TW: This essay includes frank discussion of anti-trans tropes, rapes, murders, and hate crimes. Additionally, if you Google “Tropes about Transgender people,” you are likely to end up on a WordPress site named “TransgenderTropes101.” This is a hate site and is best avoided.
I grew up without any transgender representation of any depth or value. To be fair, I also grew up with very little cisgender queer representation of any depth or value, either. There were oblique references, but typically not in the media that I was given to consume as a child. The references in adult media were filtered through daytime talk shows or the Rush Limbaugh-listening parents of friends. Or jokes. Or that one extremely pitiful-to-my-memory gay guy in As Good As It Gets. (My own parents are considerably more liberal, but left LGBTQ discussions for, “well, that’s a thing that happens to other people’s children.”)
Until I was 20 and wandered away from my college campus to meet the locals who practically lived in an independent coffee shop a mile or so away, my experiences of trans people were limited to:
- Jokes and/or whispers I overheard about how so-and-so got a sex change. (Always trans women.)
- Maury Povich episodes. (Also always trans women.)
“But, Keffy,” I can hear some of you say, having correctly done the math and knowing I’m not that old, “what about Boys Don’t Cry? Wasn’t that about a trans man?”
Well, yes. I didn’t watch that because the film didn’t sound interesting to me, just depressing. I had no idea that it was about a trans man because it was described to me as, “A movie about a girl who pretends to be a boy and gets murdered.” Since Brandon Teena was played by Hilary Swank, that seemed like a likely description. I didn’t know that Boys Don’t Cry was about a trans man until after I had come out.
In any case, it had not even occurred to me that it was possible to be trans male—transgender people were exclusively trans feminine in my experience—until I was in a group of comic artists discussing gender, and one of them said, “Yeah, but you identify as female, right?”
Two things happened. First, I stammered out some “well, I don’t know” answer because I had honestly never considered that I got a say in the matter of my own gender up until that point. And, second, after it sank in over a few days, I felt like I had crawled out of bed one morning to discover that I had no face. You see, I knew how to function as a gender defying young woman. I’d carved out an existence within the versions of womanhood opened up by feminism in which I felt it my duty to fight for any masculinity I wanted. I had models, though sometimes flawed, of women who had gone before me. Women who flipped the finger to the universe, picked up their beakers or strapped on their flight goggles and did what they needed to do.
I had no models for what a trans man was, except the vague unease that in order to be myself, I was going to have to betray feminism.
Thankfully, I found friends who were trans male, and in the grand tradition of being queer in a hostile world, they were my role models, flawed as they were. I’ve been continuously surprised since the mid oughts, however, that the stereotype common within LGBTQ circles is that all trans men transitioned as children and are the most beloved in university campus queer communities. This was not my experience. When I visited the LGBTQ group at my university, I sat and talked to a couple of lesbians who could not wait to get rid of me. I didn’t go back.
Feeling newly lost as I grew into my 20s had made representation of trans people outside the typical expectations a major issue to me. I was late in understanding myself because there was no room for me in the world. Trans people seemed to exist entirely within stereotypes and tropes: only trans women exist, trans women are jokes, trans women are liars, trans men aren’t real, trans men all pass as cisgender men and have since they were children.
Tropes about groups of people (trans people, women, people of color, etc) can affect the way others see us. They can also affect the way we see ourselves. Or, in my case, if we see ourselves. If the only models we have for the world are these tropes and stereotypes and we don’t fit those, then what are we?
Transition isn’t magic: simple, one-step transition as a trope.
I was partly disappointed and partly relieved when I started to research transition and found out that it’s an open-ended process rather than an event. Among the uneducated, transition is often discussed as a “sex change surgery.” Transition can seem sudden if you’re a cisgender person who isn’t within the circle of trusted friends and family who hear about the impending transition ahead of time. There have been moments when I wished it was that simple, that it was a single surgery and you were just done, forever. Never needing to give myself another testosterone injection would be awesome.
The reality of transition is that it’s a process that has different goals, outcomes, and time-frames depending on the person undergoing it. Physical transition of one’s body is not an overnight event and is not desired by every trans person. When physical transition is required, the medical procedures chosen depend on the goals of the trans person and, unfortunately, their financial or medical means.
In fiction, however, the nuance is often lost. Gender Swap, Magical Sex Changes, replacement bodies, and the like have been a part of modern science fiction for decades. The magical Gender Swap frequently plays out in which someone magically wakes up in the “wrong” body. Magical Sex Changes involve a trans character being gifted the “right” body (meaning, indistinguishable from a cisgender body). Science fiction takes on these tropes usually by postulate replacement bodies, virtual reality existences, or “perfected” gender confirmation surgeries. There are similar tropes (although broken down differently than I do here) listed on the website TV Tropes as Easy Sex Change and Gender Bender.
Although the magical transition can be used to examine gender dysphoria, these are often stories written by and for cisgender people. The Gender Swap story is also typically about a cisgender character who has suddenly been shoved into a body with secondary sex characteristics of the “opposite” gender. The ensuing story is typically extremely binary and gender essentialist, with that little dash of fantasy or science fiction to make it interesting. Genitalia are typically obsessed over, almost to the exclusion of anything else.
This is also a trope that is often played for humorous purposes. For some reason, people don’t seem to be able to get over the apparent hilarity of gender play, much as they still laugh at fart jokes. The joke here, of course, is something along the lines of cis men joking that if they suddenly woke up in a female body, they’d never stop playing with their breasts! Or cis women joking that if they woke up with a dick for a day, they’d write their names in the snow and jerk off for ten hours straight. Or, whatever.
This trope generally bears little resemblance to reality for most trans people and erases the real difficulties and decisions that we end up facing when we decide to transition, to whichever degree we decide to do so. Very few of us are able to pull off a rapid, let alone instantaneous, transition from one gender to another without a stage in which we don’t “pass” as cis. Some of us never “pass” as cisgender no matter what we do. Not all of us want to. The instant shift from male to female (or female to male) in which nobody ever questions the gender of the person in question on either side of the magical transition feels extremely unlike the reality that myself and many of my trans or non-binary friends face. I’m not arguing here that every story featuring a transgender character needs to discuss that character’s transition in detail. It’s the trope in which these problems are actively waved away by the author that bothers me.
The magical/instant transition trope turns transgender people into a rhetorical device to examine the gender hang-ups of the cisgender author or readers. In this way, it takes our lived experiences, erases them from the most elementary framework of our lives (transition), and replaces those experiences with an exclusionary thought experiment or joke.
As a side-note, there are some pieces of science fiction and fantasy that deal with “hermaphrodite” characters, but those characters are usually aliens or other magical races. Regardless of whether the hermaphroditic characters are human or not, their lives and experiences seem to bear little to no resemblance to the lives of actual intersex people. The depiction of this character often focuses in lurid detail on their genitalia, typically with an overly simplified elementary school health class understanding of the biology involved in sex and gender. Although these characters are often non-human races, I have run across occasional depictions of human hermaphrodites, and these often postulate a being with Perfectly Functional Cis-Normative versions of “both” sets of genitalia. In reality, “hermaphrodites” are fictional as the term is no longer accepted for use when describing people with these conditions (ISNA). I’ve read a few depictions of intersex characters that I thought were interesting, for example, the protagonists in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 are well-written otherwise, and their lives don’t revolve around their genders.
That said, I get extremely uncomfortable when I read about characters described as “hermaphrodites,” especially if they’re intended to be humans because I expect the depiction to be less than ideal.
Trans People Don’t Need Your Incorrect, Fictional Warnings. Seriously.
When not imagining a world in which transition is painless and instant, tropes about transition focus on warning people away. Often the focus of these warnings is on transition’s permanence, which is not always true depending on how one decides to transition. In the case of transgender children, the effects of transition are typically not permanent at all. Pre-pubescent transgender children, for example, will typically transition by telling others of their new name and pronouns and possibly changing their physical appearance via their chosen clothing and perhaps a haircut. That’s hardly permanent. Older children are sometimes placed on puberty blockers so that when they begin to take hormones (typically starting between the ages of 16 and 18), they will only have to endure one puberty. The blockers are reversible. Nobody is rushing out and giving permanent surgery to young children.
While it is true that some of the effects of transition are permanent, trans people are not jumping into medical interventions without consideration of the effects. Trans people are typically well educated regarding our options, so much so that attending new doctors is disappointing because we often end up educating our doctors rather than vice versa. In the United States, the coverage for transgender treatments, especially surgeries, is often dependent on individual insurance companies. Worse, as I discovered a few years ago when researching options for top surgery, coverage is often dependent on the particular plan that your employer is offering. I was in the interesting position of working for a trans-friendly employer, with a plan from a company that covered transgender treatments in general, but the particular plan that I was offered through my employer did not have coverage. That has since changed, but unfortunately only did so a month before I got laid off.
Very recently—as in, while I was writing this essay—an episode of the Power Puff Girls reboot was released in which the tropes of instant, permanent, ignorant transition are played for body horror and an intensely ill-considered statement regarding trans issues.
The episode features a pony named Donny who wants to be a unicorn. Of course, The Professor has been working on a transmogrification ray that will do just that thing. The show depicts Donny ignoring a massive pile of potential side effects, and, of course, being punished for his desire to change his body by experiencing every horrible side effect that he blithely ignored (Jitterbug Jive).
The trope that transition will happen immediately and be completely permanent in every way was one of the things used to try and scare me away from making any changes to my body. My initial discussions with medical professionals about taking hormones essentially involved those professionals trying to talk me out of taking them. This will be permanent. You might not like all the changes. There are side effects when testosterone is taken by women. Etc. You will regret it. What if you regret it? Letting someone know the effects of the treatment is one thing, but trying to pressure us into not transitioning is something else entirely.
I still remember being told that when I started taking testosterone, it would turn me into a hulking, hairy, masculine rage monster. I did grow more body hair, that’s normal. And I did have moments when my emotions were overwhelming. But … as a transgender person who also suffers from depression and who has dealt with his share of PMS prior to taking testosterone, it wasn’t anything that unusual.
The trope, however, is that testosterone is a horrific poison that is singularly responsible for all the evils in the world. Bullshit. Men don’t act badly because of testosterone alone. Hormones aren’t the only thing that controls our behavior. Testosterone is not the cause of toxic masculinity. Trans men don’t take a shot of testosterone and then immediately go out to punch women in the street.
The irony, of course, is the number of people who would rail against gender essentialism in almost any other case who immediately became concerned that testosterone would send me into a massive “‘roid rage.” Starting hormone treatments can be a time of massive emotional upheaval for trans people, but the scaremongering is vastly overstated. I’m no angrier now than I was before I started testosterone.
This trope also showed up in a book I read a few years ago. White Horse by Alex Adams is about a magical plague wiping out most of humanity. The book takes place in the post-apocalyptic wasteland left behind. Besides the frustration that I felt in being served up yet another apocalypse story in which women are constantly dealing with rape and rape threats, the book had one of the most transphobic character depictions that I have read in a book. The villain, a terrible, violent man who had captured and wanted to rape the protagonist, was revealed to have been a woman before the magical transformation. The shift to a body that contained testosterone turned her (now him) into a horrifying monster who was willing to rape and murder everyone in revenge for having lost her (his) female body. The book somehow managed to hit both the anti-trans masculine trans trope of testosterone rage and the anti-trans feminine trope of the evil trans woman who is planning to rape and murder cis women to make up for her lack of a female body. Nice trick, that.
In retrospect, whether it was intentional or not, I’m rather impressed that the author managed to turn the “testosterone makes people violent” and “trans people are dangerous” tropes into a book that is wildly offensive against both trans men and trans women at the same time.
The Scary Trans Person Trope: We’re Not Monsters, Seriously.
What’s truly pernicious about anti-trans tropes is that they are often reiterated and kept alive by people who ought to know better. Several years ago, I was sitting in a room with a very good friend of mine when their boyfriend came into the room. “Hey, have you heard about the Black Widow?”
What followed was the regurgitation of an urban legend in which a large, black trans woman seeks out cisgender men to lure in with her femininity, and then rapes, kills, and/or otherwise assaults them. We let him finish, listening with a sense of growing horror, and then explained in no uncertain terms that he needed to never, ever, ever repeat that story again.
The “scary trans woman” tends to be more of a societal trope rather than one in science fiction or fantasy (although, as I write this, I’m certain that someone, somewhere, is writing this trope into a story right now). This imaginary monster of a trans woman is overlaid on real trans women and creates a boogeyman that erases the very real dangers that trans women face. Worse, this imaginary threat puts trans women in even more danger.
Trans women, especially trans women of color, are the LGBTQ people most likely to be targeted in a hate crime. When we discuss people who have been murdered for being queer, most of these are trans women of color. Yet, because of the societal notion that the fragile masculinity of cis men must be protected at all costs from these women, the danger that trans women are in is upheld, protected, and justified.
We see this in the use (and success) of the “trans panic defense” when trans women are murdered. In this case, the murder of a woman whose transgender existence was a figurative assault on her murderer’s masculinity. This was recently used in the defense of Jessica Laude’s murderer, a U.S. Marine who killed her after discovering that she was a trans woman (Brydum).
Islan Nettles, a young black trans woman, was murdered in 2013 by a man who beat her to death in the street because he felt that his masculinity had been threatened by Islan’s gender. The prevalence of the “trans panic” defense with respect to murdered trans women is so common that feelings tended toward relief when Nettles’s murderer was charged with manslaughter (instead of murder) because at least he wouldn’t be set free. (McKinley).
We also see this complete disregard given to the reasons why a trans woman being assaulted in the street would fight to defend herself. Look at the story of CeCe McDonald, who was sent to prison for two years because she killed a man in self-defense after he and his friends attacked her in the street (Erdely). The stats, the stories, these all led to the conclusion that a trans woman attacked by a man can expect to be a “Transgender woman murdered” headline (National LGBTQ Task Force). As of 2015, the number of trans women murdered seems to be increasing yearly (Michaels).
The trope is that trans women are dangerous predators. The reality is that trans women are simply women trying to get by in a world that is determined to hate them.
As an aside, I felt torn writing this section of the essay. As a white, financially surviving trans man, the pain of trans women of color is decidedly not mine to write about. On the other hand, ignoring the very real harm done to trans women of color would be just another erasure. Please seek out the voices of trans women of color. Monica Roberts at Transgriot (Roberts) writes about these issues often.
It’s All About Control
Most of the tropes that have a negative impact on trans people are based in the ways in which a cissexist world tries to control our behavior and lives. If physical barriers to transition, body horror scares, and violence against us aren’t enough to dissuade us, the next option is accusations of selfishness.
Cis people are used to viewing our lives through their own perspective. To many, we are, if not laughable or dangerous, simply incomprehensible. Unable to truly understand what a trans person is going through, it’s easier for some people to only think about their own feelings. In this case, the idea that a trans person is doing what is necessary to live their own lives is taken as, if not openly hostile to the cis people in their life, selfish and inconsiderate. Pay attention next time you listen to an argument about whether or not a trans person should have been treated better by their family and community after coming out. Most likely, you will hear cisgender people trying to reframe the situation around their own feelings. Yes, they’ll say, but how do you think I feel, finding out that this person was “really” a woman/man.
Trans people who have transitioned are portrayed as having made sacrifices that they shouldn’t have (or that weren’t theirs to make) in order to succeed. Frequently, this is also a method of blaming trans people for the bigotry that they face.
According to this trope, trans people transition without any thought or concern for the other people in our lives. This is, in fact, the direct opposite of my experience and that of many other trans people. So many of the people who have transitioned later in life (40+ years) considered transition much earlier in their lives but denied themselves out of concern for the world around them. Trans people often spend much of our lives trying to determine when and how we should tell our friends and family. That was one of the biggest hurdles for me. Changing my name was one thing, telling my parents that I had done so (and why) was much harder.
The trope that trans people are selfish about the decisions we make with respect to our own bodies and outwardly facing identities are based on a cisgender discomfort. We are saying that, having considered how the people around us will feel, we have still decided that transition is the best option.
The trope also ignores the fact that for many of us, transition (especially for those of us who are undergoing physical transition due to body dysphoria) is essential and life-saving.
“She’s Still Dead.”
The tragically dying queer trope also applies to trans people. In many cases, the tragic death of the trans person doesn’t even happen during the course of the story, and the depiction is limited to a dead sex worker found at the beginning of a detective story. This isn’t the only way that trans people die in fiction. Sometimes we die during the course of the story, occasionally to forward the cause of the cisgender heroes.
I do sometimes wonder if one of the reasons that trans people die so often in fiction is that our lives are so devalued. It’s as if, when writing about a trans character, in order to get an emotional response out of readers, authors feel that they need to push the feelings buttons harder. What better way to wring an emotion out of a reader than by killing the character?
Death is also an easy punishment or way of encouraging sorrow. A death can be divorced from the specific pains that marginalized people experience in their lives. You have to exercise empathy to understand a disappointment or punishment that would not unduly punish you. It doesn’t take much more empathy beyond, “Wow, I don’t want to be dead” to feel sad about someone having died.
Pay attention next time you read a book with a trans character (who is very rarely the protagonist anyway). Typically, this character will suffer, constantly, and probably die at the end. Or in the middle. Or even near the beginning.
I feel like I should have more to say about this trope, but it’s also one of the tropes that has been discussed the most online. Think about a story that has a transgender character in it. Does she (or he, even more rarely) die before the end? Probably.
I was once on a panel that discussed LGBTQ characters in fiction, and we discussed the Dead Lesbian trope. Someone in the audience brought up Tara’s death in Buffy, asking, “Well, but what about a character who is well developed and who dies because it’s the right thing for the story?”
The answer I gave then was, “She’s still dead.”
This doesn’t mean that no trans or other queer character may ever die in fiction. It does mean that creators should be aware that this trope exists and that no matter how well done the death is, there will always be people who are tired of seeing these characters die. The problem isn’t that a single, individual character has died. Characters die in fiction all the time. The problem is that every one of these characters dies. A similar issue came up recently with the death of Abbie on Sleepy Hollow. Abbie was not a queer or trans character, but cisgender black women in media face some of the same treatments. In this case, the strong black woman character was called upon to sacrifice herself to save her white, male, co-lead. The problem was not that Abbie died—it was that Abbie died to forward the stories of the white characters and highlighted the problematic treatment of characters of color in Sleepy Hollow (Butler).
An example that comes to mind is Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, although I hesitate to bring her up because she is a contentious case. When I read the comic in 2004, she was the first transgender character I had read about in any science fiction or fantasy story who was dealt with in a sympathetic manner. While I was sad that her womanhood was denied in life and upset that she died, I read her story as, “It’s dangerous to tell trans women that they aren’t women because doing so literally kills them.” This is a truth.
I’ve ended up talking about Wanda with many trans people. I’ve met trans women for whom Wanda was an important character, and who love her. I’ve also met trans people who say the same thing that I did on that panel regarding Tara, “Yes, but she’s still dead.”
This is true. Finding value in a work does not mean that it is no longer a part of a trope. It just means that we have either seen past a trope, accepted the trope in that case, seen that the trope is used for something greater, or, in the case of the stories in this book, decided to invert the trope.
The problem is not specifically that Wanda died. The problem is that Wanda died … and so did nearly every other trans person in science fiction and fantasy stories.
By the way, don’t be surprised if trans people disagree about the quality of any one depiction of a trans character. We are a very scattered group of people who are only loosely called a “community,” and we come at these stories from extremely different backgrounds. It is for this reason that I also tend to use Wanda as an example of a problematic depiction. She’s problematic because while she has meant a lot to some trans people, she is seen as harmful by others. How many of the problems come from Gaiman’s writing, and how many come from the notion of womanhood that he was writing about and critiquing? Etc.
In any case, I am hesitant to write or publish stories in which trans people die tragically at the end, even though I, personally, tend to like tragedies.
On a similar note, it wasn’t until I started editing reprints for my magazine GlitterShip that I realized just how many LGBTQ stories involve characters who have dead or dying lovers.
Pitfalls in Flipping Tropes
One of the last terms that I want to hear regarding a work that contains transgender characters is “edgy.” This isn’t that I don’t like fiction that pushes the boundaries of what is possible, or that seeks to shove the status quo off a cliff. It’s that, so often, the types of things that get called edgy are status quo plus. Typically, these works show the seedy underbelly of cities, lives, worlds, but do so as a type of voyeurism. The intent is not to humanize people who are marginalized in our current status quo, but to be entertained watching them suffer.
What I expect from an “edgy” work featuring a trans character is that the character will be a trans woman, and probably a sex worker, and will somehow resemble none of the trans women or sex workers (or sex workers who are trans women) that I have met. Most likely she will suffer and be shown to be ridiculous, over the top, rude, and selfish. And then, she’ll die so that the protagonists have a death to react to.
It’s almost impossible to find media that avoids all of the anti-transgender tropes. Even when I’m not watching a comedy with raunchy humor, I always expect now that there will be a joke that’s anti-trans somewhere in the story. The exception, of course, is in fiction written by my fellow transgender creators. In those cases, I might find things that make me uncomfortable (like I said, we don’t all agree about everything!), but even those are at least thought through. What really makes most of the anti-trans tropes, stereotypes, and jokes burn is how casual and unnecessary they are.
It would be wonderful to be able to watch an episode of a new television series, or a new movie without feeling like I need to brace myself for the inevitable anti-trans joke. “Escapist” fiction gets a bad rap sometimes, but I feel like this is mostly due to the number of people for whom most of this fiction is escapist because they aren’t the ones getting fed to the wolves for a cheap laugh. Fewer awful depictions of trans people, and more sensitive depictions—especially those that are #OwnVoices (Brinkley), would, if nothing else, reduce the stress that we feel as a result of being perpetually marginalized, even within genres that claim to welcome the unusual. (Yes, science fiction and fantasy, I’m looking at you.)
So, I ask for two things of the people reading this essay. First, seek out fiction by trans authors. We’ve been writing about our lives and experiences for decades and frequently ended up ignored. Thankfully, this is starting to shift, especially in short fiction. Some authors to start with are Nino Cipri, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Everett Maroon, and Pat Schmatz. You can also check out the sources listed below by John Hansen, Bogi Takács, and A.C. Wise for a longer list. (Bogi also writes #OwnVoices transgender and non-binary science fiction.) Second, if you’re cis and planning to write or talk about trans people, consider these tropes. Are you supporting the way we are treated in the status quo? Are you accepting these tropes and stereotypes without consideration? Are you flipping them? Awareness is the first step toward creating a meaningful, respectful depiction of trans people, but awareness alone isn’t enough.
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McKinley Jr., James C. “Manslaughter Charges in Beating Death of Transgender Woman in 2013.” The New York Times. 3 Mar. 2015. Web. <https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/04/nyregion/manslaughter-charges-in-beating-death-of-transgender-woman-in-2013.html>.
Michaels, Samantha. “More Transgender People Have Been Killed in 2015 Than Any Other Year on Record.” Mother Jones. 20 Nov. 2015. Web. <https://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2015/11/more-transgender-people-have-been-murdered-2015-any-other-year-record>.
Roberts, Monica. Transgriot. Transgriot n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. https://transgriot.blogspot.com/ .
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Dir. Michael Gershman. 20th Century Fox, 2002. DVD. “Stop Trans Murders.” National LGBTQ Task Force. National LGBTQ Task Force n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <https://www.thetaskforce.org/stop-trans-murders/>.
Takács, Bogi. “now for my BIG thread of cool & mostly FREE speculative fiction by trans/nb/gq/etc non-cis authors for #TDOV! it starts here. :)” 31 Mar. 2016. 10:44 a.m. Tweet thread. <https://twitter.com/bogiperson/status/715595554839875584>.
Takács, Bogi. “Trans SFF by Trans Authors - #ownvoices.” Goodreads. Goodreads n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/93731.Trans_SFF_by_Trans_Authors_ownvoices>.
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