Trans Girls Hit The Town
Yesterday, while out with some friends, I found myself starting to spiral. We were hanging out in a department store, laughing at absurdly expensive articles of clothing, and as amusing as it was, I was suddenly struck with the pernicious idea that none of this was for me. I’m not generally hit with crippling bouts of dysphoria, but when I am this is how it strikes. In public, staring at the array of things made for cis women as I consider the lengths of pants that will never accommodate my legs. I know that there are cis women my size—taller, even! But that’s the thing about dysphoria, it’s like any feeling—it doesn’t require logic.
Trans Girls Hit The Town is the story of exactly what it says it is—two trans women, Winnie and Cleo, go out together one night to celebrate a birthday. Winnie is closer to my body type, but has been on HRT for years; Cleo’s experiences are closer to the ones I’ve actually felt. I’ll be honest—I wasn’t sure what to make of this book at first. It’s not a case of storytelling or art quality; it’s just I live in a rural town and have not typically had other trans women who live nearby to spend time with. Additionally, the bar scene has always been sort of … alien to me. These aren’t strikes necessarily, I’m well aware that I’m outside the norm on these points. That said, it took me a few pages to connect with the story being told here—and then I hit the page where they walk into a busy establishment and Cleo expresses a reservation about the size of the crowd. From there I was unreservedly along for the ride as they played a rousing round of the Z-Peeps arcade game, talked and joked, flirted with bartenders, and got nervous about public bathrooms.
Speaking of that last point, it’s not all fun and games. There are multiple instances throughout the comic where cis people—men, generally—display blatant transmisia, calling Cleo and Winnie “gentlemen” to their faces or misgendering them to others. Every single panel of this is a brief slap in the face to the reader as the story of these two women’s night out is told; it undercuts even the moments of fun and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The thing is, though: this is what being out in public as a trans person is like.
I, personally, am not the kind of trans person who ever gets to “pass.” We can talk about how the emphasis on passing for trans people is a bullshit concept (and it is) but it’s true—no kind of performative femininity is ever going to adequately disguise the things about my body that I’d like to. I transitioned too late in life for that; even if my voice did not instantly betray me, the width of my shoulders, my height, or my male pattern baldness would (gendered, exclusionary language is everywhere). I own wigs, but I don’t generally wear them; I have an innate dislike of a) being performative and b) hassles. This is a personal choice, really—I love that wigs are an option! I’m just a prickly fuck who doesn’t like things. But I empathize with so much of what happens in this comic—the stares, the trepidation of walking into an establishment and wondering how those first interactions are going to go, and I know what it’s like to want to pass, if only so that I can successfully avoid being clocked. Author Emma Jayne’s work is strong here in that it depicts both sides of that coin; a waiter at a restaurant is openly hostile to the pair, but a hostess later at the Barcade is welcoming and genders them correctly. It’s a crapshoot for trans women every time, so it’s nice to see that reflected here.
On the subject of seeing things reflected, I mentioned in my essay about Uncanny X-Men #17 that “we cannot even have art about us,” and that’s what I mean. You only get this perspective from a trans author, centering trans characters in a story. The closest Marvel has come to this was the Dazzler one-shot by Magdalene Visaggio, and even that was so sanitized by allegory that it lacked any kind of meaningful connection point. This book, by contrast, is filled with the kind of direct, realistic representation of events that trans women encounter every single day, both highs and lows. It gives me mixed feelings, because I love it and I crave it, but it fills me with even more bitterness about the state of comics as a whole. It’s as though only we can be counted on to care about us. That’s frustrating.
Frustrating, too, is the resolution of the book’s primary conflict; when Cleo goes to the bathroom, Winnie says she’ll go with her and stand guard. The bathroom is a single-toilet room, so there’s no worry about multiple stalls or harassment within it, but Cleo is accosted as soon as she exits by a drunk man who has clocked her. This happens because Winnie is at the bar getting the bartender’s number, and Cleo has no protection, despite that protection being promised all night. Cleo escapes the man relatively safely, but her night is ruined. She tells Winnie she wants to leave and on the walk home they have an argument where Cleo yells several things about Winnie, who again has been out for years, not understanding her experience, leading to hurt feelings, tears, and conflict resolution, as will happen. But at no point is the fact that Winnie failed to do the one thing she promised she was going to do brought up. That is the central conflict here and it’s extremely frustrating that it was put aside for an argument about comparative trans experiences ending in an “it’ll get better” placation. Winnie abandoned her friend only for a moment, but she did so out of a personal desire, and exposed her friend to danger. That’s a serious issue, and to see it go unaddressed makes me worry about both Cleo and Winnie going forward. Then again, I’m genuinely worried about these fictional characters, so I suppose that’s all that needs to be said about Jayne’s ability to write them convincingly.
I haven’t talked about the art, really, have I? You can tell I’m in my feelings here. Jayne favors large panels, generally only a few to a page, and that works well here; this isn’t an action comic, after all, or generally one that requires intricate sequences. Jayne is also strong with both distinguishing physical characteristics and presenting bodies in a realistic manner, both in their general shape and in the use of body language; hunched postures and folded arms to denote moments of insecurity, tense shoulders in moments of anger, wild gesticulating to depict excitement. Her backgrounds can sometimes be simple, but not overly so; they do the job, they set the story, and they get out of the way.
Trans Girls Hit The Town is, honestly, a very strong book, and one that I highly recommend. It can be difficult reading for those of us who are trans, but not generally worse than a given day-to-day experience, and it’s validating to know that even some of the darker feelings I experience are mirrored elsewhere. I think it’s also the kind of thing that would honestly be invaluable for cis allies to read and understand—in fact it feels so deeply true that I find myself wanting to buy stacks of it to hand out to folks in need of education.