wanted to kiss, everybody had sex and, boy, in some instances seemed like they never thought about anything else. What could I be besides broken? There was nothing to make it okay for a long time. I confessed to my mom how I felt, and she confirmed it: I was broken. “It will get better, you’ll meet the right person.” But she didn’t understand, it never changed. No matter who I met, even I might find them pretty, there was never that attraction. I wondered if I was born without the right hormones, or my brain was defective.
So, naturally the internet was where I next went. But most queer communities weren’t welcoming to who I was, and neither were the straight communities. It took a lot of searching for me to finally stumble across a few Tumblr blogs for aces. And I found out I wasn’t alone. I discovered I wasn’t broken — and even if I was broken in some way, it was completely okay.
I could want nothing to do with any kind of partner, I could only want romance with the “opposite” sex, the “same” sex, I could be only sometimes romantically attracted to people, and sometimes occasionally sexually attracted to people, and it was all okay. Maybe I was only asexual after a trauma, maybe I was born this way. It didn’t matter that my mom refused to accept that I wasn’t broken, that I’d had friends drop me because they thought I was too dramatic, making it up because I wanted to be special. Because here was proof that I wasn’t alone.
So now, with a few more years under my belt between now and then, I can’t help think: what if little-me, the me that loved dragons and video games and books with her whole heart, had found a book where the leading female didn’t have to end up with anyone. Where she maybe even just had a partner that meant something special to her, or at least that she didn’t have to kiss or feel a burning desire from. Maybe, if I had had the word asexual in my vocabulary before I was fourteen, I might not have been so utterly devastated at being 1% of the population. My depression and anxiety might not have eaten at me over who I was for so long. There might have even been a place for me to go without having to dig for shelter.
Which is why it’s so frustrating to want desperately to write an ace character, to represent what I needed so, so badly as a child, and hear it deemed as unsellable. Even if all of my books have emotional relationships, it’s not enough. I’ve had published authors tell me how no editor will look at my book unless there’s more chemistry, there’s more hormones. It doesn’t matter if I say that’s the point; it doesn’t matter that representation could mean something to someone; it doesn’t matter that suicide among asexual youths is alarmingly high and knowing they aren’t alone might save them.
I know it’s an industry. I know people need to make money, support lives and families. But it is my life’s goal to bring this representation to the table. Because livelihood is important, but so are lives. I never understood representation until I held a book with an ace side character in my hands and couldn’t stop the tears. I knew this could have saved me so much hardship, so many close calls. It could save others. But it’s still nearly non-existent in any sort of media.
So maybe we aren’t “queer enough” for safe queer places, and maybe we aren’t “straight enough” to be safe among hetero spaces either. I know that aces don’t experience the same hardships as other identities do, that our pain may seem small to others. But we need a safe place too. That’s why brick by damned brick, I’m going to help build it. And I dare you to add a brick to that wall, too.
Kazul Wolf (aka Bacon) is a fantasy author, leegndrary typoer, chef of all trades, and a dragon that prefers capturing cats and dogs as opposed to princesses. You can find her at her website, Twitter, Tumblr, or on Facebook.
by Dill Werner
I can only speak for one person when it comes to demisexuality—me. My experiences, my preferences, my sexuality, me. Being a queer demisexual means that I fall somewhere along a spectrum within a spectrum along another spectrum. I am a demisexual floating in the asexual spectrum hunched under the queer umbrella. It’s…complicated.
Demisexuality is a very individual and emotionally-linked experience, which makes it difficult to draw out an exact description of what it is to be demi. Being demi means my sexual orientation falls somewhere between asexual and sexual. I feel sexual attraction but not in the same way sexual people do. Demis need a deep, emotional bond in order to experience sexual attraction toward another person. Keep in mind that sexual arousal and sexual attraction are not the same thing. A person can be sexually aroused but not sexually attracted to someone, and no always means no.
There is a growing list of books with confirmed demisexual characters. Notice that many are word-of-god demi, meaning the author has confirmed the character is demisexual off the page. This in itself is problematic. As someone who identifies openly with this sexuality, it leaves me feeling unworthy when a character is merely hinted at being demi. Why can’t I be shown on the page like heteroromantic or homoromantic characters? Even bisexual and pansexual characters are becoming more common. Readers need the words spelled out on the page where they can find characters to relate to. Self-identifying goes beyond Google searches and Tumblr posts. A character is like a friend sitting next to you, having a conversation about sexuality. Oh, you feel this way? I do, too. Together, you figure things out in the course of 250-or-more-pages.
An example of a canon demisexual is Aled from Alice Oseman’s RADIO SILENCE. Main character Frances is determined to get into an elite university but becomes involved with her favorite podcast and the shy genius, Aled, who created it. The book discusses under-represented sexualities in a way that’s open and fluid. Plus, it uses the terms bisexual, asexual, demisexual on the page.
“Wait, I don’t understand,” said Daniel. “I thought that meant someone who doesn’t like having sex at all.”
“I think that’s the case for some people…” said Aled. He sounded a little nervous. “But asexuality means…erm…someone who doesn’t feel, like, sexually attracted to anyone.”
“And some people just feel like they’re…like…partly asexual, so…they only feel sexually attracted to people who they know really, really well. People they have, like, an emotional connection with.”
“Okay. And that’s you.”
“And you are attracted to me. Because you know me really well.”
“And that’s why you never have a crush on anyone.”
“Yeah.” There was a pause. “Some people call that ‘demisexual’ but, erm…it doesn’t really matter what the word is—”
Yeah, being demi does mean you’ll have friend crushes. It’s inevitable. Deep, emotional bonds can develop between friends and can be platonic or become something romantic. It all depends on the situation. My closest friends are more than just friends, they’re family. Demis will love you, care for you, and cherish your friendship. We’ll be your greatest cheerleaders and the roots of your support system. You’ll sometimes wonder why we’re so unconditional, but it’s our nature. We find our people and stick with them, no matter what.
Being demi means I have eye-rolling moments when I rarely find myself on the page. As with any demographic, there are tropes. In current YA representation, demi characters will either fall in love too easily or too often. We’re not completely asexual or sexual for a reason. We experience relationships on a different level than our peers.
Imagine that your (sexual) friends have a jar filled with tiny clear marbles. You, a demi person, have a jar filled with only a few marbles, but your marbles are large and multi-colored with swirling fantastic designs inside them. Your friends play with their marbles daily, throw them around, clank them together, and misplace them. They shrug it off, no big deal. If the marbles break, they’ll get more from inside the jar. It’s like their jar is constantly refilling with marbles. For you, each marble is like a treasure. You only play with them using the utmost care and diligence. Your number of marbles is limited, and you don’t know when you’ll be down to your last marble or if you’ll ever get another marble again. Sometimes, you feel like your jar is empty, but it might not be so. There’s always the possibility that there’s one more marble waiting for you in the depths of the jar. When you reach in to pull a marble out, it might be a small, clear marble. You look at this marble, hold it in your hand, and feel nothing. It lacks the same enthusiasm you would experience with one of the larger, intricately designed marbles. So you drop the clear marble back in the jar. It wasn’t meant for you to play with.
The clear marbles you let go can be painful. They can be violent. They can cut you down in ways you never imagined. Being demi means dating is, well, difficult.
Being demi meant I’d always have to have “the talk” with my romantic partners. And let me be clear, it doesn’t matter what type of relationship you’re in—gay, straight, cis, trans, non-binary—you will have to out yourself every time because not telling the other person can have consequences. “Why did you waste my time?” consequences. You’ll spend half of your time explaining what demi is and the other half assuring the person that, yes, it is a real thing.
Being demi meant I’d get to the point where my partner wanted to take things to a sexual level and my body would shut down—emotionally and physically—because I just couldn’t force myself to feel the same way they did. I couldn’t make myself experience the same sexual attraction after days, weeks, months, or even years of knowing this person any yet not knowing them the way I needed to. Then, I’d be stabbed in the heart by the words no queer person can stand to hear.
“Why can’t you be like other people?”
Twist the knife, watch the blood pool.
“Why can’t you be normal?”
Yes, those words. The ones that make me want to crawl out of my skin and hide. I wished I could be like everyone else, especially when my friends started dating in high school and throughout college. I was left behind, confused when they would move from partner to partner and talk about “hook ups” or one-night stands. The idea of both casual sex and casual relationships repulsed me. It isn’t the same for all demisexuals. Each person has their own preference on sex, masturbation, and partnerships regardless of sexuality. Never assume any two people are the same.
In Shira Glassman’s Mangoverse series, the author has confirmed Rivka to be demisexual. Glassman tweeted, “Demi ppl say that my Rivka is demi so I kept on writing her that way. Demisexual warrior woman! With dragon!” In Glassman’s YA book THE SECOND MANGO, Queen Shulamit and Rivka discuss Rivka’s previous heteroromantic relationship with a man:
“He wouldn’t want you to feel this way. And he wouldn’t want you to have stayed alone so long for his sake.”
Rivka’s face wrinkled into a cranky scowl. “I’m not saving myself for a memory! I just don’t fall in love every five minutes like a lady-in-waiting in some bard’s tale.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” Shulamit looked down. “I know it’s not love, but I notice women so easily. Even when I was missing Aviva with all my heart, there were the willing women, the statue, the—the make-believe trick woman back there…” And I approached you, too, that way at least three times, she added inwardly, glad they were past that.
“That’s not how my mind works,” said Rivka.
It’s more than Rivka saying, “I don’t want to sleep around or give myself to someone willingly.” She can’t do it. Like Rivka said, it’s not how we work. Demi a grey area of asexuality where we don’t choose not to have sex or when/who to date. We often times can’t do either. Our bodies will tell us when it is or isn’t right.
Being demi meant I didn’t understand how my friends engaged in relationships so easily. Meanwhile, I was called a prude and made to think it was a conscious decision for me not to have sex. But it wasn’t a decision. I couldn’t shut off this part of my brain that lit up each time. The warning lights flashed blue and red as the sirens shrieked. “Nope,” the little voice in my head would command. “We are not doing this.” Whenever I came close to having sex with someone I hadn’t connected with, my body and brain would scream at me that it was wrong, all wrong. My heart would race and my muscles lock. Panic flooded me. I knew this person and cared about them on some base level, but it was wrong.
Being demi meant I wasn’t choosing to abstain from sex because of moral or religious beliefs. It meant that sex wasn’t right for me. It caused me mass amounts of anxiety when with a partner. On my own, I was fine. I didn’t really have any desires to be with anyone intimately. And that was okay. What I needed was time to find the right person and make the connection.
Being demi meant I had to experience something more intense than love before I could be sexually intimate with someone. Sometimes, the spark is effortless. A connection knits between your ribcages like a white-hot thread, binding you forever. You have one conversation and know the rest of your life will be filled with making memories together. If you’re lucky, you never have to snip the wire, never have to let go of them. This is why demis get irritated with people dismissing insta-love as a played-out trope in YA fiction. It might be overly abused (authors only have so much wordcount, people) but demis know insta-love. It’s real. It’s valid. And it deserves to be recognized.
Once I found my person, our two worlds click together to form something bigger than I ever thought imaginable. After two weeks, my partner and I looked at one another and said, “We’re getting married, right?” Dear reader, we did. After years of sadness and shame, I finally understood the hype of love and relationships. My friends even joke that my partner thawed my cold, dark heart. “Ha-ha! Made you love me,” my partner often reminds me. Yeah, they did.
Being demi means I want to share my experiences with other people, to help them understand what it’s like when you’re stuck somewhere between the lines, drifting in the world of grey that’s often overlooked. We’re not a one-size-fits-all sexuality. We need to have our stories told—preferably by Own Voices authors—which means putting the full scope of our experiences in print. Being demi is about more than including one scene that outs the character. It’s about going into depth and explaining the emotional turmoil we face in everyday relationships.
We love. We long to be loved. We just need to do it in our own way, on our own time.
Dill Werner is a genderless blob floating in a sea of confusion that strings words together for fun and profit. In reality, they is a genderqueer, demisexual, pansexual author who writes young adult and adult LGBTQ+ fiction with the supportive Knight Agency. When not conspiring to take down the gender binary, they cheerleads amazing people in the queer community and edits their Own Voices narratives, one of which takes place in a magical queer circus with a heteroromantic demisexual character as the antagonist. Find them on Twitter or check out their Blog for more ramblings about gender, sexuality, and book reviews.
During our Asexuality in YA series, we want to use our space on GayYA to support ace-spectrum voices. Last year, we decided to host Awareness Week Series over the various LGBTQIA+ Awareness Weeks throughout the year. Though we hope to include everyone on the site at all times, we wanted to dedicate a concentrated space to people from a specific community to talk about how they’re represented in YA. The response from the community was phenomenal– we got to feature many fantastic and thought-provoking posts, and watched as the community fostered some nuanced discussions via our identity-centric Twit Chats. I personally remember feeling amazed as I read the posts that were sent in and scrolled through the Twit Chat hashtag. I realized I wasn’t alone in my feelings of discontent regarding the representation of my identities, or my hopes for what that representation could look like in the future. I got to meet and connect with so many smart and passionate people.
So of course, we had to do the Awareness Week Series again.
Unfortunately, the dates for this year’s Asexual Awareness Week (Oct 23rd-29th) ended up never getting on our calendar. We’re so SO sorry for this mishap! We ran across this year’s dates two days ago. We debated trying to pull something together last minute, but since these weeks are driven by guest posts, we didn’t want to ask people to rush their work. We also have a number of resources we’re developing for libraries & bookstores, and want to take the time to get them done right! So we decided instead to reschedule and take the time to truly make a dedicated and purposeful space for an Asexuality in YA Series. So! Our Asexuality in YA series starts today.
This week we’ll feature several posts from various ace-spectrum contributors. We’ll also be discussing Ace YA all week long on the #AceYAChat hashtag. We’ll be posting prompts & questions, but please feel free to use it to talk about anything related to Ace YA Books!
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, tweet us @thegayya or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
-Vee, admin and co-founder of GayYA
by Vee S.
Last year I wrote a post about the “Acceptance” Narrative in Trans YA. That post detailed my thoughts on three problematic books that feature cis characters lamenting how hard it is to know someone who is trans. Today, I want to talk about another issue of representation in trans YA, and a narrative that is even more common. This post is kind of a second blush look at representation in trans YA. The “acceptance” narrative covered the really problematic representation, and this post tackles the next, more nuanced stage.
Today I’d like to talk about the Hero’s Journey in Trans YA. Most trans YA books told from the point of view of a trans character follow an eerily similar narrative. Casey Plett, author of A Safe Girl to Love, has written about this phenomenon in trans adult books. She has termed these homogenous books “Gender Novels.” In the Gender Novels, “each protagonist is a chosen one, a lone wolf plodding on against adversity. They do no wrong; they remain gentle and stoic in the face of difficulty.” In short, being trans is presented in such a way as to enable the reader to relate their life struggles to the experience of being trans. While I’m sure these books have been written with the best of intentions, this narrative forwards some dangerous ideas. In addition, it is now simply overdone. We need to expose it and move on. Cisgender readers need to be aware of this narrative, their reactions to it, and open their gaze to what other trans stories might be out there.
Before I begin critiquing this narrative, I want to say: these books have their place. The first few trans YA books I read meant so much to me. When I picked up my first trans YA, I didn’t know that within the year I would identify as trans. I didn’t realize the shame I carried around being trans, and I literally didn’t know that trans people could be happy. That first trans YA book I read played a major part of opening a door sealed shut by shame and misunderstanding. I look back at that book now, and wince, because I see all the major flaws in the representation. But it was so important to me then. My experience with that book has made me a firm believer that a book does not have to be perfect for it to be enough for a trans teen.
I also want to be clear that it is not my intention to shame anyone who enjoyed a book with this narrative in it: that is unproductive and unhelpful. The problem is not in a single book, or a single author, or a single reader. It is a structural problem that permeates the entire YA community. Fixing the problem requires awareness, and so my intention is only to educate.
With that said: shortly after I finished reading my first ever trans YA book, I soon read through the dozens of other trans YA books out there. As I tore through one after another after another, they started to feel less and less legitimizing and healing, and more stigmatizing. It started to feel like every time I started a new trans YA book, I had already read it. I developed a useless superpower: about fifteen pages into any trans YA, I can tell you what happens, and which characters will do what.
So what is this “Hero’s Journey” narrative?
- The book begins, and the trans character is ashamed of themselves/their body.
- Character starts to come out or to express their gender (sometimes the character is already out at the beginning, sometimes not)
- This is met with some adversity and some support (at least one parent is definitely unsupportive)
- Character pushes through, meets new friends, things are starting to look better
- The character is outed, then physically and/or sexually assaulted
- Character is upset, but doesn’t suffer any severe mental/emotional trauma
- Character realizes all they ever had to do was believe in themselves and the rest of the world would love/respect them
- Character looks daringly off into the hard but hopeful future
Why is this narrative problematic?
If you remove the character’s trans status, this is a typical “hero’s journey.” Replace “presenting as true gender” with “starting the quest” and “assault” with “the final battle” and you’re good to go.
The “hero’s journey” has been around since story first began. The narrative is supposed to be one that anyone can relate to, on some level. It’s a universal metaphor for struggle, for facing your demons, for learning and growing. So, in theory, that’s good, right? A trans character gets to be the main character in a book with this typical hero arc! Yay! Progress! Well, not so much.
The whole point of a hero’s journey is that it is a metaphor for a “universal” struggle, about perseverance, bravery, and overcoming fear. If you want to center a trans character in that, fabulous! These books, however, center marginalization. The trans character isn’t allowed to participate in this narrative as the sword-wielding snarky badass they are. Instead, they are relegated to a message.
Instead of using this narrative to point out the obvious– that cis people can relate to trans people because we are all humans and share many similar human experiences– these books say that you should relate to being trans. (Or rather, relate to one simplistic idea of what “being trans” is.) In an attempt to make the “trans experience” into the one-size-fits-all module, it simplifies the very complex realities of trans individuals.
In short, when marginalization is centered in the hero’s journey, it attempts to make the experiences of marginalized people “universal”. But, by definition, those experiences are not universal. In an attempt to garner sympathy and “understanding” for marginalized people, these books simplify the marginalization into a metaphor that non-marginalized people can use.
One example of how the hero’s journey really doesn’t work as a vehicle for the whole trans experience is the way it treats violence. In Casey Plett’s (brilliant) article Rise of the Gender Novel, she says: Transphobic violence “is real, but how it functions in these narratives is telling: it happens […] during the third quarter, just before the victorious climax. Violence, in other words, is a hurdle to get over, a one-time plot device—as opposed to, say, a lifelong reality that brings with it an array of dangers and traumas.”
As a survivor of sexual violence, reading a book that uses assault like this hurts. The characters don’t come out of the experience broken or scared or traumatized; there is no time for those emotions to develop. Instead of allowing the character to experience even a fraction of the the long and complicated process of processing and healing from trauma, they’re launched into their victorious ending. The ending that is so often used as inspiration for cis people to “be true to themselves.”
Over and over again, our pain is used, and misrepresented. To make the very people who make this world so terrifying for us feel good about themselves.
Being trans is SO much more complex than what this narrative often shows. It’s scarier. It’s more constant. There is rarely an instant where you think “I’m definitely going to be okay for the rest of my life.”
Often, it’s extreme discomfort with your body or parts of your body. It’s almost always an experience with suicidal ideation, often for an intense and/or prolonged amount of time. It’s nearly constant fear. Either fear of what people think if you come out, or, if you come out and start presenting differently, it’s fear of violence. That fear doesn’t ever fully stop. (Why do you think the transgender suicide rate is so high?) So no, you don’t get to use this experience of us “overcoming” fear. Because that never happens for us.
Lest I leave you with the idea that trans lives are only endless suffering, however, I’ll end this section with a plea to read this excellent post from Elliot Wake, and this quote from April Daniel’s post Trans Stories Are Human Stories:
“Being trans can be built up to be this profound, unknowable Thing, both sublime and terrifying. It’s not. Mainly it’s just a pain in the ass, just one damn thing after the other, like the rest of life, no scarier and more dangerous than any of life’s other big struggles. But like the rest of life, it can also bring profound joy, and exhilaration that is hard to describe. So being trans isn’t what hurts us; it’s being alone that does the damage.”
Trans people have struggles and joys that cis people will never experience. And yet, we are still simply human.
Centering Trans People in Fiction
I understand the impulse behind the “hero’s journey” narrative. It is easy to market to cis readers, and in many ways, it is a really good first step: it does change minds and it does help trans teens. However, this narrative is not enough. As elementary school librarian Kyle Lukoff said in his recent post Second Trans on the Moon “acknowledging our existence and our humanity is a starting place, not an end point.” We need & want more.
For Big 5 publishers, it is necessary to market trans books to cis people in order to make them profitable– there are simply not enough trans people to sustain a market. But because of the desire to appeal to cis readers, these books are made, edited, and published with cis people in mind. While the creative team may hope that trans teens get something from them, the writing, editing, and marketing decisions all cater to the cis gaze. But what would it look like if trans people were centered? I would like to argue that books can center trans readers and appeal to cisgender audiences.
Here’s a great quote from Dear Cisgender People Who Write, Publish, And Read “Trans” Books by Constance Augusta Zaber:
“Frequently I read interviews with authors or see publicity statements from publishers saying that they hope this book is able to help trans people. […] While I don’t think this idea is inherently wrong (I’m a big believer in the power of stories and representation) I want to know why cis people think that providing variations upon the same theme counts as meaningful diversity and representation. Why not show younger trans readers a world of possibilities? Why not offer an alternative from the one plot we hear over and over again in both fiction and nonfiction? And since I’m asking demanding questions I might as well ask: why not give trans youth some authors who are trans as well?”
Ultimately, I’d love to see transgender authors become the keeper of trans stories. (This is not to say cisgender people cannot write trans characters– they can and they should. But that conversation is an entirely different post.) I want there to be dozens and dozens of trans authors.
We’re inching toward that: transgender authors like Meredith Russo and Alex Gino are breaking into mainstream publishing with the help of amazing cisgender allies. But even with the number of us growing, even with our awesome allies in publishing, we still don’t get to decide on what our narratives look like. This “hero’s journey” narrative is holding trans writers back too. It has been decided upon as the palatable form in which cis readers will accept our stories.
There are books being published through small presses that actually cater to a transgender gaze, like Spy Stuff by Matthew J Metzger and The Unintentional Time Traveler by Everett Maroon and the forthcoming Dreadnought by April Daniels– and those books are incredible and revolutionary. But a teen needs to be dedicated in order to find them. That unfortunately isn’t likely to happen, as most trans teens believe books like that don’t exist.
So. Since there are many more cis readers than trans readers, to create a book that sells, it has to cater at least partially to the cis gaze. So, YA community? Your cis gaze needs to change.
The thing is, I think we– cis and trans people alike– only stand to gain by centering trans people. Because this is not only a representation problem, it is also a craft problem. Like… okay look, I’m just going to say it. I don’t think these books are well-written. As Casey Plett said in her piece, “These novels aren’t just clichéd by the standards of transgender literature—they’re clichéd by any standard.” I personally find them tropey, clunky, and now that I’ve read over a dozen, simply boring. And I have a hunch that some cis readers feel the same way. Even if that’s not the case, there are now dozens of books that follow this narrative. Does the world really need more?
So what are some new narratives? Well, in many ways, that’s like asking “what are some new narratives about cisgender people?” The possibilities are endless. To break it down a bit, however, I think there are two main things we need.
- More complex narratives around coming out/transitioning
- Stories that aren’t about coming out/transitioning (Part of me thinks that cis people think trans people just stop after they transition, and that a story that doesn’t revolve around transition isn’t trans. But alas: “Our lives continue after we transition and for most of us our lives continue to be trans lives. After coming out, our lives continue to have joys and struggles that are unique to our lives as trans people.” x)
Some specific things I’d like to see:
- A book about a trans character recovering from sexual assault/abuse
- Character comes out to only close friends and is never outed
- A character who can’t figure out if they’re nonbinary or binary trans
- Straight up romance. Not contemporary with a romance subplot– a STRAIGHT UP ROMANCE
- the above bullet point x10000
- More queer trans teens
- TRANS TEENS OF COLOR
- Two-Spirit teens
- A trans character who’s been told their transness is “too much” to deal with by past friends, but their new friends are like “what? eff that!!”
- The experience of being trans in fandom
- Trans pirates
- Stories in which gods/goddesses recognize trans people as their true gender
Here’s a quote from another great post, Trans Representation in YA Is Only the Beginning, by YA author Everett Maroon:
“I’m looking for the life after transition, the other aspirations these characters have, the friends who shape their lives, even the nonsense we all deal with—crappy teachers, hating algebra, escaping from one’s parents for an afternoon, sneaking into an extra movie at the cinema, getting one’s heart broken by that asshole who seemed so great before one went to second base with them. Trans people are not figureheads, tragic heroes, as untouchable as saints, they’re people. We make mistakes and we cry when we break our favorite coffee mug, and we stay up late at night reading terrific books and damn it we want to see ourselves in some of those books. Ourselves, not some person’s simplistic imagining of who we are.”
These are just the tip of the iceberg. But it is these types of books– books that dispel the hero narrative– that will not only provide better representation, but will also be infinitely more enjoyable to read. This is not to say that simply changing the narrative will result in good representation– problematic and offensive representation can crop up in many other ways. (*coughs* here’s where I very subtlety pitch the fact that you can hire me as a sensitivity reader!) But I believe this is the next big step forward that our community has to take. Once we do away with this narrative, we can open up a much more nuanced and interesting discussion about trans representation.
I want books like this, books that see trans characters as fully human instead of a message, to be spread to the teens that need them. Books that tell our stories truthfully, that don’t cater to the experience of cis readers. I want these books to get the same marketing that other “trans” books have gotten.
What You Can Do: Fix Your Gaze
So, how do we do that? The most fundamental way you can change things is beginning to center trans voices in every way possible. Here are some specific examples.
If you are an editor or agent: please, seek out trans stories, and DIVERSE trans stories at that. Seek out trans stories by trans people. This is not to say cisgender people cannot write trans characters– they can and they should. (Two I’ve loved recently is When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore and Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee) What they should not do is attempt to write about what it “means” to be trans. That is a story that, in my opinion, trans people alone should tell.
Librarians & teachers: buy trans books from smaller presses. Make them available to your teen patrons/students. Do the work so that they don’t have to. Also, consider bringing trans authors in for events instead of cis authors!
For all readers: buy books by trans authors, or request them from your library!
You don’t have to stop reading or reccing or enjoying these books. But be aware of how you respond to this narrative, and know that it is not what the real life of a trans person actually looks like. It is constructed to garner sympathy, and to make you feel like a good person. Challenge the idea of trans pain as something you can learn from, in all aspects of your life.
Mostly, support our stories in the form they come in. I think we’ll (hopefully) be seeing more and more diverse narratives, and I want to see those be as supported and celebrated as what we have now. Even if they’re tougher, and less inspiring for cis people. Those stories need to thrive.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I know it’s a lot, and I’m so incredibly thankful that you took the time to listen to my perspective. If you have thoughts, questions, or comments, please reach out to me! Leave a comment below, find me on twitter @findmereading, or email me at email@example.com. I’d really love to hear from you.