Writing Trans and Non-Binary Characters: Putting the Person First, Not Just Gender

Author Archer Kay Leah is in the chair today, and talking about…well, look up for the title, then down for the content!

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Welcome to Trans Fiction Week! First, I’d like to offer my gratitude to Matthew J. Metzger and TFW for letting me be part of this event. Initiatives like this are important to hear the voices of those struggling and those who want to support them. While I’m not transgender or non-binary, I fully support the folks who are, partially because I believe in equality in its truest, deepest sense and partially because of personal connections (including my spouse, who is more bigender than cis).

For those who aren’t familiar with my work, I write speculative fiction romances with a focus on LGBTQA+ characters, where their gender or sexual identity is often incidental to the plot. A lot of my work comes up fantasy, but no matter the genre, characters are always my major focus: who they are, what they want, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. During the writing journey, I meet a lot of characters, including those who are trans or non-binary.

So what’s an author to do when those characters come a-calling?

Roll out the welcome mat and offer them the best food in the muses’ house.

Welcome to My World: How Trans and Non-binary Characters Land Top Spots

My approach to writing characters is pretty simple: I write about people. All sorts of people. Since transgender and non-binary people are just as people as everyone else, they qualify as contenders for major roles in whatever I write. If they’ve got a story, I’ll go with it.

This is exactly how my characters Tracel, Elly, and Adren came around. All three identify as trans, though each has their own personal expression and journey. For Tracel (the love interest in Rule Breaker) and Elly (the main character in Heart, Lace, and Soul), they were labelled male at birth but identify as female. For Adren, a main character in my upcoming novel, Blood Borne, gender exists outside the binary: Adren is bigender and genderqueer, with some struggle to get others to use “ce” and “cir” as cir pronouns of choice.

None of these characters were forced nor were they unwelcome. Really, they showed up, told me “this is who I am, take it or leave it”, and their stories took off from there. Like all my characters, the more I wrote about them, the more they revealed themselves. Top to bottom, they were people with real problems and real emotions, no different than their cisgender peers.

Which brings me to the way I approach these characters; my answer to how I write trans fiction:

I see the overall person first—their strengths, struggles, needs, and flaws—and worry about the other details second.

There, I said it. That’s the way my brain works. Sexuality, gender, race, appearance, and all those traits usually aren’t at the forefront. And I generally approach all characters the same way.

Okay, so sometimes the gender or sexuality might be first, should the story be for a specific purpose (like an anthology or collection). Mostly I prefer to approach from outside of that. It’s not that gender or other traits don’t matter, because they do, but it’s a great way to reduce bias and stereotypes. Once I wrap my head around who they are as a whole person, I can explore them more deeply and discover how they feel to be a certain gender or how they deal with gender-specific matters.

It’s also not that I don’t perceive or “see” the gender; I just don’t make the character all about that one part of themselves. It’s my way of being more inclusive and open to everything. I’d like to be an equal opportunity author when it comes to characters, where anyone can be represented at anytime. And when that character is someone who is not cis, I make sure they’re represented as legit people who receive the same—and equal—care as any other character. It’s a direct reflection of how I see transgender and non-binary individuals in real life. It’s how I perceive our world.

Authors, Let Go of This “Can’t” Business

I believe transgender and non-binary individuals deserve respectful representation in literature and all things. And right now, we can do something about the lack of transgender protagonists and heroes. We can write more. We can offer stories where they make a difference, save their world, come out on top. The days where transgender characters were invisible, ignored, or scoffed at can be over. We can stop confining trans characters to roles of sidekick, victim of tragedy, or comic relief. We can. We should.

Though it’s disheartening when I keep hearing that people won’t write trans or non-binary characters because they “can’t” write such a character.

What a falsehood.

The truth? There is no “can’t” except for the underlying issue: “I can’t identify therefore I won’t try.”

What a waste, especially when it enforces the misconception that transgender people are completely and radically different than cisgenders. People dismiss trans and non-binary individuals like they’re alien life forms.

Last I checked, humans of different genders were still human.

But when people let themselves see only differences and blind themselves to the similarities, we foster a culture of “I can’t”. There is a huge lack of empathy and a gross lack of understanding. Instead of propagating that, we need to be fighting to grow, to learn, to be more.

Being trans or non-binary doesn’t magically change someone into a foreign species or rip their humanity away. It doesn’t make them less than anyone else. It’s a change in gender—that’s it. Blood flows; breaths are taken. Food, water, shelter, social connection, emotional support, and all the basic human needs are just as necessary. So gender might differ, and with that comes changes in hormone levels and bits of psychology and behaviour, but that’s the stuff that comes with being alive. There’s no real reason to exclude trans or non-binary people or otherwise harm them. There is only ignorance, apathy, and fear. To say “I can’t write or include a trans character” is hiding behind an illusion.

So to those authors who might one day find themselves in a position to include such a character, I offer this advice: study psychology and behaviour to grasp the basics of our species (classes, textbooks, workshops, discussions with psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists—anything, including people-watching!). Then check out biology and medical details to better understand how they apply to transgender people and make sure you represent them correctly. Because the differences between trans and cis people? There aren’t that many.

No, really. You’d be surprised. We’re all built around a similar core. We share so much in common it’s depressing to see how much we lose out when we can’t embrace each other.

Notes from personal experience: my partner and our friends who are transgender or non-binary act and experience emotions no different than my cisgender friends. The physical issues are where the biggest differences seem to be: the feeling that the body isn’t right (or at least the gender assignment is wrong) and the changes required to make the external world match the way they feel inside. Sometimes their mental and emotional health needs are a bit different, especially when there are problems being their true selves instead of forcing the façade of who others expect them to be.

All of that is incredibly important, but it’s not a reason to justify mistreatment or exclusion. All genders are valid. All genders are only gender—they are not the whole. And they can be explored. With effort and compassion, inclusion is possible.

So instead of “can’t”, let’s work towards this thought: trans and non-binary people are beautiful and can make a difference. They can change the world. They are not inferior. A great example: one of my friends not only served in the military, she was an engineer, a medic, and knows mechanics so well she can fix/build vehicles. Although she was referred to as “he” during that military service and knowledge acquisition, now being recognized as “she” doesn’t make her unintelligent, unskilled, or unworthy. Being trans doesn’t take away what she achieved. Instead, it adds to who she is.

Yeah, I’m Cisgender, but That Doesn’t Stop Me from Caring

I’ve been blessed to know people who identify as trans or non-binary; people I call friends, spiritual colleagues, and my life partner. They’re good people, giving and knowledgeable and open. The very fact they exist inspires me. I want to represent people like them in my work. They need to see themselves in literature, too. I can’t even begin to tell you what amazing things have come into my marriage simply from writing Adren’s character—a non-binary character my partner can identify with. Our relationship is stronger and deeper because of it.

So to close, here are a few things fellow allies can do to help trans and non-binary individuals:

  • Don’t just be supportive inside, but show your support and be respectful. It’s not just about defending them if someone’s causing grief, but being there and listening to what they have to say. When they say what name they want to go by, use it. If they prefer to be addressed by a particular pronoun, use that pronoun and keep using it so it becomes second-nature.

  • Treat them with the same care you do anyone else. Laugh with them, cry with them, be part of their lives. Are they experiencing complications due to hormone treatments or medical procedures? Be sympathetic, offer wishes for quick healing, and help them if you can. Are they afraid or uncomfortable sharing with others? Be more than a sympathetic ear: be empathetic. All of us have fears. Many of us fear revealing our truest selves because rejection hurts. Be someone who’ll listen.

  • If they’re celebrating something important, celebrate, too. Congratulate them when they achieve. Have they recently had gender alignment surgery? Help make them comfortable and let them know they have your support. Example: a friend of ours was going in for her surgery, so I baked a wickedly awesome hazelnut cake from scratch and wished her a “Happy V-Day”. Because hello, momentous occasion!

  • If someone succeeds in getting the government to change their birth certificate and IDs to reflect their true gender, congratulate them. Be happy. It’s very likely part of their everything, especially if they’ve waited a long time for it (our friend waited 10 years for the Canadian government to acknowledge her gender).

And on that note, I’d to wish you all a safe and caring Transgender Awareness Week 2016. Thanks for reading!

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Archer Kay Leah was raised in Canada, growing up in a port town at a time when it was starting to become more diverse, both visibly and vocally. Combined with the variety of interests found in Archer’s family and the never-ending need to be creative, this diversity inspired a love for toying with characters and their relationships, exploring new experiences and difficult situations.

Archer most enjoys writing speculative fiction and is engaged in a very particular love affair with fantasy, especially when it is dark and emotionally charged. When not reading and writing for work or play, Archer is a geek with too many hobbies and keeps busy with other creative endeavors, a music addiction, and whatever else comes along. Archer lives in London, Ontario with a partner and their cat.

Website: http://archerkayleah.wordpress.com/

Facebook: http://facebook.com/archerkayleah

Twitter: https://twitter.com/archerkayleah

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/ArcherKayLeah

Author Page at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/archerkayleah

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