The trans visibility conundrum for writers – how to demonstrate that something’s unremarkable?

They say three things make a blog post. Here’s one. A few weeks back at the World Fantasy Convention, as part of a good programme with respect to diversity discussions, courtesy of the hosts, the Baltimore SF Society, I sat in a packed audience for a ‘Gender 401’ panel. Trans, non-binary and gay writers discussed approaches to better representation in SFF, and recurrent mistakes – like worlds where dragons or sentient computers exist but apparently there’s no one who’s gay, nor ever has been… It was a very informative panel, and the room was full of authors like me who want to get this stuff right, but don’t have lived experience to draw on. I’m not going to recap the discussion – the panel recommended checking out Tiptree Award winners and recommended books, so start there if you want to know more.

Two was the recent Trans Awareness Week here in the UK, highlighting the issues that trans people face, as well as showing positive instances of trans lives for those who might be unaware that trans people are pretty much the same as the rest of us. The third thing followed soon after – Trans Remembrance Day, highlighting how persistent ignorance and prejudice leads to the appalling deaths of trans people who just want to live their lives in peace like the rest of us.

All of which underscores just how much representation matters – as we have seen over the decades as fictional portrayals in print and on screen have helped tackle sexism, racism, homophobia and ableism etc. Sometimes these portrayals tackle that central issue head-on, and that’s important work. It’s not the only option though. Time and again addressing prejudice is done very effectively by making a key character female/black/gay/disabled etc, and having no one remark on it, as that character plays their part in the story on equal terms with everyone else.

So here’s the thing. If I want to write a story with a diverse range of characters when it comes to gender, race, sexual orientation or disability, that’s straight-forward at the most basic level. There are women around, and character descriptions make passing reference to skin tone as well as hair, eyes, clothes etc. A male character mentions his husband, or a female character refers to her wife, or people being poly or non-binary is apparent. Someone is deaf, or has mobility issues, and that’s accommodated rather than being an issue for them or anyone else. Yes, as the author, I must then do the necessary work to make these characters ring true for readers who have the lived experience I lack, but simply having them present on the page is easy enough.

How do I do this with trans characters in a book? Because a trans woman or man living their life in an accepting society is going to be unremarkable. As we increasingly see with trans actors in film and TV, until the fact that they’re trans crops up as a plot point, it’s impossible to tell. I’m thinking in particular of recent episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Chicago Med. I’ve also had people in real life tell me with absolute conviction that they don’t know any trans people, when I know for a fact that they do. They’re just not aware of it.

Yes, of course I keep my mouth shut in those situations, because it’s not my place to out anyone – and that’s going to be exactly the situation in our aforementioned accepting society that I’m writing about in my putative SFF novel. Trans people are going to be there. There’s going to be nothing to distinguish them from other men and women. No one’s going to remark on their presence because it’s unremarkable. Which means me mentioning it as the author is going to be so out of place that I might just as well add ‘LOOK AT ME BEING DIVERSE – GIVE ME COOKIE!’

So far I’m unable to come up with an answer here, but that’s not going to stop me trying to find a way. Because inclusion and representation matter for trans people just as much as these things matter for everyone. So if you have any useful thoughts, suggestions or observations I’m interested to know more. (Non-useful comments will be binned.)

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

5 thoughts on “The trans visibility conundrum for writers – how to demonstrate that something’s unremarkable?

    1. nice guidelines. I was about to write a couple of those points 🙂

      One thing that is becoming more obvious now is that the more accepted trans people are the earlier they’re likely to reveal that (to themselves and others). Hence the wave of trans kids that are scaring the horses in Australia and other places. But from an “I wanna trans character too” perspective, the time when being trans is remarkable is when they’re coming out, and that’s likely to be when they’re a kid. Having an adult say “oh, me too” would be an option in that situation as well.

  1. I read a book the other day which tried just that – The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt. There, it’s handled by having characters from different future time periods interact, and not revealing that one of them is trans for most of the novel. It’s only revealed in passing, as one character walks in on the tail end of a chat between two that are from different time periods, about what it was like growing up for one of them as a trans person.

    I guess there might be more subtle ways, such as having a character shop for steel reinforced high heels or bemoaning the lack of nice shoes in their size, or shaving their face, or taking some relevant pills during a meal, or buying feminine hygiene products, etc, but chances are, many readers would not quite twig subtle hints. (I probably wouldn’t: I read all of Anansi Boys as a student without realising that all the characters were black. I only found out years later.)

  2. If trans people are accepted to the point of being unremarkable, then they’re not likely to be any more worried about being out about it than gay or bi people, and to the same level of ‘none of your business’. At the same time, each trans person – binary or non-binary – has chosen to confirm their appropriate gender rather than the one they were assigned. Depending on the gender norms of your society it might be a massive change in social role bound up in ceremony, or it might just be a change in pronoun and salutation, but it’s most likely going to be meaningful to the character.

    So you could have someone mention their transition (or coming out or confirmation?) anniversary; it might have the same weight as a wedding anniversary or a birthday. If they’re undergoing transition, then people might have the same friendly concern and congratulations that they do for a pregnancy or a wedding. If they transition later in life, they might be a grandmother whose daughter still calls her ‘Dad’ – that’s how a friend of mine has it. The viewpoint character might still be making an effort to remember the right pronoun, it not being automatic yet. The trans character might not be fully used to their chosen name and slightly slow to answer.

    As well, not everyone decides their gender for good and all at an age when it’s convenient to make invisible hormonal changes, and changing things like bone structure and musculature after maturity is not trivial. A trans person might still show cues of their opposite gender, but in a civilised world no-one would be so gauche as to comment. A casual grouse about finding clothes that fit, or a compliment on a particularly good look might be enough to show that, with a mental note by the viewpoint character of the person’s physical description and what it signifies.

    I don’t think doing something like these is any more of a demand on your part for a cookie than describing a character of colour or a male character mentioning his husband.

  3. I’ve had trans characters in my fiction going back over twenty years, but only mentioned it when it was relevant to the plot. When it’s not? I tend to be fond of “show, don’t tell & imply, don’t show,” leaving enough clues that the canny reader can suss things out for themselves even if my protagonist is too obtuse to notice.

    Sometimes the writer is too obtuse too. I remember once when one of my beta readers remarked that a pair of my minor characters were a gay couple and he found their relationship nicely and subtly sketched in without directly spelling things out. I paused, blinked, and realized that some of the social dynamics I’d been noticing in real life and borrowing for the pair were in fact gay couple dynamics. Which means that if you accurately write about human beings, you’ll accurately write about trans people too, if just on accident.

    Doing it deliberately, however, is the trick, and subtlety can be read as erasure.

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