A year or so ago, I was going to write Diamond Jack, an urban fantasy comic featuring a stage magician who reluctantly was given actual magical powers. It read somewhat like if Zatanna and John Constantine had a baby, and until the artist had to take a sudden leave of absence, it was looking like a pretty fun, engaging story. Despite that, there was one problem I just couldn’t wrap my head around: the main character was transgender, and I had no idea how to showcase this to the audience. In trying to figure out how, I later discovered I made another mistake: how I was trying to make a showcase of his transness.
I was mentally much younger then, still thinking I was cis despite already feverishly dedicating 3 years of my life to writing and understanding LGBT+ culture. I was hot off the heels of throwing away my first 100-page manuscript, convinced every cast member in my slightly-diverse epic had been represented amazingly (they hadn’t). Despite thinking I’d be this generation’s Neil Gaiman, I routinely fell into basic writing pit traps such as “how to write a third act,” “how to plot a comic series without having it fall apart like a drunk game of Jenga,” and of course, “how to actually show a character’s transgender without completely alienating your trans audience.” In Diamond Jack, I explicitly wanted to showcase that our character was a trans man, and then move on with the story. I wanted his character to eclipse his identity. Effectively, I wanted him to be someone for trans people to understand and root for, and not just be a diversity checkmark done for brownie points. To that end, I look at past-tense me with some amount of respect, because I was actually trying to do right by people. The only problem was that I’m a complete fool, because I thought the revelation that the character was trans should only be measured by how it’s conveyed to the audience, without considering how it’s conveyed to the characters. So every week I’d think up a new hair-brained scene to “subtly” showcase he was trans: a diary, a tattoo, and of course, a few variations of the shower scene. And every week, I’d bring my ideas to my only trans guy friend, whom I met every day at college. The few verbal responses he gave me to these ideas didn’t quite clue me in on if he wanted to murder me or not, but I at least knew he was silently bludgeoning me in his mind’s eye.
Eventually we settled on having a new character introduced specifically to be Jack’s trans confidante, someone he could trust and casually talk about every day things related to being trans. It seemed like a good turn to take, but it wasn’t until a few days ago that I realized what an absolute trainwreck it would be if I stayed the course of my original plans. Most of that realization came when Magdalene Visaggio talked on her Twitter about the character Petrichor from the sci-fi smash-hit Saga. What Visaggio vividly pointed out was that the failing of the character was that her role as a transgender character was only validated by directly confronting the reader with the fact that she has a penis. Within the scene, this in-universe outing is done against her will; she has no control over who’s seeing her like this, and yet has no qualms about the blatant breach of privacy. In fact, her apparent reaction to a small child seeing her naked is to gladly start teaching her about gender concepts. “Of course, tiny toddler person, I’ll gladly inform you about the various ways I’m still a valid person while you awkwardly stare at my various bits.”
The entire scene is not only flimsy in terms of writing but blatantly toxic because it reinforces the idea that to be officially transgender is to run through a series of biological pop quizzes: “Is your dick still there?” “Have you had the operation yet?” “But how are you a man if you still have tits?”
We are made to defend our identity not through emotional or psychological understanding, but through a crude confrontation of the character’s genitalia so the audience has something to be shocked over. “Look, look at this freak! And look at you for hating them!” the writer would exclaim, intentionally or not, unaware this is not a good way to go about representing trans identity. Forcefully being outed is a horrible breach of privacy, and an incredibly emotionally distressing event, and the trouble is creators seem to lack the insight to think the situations that their trans characters find themselves in are bad, and often plain fucked up. Scenes like this enforce the idea that any non-cis person needs to be forcibly monitored about their own body, regardless of how they feel. Further, the “reveal” takes any agency away from the character, frequently leaving them in situations where their private info is not theirs to give out. When so many creators go down this invasive path, and very few of them ever acknowledge how big of a problem these scenarios are for their characters, they reiterate to their readers that trans people’s bodies are not their own to command; they’re commodities of the public to be viewed and judged in exchange for our right to exist.
The hell of it is, of course, there’s so many different ways that our lives, bodies and experiences are changed because we’re trans. Our every day lives change in drastic ways that could be included in any trans character’s story to help showcase their identity. Things like binders and taking care of them, hormone shots and taking supplements, worrying about our body build or the shape of our hips, shaving our beards regularly, falling in love with fashion; all of this and so much more can be used as a tip-off to your character’s identity without straight-up saying that they’re trans. This has been done well before, for example in a comic called Magic Patch by P-Reavz. It’s an adorable short erotic work about a trans girl who feels self conscious about her hormone patches, and her significant other that tries to comfort her. It’s cute, smutty and most importantly, it doesn’t beat the character’s identity against your cranium while congratulating itself on the concussion it’s giving you. It lets the subtlety of the situation drive the story forward, of having to deal with dysphoria and medical procedures just to feel normal. To simply infer transness instead of outright stating is important sometimes when writing, because we’re not just walking talking boomboxes shouting about our trans agenda. We have lives, friends and family, and we want to feel like our everyday struggles are normal, and we need your help to normalize them, goddamnit.
An equally as good tactic to showcasing trans identity in your characters is to let them come out on their own terms and time. In Gail Simone’s Batgirl run, her character Alysia Yeoh was able to come out to Batgirl after months of mulling it over, with full power to back out if she so wished. It’s important that our views on wanting to stay in the closet are represented as well as our views on coming out. Further, don’t just throw your characters into a situation where they have to admit things no matter what; let them have a choice of when, of how, or at least, the choice of whether to give out the information in the first place. Because your art, especially in the matter of representation, has to reflect reality on some fundamental level, and the reality is we come out to people all the time. In fact, generally all of us come out to more people than we’ve been outed to. We schedule days to talk to loved ones about it, or casually post it online, or publicly showcase it on a snazzy t-shirt that we hope doesn’t get us hurt.
Our identities mean a lot to us, and often we do appreciate creators who earnestly try to showcase trans people in their stories. But seriously, when you do it wrong, you can do it really, really wrong, and we’re asking you to just think for a moment. Are you writing a story that respects our identity, or one which exploits it for the sake of “shocking” plot twists, at the expense of our right of privacy and dignity? Because if your plan is to piggyback on our existence for extra credit and some gold stars from a conglomerate of like-minded fools, I’ll tell you right now: your writing is not only trite and horribly clichéd, it’s also actively making it harder for me to be me. I sincerely hope you take that thought to heart.