This is a guest post from Susan Jane Bigelow. Bigelow is a fiction writer, political columnist, and librarian. She mainly writes science fiction and fantasy novels, including the Extrahuman Union series (the character discussed below is from Sky Ranger, book two) . Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine’s “Queers Destroy Science Fiction” issue, and the Lamba Award-winning “The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard,” among others. She lives with her wife in northern Connecticut, and is probably currently at the bottom of a pile of cats. Follow her on Twitter @whateversusan.
When I wrote a trans character into this book back in 2010, I felt the usual sort of dread and panic. Oh God, I thought. Is this going to get me labeled as “that trans author, you know, the one who only writes about trans people?” I felt like it was weirdly possible, and I didn’t want that. Apart from the perils of typecasting for a new author, I also felt it wouldn’t be safe.
Back then it felt like putting any representation at all of people like me into my work would be crossing some sort of invisible line. It felt good, sure, but it brought with it the same kind of nerve-wracking anxiety that I feel whenever I come out to someone new.
To be fair, this was the first time I had done it. I was so newly out myself, so fresh and awkward and painfully raw, that writing Renna was both cathartic and like poking myself in an already-raw place. Plus, it was 2010. The book originally came out in early 2012, but most of the work I did on it happened in 2010 and early 2011. I hadn’t written any of the other trans-focused stuff I’d eventually write yet, and I was hesitant and unsure. Also, the times really were different. So much has happened in the brief years since I first came out, there’s been so much more acceptance and progress.
So I wrote a character who was just are wary and hesitant as I was, except she had much better reasons. Renna is terrified of coming out, or being discovered. Her society is actively hostile towards LGBT people, and towards trans people in particular. Even without that, though, Renna is cautious. She doesn’t ever want to show too much of herself to anyone.
Her story in this book isn’t about her gender identity, though. She is simply herself. Her transition took place in the past, it happens entirely off screen. And while it’s impossible to separate Renna from her past, her trans-ness isn’t a focus.
That did mean that people missed it. I’d thought I was being pretty explicit, but I had people say later that they’d somehow not noticed! Maybe I was too subtle, but maybe we’d just come to expect a trans character to have certain signifiers and certain storylines.
Of course, these books are full of themes that might be familiar to trans people: hiding in plain sight, worrying about being found out to be something people didn’t expect, the power of names, the crushing weight of secrets, and so on.
Not a ton of people read the book the first time around. But I did get email from people who found it, and who told me how much they appreciated Renna just… being there. So I’m looking forward to sharing her with all of you, many for the first time.
And this time, I am not afraid. Make of me what you will. Here she is, and here I am.