I have been thinking about what I would say to a writer who feels compelled to add a transgender character to their story.
Fictional characters are puppets of their author, limited to what the author knows, though as writers we often find we know more than we think when we channel another voice. In the end, characters have to serve the needs of the story, which means they have to be dumb enough to not resolve the plot too quickly and simple enough not to baffle or confuse the reader. Fiction is different than real life because it has to be comprehensible and satisfying to the audience for it to be successful. Real life can easily be more baffling and complex than you can imagine.
This obligation to serve the story, which in turn is an obligation to serve the author as they attempt to serve the audience means that transgender characters are always bound by many constraints.
Justin Vivian Bond and many others remind us that this is why transpeople have to share their own stories, because we have the understanding, nuance and need to have them heard. For example, the film Undress Me, written by and starring Jana Bringlöv Ekspong captures a breathtaking moment in the life of one transwoman, one that feels powerfully real to me.
The first thing I would want to know about a transgender character is the shape of their armour. Every transperson in the world has had to learn to defend their own transgender heart and they do that by shaping their own protection.
Every transgender person has a passing distance, a range at which they appear reasonably normative. Retreating to that passing distance is the way that we protect ourselves.
We may seek to pass as the sex/gender that we were assigned at birth. For crossdressers and drag queens, for example, they know that they don’t pass as female or woman, so they pass as men, straight men or gay men, making it clear that their transgender expression is just something to be worn on occasion. This choices keeps us fixed in the system of desire, able to court straight women or gay men, and fixed in gender role, operating in the world as a man.
We may seek to pass as the sex/gender that we have claimed. Transsexuals often work to female their body as much as possible, not only with hormones but also with plastic surgery, tp change features from their genital appearance to the shape of their face. They do this in order to extend their passing distance, to not be seen as transgender. Even then, though, we still have a passing distance, with tells like voice, bones, limited genital function and historical markers revealing our transgender journey.
We may seek to pass as queer, living behind our own uniqueness, a kind of special creature who invokes their own bold brand of expression. We build our own façade, hiding in plain sight. This is the edgiest form of expression, created on sheer will and charm, and it is a form that every transperson has to invoke at some time or another when passing as normative is unavailable or unrewarding to us.
The shape of our armour defines the shape of our lives. Every transgender life is unique. No transperson breaks out of their assigned role in order to become another interchangeable member of the gang of trannys. We engage the struggle to claim exploration and expression of our own nature in the world. We start with a very individual dream of who we want to be and that expression becomes even more individual as we go through the enormous challenges of emerging as transgender, facing the resistance, the flaws of a second adolescence, and the navigating the minefield of the world, waiting for the “third gotcha.”
So much of a trans life is shaped by desire for relationships, just the same way as so much of any human life is shaped by that desire. For most people, gender expression is about advertising who we are in an attractive way so that we can connect with others. This might be social connection, wanting to achieve standing with other women, for example, or it might be romantic connection, wanting to attract partners.
For example, transsexual women need to choose if they want to have their genitals reshaped and then have to compete with women born female while having the disadvantage of having a trans body or if they are willing to keep their birth configuration, having a unique offering but being limited in the people who will be in relationship with them.
Politically, transpeople are always bisexual. That doesn’t mean that we have some kind of generic bisexual desire, but it does mean that our partners always have to be somewhat comfortable with their own bisexuality, because we will always be trans in bed. So many partners have had to question their own desire when they found out that their partner was trans, a difficult challenge in a world that reveres the binary.
To understand a transperson, you need to understand what they want, what they are willing to do and what they are willing to give up to get it.
For example, in one scene of “Dallas Buyers Club” Rayon admires the breasts of a cocktail waitress and expresses a desire to look like that. Yet in the movie Rayon never attempts to look busty, though implants, silicone pumping or even breast forms. If she — and the fact that nobody, not even her female doctor identifies Rayon as she is a problem — wanted breasts she would have them. The director, however, wants her not to have them, so as to be seen more as a freak and a skeleton, so he wins over the character every time.
Crossdressers want relationships with straight women, and so will go to extremes to stay located as straight men. There was even started an organization which threw out transsexuals and homosexuals in order to keep up the pretense that their crossdressing was not at all sexual, not connected to their own Eros. This was a clear lie, but it did reveal the very important truth that they valued family connection over desire.
For many transmen, staying grounded in the women’s community that empowered them remains important. This, and the limits of phalloplasty may keep them from easily assimilating completely into manhood.
This challenge of desires which end up conflicting in the world is central to the experience of being transgender. Every choice we make has repercussions so the routes we take are usually broken and crossing, episodic and fitful, full of leaps and twists rather than being smooth and straight.
What does your character want so much that they are willing to brave transgender expression to find it? What is their defence, the shields they put up to protect their tender, battered transgender heart?
And, of course, like any other human, you need to know what they have lost. Humans are shaped by loss, which always shapes our longing. The transgender experience of loss starts very early in life, with the forcible denial of the callings of our heart in order to try and fit into compulsory gender roles. We have families who find transgender expression baffling and shaming, so we learn to surrender our desires and try cheap but standard substitutes which often compound the loss with damage.
Once you understand those things, both how they craft their outside to get what they need on the inside and how they are shaped by loss, you can start to immerse yourself in the real life choices that transpeople have always had to make to balance tame social connection and personal, wild expression in the world.
Trans is a transitive identity, full of change, of deaths and rebirths. Real trans narratives are always complex and convoluted, passing through spaces society sees as walls and barriers. That is what makes them powerful and difficult, raw and ragged with humanity, not just sweet novelties to add spice to a tale.
The truth of transgender is obvious to us when we see it, even if we know that every character serves the needs of a story, gives only one glimpse into our shared world. I believe that shimmering truth is why transpeople resonate with people in the world, which is why it is very, very important to work to get it good.