Over the last eight years I’ve read just about every novel featuring a trans protagonist that I could get my big transsexual hands on. Because society is still getting used to the idea that trans authors can actually write books that aren’t emotional memoirs, these books have been predominantly written by authors who may be well intentioned but who are still cisgender. At this point in my reading life I feel like I’ve read enough of these “trans” books to be qualified to ask the question, “As trans people, when do our lives become too boring for you?”
Now let’s be clear, this question isn’t just directed at cis authors but to the larger world of publishers and readers. Authors may start the process by writing or pitching a book but that book still needs to make it through the gambit of publishing and marketing and sales before it will ever show up on a bookshelf. Publishers don’t just put out books that they enjoy reading, they put out books that they think will be read (or at least purchased) by the public. This is of course a highly simplistic depiction of mainstream publishing, but while it may lack nuance I don’t think it’s incorrect. And so with that in mind I’ll restate my question, “Dear cis people who read books about trans characters, who write about trans characters, who turn manuscripts about trans characters into books about trans characters: when do trans lives become too boring for you to read about?”
This question comes out of the number of “trans” books I’ve read with completely interchangeable plots. Just about every book with a trans protagonist or a trans-focused main plot that I’ve read from young adult to “serious” novels ultimately contain the same skeleton: male/female character feels different from their male/female peers and they’re very sad about this and will probably use the phrase “born in the wrong body” at least once; then they find out about “transgendered” people and have angst about their identity; they try to come out to their loved ones and things don’t go well; they begin to transition medically and the story is over. Sure we can swap out details like setting but ultimately we end up with the same story.
Even if the protagonist isn’t the trans character but a cis friend or family member the plot will still follow the same structure only know we get to hear more about how rough it is for cis people (Two examples are Luna by Julie Anne Peters and Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian).
After my eight years of field research I can’t figure out another explanation for this repetition of plots other than that cis people just think our lives are too boring to write about us doing anything but transitioning. All right, maybe this isn’t the case. Maybe it’s just that cis people simply don’t know any other way to tell trans stories. Maybe all this repetition of the same story over and over again has convinced cis people that this is the only story there is to tell. Maybe cis people need to start listening to trans people as we tell stories with trans characters.
For all my snark and sarcasm I do want to be sure and say that I think this is a very serious issue. Frequently I read interviews with authors or see publicity statements from publishers saying that they hope this book is able to help trans people. I most often see this sentiment expressed when it’s a book aimed for a young adult audience with the author or publisher talking about trying to provide trans representation for children and teenagers. While I don’t think this idea is inherently wrong (I’m a big believer in the power of stories and representation) I want to know why cis people think that providing variations upon the same theme counts as meaningful diversity and representation. Why not show younger trans readers a world of possibilities? Why not offer an alternative from the one plot we hear over and over again in both fiction and nonfiction? And since I’m asking demanding questions I might as well ask: why not give trans youth some authors who are trans as well?
I also think that this repetition of the same storyline that focuses on the pain and struggle of coming out allows cis people to ignore the realities of trans lives. By only telling stories about this one moment in our lives we end up erasing trans people who aren’t in the process of coming out and transitioning. These stories allow cis readers to go, “Oh this is so sad and they have it so hard but once they’re done with their transition they’re normal just like us.” Our lives continue after we transition and for most of us our lives continue to be trans lives. After coming out, our lives continue to have joys and struggles that are unique to our lives as trans people.
I am optimistic, however. Even with all my frustration and anger, I’m seeing glacial shifts for the better. Smaller trans presses and publishing houses are beginning to attract more notice (Please check out the work that they’re doing, there’ve been some great books by trans authors put out by these small publishers.) and the big mainstream publishers seem to be looking for more trans authors to publish. It can take a while for a book to make it from author to reader, but I’m hopeful that there will be some new voices telling new stories in the next few years.
To boil all my emotions down into one short little sentence: Trans lives are complex and full of stories, so please stop trying to tell the same boring old tale about us.