Read Harder: A Romance by a Trans and/or Nonbinary Author

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Author’s note:  An earlier version of this article didn’t give Ria Martinez, the illustrator of Casual Hex and Bad Mojo: A Casual Hex Zine, sufficient credit for their fantastic work on both projects. The blurb for Bad Mojo has been updated to correct this error!

Hey there, reader! If you’re one of my trans, nonbinary, or in any way gender-nonconforming siblings: a joyful welcome and familiar smile to you. I am so happy you’re here. Read on, and feel free to skip ahead to the list of book recommendations if now isn’t a good time for you to read about things like dysphoria or transphobia. May you find absolutely everything you’re looking for.

If you’re a cis person: a warm welcome to you, too! I’m equally delighted you’re here, but not for exactly the same reasons. I think it’s worth letting you know why it means so much to me that you’re seeking out romance stories by and about trans folks. Here goes.

There’s this idea (an idea that’s both prevalent and harmful, in both trans and cis communities) that in order to be trans/nonbinary “enough,” you need to experience gender dysphoria: “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. Gender dysphoria is real, and it’s agonizing, and yes, many trans/nonbinary folks grapple with it—sometimes to a debilitating degree. But some of us experience dysphoria’s ecstatic twin, gender euphoria: the bliss that can result when you or someone else treats your gender with affirmation as opposed to dismissiveness. Some of us experience something much less consuming that I can best verbalize as “gender puzzlement”: we just don’t quite get why people keep using words like “boy” or “girl” to describe us, because it seems obvious to us that we’re the opposite, a combination, or none of the above. Some of us—probably most of us—experience a wide range of these, and more. And each of us gets to figure out on our own, based on these and countless other factors, what words describe our gender best.

Yet however we experience the clash between the gender that’s ours and the gender imposed upon us, what most of us feel after we identify that clash is much easier to name: It’s fear.

Fear that, tragically, is justified. Fear that even if a new revelation about your gender brings you an alleviation of dysphoria, a joyful rush of euphoria, or simply peace, it might cause other people to treat you cruelly. People like your family; people like strangers; and people like romantic partners.

That’s where trans/nonbinary romance comes in. For better or for worse, you live in a transphobic society where the hateful narrative that trans/nonbinary individuals make undesirable romantic partners is insidious and inescapable. So one of the best imaginable ways to support trans/nonbinary folks is to expose yourself to the alternative narrative: the one where a trans/nonbinary person gets to be a romantic hero. By all means, educate yourself about institutionalized transphobia—but don’t stop there. Join us, too, in celebrating the stories of characters of all genders who get the love they deserve. Here are a few great titles to get you started on this task of the 2021 Read Harder Challenge.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

It feels fitting to begin this list with Meredith Russo’s 2016 YA romance If I Was Your Girl, because this list begins with that novel on a historical level, too. At the time, as Russo herself reflected in a guest post for Book Riot that same year, she and George author Alex Gino were the only two trans writers who had debuted trans stories with major publishing houses. Despite Russo’s fears that publishers wouldn’t be interested in more trans stories, If I Was Your Girl has ultimately paved the way for books like the others you’ll read about here. In it, protagonist Amanda goes to a new school where she’s determined to keep her trans identity a secret. But when she and a sweet boy named Grant fall hard for each other, things get complicated. On the one hand, teen love is as pleasurable and exciting for Amanda as it would be for any other girl; but on the other, being a closeted trans girl means that the risks of opening her heart are much greater for her than they’d be for a cis girl. Russo’s expert storytelling means that you’ll experience both sides of that coin right along with Amanda—and while you’ll mourn when the world lets her down, you’ll also rejoice when it comes through for her.

cover of Documenting Light

Documenting Light by EE Ottoman

EE Ottoman’s website is subtitled “radical trans happily ever afters,” so if that’s what you’re after, look no further. In his contemporary romance Documenting Light, Wyatt approaches local historian Grayson with a mysterious photograph of two people in men’s suits. When Wyatt and Grayson set out to learn more about the photo’s subjects, they begin a journey fated to bring them closer than they could possibly have predicted.

Peter Darling

Peter Darling by Austin Chant

What if Wendy Darling and Peter Pan were the same person? What if that person were a trans man named Peter who only knew how to be himself on the magical island of Neverland? And what if he returned to Neverland only to discover that his feelings for his hook-handed archnemesis weren’t exactly hatred after all? That’s the world Austin Chant imagines in Peter Darling. If you’re anything like me, that’s more than enough to convince you to read this fantastic book immediately; but since all it took for me was “trans Peter Pan,” let me assure you it’s also the kind of love story that will grab you by the heart and never let you go. (Sadly, Peter Darling has been out of print since its publisher, Less Than Three Press, folded in 2019; but Chant has said it’ll be back! In the meantime, consult a library ASAP.)

cover of lord of the last heartbeat by may peterson

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson

High fantasy romance lovers, this one’s for you! Believing the only way out of his mother’s political schemes is death, Mio asks a powerful immortal to help him escape—even at the cost of Mio’s own life. The trouble is, Rhodry sees something special in Mio: a magical talent that awes him, and a person he can’t help but love. As Mio and Rhodry become lovers, they also become their civilization’s only hope of survival.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Young artist Felix is already grappling with the ways his identity makes his life more challenging. For one thing, he’s Black, living below the poverty line, and fighting for academic opportunities that come far more easily to rich white kids. For another, his parents’ respective struggles to accept that he’s a boy are making him question whether he’s worthy of love. And then, things get much worse: an anonymous bully outs Felix as trans to everyone in the prestigious art program he’s attending for the summer. Certain he knows who the culprit is, Felix sets out to get revenge by catfishing his intellectual rival. But then, he gets a taunting message from someone who might or might not be the classmate he suspects, and that’s how this already irresistible story becomes an epistolary love triangle. If you loved Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda, wished Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda were more intersectional, or just love a romantic comedy that cares about every facet of its protagonist’s emotional life, then this one’s for you.

Reverb by Anna Zabo

Cis femme rockstar meets trans masc bodyguard? Just call me Amy Poehler, because YES, PLEASE. Bass player Mish Sullivan isn’t used to sacrificing even a shred of her independence, and David Altet isn’t used to being even a little bit distracted from his job. But when Mish is attacked by a stalker, David becomes her bodyguard, and each throws the other utterly off their game. David’s prepared to suppress his feelings for Mish if it will help keep her safe. Mish, on the other hand, isn’t about to let a stalker slow her down—especially in love.

Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant cover

Sugar Town by Hazel Newlevant

There’s an ethereal quality to Hazel Newlevant’s semi-autobiographical comic Sugar Town that will make you feel like loneliness and love are precious secrets they’re sharing with you. The story follows Hazel over one winter holiday. They leave New York City to visit their parents with one polyamorous partner, Gregor; and they return with a second, Argent. Ultimately, Sugar Town tells three love stories: Hazel and Gregor, Hazel and Argent, and Hazel and their own ability to say “I love you.”

Next Year, for Sure by Zoey Leigh Peterson

Where Sugar Town explores polyamory from the perspective of a character in two new, delicate relationships, Zoey Leigh Peterson’s  novel Next Year, for Sure portrays a happy, established couple who confidently open their relationship after nine years of marriage. In the year that follows, they both have adventures, develop feelings, and ask questions that push them to new levels of growth, closeness, and honesty.

His Cocky Valet by Cole McCade

It’s delightful when a romance novel is flawlessly set up to tell a love story and unveil character development. It’s even better when that premise is also mind-blowingly sexy. In this steamy tale of unlikely power exchange, 23-year-old Ash Harrington suddenly inherits a multi-billion dollar company and way more responsibility than he wants. The last thing he needs is a manservant he can’t control, even one as charismatic as Brand Forsythe. But despite himself, Ash submits to Brand’s natural dominance—and it turns out letting go of control is exactly what he needs.

Bad Mojo: A Casual Hex Zine (and the Casual Hex Webcomic) by Taneka Stotts and Ria Martinez

Whether you know it or not, you may already be a fan of Taneka Stotts and Ria Martinez. Stotts’s TV writing credits include Steven Universe and My Little Pony; and Martinez’s art appears in Fictif, the latest from the female-founded mobile game studio Nix Hydra. Turns out this power duo has also collaborated on multiple comics projects together! Martinez has been published in Elements: Earth, one of four comics anthologies Stotts has edited; and they work together on the webcomic Casual Hex and its accompanying zine Bad Mojo. Casual Hex tells the story of aspiring exorcist Raziel Bautista and the much more jaded Raumi Scriber, who just wants to cause another Apocalypse. The two become even more connected when Raumi inadvertently binds them together with magical forces during an ill-fated ghost hunt. It’s compelling and playful and eerie in a delicious combination that make it feel a bit like a grown-up, queered-up Scooby Doo cartoon.

Bad Comes First by Kris Ripper

If Kris Ripper’s queer romance series were dishes on a menu, they’d have a delicious range of chili peppers next to them: some have just a kick of spice, others are no-holds-barred fiery. Ripper zirself describes Little Red and the Big Bad, which kicks off with Bad Comes First, as the most “porny” of the bunch; so if you like a good five-alarm flavor palate, start right here. Big Bad Campion and Red’s relationship is never supposed to be a relationship: just a one-time fling where they both get to live out a wild fantasy they share. No one is more surprised than super-Dom Bad when they discover they share not only fantasies, but feelings, too.

Cemetery Boys cover

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

In Cemetery Boys, Aiden Thomas weaves a paranormal YA romance that also grapples with a question countless LGBTQIA+ individuals face: what happens when you find immense strength and power in your family’s heritage, but not in the way your family expects you to? In trans masc Yadriel’s Latinx community, some characters have magical gifts. The trouble is that those gifts have traditionally been considered gendered in a strictly binary manner: those assigned female at birth become brujas with healing powers, while those assigned male at birth become brujos who can summon ghosts. Resolved to prove to his family that he is a real brujo—and a real boy—Yadriel performs a ritual to free the spirit of his recently murdered cousin. Instead, however, he calls up the ghost of his classmate Julian—and the longer Julian resists being sent on to the afterlife, the more Yadriel realizes he doesn’t actually want to send Julian away.

Their Troublesome Crush by Xan West book cover

Their Troublesome Crush by Xan West

If you’re new to the romance community, here’s the kind of thing that will make you stay: When author Corey Alexander, who also used the nom de plume Xan West, passed away in August 2020, romance superblogger Sarah Wendell used her website Smart Bitches Trashy Books to host a virtual mourner’s Kaddish for them. You can’t Google any version of Alexander’s name without seeing the outpouring of love their fans and colleagues expressed after their death. Alexander identified as “an autistic queer fat Jewish genderqueer writer with multiple disabilities,” and it’s clear that their memory is as much a blessing as their many books.

Their Troublesome Crush is representative of the tender relationships and diverse characters that characterize Alexander’s bibliography as a whole. It also happens to be my own favorite kind of love story: a metamours-to-paramours tale. Ernest and Nora are both already in a polyamorous relationship with Gideon when they develop romantic feelings for each other. They navigate their mutual crush while working together to throw Gideon the best birthday party ever. Loving Gideon is what first connects Ernest and Nora; but they develop a love all their own, too.

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