The above is a paraphrase, not an exact quote. I was at a book festival this past Saturday where I assisted at a friend’s table, gained some experience (I know, this comment feels like it belongs in a video game), and got to attend my first book festival. Overall, it was an interesting experience. I certainly saw plenty of examples of what not to do, ranging from obviously photoshopped covers and hard-to-find tables to terrifyingly bad summaries and an author who talked openly about the faults of the books they were selling (this was beyond modestly self-conscious, arguably to the point of self-sabotage). But, I also saw some impressively good examples of what to do at a book festival. There were a variety of friendly, knowledgeable, and certainly personable writers present, signing away and making sales. Overall, I’d say it was an interesting and informative experience, and certainly a beneficial one. Aside from just supporting my friend, and visiting other friends in the area that I haven’t seen in a while, I learned a lot. Right now, I am definitely more prepared than I was before for when I have my own table at one of those someday.
There was a LBGT writer I chatted a bit with. Mary Ann Kirby, I think (on the off chance that you are reading this, I sincerely apologize for probably confusing your name). This writer referred to their gender as femme, so I will refer to them with she/her pronouns since I don’t recall otherwise (again, my sincere apologies). I actually saw this writer on a panel, where she excitedly referred to including LGBT characters who actually survive their books. Intrigued, since this happens all-too-rarely, I stopped by her table later to ask her about them.
The examples she gave me from her own books were all lesbian (or potentially bi, since I’ll admit that was a bit unclear). So, I asked her about transgender characters. Her response was along the lines of saying that it’s such a niche market, and that she just doesn’t have any. I’m not really sure if I interpreted it the way she intended (in fact, she probably didn’t think this much about it), but the phrasing stuck. We did talk some about trans characters (glittership and KM Szpara’s transcendence, for example). I’ll admit I did not buy her book, mainly because the summary made sure to list the main character’s age. Personally, that’s a major turn off for me. I can’t really pinpoint why that one is, maybe I’ve just read too many terrible YA books.
However, her use of the phrase ‘niche market’ has been haunting at the back of my brain the past few days. Yes, haunting. I’ve been working a lot on [Into the Unknown] (ItU) lately, which includes a genderfluid character (and an ungendered character, but that’s a different post. Essentially, I want the reader to determine what gender, if any, they perceive the narrator as.). As I was drafting a scene Sunday, the back of my brain kept drifting back to that conversation. As writers, we’re supposed to determine our niche and target audience, which is an exercise I personally find superfluous (especially after hearing a YA author Saturday claim that her audience is mostly adults). However, I can understand why people see the benefit of considering a target audience. But, why must the inclusion of transgender characters belong specifically to a niche market? We deserve greater representation.
Yes, it is still important to have books about genderfluid teens that focus on the experience of being transgender (I, by the way, have not read this book, but a gender non-conforming friend of mine did). Overall, it is still important to have books focusing specifically on the experience of being transgender, of whichever transgender identity. But, we need more than that. There are people in real life who just happen to be transgender. We deserve to see characters like us who go on magnificent opera-like space odysseys, or who fight off mutinous buccaneers. We deserve to see transgender adventurers who can handle their own against a dragon or who dance their way to victorious triumph over their enemies. You probably get the idea.
But, this is not just about more representation. Please bear with me on this one: cisgender people need to see stories with characters who just happen to be trans. Cis need to read stories about trans people that go beyond just the experience of being trans or undergoing physical transition (do not get me started ranting about cis-voyeurism). And they need to see stories that go beyond just the occasional maybe side character quantified by ‘but I don’t really care what’s in their pants or who they choose to kiss’ (sound familiar, anyone?). And then how about some casual representation? The transwoman who just happens to be on the phone when she stops by the pharmacy, the non-binary character who just happens to be the main character’s sibling, or the transman who slips off his binder at home, for example.
A while ago (and, no, I do not watch this show), there was a black bachelorette. Although I have no interest in the show, I still saw the articles going around the internet ([here], for example). Now that the season is over, I’ve seen people debate if it was done well ([here], for example), but a mostly white audience was still watching a show focused on the agency of a black female character. Basically, the show put white fans in the position to empathize with (and, therefore, connect with) a black female character. Although I doubt this challenged that many stereotypes, it was a step into mainstreaming an atypical lead for that audience since it took 15 years, according to the article, for them to have a non-white lead.
I’m not going to go into the debate over black female desirability (I’m white, so I do not want to speak over anyone; read the above linked article if you’re curious. I’ll put it again [here]), but I do see the benefit that this type of concept could have for transgender characters with a cis audience, assuming they are represented well. The more opportunities a cis reader has to empathize with a trans character (again, assuming it’s done well), the more opportunities we, as a community, will have to be humanized by the overall society. Essentially, good representation can help break down prejudices, and increasing the instances of good representation beyond just a ‘niche market’ can help increase overall acceptance and visibility. I did not learn about the existence of non-binary genders until I was in college; imagine the opportunities I could have had if I learned about us sooner! As transgender individuals, we are often at a disadvantage in how mainstream society treats us and our experiences (and, for that matter, education about transgender experience). I will admit that I have reservations on if the average cis writer can represent a trans character well. But, it is up to creators (writers, directors, artists and the like) to portray humanized transgender individuals. We need transgender characters to belong to more than just a niche market.
I would like to emphasize that this representation needs to be done well, but then this would turn into an even larger megapost. For now, I’m off to edit ItU. I’ll post again soon.