Saturday, February 18, 2017

8 Things You Should Know Before Writing About Transgender Characters


Diversity has become a huge thing in the book community in the past couple years, and I'm so happy to be a part of it. There are a greatly increasing number of books that include diverse characters, but today, I want to focus on transgender characters in YA books. For those of you who are writers, I suppose I want to give you some "insider information" on the trans community. I feel like a good portion of the books I read with trans characters represent us inaccurately in some way, and I want to help that. I hope writers will read this and get a better idea of how to write a transgender character.

This is way longer than I was expecting it to be, so feel free to skim and/or skip around all you want!

1. Some Basic Vocab

Transgender (or trans): relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their assigned sex at birth. **This is an adjective, not a noun, please don't use it as one, say "transgender/trans person."**
Cisgender (or cis): relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their assigned sex.
Nonbinary: a gender identity that is neither just male or female. Noun version: "nonbinary person," "enby" is also sometimes used as a nonbinary substitute for boy or girl.
AMAB/DMAB: assigned/designated male at birth, basically, this is a more widely accepted version of saying someone was "born male," or with male genitalia.
AFAB/DFAB: assigned/designated female at birth, again, this is a more widely accepted version of saying someone was "born female," or with female genitalia.
MTF: male to female transgender, also known as a trans woman.
FTM: female to male transgender, also known as a trans man.
Transfeminine: a trans person assigned male at birth that wants to present more femininely, can apply to binary or nonbinary trans people.
Transmasculine: a trans person assigned female at birth that wants to present more masculinely, can apply to binary or nonbinary trans people.
Birth/Dead Name: the name a transgender person was given when they were born, which they may change to better fit their actual gender.
Chosen/Real Name: the name a transgender person chooses to go by when they start socially transitioning (explained in the next section).

There are also tons of other terms used within the LGBTQ+ community that you should probably be at least aware of (I suggest scrolling through this list and not one of the ones that lists "flowergender" as a gender identity), and there is a bit of other vocabulary in later sections.

2. Gender Dysphoria Is A Thing

First, a little crash course in gender dysphoria:

Gender Dysphoria, sometimes called gender identity disorder, is the dysphoria, or distress and discomfort, a person experiences as a result of the sex and gender they were assigned at birth, as well as just a strong feeling that they are not the gender they may physically appear to be.

There are two commonly-known types of gender dysphoria: body dysphoria and social dysphoria.

Body Dysphoria:

Distress and discomfort associated with one's body's primary and secondary sex characteristics, this is the kind of dysphoria that will cause people to medically transition with the use of hormones and surgeries.

There are also different types of body dysphoria:

Top Dysphoria: distress or discomfort with the presence or lack of breasts. This is sometimes cured with what is commonly known as "top surgery."

Bottom Dysphoria: distress or discomfort with the presence of what a trans person may feel is the wrong genitalia; nonbinary people may be uncomfortable with any genitals whatsoever, but it depends on the person. This is sometimes solved by what is commonly known as "bottom surgery."

Secondary Sex Characteristic Dysphoria (this is not actually a word that is used, but these are mostly just called "dysphoria about my voice" or something sooo): distress and discomfort associated with other characteristics of your assigned sex, including high/low voice, body and facial hair, fat distribution, presence or lack of an Adam's apple, amount of muscle mass, height, etc.

Social Dysphoria:

Distress and discomfort associated with being called by the wrong name and pronouns, or just people thinking you are a gender that you are not. It is generally "cured" by socially transitioning, or basically coming out and having people you by the right name and pronouns (whether you come out to everyone or two people doesn't matter).

Anyway, dysphoria. Not fun. It can seriously affect my ability to be a productive member of society. Sometimes I avoid people and mirrors just because I can't deal with anyone, myself included, seeing my obviously female body. Often I'm left crying for hours because there's nothing I can do to change my chromosomes. Anyway, here are some myths about dysphoria I've gotten from cis people and seen in a few books featuring trans characters:

Myth #1: Clothes and other accessories cause dysphoria.

Ahem, no. Nooooo. Body dysphoria might be caused by clothing that accentuates certain parts your body (a dress that is tight around the hips or has a low neck line, for example), but the dress itself does not cause dysphoria. Even if a trans person is more stereotypically masculine or feminine alongside their gender, that doesn't mean it's dysphoria, please stop saying it is (I'm looking at you, Symptoms of Being Human).

Myth #2: Dysphoria is insecurity.

GAH. I realize this may seem like the most simple way to compare dysphoria to yourself as a cis person, but in reality dysphoria is very different from insecurity. Dysphoria does not go away. People with gender dysphoria often cannot just "accept the way they are." Insecurity means that someone is dissatisfied with the way that they look; they may hate their roles of fat or their acne. This is not the same as believing that the sex characteristics of your body are wrong, or wanting the sex characteristics of another sex.

Myth #3: Body dysphoria and body dysmorphia are the same thing.

Okay guys, I know the words sound similar, but these are different things. Body dysmorphia refers to body dysmorphic disorder, a mental illness involving obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance. It is commonly associated with people with eating disorders that see themselves as fatter or skinnier than they actually are. Please don't get these mixed up.

If you are writing a trans character that experiences dysphoria, I beg you to talk to some actual trans people about how it feels. It is often very difficult for cisgender people to understand what dysphoria feels like, so try to get several firsthand accounts of people with the specific gender you are writing about, as dysphoria can be felt in many different ways depending on the person and their specific identity. And it seems that many trans people have their own analogy when it comes to their dysphoria. This may be something they've always used or spontaneously came up with when they were trying to describe their feelings to someone else.

Personally, mine goes like this: For me, my body is like math. I see how it can be useful. I see how some people may like it. I don't hate it; it just doesn't work for me in particular.

3. Things To Help Alleviate Body Dysphoria

Really, the only way to help with social dysphoria is for trans people to be called by the right name and pronouns all the time, which is difficult for someone who hasn't medically transitioned, but there are several well-known things to help people with body dysphoria.

Also, I use the words breasts and penis in this. If that bothers you, get over it.

For AFAB/Transmaculine People:

Binding: the act of flattening breasts by the use of constrictive materials. Used to help with top/chest dysphoria. The term "binder" refers to the material used in this act. **If you do want to include binding in your story (and if you're writing about a trans guy, or anyone with breasts and chest dysphoria, you probably should), please read this article. I would prefer if you didn't promote unsafe ways to bind, especially if you are writing for a young audience.**

Packing: wearing padding or a phallic object in the front of the pants or underwear to give the appearance of having a penis. Used to help with bottom dysphoria. The term "packer" refers to the object used. **Packers are not as commonly used by teens, nor as dangerous, but here is a helpful video if you want to include packing in your story.**

For AMAB/Transfeminine People:

*As a trans guy, I honestly don't know nearly as much about this stuff, but I'll try. Do more research than just reading this anyway!

Push-Up Bras: bras with padding that push up any breast tissue and make them seem bigger or fuller. This can also be used in combanation with stuffing the bra to create the appearance of breasts. (I suppose preteen girls might do this same kind of thing.) **I couldn't find any articles on this, but I've seen people do it before? Obviously, don't take my word on this...**

Tucking: putting one’s penis between and behind one’s legs, so that it’s not visible from the front of the body. Some people push their testicles back as well, while others move them upward and rest them on the lower part of their abdomen before securing them in place. Some people do this with tape and underwear, but you can also use a device called a gaff. **Literally the only helpful article I could find was from BuzzFeed so here's that. And, yes, if you're wondering, drag queens use this too.**

**Important Note: Not every trans person uses both of these things, or either, for that matter, as not everyone experiences dysphoria the same way. Some people may bind, but not pack. Some may tuck but not wear a bra at all. Using these things is not required, but many trans people find them helpful.**

4. Not Everyone Figures It Out Quickly

Despite some of the stories you may have heard, not every trans person knows they are "stuck in the wrong body" or are really a different gender than what everyone calls them by the time they're 5 years old. Even if they understand their own gender identity, they often don't have the words to describe it. Or maybe they don't understand all this gender nonsense at all; they just know they like playing with boys more than with girls.

Everyone figures their gender out at a different point in their life. The worst of dysphoria usually starts when a transgender person hits puberty, which is why many people figure it out when they're 10-14, even if they don't have a word for or come out right away.

Some children may not understand what they're feeling until they hear about another transgender person. This happens to some people when they're still kids, but many don't learn about the word "transgender" until they're in their teens or later. That doesn't mean that that person isn't really trans or not "as trans" as someone who knew when they were very young, it just means it took them a little longer to understand what they're feeling!

5. How People Choose Names and Pronouns


Names:

Obviously, everyone chose a name differently. But here are some common ways people choose/narrow down names:

1. They choose a name that starts with the same letter as their birth name, or is the masculine/feminine/neutral version of their birth name. This is usually done because the person wants the same initials, or because it will be easier for other people to remember their chosen name. Some people may be too uncomfortable with their birth name, though, so they may choose a different name entirely.
2. They name themselves after someone they admire. This may be a relative, a friend, a character, or another trans person they really look up to. I did this with Alex Bertie, a trans YouTuber.
3. They ask their parents what they would have named them if they were born the opposite sex, or what other names they considered. This may make it easier for parents to get used to the name, and still feel connected to it. I've definitely met a few parents of trans people that felt pretty left out when their child changed their name, so this is also common.
4. They go through baby naming websites. This is something I attempted to do, but I was pretty attached to Alex the minute I came up with it. Anyway, if they have a specific letter in mind, these websites can give them ideas. Many of these also have the original meanings of names, which some trans people also take into consideration.
5. They pick a name that sounds like them/fits their personality. We all kind of have associations with specific names. Alex was always my go to name for any character that I couldn't come up with a name for, so it was pretty simple to apply that to myself. They may have a favorite name or a name they wished they'd been named.
6. They drop everything and become another Kaeden/Kayden/Caden (however you wanna spell it). I'm not sure this is actual thing, I just know way too many trans guys named Kaeden/Kayden/Caden/Etc. I've literally never met a cis guy with that name? I'm not sure what it's about, honestly, I just wanted to fit it in here somehow.

Pronouns:

This is a little harder. Some people may know what pronouns they want to be called from the get-go, but that's not the case for everyone.

I went by "they" for a long time because I honestly didn't know if I would like being called "he." The Only reason I started using "he" is because I came out as a trans guy and everyone called me "he." I realized I liked it even more than "they"!

Some trans people have to experiment like that, or even use a few different pronouns before they figure out what's comfortable for them. They may have a couple friends call them by those pronouns for awhile and see how it feels, or they may tell people to call them by whatever pronouns and see how they like it.

While we're on the subject of pronouns, let's talk about the different pronouns (English ones only, unfortunately).

He/him/his: traditionally used by men, but some nonbinary people or even women may use these pronouns as well!
She/her/hers: traditionally used by women, but some nonbinary people or even men may use these as well!
They/them/theirs: can refer to two or more people, but may also refer to someone of an unspecified sex or gender. Many nonbinary people use these gender neutral pronouns, but some men and women do as well!
Neopronouns: You may have seen some other pronouns floating about the internet, these are often used by nonbinary people (but can be used by anyone like the others) that want to use a specifically singular pronoun. Examples of these neopronouns include xe/xir/xirself, ze/zir/zerself, and ey/em/emself. These are not often used, especially not outside of the internet, but some people do use them.
**Note: You can use more than one of these pronouns. I consider both "he" and "they" my pronouns. Some people don't mind what pronouns you call them!**

Also, if your character does speak or is learning a different language, their pronouns are still significant then. 

For example, in German, I say my pronouns are only he/him/his. That is because the word for they in German ("sie") is the same as the German word for she ("sie"). It's quite annoying even if gender wasn't an issue.

Anyway, so in German I only use masculine pronouns. For many languages outside of English, "they" pronouns aren't an option, and often literally everything is gendered (i.e., you always have to specify between a male friend and a female friend, etc.) This can be a major problem for many people, so take this into consideration if you're writing about a trans character!

6. The Transgender Community Is Pretty Tight

I swear, every time I meet a trans guy around my age, we pretty much immediately become friends. A LARGE portion of my friend group is made up of trans people. Often, we're tighter with people of our own specific gender, but the trans community is not just a phrase. It's a pretty important part of being transgender, especially among teens and people that are not yet done medically transitioning.

Here's an example: go google "binder giveaway." You get 668,000+ results of transmasculine people dying to help some people out. In my experience, no one just throws away something like binders. We all want to help people that can't get binders themselves because most of us have been there before. We'll happily let friends, which we may describe as "any trans person," borrow clothes (or just straight up give them away) or hair products or makeup. That's a thing!

I'm not really sure how to explain this to people that aren't trans. My best advice is to see if you can go to a LGBT/trans group (one that is open to allies, obviously) and see how we interact with one another. It's honestly fascinating now that I'm thinking about it.

7. Being Accepted

In this day and age, whether or not people accept you for being trans often comes down to how old they are, where they live, what their religion is, and whether or not they understand what being transgender means.

I live in a swing state, but I still live in the US, which, overall, is much better for trans people than a lot of the world, and they are trans people all over the world, not just in the US, by the way. I do live in a pretty conservative area, but I honestly got a better reaction than I was expecting.

Here, it seems most teenagers either don't care, don't notice, call you names, or are completely supportive. The least common are the people that call you names, and the most common is the people that don't care. Generally, I don't have many problems with students at my school, but I'm also in mostly honors classes where people care more about their grades than anything else. I've definitely heard of people being shoved into lockers or beaten up in bathrooms, but personally, I have not experienced that. Teachers and parents can go either way, but more often they either hate me or don't even try. Very few are actually supportive, though I do know of a few. 

I have been kicked out of a couple friends houses, but mostly I avoid telling a lot of parents. I find that the average is one trying-to-be-supportive parent and one unsupportive parent.

This depends on where the person is, though. I suggest talking to trans people in the area where your story is set to get an idea on how accepting people are there, especially when it comes to things like bathrooms and other gendered areas. Make sure you talk to several people in different situations, as some people have an easier or harder time being accepted than others.

8. Not Every Story Needs to be Coming Out Story!

I'm not sure I've ever come across a book about a trans person AFTER they come out, except for maybe "About A Girl" by Sarah McCarry, but he wasn't exactly a major character.

As someone who's been pretty much entirely out for about 6 months now, let me just say that the story DOES NOT END THERE. I still have to deal with bullying. I still have to fight to go to the bathroom and to sing in choir. I still constantly come across trans kids that I feel completely obligated to help. I still get kicked out of friends houses when their parents find out I'm trans. I still deal with my dysphoria daily. Coming out is NOT always the climax! There's so many more stories about trans people that could be told if people would realize that.

Some Final Thoughts

If you're not a trans person yourself, part of me wants to tell you to include a trans person as a side character, not a main character, because you're bound to screw something up if you try to describe a trans person's point-of-view. We need more stories of parents of trans people and friends of trans people as well as stories with trans main characters. So if you're unsure if you can understand the point-of-view of a trans person, I suggest writing a story with a trans person included.

If you do want to try writing from the point-of-view of a trans person, though, I have one piece of advice: listen to trans people. Read about our experiences. Meet us. Talk to us. Hear us out. Don't be someone on the outside trying to describe what you think we feel. Tell our stories. Encourage us to write our own books about our own experiences. Acknowledge that you don't completely understand. Learn. Let several trans people beta read your story. Listen to their suggestions. Take their criticism. Change anything that's problematic or just wrong.

Sorry if I made you scared to write about trans people. Trust me, you still can! And I'd be happy to read any drafts or give you suggestions. (Just don't go up to random trans people and expect them to explain their life story to you, ask if that's okay...it usually is, many of us enjoy ranting about it.)

Even if you're not writing a story about a trans people, I hope you learned something from this post! Maybe you could even include a trans person in your writing at some point? ;)




PS: Here are some books about trans people written by actual trans people:

If I Was Your Girl - Meredith Russo
George - Alex Gino
First Spring Grass Fire - Rae Spoon
The Unintentional Time Traveler - Everett Maroon

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