“And while I believe trans people should be treated as people, I also don’t want to write a woman as cis and then claim later that she was actually trans. I’d like to portray this character and what she might be going through in a way that doesn’t insult or demean her as a trans woman.
“When mentioning her and her struggles, is a brief mention of her being born male but saying that she is in fact female enough? Do I need to elaborate or is that enough to make it clear she’s trans? Should I actually have her claim to be trans or is it all right for her to say she is simply a woman?
“People are different, even when they share things in common. So while I think either approach would be fine, I want to make sure that I’m not portraying trans women in a negative light or reinforcing stereotypes. Any information you can give me would be wonderful. Any books or Internet sources you can offer would be appreciated as well.”
As a writer, I find this a very interesting topic, because there are really a couple of “sides” to this issue. One “side” is that there are not enough authentic trans characters portrayed in fiction – books, movies, plays, and so on – and when trans characters do appear, they are usually there to induce pity or for shock value, titillation, or comic relief. Therefore, any time that a trans character is presented realistically and honestly in fiction, it will likely be to our benefit.
The other “side” is whether or not a non-trans person should be writing about trans experiences at all, even in fiction. The “write what you know” ethos has been around for a long time in author circles, and it is there for a reason. If we get too far out of our element, we can write ourselves into trouble. However, if everyone stuck to the “write what you know” philosophy, we would have no science fiction, no experimental fiction, no horror genre, no historical fiction, and the majority of romance novels (and erotica) would never materialize.
There are people who will say that a non-trans person should absolutely not be writing trans characters, but I believe it can be done – in fact, I know it can be done, because one of my all-time favorite authors, Suzan-Lori Parks, wrote a trans-masculine character in her book Getting Mother’s Body. It was fantastic to be reading that book and discover this trans character who I didn’t know was in there when I bought the book. The character was very well written and necessary to the story, and there was no hint of sensationalism or exploitation. But then, Parks won the Pulitzer (for Topdog/Underdog) for a reason.
I also liked the Anna Madrigal character in Armistad Maupin‘s Tales of the City series, but I am not a trans woman, so I don’t know how trans women perceived that character. I was also just beginning my transition when I read that series, and I haven’t read it since, so I don’t know how I would feel about the character now.
I have mixed feelings about whether or not you should have a trans character in your fiction, particularly because you say that you don’t know anything about trans people. But that’s not the question you asked, so I’m going to answer the question you asked, but I’m first going to ask you an important question that I want you to consider: Why do you want a trans character in your fiction?
I don’t mean this in a snotty way at all. It’s a serious question, and the reason that I want you to consider it is because you need to know your motivation for adding this character. There are some right reasons and some wrong reasons for a non-trans writer to write specifically trans characters.
Right reasons might include a desire to have diverse characters in your story that reflect the real world; to counter the stereotypes of trans people that exist in most other venues; and, first and foremost, because your storyline requires a character to be trans.
Wrong reasons might include the notion that trans people are the hot new item and having a trans character will make the book more marketable; that a trans character will induce pity or provide shock value, titillation, or comic relief; and because the storyline isn’t strong enough to work without a “gimmick.”
So really consider that question before you move forward with any suggestions that I am about to give in response to the question you asked, which is how to portray this trans character. The answer to your question depends on what you want from this character.
You mentioned her “struggles,” but I don’t know if her struggles are related to being trans or not. If her struggles are related to being trans, then her transness is a very important part of her character, and as you write about her struggles, the fact that she is trans will be apparent. If her struggles are not related to her transness, then why mention that she is trans at all? But if you don’t, of course, then you don’t have a trans character.
You asked whether or not she should claim to be trans, but that depends on who she is as a character. There are many women who have transitioned or had corrective procedures at some time in their life who do not identify as trans. There are many others who do. So whether she does or not is entirely dependent on her – who she is, what she wants, and what her role is in the story. Is she the type of person who would say she was trans? Only you know that, because you are creating the character.
And this brings us back to why she is there in the first place. That’s what you have to figure out. And if you already know that, then what I would suggest to you is that you do not do research on how to write her. What I would suggest is that you find out about trans women, and trans people, in general, because it worries me that you say that you don’t know anything about us.
If that’s the case, you are at high risk of misrepresenting a trans woman’s possible experience, and you are at high risk of insulting or demeaning your character and, by default, your trans readers, and this is what you say that you do not want to do.
I would suggest that you read as many memoirs as you can get your hands on – and any other books you can find – that were written by trans women. You can probably find many of them on amazon.com just by doing a search for “transgender” and “transsexual” in the Books category. I would also recommend reading books and blogs written by various trans people about trans issues in general.
Then I would suggest that you contact a local gender center or LGBT center and ask if there are any trans groups that are open to non-trans people. Then go to the meeting, let them know why you are there (you don’t have to, but I think it’s the ethical thing to do), and ask if there are any trans women who would be willing to meet with you and talk to you about their experiences. Maybe there are some women readers of this blog who would be willing to communicate with you. If so, they can let you know in the comments section.
Then go to some events, do some volunteer work, hang around and get to know some trans people – both men and women. Find out their hobbies and interests, let them know yours, and make some new friends. Spend some time in the community and find out about the various struggles and triumphs – both those that are related to being trans and those that are not – as well as the everyday, boring experiences.
Once you feel as if you have the information you need to portray your character authentically, you still need a “reader” – at least one person who is willing to read your book or short story when it’s finished, and even during various drafts, to give you feedback on your character.
Only when you do all this will you be ready to write this character and present her to the world. If you do not do this, you will wind up doing exactly what you don’t want to do, which is to present trans women in a negative light and reinforce stereotypes. I wish you the best of luck.
Readers, you’re on.