Good morning, y’all! Or good afternoon and goodnight, if it’s that time where you are!
Today, we have a very special post from author Dill Werner in which they talk about the Do’s and Don’t’s of writing and introducing transgender and nonbinary characters. It’s primarily guidelines for cisgender authors who include us in their narratives–insisting that they do better by us–but I think it’s a necessary read for everyone.
So, without further ado…
Words that are on everyone’s lips these days. Sometimes, for the right reasons. Sometimes…well. As a trans genderqueer person, I’m all for more trans and nonbinary representation in fiction. However, it needs to be done with a delicate touch. Cis writers cannot march into the fold and expect to immediately perfect non-cis characters. But this blog post isn’t about that. It’s about the do’s and don’ts of how to approach writing trans and nonbinary characters in fiction.
- Don’t get cocky, even if you’re writing OwnVoices. Do forgive yourself for making mistakes.
If you’re trans or nonbinary, you might be thinking, “I’ve got this!” Step back and take a hard look at the situation. No one is perfect. No one has all the queer answers. Many of us have internalized transphobia or enbyphobia that we’re slowly recognizing. It’s little things that sneak up on us after being socialized by allocishets to think a certain way about our queer communities. Don’t be angry or ashamed if you find yourself falling into one of these holes.
Be better. Do better. Together.
- Don’t reveal a trans or nonbinary person’s identity by showing their body. Do allow them to come out naturally, in a familiar environment if possible.
Let’s start with how to introduce trans and enby characters into your fiction, literally: Never out a trans/enby person through an “oops, saw you naked!” scene. It’s degrading and a prime example of the cisgaze. Here, cis people see us as nothing but a sum of our (private) parts—our genitals. What we are and what we aren’t. What we’re born with and what we should’ve had.
Being caught naked is humiliating by any means. It reveals a person’s sex—not gender—through objectification. Trans and nonbinary people are put on display without consent, ogled by cis eyes because they’re desperate the know, “How do you work? What are you?”
I am a person.
- Don’t dead name or misgender/ungender trans or nonbinary characters. Do explore genderneutral and/or nonbinary language.
I have a rule to never reveal my trans or nonbinary characters’ assigned births or names—unless the plot absolutely will not work unless you do, I advise cis authors to follow this rule. This way, the reader will only perceive these characters as I deem fit. After all, one of the joys of being an author is playing supreme overlord within the worlds I build. An author doesn’t have to start with male or female molds and carve an image from there. The image can be anything: male, female, both, neither, whatever we so desire. It’s truly up to us to decide. In your world, you can have three or thirteen genders, all accepted by the masses.
But, Dill, how do I create these genders and words to describe them? I hear you ponder from over the internet. That’s on you. It’s called creative writing for a reason. Research, look into the history of languages, gender neutral word options, or pay someone to do a sensitivity read on your manuscript to help make it better and more authentic.
Imagine each person starts out as a block of marble. Artists often say they work with the marble until the image within is exposed to them. Trans and nonbinary people were sculpted from marble by artisans who didn’t finish their work. They didn’t listen closely enough to what the marble said and were unable to see what really lay beneath the stone. Now, it’s our job to take up the chisel and hammer, to undo all the artisan’s mistakes by sculpting the image beneath the stone. If only they’d seen us for who we are—not just another boring garden sculpture of Venus but of mighty Jupiter, thunderbolt in hand.
Once a character has been introduced as a gender after beginning their transition, they shouldn’t be referred to by their assigned gender ever again. It will only confuse the reader and have them picturing the character as the wrong gender—male when they are a female, female when they are nonbinary, etc. This is not something to get hung up on. The character is their gender, their pronoun, their name. For example, Genderfluid, xie/xir, Sam. Done. Move on.
But how do I reveal that a character is trans or nonbinary? you ask.
Look, we’re queer. When in a comfortable, accepting environment, queer people talk openly about their identities. We’re free from prejudice, hate, and can speak to someone who actually understands what we’re going through. No one will cast judgment if we say, “Damn, this binder is pinching.” Or if we introduce ourselves as, “My name is Dill. They/them pronouns.” Do not have someone out a non-cis character without their expressed permission. That goes against rules of friendship and consent.
- Don’t have every element of the trans or enby character revolve around their gender. Do realize that they were socialized differently based on their assigned gender.
The allocishet community thinks there’s a big hang up in the trans binary community about passing. To an extent, there is. Do I pass? Did they just clock me as my assigned gender? Are they whispering about my [chest, hands, shoulders, chin, insert body part here]? It’s suffocating. Not only does this exist in the trans binary community, but dysphoria is rampant amongst nonbinary people, as well. At the same time, some binary trans people don’t care if they pass. I can’t speak for them.
- Do understand that trans men are men, and trans women are women. Don’t think they’re the same as cis men and cis women.
Trans binary people should be accepted as their binary ID. However, they are not cis binary. They do not view the world through a cis gaze. They were raised and socialized differently. The world expects different things from trans binary people than it does cis people.
This needs to be taken into account when writing trans binary characters, but it’s often swept under the rug by cis authors. They either see us as nothing but our trans and nonbinary identities, like we’re a cis person wearing a trans or nonbinary cloak over top. Trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, these words aren’t hollow. They mean something to us, describe the person inside who has been desperate to escape but didn’t have the tools or language to do so.
- Don’t write with a cis-centric focus. Do understand that trans and enby peoples’ safety is imperative.
We don’t owe it to strangers or allocishet people to disclose anything about our queerness. That’s our business. We need to take our safety into consideration each time we come out to someone. As a side note, trans and nonbinary people will have THE TALK with their significant other before anything goes down in the bedroom. If not, it can lead to violence or aggression.
One of the biggest problems I see is how the cis characters react to trans or nonbinary characters. It’ll be a very cis-centric focus, where the transition is so hard on the cisgender person(s). Transitioning is a million times harder for the trans or nonbinary person(s). Trans and nonbinary characters need support because they often do feel guilty. There’s internalized guilt for everything they’re putting their family and friends through, no matter what people say.
It’s a difficult process. The money, the changes, the social commentary—we’re not the only one’s who have to deal with it. Some families and friends opt to cut the trans or nonbinary people out of their lives. Some stand by their sides. Until you’ve lived it, you’ll never know what this is like.
- Don’t write trans or enby characters because it’s trendy. Do question WHY you’re writing about trans and enby characters.
I’m addressing the cis people here: Ask yourself why you’re writing a trans or nonbinary character? If it’s for the sake of diversity or writing to trend, then stop. You’re not ready and are writing too far outside your lane to understand what it is to be said character. If you’ve always seen your character as trans or nonbinary, then step back and ask why you’re better suited to tell the story than someone who is trans and/or nonbinary? You’ll have to do three times as much work for half the results.
We are not trends. We are not objects. We are not labels to be toyed with. We’re real people, people who have feelings and desires to be represented properly. Don’t feel like our entire story has to revolve around being trans or nonbinary. Again, that’s objectification. Unless it’s an OwnVoices story, I’d advise against it.
If you’re thinking of writing about trans and nonbinary characters, I ask that you do so with respect and mindfulness. Most importantly, I ask that you consider hiring a sensitivity reader. Not only will a reader assist you in weeding out the microaggressions in your work, but they’ll teach you about how to avoid making such mistakes again.
Dill Werner is an author of queer fiction for adults and young adults and sensitivity reader. An advocate for trans and nonbinary people, they have written about demisexuality for YAPride, have been interviewed on demisexuality for The Daily Dot, were featured on Culturess’s 20 Nonbinary Creators You Need to Keep An Eye Out For, and VICE’s Five People on Their Favorite Things About Being Nonbinary. They live in South Carolina with their spouse and three-toed bunny. You can follow them on Twitter, Instagram, or check out their website. Come for the cute bunny pictures, stay for the discussion on gender and asexuality.