Uplifting Romance - Writing Trans and Non-Binary Characters
With the intent to encourage and normalise writing trans and non-binary characters in romance, Holly March asked trans and non-binary writers for help.
Let me make this absolutely clear: what it means to be trans should be written by trans writers; what it means to be non-binary should be written by non-binary writers. I am not suggesting allocisgender writers should try and take over the very narrow space permitted in publishing for trans and non-binary leads.
Dear Publishing, LGBTQIA+ is not a genre. Would you also have Blue Eyed Authors as a genre? Or Left Handed Authors as a genre?
However, the level of socially acceptable erasure that continues to happen in publishing is despicable. We need more trans and non-binary characters. We need representation of all groups in all genres. We need to normalise exchange of pronouns in introduction and stand together with trans men, women, and enbies.
It is the absolute least we can do.
There are groups of TERFS (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) who reduce sexuality to the genitals you have at birth. Apparently being a woman is just having a baby-making tool. Please feel my wrath and disdain through these words. The trouble is, they keep talking. They keep trying to erase trans men and women from history, deny their existence, and their recorded wishes (in the case of Dr James Barry, who explicitly referred to himself as a man, and over whom there was controversy last month). They are dismissive of every language trans people use to define themselves. So we, romantic feminists, need to support it.
But I do understand the worry that good people feel about representing any ethnic or neurological people to whose subgroup they don't belong. I get it, and we can’t all afford to pay a sensitivity reader.
With that in mind I played my Aspergers lack-of-social-skills card and went and begged some wonderful trans and non-binary writers to help me to help you! I am just the conduit, and I have given credit to these writers where they wished, so excuse the break in our usual nice, tidy format. The other editors are going to loath me.
What are things that make you wrinkle your nose and go “um… no…” in cis portrayals of trans and non-binary people?
Terrabye: Largely that we’re confused miserable people. That’s a huge assumption I see.
Luce: Deadnaming/using the wrong pronouns, but also being outed by someone seeing them naked. Having descriptions like “there was a man, a woman, and a person whose gender I wasn’t sure about”, because that's… really not how it works. And transness as someone's ~secret~.
Generally speaking, anything that you shouldn't do to trans people IRL either.
Lizzy Rose: I think there are two main things that get to me. The first is with trans specifically and making us out to be a “costume”. There are a lot of caricature portrayals of trans people that make us out to be more drag queens (I love drag queens but people need to know they’re not the same) and a persona, rather than it being our actual identity. The second is when they don’t find the balance between acknowledging the character's gender identity, and making everything about their gender identity like they exist just for representation purposes. Nomi from Sense 8 showed how it can work well. Yes they acknowledged her history and even elements of her daily struggles as a transgender woman, but it wasn’t ALL about her being trans.
If a gender reveal is necessary in a book, how would you advise the writer to ensure it does not make a trans or non-binary reader feel uncomfortable?
Terrabye: I think unless it’s a plot thing a la Mulan there’s usually not a really good reason that’s explored to making the gender reveal awkward.
Luce: Hmm, I'm not entirely sure to be honest. I'd say make as little fuss about it as possible. Your character can just say “I'm trans”, there doesn't have to be a whole psychological analysis of their life up until now. Also, you really don't need other characters to be shocked or asking invasive questions.
Lizzy Rose: This sort of ties in with the last question. Whilst representation is hugely important for every minority, the idea is to normalise them. So the last thing you want with a gender reveal is to overplay it. If you make it a huge deal, then it can’t possibly normalise it. The other thing is simply to not do it in a way that makes us into a punchline of a joke —“I went to bed with this girl; and it turned out she had a PENIS!!!”. That particular example also works for not sexualising us or making us look like any sort of fantasy—either the trans character or the person sleeping with them—or fetish. The whole “trap” thing is a very damaging trope for trans people.
[Editor’s note: The Trap Trope is the idea that pretty trans girls deliberately trap allocis men into bed by ‘pretending to be girls’.]
What is the first thing a person describing a trans or non-binary person should start with to honour their gender without exploiting it?
Terrabye: I guess make it as natural as possible? It’s about human relationships after all.
Luce: I think for me it's more about not doing specific things, like what I listed in question one. Different people feel differently about their genders, so what’s gender-affirming can vary. I’d say the most important thing is to think about the character you’re writing before you actually start writing. Be an ally to trans people in real life first. Listen to what trans people are saying. I think a lot of the time when trans rep goes completely wrong, it's because the author doesn't really respect and listen to real trans people.
Lizzy Rose: I think this one is fairly self explanatory in that you can acknowledge their gender, but again not make it out to be huge thing. Acknowledge it briefly in a way the reader will know you’ve introduced them not specifically because they’re trans, and that having a trans character is relevant, but more, just briefly enough to understand who they are. So yeah, again it’s normalising it.
How far do you think a pre- or non-op trans character would go in a romance before checking their love interest was aware?
Terrabye: Probably once things got a lot more serious, like a few months in?
Luce: I don't date, so I really don't have a clue…
Lizzy Rose: I think this again comes back to the normalising of representation. It mimics real life and so I know I personally—and I’m pretty sure it’s the general consensus among trans people—would pretty much be open from the start because we know it’s not something everyone is comfortable with, that’s just the reality of it. I know I wouldn’t want someone to potentially fall in love with just a part of me. It’s also not fair to the other person, it implies a lack of trust with both parties and obviously that’s a relationship destroyer if there’s no trust in the relationship.
What tropes do you want allocis writers to avoid in writing trans and non-binary characters?
Terrabye: Can't really think of too many, except the trap trope. That’s incredibly dangerous and has gotten trans people killed.
Luce: Not sure about tropes, but trans characters don't have to hate their body, and don't have to want medical transition—and if they do, they don't have to want all the things! Some trans people just want hormones, some only want top surgery etc.—and one that's really important to me: if your trans character's love interest is bi, don't have them be cool with dating someone who's trans because they've dated cis people of both binary genders and therefore are okay with penises and vulvas. I keep seeing this and... Please, no. Attraction is not about what's in your pants.
Lizzy Rose: Quite simply that we are nothing more than stereotypes. There’s a lot of misconceptions that we “perpetuate harmful stereotypes” when in reality our interests vary significantly. There’s no one way to be trans or non binary, gender is a spectrum and not everyone feels things exactly the same way. Not every trans woman is typically “feminine” and non binary people still sometimes say “I’m a non binary man” because they don’t quite fit fully one or the other but sway towards the male side more. Also that being trans and non binary have no impact at all on determining someone’s sexuality.
Do you have any plot bunnies you want to see written?
Terrabye: Can't think of any plot bunnies off the top of my head.
Luce: Nothing specific, but related to the previous question, I’d like to read more books with trans people dating monosexual people.
Lizzy Rose: I just stumbled across this as, well, currently my only trans-related story idea: With being trans... you know how in times of crisis people say ‘my whole world’s been turned upside down?’ Well for us it gets turned the right way up. We can’t really explain why it feels right, no more than we can explain how some foods taste incredible to some, but make others want to throw up. However, something just clicks, and our worlds just become so much clearer for the first time ever.
As well as pronoun exchange, what other etiquette do you want to see more of in books to smooth the way for trans and non-binary characters and people?
Terrabye: Characters not outing trans people without asking them. Unless of course there’s a specific and deliberate reason for doing so—i.e.: to prove a point etc
Luce: Not assuming that someone's gender is what you see them as, and calling them by the name they ask you to call them.
Lizzy Rose: Deadnames being off limits, genitals ultimately being irrelevant to our identity as men, women and enbys—especially as a lot of people seem to think every single trans person automatically has surgery and that is when they “become” a woman/man—and making it clear that this is internal, not external. That nothing we do makes us more or less of men/women/enbys and that it’s just who we are and how we were born.
During sex scenes, do you personally prefer broad sensuality or specific reference to genitalia? Would it be uncomfortable or upsetting to read, for example, a trans man’s breasts being stimulated? (If you are asexual and/or would rather not answer, don’t worry about it!)
Terrabye: I prefer general sensuality in romance.
Lizzy Rose: I think with this it’s entirely about finding the balance between acknowledging them in a way that shows it’s not shameful to have the body that they have, but also not exploiting them to make it look like to either the trans or enby person, or the person being intimate with them, sees it in any way as an extra turn on. Basically the “chick with a d*ck trope”.
Which toxic extremes of binary gender roles and behaviours would you magic away if you could pick just one?
Terrabye: Definitely the whole idea that men have to be stoic unemotional walls.
Lizzy Rose: Even though we are getting better at removing this, the “damsel in distress” trope is still used far too often.
What writers, other than your good selves, have got writing trans or non-binary characters absolutely right?
Terrabye: Honestly haven’t seen much great representation, if it exists at all...
Luce: RoAnna Sylver, Cecil Wilde, and E. E. Ottoman for sure! I'm probably forgetting people though, my memory is… not the best.
Lizzy Rose: I’ve only read one book that has trans characters in it, and that was The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson. The character felt real and it was a very good representation.
So now you can no longer say, you “don’t know where to start” or “are too worried about getting it wrong”. Utilise sensitivity readers, absolutely, but now you have no excuse, friends! All I want to add is that you consider how you label reproductive issues. For example, don't have a chaaracter say they have "women's troubles" as a euphemism for menstruation. Men and enbies get periods too, people. It's a simple thing that can ruin someone's day.
Huge thanks to my cadre of twitter friends/idols who agreed to answer these questions and then had to wait while my issues slowed us down! Please support them and all LGBTQIA+ authors. It is not a genre. They are books and they should not be segregated. Allocisgender heterosexual is a variation, not a default. Take care that, especially in historical novels, your villainous characters do not default to camp or cross-dressing because that’s how film and TV portrayed villainy throughout the twentieth century.
Do not accept racism. Do not accept able-ism. Do not accept homophobia.
Do not accept transphobia.
And please check out these lists of trans and non-binary writers and books:
And if you are looking for a charity to donate to for someone’s birthday, to do a good deed, or to recommend for a company donation, consider these:
Mermaids help out transgender, gender-fluid, and non-binary children and encourage education for them and for schools.
Sparkle is an organisation for pride-like celebrations of transgender and non-gender conforming people. It has annual celebrations featuring trans and non-binary musicians and artists. They want to promote positive imagery to combat the transphobia found in every form of media.
Also, Bustle has created a list of charities and organisations within the USA.
I really do recommend getting charity donations for relatives you do not know very well anyway. And giving asshole uncle who mouths off at parties a donation to a charity devoted to positively supporting people? What could be better?
Finally, if you want more information about writing LGBTQIA+ characters and finding more of them, check out Alex Harrow’s LGBTQ reads article and the site at large.
If you want to share your own answers to these questions, please do so in the comments below or on social media. Any arguments against the inclusion of trans and non-binary characters in writing should be directed to Holly March.