Commentary

Five Signs Your Story Is Transphobic

Three soldiers crossdress in Disney's Mulan
In previous posts we’ve looked at sexism toward both women and men, as well as bigotry against non-straight folks. Now it’s time for a look at the most insidious messages targeting trans people.

To improve how our stories treat trans people, we need to consider not only trans women and trans men, but the entire gender spectrum. That includes people who are both a woman and a man, are neither a woman nor a man, or who are a woman on some days and a man on others. Gender is complicated and gender identities come with numerous labels, but you don’t need to learn every one. You just need to leave room for variety and show respect for all gender expressions and identities you depict. Let’s look at common signs your story isn’t doing that.

1. The Language Excludes Trans People

Riker stands behind Soren, a woman who has to keep her gender secret

Our culture has a long history of pretending that every human being fits into two precise categories called “women” and “men,” each one with an eternal list of immutable characteristics. Surprise! Humans are more complicated than that. Unfortunately, this conception has embedded itself into our language in ways we frequently overlook.

For example, let’s take the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Outcast. This episode was actually supposed to be pro queer rights, but it failed in every way. In the episode, the crew of the Enterprise works alongside a supposedly mono-gendered society. However, Commander Riker discovers his alien coworker secretly identifies as a woman and is attracted to men, even though this is forbidden. In an episode like this, you would think Riker would mention that some humans have gone through similar experiences.

Not only does the episode fail to include or even mention a queer person, but Riker spends the entire episode describing how humans are divided between women/females and men/males and how women are attracted to men and men attracted to women. These blanket statements paint humans as entirely cis and straight, denying the existence of everyone else.

The Next Generation is not alone is erasing underprivileged groups. More than a few science-fiction stories have described humans in an exclusive manner. Even when our stories aren’t defining the human species, it’s easy to fall into other trans-exclusionary traps.

How to Fix It

First, look out for places where you’ve unthinkingly referred to people as two gender categories, such as “men and women,” “ladies and gentlemen,” or “boys and girls.” Instead, reach for more general terms like “people” and “children.” In the case of “ladies and gentlemen,” you can use “distinguished guests.”

Second, don’t assign gender to biology. If you are discussing cultural roles such as how people dress, use gender identity terms such as “woman” and “man.” If you are referring to biological functions, keep it neutral. For instance, don’t say “every woman wants to protect her pregnancy.” Instead, say “everyone wants to protect their pregnancy.”

2. Gender Differences Are Emphasized

Wheel of Time cover

The Wheel of Time series is famous for its gendered magic system. In the series, women are better at air and water magic, while men are better at fire and earth magic. Women can pool their magic together and work in groups, but men are more powerful. We’ve already covered how sexist the series is, so we won’t go into that here. However, even if women and men were given magic of equal value, Wheel of Time still offers a world with impenetrable gender boundaries. It isn’t the only series to do this, not by a long shot. Many other works like The Banned and the Banished and the Four Arts Series have depicted gendered magic. Characters in these fictional works are almost always described as automatically, naturally conforming to the genders society has assigned to them.

Stories that don’t bake gender categories into their magic systems aren’t necessarily better. They might have characters who embody gendered stereotypes or include rigid social systems where every aspect of life depends on two-gender categories.

These stories raise the question: how do trans people fit in? Unless the storyteller specifies, the most intuitive answer is that they don’t – the worldbuilding erases their existence. Even when the storyteller describes how their rigidly gendered societies respect the identities of trans woman and trans men, nonbinary people are rarely allowed in the clubhouse.

Unfortunately, the effect of this portrayal goes even deeper than erasing people within a fantasy world. These stories spread the notion that gender is the defining feature of any person. They tell us that there is no overlap in the characteristics between women and men and no exceptions based on individual traits. When our society pins everyone’s personal identity to their gender, it becomes that much harder for a person to be recognized as having a different gender than the one society expects them to have.

How to Fix It

Speculative-fiction storytellers love playing with gender, but the best thing you can do is simply not gender your world. That includes leaving gender out of your magic system, having societies with only loose gender roles, and double checking all of your characters to make sure they don’t embody gender stereotypes.

If it’s too late to keep exaggerated gender categories out of your world, take a page from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Discworld has witches that are women and wizards that are men, but Pratchett focused a couple books on exceptions to those rules. From those works, we know women can be wizards and men can be witches. He also features trans characters in his books. Show your audience how trans people and nonbinary people fit into your world. When you do this, make sure the gender identities of those people are respected by other characters; that is, unless you’re willing to spend the whole plot fighting for their rights.

3. Cross-Dressing Is a Joke

Snape from Harry Potter wearing grandma clothes

While our stories rarely include trans characters, they often have scenes where a character deviates from current gender expectations. Unfortunately, most of these scenes feature cis men who are compelled to dress as women, packaged as a joke. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a shapeshifter is bewitched to look like Professor Snape wearing a grandmother’s clothes – for the express purpose of making people laugh. In Disney’s Mulan, three soldiers disguise themselves as women in what is supposed to be a comedic twist. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Profit and Lace, medical technology is used to temporarily make the businessman Quark female, so audiences can laugh at trans-misogynist jokes the whole episode.

In scenes like these, the cis men rarely gender bend because they want to. They are forced to by magical influences or tactical necessity. It gets worse. In some of these stories, the disguised man is then sexually harassed or assaulted by other cis men. In Profit and Lace, the political official that Quark is sent to win over physically chases Quark around in an attempt to sexually assault him. In the movie Willow, the warrior Madmartigan disguises himself as a woman and is groped by his lover’s husband. These depictions of harassment and assault are also supposed to be funny.

The message is clear: for anyone other than cis women, feminine presentation is undesirable, degrading, and worthy of mockery. That’s why in Mulan, the attractive love interest does not cross-dress with the other soldiers.

By showing feminine clothing on only cis women plus the occasional cis man who is forced to cross-dress, our stories erase the identities of trans women and everyone else who chooses a feminine presentation. By using these tropes as a joke, our stories are directly endorsing the stigmatization and sexual assault of trans people.

How to Fix It

Never use cross-dressing for humor. This includes subtle references or mild deviations from gender expectations. In the TV show Dark Matter, a cis man makes a joking reference to how he wore high heels to make an escape. In BBC’s Librarians, a cis man under the influence of magic wears a frilly apron that other characters joke about. Even this is not okay. If a cis man ever uses feminine clothing, accessories, or make up, he should do so with pride, and other characters should be respectful. For instance, in season four of Teen Wolf, best friend Stiles cheers up the hero, Scott, by telling him that when it comes to dating, Scott is the “hot chick.” Scott then smiles and walks away happy about being the hot chick.

Even if our stories are respectful to people who cross-dress, they will never be welcoming to trans people without including trans characters. Make one or more of your characters trans. If you’re cis, don’t feature their transition in your story; leave that to trans storytellers.

4. Trans People Are Framed as Deceptive

Bortus and Klyden from the Orville sitting next to each other

Perhaps because so many examples of gender deviation in our stories are cis people forced into disguises, when our stories do feature characters who might identify as trans, those people are frequently depicted as though they are deceiving others about their “true gender.”

A recent example comes from space-opera TV show The Orville. On the show, the character Bortus and his partner Klyden are Maclin, a species that is entirely cis men – or is commonly thought to be. Then the couple hatches a female baby, a supposedly rare event among the Maclins. In the ensuing debate about the baby’s future, Klyden informs Bortus that he was born female. However, as a baby he was medically altered to be biologically male in every discernible way.

Bortus becomes upset that Klyden “deceived” him. Klyden responds that he didn’t himself know for most of his life, and Bortus demands to know the exact time that moment Klyden found out. Now, you can argue that Bortus should have known Klyden’s entire medical history before they had a child together, but Bortus isn’t concerned with that; he’s angry that he didn’t know while they were dating. Suggesting that Klyden might be obligated to share his private medical history on a first date is ridiculous.

If it were any other obscure medical detail, I doubt the writers of The Orville would have included this conversation. And this is the trope at its most innocent. Much worse, some stories feature what is supposedly a man disguised as a woman in order to trick a straight cis-male protagonist into bed. In the movie Crocodile Dundee, the titular character flirts with an attractive woman at a bar and arranges to go home with her. Before he does, another cis man pulls Dundee aside and tells him she’s a man. Not only does this depiction deny a person’s gender identify, but it’s clearly designed to evaluate trans women in terms of their appeal, or lack thereof, to straight men. This is incredibly harmful.

Every trans person struggles to get society to recognize the gender they know they are. If you include this type of gender-deception message in your story, you are making that struggle harder. Trans people are also not obligated to wear a big sign declaring they are trans. In fact, with all the anti-trans bigotry in the world today, doing so would put their safety at risk. Like for any other personal detail, it’s their choice whether or not to tell another person that they are trans.

How to Fix It

If you are writing a deceptive character, never have that character deceive others about their gender or pretend to be part of any underprivileged group (for example, they shouldn’t pretend to have a disability). Instead, they can lie about their name, age, qualifications, or relationship to someone else. It’s also okay for a protagonist to hide their gender identity in order to overcome adversity, but don’t make it humorous.

Allow your characters to deviate from gender expectations while keeping the respect of their fellows. Characters should not be investigating someone’s gender as if it’s their business. Even if you include it to depict how inappropriate that is, your audience could easily misinterpret your message. That kind of commentary is best left to trans storytellers.

5. Characters Comment on Genitalia

Deadpool

One of the most pernicious myths used to dehumanize trans people is the idea that gender is determined by a person’s genitals. Not only does it deny many people recognition of their gender identity, but it also encourages assault targeted at trans people. The logic goes that since social recognition of gender is only given to those who have certain genitals, a person’s genitals should be checked (often against their will) in order to verify gender.

As a result of this dehumanization, cis people often think that it’s okay to ask trans people about their genitals. Deadpool is supposed to be a queer hero who flips the bird at social conformity, yet in the Deadpool movie he does this very thing. When a woman shows how strong she is, he says “I’m guessing wang?” – not only stereotyping, but defining this woman by what genitals she has. Deadpool is not alone in doing this. In Zoolander 2, the main character asks a nonbinary model “do you have a hot dog or a bun?”

Because a trans person’s genitals are treated like public property, it’s also disgustingly common for their genitals to be revealed to everyone in the vicinity. The entire plot of It’s Pat: The Movie is about people trying to discover the “true gender” of Pat, a clearly nonbinary character. At the end, Pat’s pants are pulled down in a accident, revealing their genitals to a huge crowd attending a concert.

It’s a small step between making someone’s genitals a matter of public attention and assaulting that person. In the Crocodile Dundee scene I mentioned earlier, after Dundee is told the woman he’s been flirting with is a man, he doesn’t ask her about it or just tell her to go home without him. He grabs her crotch. She flees, and the everyone else in the bar claps and laughs. Later, Dundee grabs another trans woman’s genitals, and this is also treated like it’s funny.

These disgusting endorsements of violence against trans people do not belong in our stories.

How to Fix It

If you’re cis, your stories should not mention a trans person’s genitals – even if your main character is trans. If you have a trans man in your story, feel to describe how he wears a chest binder, but don’t narrate about his breasts. Intimate details like that should be left to trans storytellers. Trans characters should be multi-faceted humans beings who are not defined by biological-sex characteristics.


Our society’s treatment of gender is evolving quickly. Many storytellers are completely unfamiliar with gender as a spectrum. But remember – it’s your responsibility to educate yourself on these topics. If you create something that leads to the assault of a vulnerable person, your ignorance won’t heal their wounds.

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Comments

  1. Laura Ess

    This is a start. Most of the transphobia in these stories comes from cis assumptions by the authors, which in the end becomes a DID NOT DO THE RESEARCH thing. Sigh.

    I’m surprised you didn’t also include “The Host” in point 1 since that’s about a Trill symbiote and Dr Crusher’s reactions to the host they’re in. If we personality for the trill it becomes analogy to gender transition. I’m really glad you brought up THE ORVILLE episode. It was hard to watch, for precisely the reasons you mention.

  2. Shamanka

    Do you have any tips for how to make it clear that a character is trans without being transphobic? My current work in progress features a trans woman, but I’m struggling to make it clear to readers without making a huge fuss about it, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, as if I’m waving her around as a big sign of LGBT+ inclusion.

    • Shamanka

      Not that that’s bad, I just want her to be natural, instead of a blatant token character.

    • Tiberia

      As a trans-woman I’m trying to think how I would want it presented if that was me. I’m glad you don’t want to make it a big deal, or a token much appreciated

      You could try slipping it in at times where it specifically informs her characters actions and reactions. Without knowing more I can’t get more specific

      Alternatively, and this may not fit your style, you could just out and say it, but treat everyone that way. Treat the fact that Jimmy is a Cis male as being as important. Treat as just a thing. Don’t make a fuss about it, by just increasing the general level of fuss for everyone.
      Kurt Vonnegut- To hell with suspense

      but that may not fit your style. Wish I could help more

    • Chris Winkle

      This is a challenge similar to trying to describe what a character looks like physically from their viewpoint, and it’s indeed tough to do. If you want it to be natural and subtle, I would look for ways that being trans makes their life a little different, and include mentions of it casually. Those things might include how they get dressed in the morning or discussions about having children.

    • Evie

      It depends on a lot of factors. How and when your character is likely to think of their being transgender largely depend on how they’ve decided to live their being transgender (and on how your setting allow them to live that). Whether they’re the main/point of view character or not, and if not, what their relation with the main or point of view character also matters.

      If they’re transitioning or have transitioned, and the setting doesn’t allow for instant presto-change-o (I’d personally advise against instant presto change-o – it’s nice wish fulfillment, but I feel it cheapens being transgender), then it could be as simple as slipping a mention to the daily ritual of taking their pills (or “magic skittles”, I’ve lost track of the number of people I hear describe them in that way or similar), since that’s a life-long thing (or close to) for those of us who do elect to transition, and something pretty important in that it’s what allow us to be who we are.

    • Sophie the Jedi Knight

      My best friend (who is trans) is writing a story with a trans character and mentioned it by having one of the characters make a comment on wearing a binder for the first time. It was worked subtlety into the story and didn’t mess with the flow at all. Best of luck!

  3. Tiberia

    I am rather critical of many points on this list. Many of them inadvertently toe the line of Trans-Erasure. Not dealing with gender at all essentially erases Gender identity. For example, for my own trans character I found I had to invent gender stereotypes and differences and so on so that she could not conform to them. I would not be able to tell a story of her struggling with Dysphoria, without dealing with the concept of gender.
    Succinctly- No gender, No transgender. That may be an ideal world, but it doesn’t do much for trans representation.

    I also take issue with the barring of cis people from writing anything of substance on the subject. We have a big enough problem with the lack of representation. That problem is blessedly lessening, but we still need more representation. I would like more Trans Writers, but I also just need more trans characters, and to trust that a cis writer can find the empathy, sympathy, and understanding to write them well. And to tell them they can’t write about people like me, leaves me sitting and just waiting.

    I greatly dislike that I feel a need to out myself as Trans just for my opinion to matter. I just want to be Tiberia, but I don’t feel that’s enough for a conversation like this, even tho my personal business has no effect on the truth value of my statements. No-one is forcing me, but its a soft coercion.
    “Cis people can not say this, or talk about these things”
    “I want to talk about those things, and voice my opinion, but if they assume I’m cis they’ll reject it. SO I have to out myself.”

    More generally the barring of writing a great deal of things in a great deal of ways is tiresome. It makes progressive writing into a chore. A laundry list of “do nots”.

    I do have to agree with the last two points strongly.
    No more “deceptive transfolk”. I’m not trying to lie about my gender, I just want to be me.
    No more “Genitals are king”. While I don;t support blank banning genital talk, I fully support the dethroning of King Genital

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi Tiberia. I understand where you’re coming from on a lot of your points, and you make some good arguments. However, we’ve generally found that it’s easy for people to overestimate how competent a privileged writer is at depicting issues specific to an underprivileged group. As editors, we’ve seen a lot of attempts, and let me tell you, it’s an absolute mess. It’s wonderful that you trust cis writers to write trans issues well, but we do not share that trust.

      We try to encourage writers to include representation for underprivileged groups whenever we can. But we think those characters should be treated like a full person defined by many traits, whereas a privileged writer will reduce them to nothing more than a caricature of the group, by for instance, having every trans character go through a transition. Trans people are more than their transition. We don’t think our advice is a restriction on representation. You can’t feature a transition without having a trans character anyway, so saying you shouldn’t focus on their transition isn’t restricting your ability to include trans characters. If anything, it can remove some of the intimidation factor in having more diverse characters.

      There is a real risk of a group’s experiences being appropriated and misrepresented by privileged people. Instead, we want members of that group to be given the opportunity to tell those stories without competing with those misrepresentations.

      • Evie

        Having the demographic weight to rely on self-representation to ensure your group is represented in fiction is a privilege (yes, privilege) not all minorities have.

        Given how few of us there are in the population at large, and how few of us are writers, and how few of those of us who are writers will get published, and how few of those of us who get published will actually be achieve any success…Well, if we make it a rule that cis people don’t get to write trans characters, I might as well forget about seeing trans folk in stories in my lifetime.

        That doesn’t mean every representation is good, but I’ll take a positive but inaccurate representation over no representation at all in the meantime (negative representation are, of course, a lot more troublesome, but the way to deal with them is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater). Inaccurate but positive representation still results in characters I can identify with, and in sympathy and support for transgender people. Virtually non-existent representation leaves me with no characters I can identify with, and with no sympathy or support.

        In short, I completely agree with Tiberia, and think your advice is well-meaning, but ultimately misguided.

        • Cay Reet

          To me, the advice is rather to be careful and to do your research, if you’re not part of the demographic you write about. You can do so by talking to people who are from the demographic and, if possible, make them part of your group of beta-readers, too. Beta readers can tell you where you’re definitely going wrong and how to make it better – it’s what they do.

          I agree with certain groups, such as trans people, being a rather small percentage (as far as I know, I’m not trans myself), representation through authors who are part of the group is going to be difficult. But then, despite a sizeable percentage in the US being POC, the ‘straight white male’ is still the default hero, so it’s not just about the size of the group. It’s also about the publishers being prepared to think outside the box of ‘that’s how the stories have always been told.’ And about authors daring to write characters which don’t fit that box, risking a not-quite-so-optimal reception of their work.

          If I were to write a trans character (no plans right now, but you never know), one of my first questions would be ‘how do you define yourself?’ I would think nobody is just saying ‘I’m trans,’ but rather ‘I’m trans, because …’ Which part of your background and your character is different, because you’re trans? Which part is defined by being trans? I can only speak as a woman who mostly identifies as one (if not the most girlish or ladylike around), but a lot of me is not defined by being a woman, but by being me. I like certain things, I hate certain things, I can do certain things and I suck at others. Most of that, at least for me, has nothing to do with my gender at all. Some, of course, has.

          • Evie

            Honestly, I think “I’m trans, because…” is a problematic phrasing, because at the end of the day, what you’re going to list are symptoms or effects of being trans. You might *know* you’re trans because of those things, but they’re not the cause of you being trans. Bottom line, at least for me, I’m not trans because something. I really just am, and I have no problem whatsoever defining that part of me simply as “I’m trans.”

            There are, of course, other parts of me (Geek, lawyer, social justice advocate, , but while being trans may affect how I live those other parts of who I am, it doesn’t really seem to define what those other parts are (and it it does, it does so at such a deep, subconscious level that there’s no point in trying to figure out the relations).

          • Cay Reet

            See? That is why you do research. I couldn’t know that, because I’m not trans, but thanks to you I know now that I was wrong. That is why you ask people, if you’re not part of the demographic. You ask them, you gather their stories, if they’re okay to part with them. You don’t just cite the stories, but they help you understand. If you’re a writer, you understand stories.

            I think that, overall, few things in our lives are defined by our gender, but a lot of people see it differently, hence all those people who are screaming on social media whenever someone says ‘I’m not raising my child in any strict gender definitions’ and suchlike (as Pink did recently). Most things we do or like are not defined by what gender we are or what sex we were born with (I’d make a difference between those, because biology is one thing and can, if you desire, be changed today, while gender is mostly a social construct for me).

      • Rachel Thompson

        Read my note below. The quandary is we trans writers can’t out ourselves if we want to be published and have an audience other than the GLBT community. So how can a trans writer write trans characters and just be known as a writer from your viewpoint? Don’t you understand most of us just want to live a normal safe life. Exposing status is dangerous and counter productive for one’s financial and psychical survival. Jenner is the exception to the rule and not the standard.

  4. SunlessNick

    The Bone Palace, the middle book in Amanda Downum’s Necromancer trilogy (it’s three stories, not one story in three parts, which is why this only applies to one book) has the society it’s set in do what a number have historically, which is acknowledge a “third gender” where everyone who doesn’t fit into the male/female binary ends up.

    That’s not a great solution from a trans rights perspective, but Downum analyses various ways the concept serves as both a shield and a problem for the people it’s applied to. Two of the main characters are third gender – one we would recognise as transgender today, the other as intersexed – both are rounded characters.

  5. StyxD

    I’m also having problems with figuring out how to gracefully include trans characters.

    As Tiberia mentioned, it seems impossible to create a trans character without making a framework of gender expectations for them to buck against. Even then, not every non-gender-conforming character is necessarily trans. It seems that that there’s no other way than to state it outright in the story – but I can’t think of how to do it without making the trans status part of a conflict in the story or mentioning genitals or other sexual characteristics.

    The latter, as this article posits, should be avoided. The former requires creating a story that accommodates the plot point, and besides, I would think it’s not really a good solution if trans characters can only appear in stories that directly deal with the issue of being trans.

    Tiberia’s idea of creating a world where sex is culturally decoupled from gender is a good one, but I think it would also become the main point of a story in the eyes of the readers. The same way that, for example, Mistborn seems less about rebels fighting an empire in post-apocalyptic wasteland and more about the world where people get superpowers by munching on metal flakes.

    I just can’t untangle all of this, and as such I so far never dared to write a trans character.

    By the way, do you have any examples of works that you consider to have good trans representation?

    • crimson square

      Well…
      One very easy way to include a trans character would be to include a non-binary trans character that doesn’t use he or she – have them simply state their pronouns, whether they’re using they or xe or ze or something else, (and then have people consistently use those pronouns) and you’ve included a trans character… without even describing that person’s looks. Hell, you can just have another character talk about them casually: “I’m going to the gym with Jay today. Ze’s kind of unsure about it, ze’s never been there before.”

      If you want to use a binary character or a non-binary one that does use he or she, characters who haven’t transitioned can also be obvious: Trans guys with high voices wearing a chest binder, who mention taking T as if it’s the most casual thing in the world. Trans women with deep voices, talk about taking E etc. – most importantly, do not make fun of those looks, or associate them with a gender the person isn’t. Mentioning a high or deep voice is not harmful. Treating it as if it was funny is… not.
      Use pronouns in combination with looks/voice and have characters even joking upon introduction “Yes, I am X, not immediately obvious, I know.”

      A small thing, perhaps – gender affirming things can make us incredibly happy, especially if they’re new. If you want to foreshadow a character being trans and coming out later, they might be incredibly happy about something like a fist-bump or a hug. Wearing trousers or skirts. Having a hair cut they like. (For me, having my hair cut really short is amazing. Really amazing. It’s fluffy after washing! It doesn’t tickle in the back!)

      If you want to write a story without focusing on or including transphobia – Treat being trans as utterly, completely normal. Ordinary. Have somebody AFAB who’s not afraid to show off their soprano, or somebody AMAB who’s got an amazing bass voice. Have somebody casually mention top or bottom surgery, and their worries about medical complications. Look up current jokes we make about hormones, and if they fit your story, you can include them.
      Have people not be quite sure yet about what they want their name to be, if they’ve just recently figured out they’re trans, and respond to the question with “What’s your name?” with something like “I’m not quite sure yet…”

      Also, if you do want a society where being trans is treated as completely normal… have people only use pronouns other than a neutral one (most often they) after the other person has introduced themselves. Have them think in neutral pronouns for any random stranger until they’ve got an indication of their pronoun. Have people not make any assumptions.

      These are just… some ideas and suggestions, mind you. Very much not everything that you could do, very much not all things that might fit any given story.

      Otherwise… well, I can’t think of a lot of them of the top of my head, but some stories that are pretty decent about how they represent trans characters and really casual about it are:
      * Sidekick Squad (book series) – the second book, Not Your Villain, is written from the PoV of a trans boy
      * Never Satisfied (webcomic) – this comic uses the “casually including they-pronouns” to great effect. You also don’t have to pay or buy anything to view it, and if you don’t want to read a whole comic, the main character uses they pronouns, so you just have to read the beginning for research purposes (… it’s also a fairly good comic in my opinion, so reading everything that’s been published for fun purposes is also an option.)
      * Cucumber Quest (webcomic) – this comic includes a trans female character in a later part, and handles it quite well, I think. Also free, also very good. (And cute. And funny.)

      I hope this was helpful?

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Alistair Reynolds actually has a couple of non-binary characters, one of them pretty major in the story even though ve’s not the protagonist, in his Poseidon’s children series, and it’s a non-issue in the book. I thought that was pretty cool.

  6. Tracy

    That episode “The Outcast” came out in 1992 when there were almost zero openly gay characters on TV. Ellen DeGeneres came out on her show in 1997 and faced extreme backlash for doing so. The only way Star Trek could have a gay/trans character was to make her an alien and obscure the language to evade censorship.

    I don’t think any student writing a paper on Queer Rights is going to take notes from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. Why bother using a 25 year old episode as an example of “failure” to meet today’s strict and rapidly evolving standards? Star Trek’s handling of other issues like PTSD, and drug addiction, is obviously not going to have our 2017 understanding.

  7. Sara Baptista

    Wow this was so perfect timing that it seems more like fate.
    I’m doing my homework about “how to write a transsexual protagonist” and BOOM here it is a wonderufl article!
    Thank you Chris!

  8. Sam Beringer

    To add to point 3, maybe not have people even comment on the character cross-dressing. For instance, the Steven Universe episode “Sadie’s Song” has Steven get up on stage and perform in drag. No one laughs or says anything about that portion; the only response is cheering and two characters talking about how they suspected he was behind the mystery performer bit all along.

    Also, video game example, but in the Story of Seasons games you have the option of wearing anything regardless of your gender. And while characters will comment on your garb, the most they’ll say is “oh, that dress looks pretty on you.”

  9. Tim

    Or not, and ignore those who find offense in books about people who are in the majority,and write bestsellers….like The Wheel of Time. You are competing for beer money, and beer is good. Write the best story you can, and hope for the best. And ignore any rules by anyone who has not written a bestseller.

  10. Cay Reet

    The idea that the feelings of a small minority don’t matter is toxic in itself. I’m rather sure a lot of people who aren’t trans, like me, would appreciate stories which show a larger variety of trans characters. As I would appreciate stories with a larger variety of other ‘not default’ characters. You can’t write a good story with badly-constructed characters.

    • Cay Reet

      You have already disqualified yourself with the ‘mental illness’ comment. Only a few decades ago, being gay was still classified as a mental illness. Only about a century ago a well-known German psychologist published a book claiming all women were mentally ill and thus should not be given control over their own lives and people applauded it.

      If you think something which has been around since the beginning of time is a mental illness, you’re disqualifying yourself from discussing it.

      And I do not trust a ranking system where something like ‘Twilight’ or ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (the most horribly misunderstood use of BDSM ever to be seen in media) rank as bestsellers. There are many novels with ‘outside the box’ characters out there and a lot of them are really good and appreciated.

  11. Cassandra

    A wise person once said “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will come flocking to your door.” Your audiences care about people. Not their sexual orientation or their gender identification, all of which can change over time in different directions. We care about the nuts and bolts of people’s lives, their real struggle, the actual good and evil they strive against.

    Science fiction and fantasy has always been diverse, more diverse than anything else. This entire notion you have blogged about is more a way to shut down diversity than encourage it.

    Why do we read and what do we look for? We read because people (aliens, dinosaurs, whatever) are interesting. What makes them more interesting is the familiar ways they react: the reactions we understand. To spend all this time and attention Thought Policing people’s reactions simply eliminates humanity from your characters.

    What was most notable about the Star Trek story you referenced was not the way gender was handled on that planet by its elimination , but the atrocity of reeducation, which removed the freedom of choice from the protagonist.

    What you are advocating here is a form of reeducation.

    • Rachel Thompson

      One thing I noticed is people are indeed interested in trans people, or any person that is not the social norm, but interest in us is like how one stops to gawk at a car accident. This interest works more against us than for us as a community because the CIS emotion most applied to us is hate. Wonder and curiosity, not so much. Write trans characters as if they are normal people because we are, the trans part is coincidental and should be written that way. It’s not a plot point but it can add flavor to an interesting world-build.

      • Cay Reet

        I’m actually more curious. I’ve never seen the point in hating someone for something like sexual identity or orientation.

        So, if i wrote a gay character simply as a guy who is into other guys, but has a normal life (well, for a main character), that’s okay, too?

        • Rachel Thompson

          I don’t see an issue with that. If you want to write a gay character research their environment. Make gay friends, hang out with them, see what their lives are like day to day. Hear their stories. Inhale the flavor of their situations. Interview gay folks. Gay pride parades are fun but it’s not solid research. However gay pride day events that follow are loaded with display booths, anything from vendors to services with a lot of people to ask questions of. It is all about making the character feel real and that is much easier to do when you know real gay people.

          • Cay Reet

            Thank you. I’ll do that.

  12. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I have deleted O.o’s post for open bigotry. I’d have deleted it sooner but I was sleeping off Xmas dinner. Cay Reet did an excellent job arguing against such garbage as usual, but we don’t think anyone should have to read stuff like that.

    • Cay Reet

      Thanks, Oren. I should have known that wouldn’t stay up for long.

    • StyxD

      What does or does not constitutes mental illness is a matter of medical science, not “dissenting opinion”.

      So at worst it’s suppression of uninformed opinions.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      And hopefully O.o will not be a problem for us again. Sorry StyxD, sometimes we aren’t fast enough at catching these comments. Had another one equating being trans with having a mental illness that I removed. Suffice to say that kind of bigotry is not allowed.

  13. Tee

    I think what a lot of the people leaving comments are misunderstanding is that trans people aren’t saying cis people shouldn’t write trans characters. Please do, we want you to! We want more trans characters in mainstream media.

    No, what cis people should avoid is writing stories about transphobia. Feel free to write stories that at times discuss transphobia, but don’t write a story about the hardships of it. You do not have the experience it takes to understand all the ins and outs of transphobia. It’s comparable to how I, a white person, shouldn’t write a story about what anti-black racism is like for black people – I don’t have the experience to tell that story faithfully.

    Don’t write about oppression you have not suffered from yourself. A story about a person from an oppressed group doesn’t have to be about the oppression they suffer from.

  14. Rachel Thompson

    This is interesting. As a post-op I’ve spent years dodging bullets and I don’t want to be know as a trans or GLBT writer, just a writer. So it is rare for me to out myself and I hope no one I know reads this as most people I know have no idea I’m trans and its better that way for my survival. A normal and safe life is all we want. Much of what you said above as politically incorrect in truth actually happens and may be where the ideas come from. “Bortus becomes upset that Klyden “deceived” him.” That is a very good example of how it really is for trans people coming out. Its honest. People do feel they have been deceived when one comes out. So, if anything, the writers you criticized show our reality. Telling the truth is not incorrect, it’s real and perhaps too real for most readers.

    • Aazhie

      I completely agree with you. This episode was really well written with sympathy for anyone whose been in that awful scenario, or even just dreaded this concept. Its possibly the best I’ve seen in a very long time

  15. greg

    Grant Morrison’s comic, ‘The Invisibles’ features a transgender South American Bruja as one of the good guy rebels. I think he does a great job of writing the character in a balanced way.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      I’ve seen completely different reactions from trans folk on Fanny. She’s called a “she-male” in the comic, not just by villains but even by herself at one point, and is constantly referred to as a transvestite despite clearly being a woman (she refers to herself as a “girl” or “woman”, all her friends uses “she”, and most obvious of all, only women can be witches in this universe). This is not cool with some (although it’s unclear to me how much of that depends on her being written in the nineties, where the terminology and which terms were considered completely offensive and off limits might have been different from today). But some also love her because she’s so bad-ass. There aren’t exactly tons of sexy bad-ass trans women in fiction.

      I’m in the camp who considers her a really cool character, but I’m cis though.

  16. Aazhie

    As a FTM man, I actually thought the Oroville episode did a much better job of dealing with gendered issues in a mature way. Some characters had very shitty opinions on the whole debate but from my viewpoint they actually made it a bad thing that Maclins force this gender conversion. Also, it does suck that the cis male partner was dismissive and rude about his partners private life. But the fact that in the end, his mind was changed was a pretty powerful message to me. It was relateable because *I* have to wonder about how to approach others I would like to date about my trans identity. This is something many transfolk agonize over and it’s totally their right to decide when or if to come out, but it also tend to happen a lot that we don’t *get* to choose it and are outed by something. For me, the message was pretty clear that Bortys was being an asshole by harassing his mate about the past! I watched this ep with a lot of gay men who could relate to the whole idea if being unintentially outed or hounded by people who have no right to it.
    It’s tough to separate out completely what was pro trans and pro women because the issues were pretty well tied. Being a woman was viewed as freakish in their society yet a very prominent intellectual was a woman whose parents allowed her to remain herself and gave her a choice to be who she was.
    I do think seeing any kind of serious addressing if these issues in a mostly silly sci fi show is pretty awesome, even if the end was not happy and even somewhat ambiguous. There were many undertones of how cultures can be abusive towards queer or non normative folks and that shouldn’t be okay,even if it IS considered to be culturally appropriate, historical or traditional.

  17. Andrew S.

    I’d like to offer some minor dissent on two points:

    Gender is currently understood to be a “role”, in that what we identify ourselves as is a personal decision that each of us makes freely. The function of cross dressing as humor isn’t based on the fact of taking of other gender roles, but on the discomfiture of characters having to pretend to a role they aren’t competent or comfortable to perform. This is little different than a character fumbling through pretending to be a police officer. It isn’t that gender and vocation are equivalent to those that have those roles, but that being a fish out of water is the humor. Deciding that certain types of fish-out-of-water humor can only be applied to some roles and not others is almost looking to be offended.

    As far as choosing to depict trans people in fiction, everyone should choose to take that on if they wish. But I don’t think the relative prevalence of trans people warrants pressuring authors to include trans characters as a common element. If the goal is realism in writing by reflecting the real make-up of a given population, it strikes me that that are many other marginalized groups in society that are much more common, yet much less represented in fiction. If some marginalized groups receive representation at a greatly disproportionate rate in fiction, is that realistic? If your dramatis personae contains 12 people, it is 4 times more likely that one of those characters would be under 5 feet tall than trans. Do we need to address the gross underrepresentation of little people (for instance) in the same manner?

    Finding offense in art is a growing pastime. I don’t know if it actually serves the role it intends.

    • Michael Campbell

      Also the over pressurizing of gender roles is not the fault of gender itself.
      I was watching Stephen Colbert the other night.
      He said that basically he was a heterosexual male…although his favourite book is about elves and jewelry.
      And I realised that what he’d really done was to allow some truly unintelligent people to dictate to him; the decided unscientific idea, that imaginary races and inanimate objects, have gendered roles.

      A boy riding a girl’s bike must therefore be a future gay!?!
      No, a boy riding a girl’s bike must therefore be a boy riding a girl’s bike.
      Baking a cake is not a job that’s only fit for a woman. The cake doesn’t mind.
      Judge not lest ye be judged. Should also read, judge not lest ye load the victims of your judgement up with a psychological complex…but that would be written as though the judgmental person actually; at their core, cares about their fellow man…which may not be always true.

      Loading up inanimate objects and fantasy races with a gender role is just plain moronic. And furthers the beliefs of bullies:- that they are right to demand that others live up to their preconceived ideas about what is or isn’t proper.

      There’s a reason bullies are always looking for their next victim.
      It’s so that people won’t find out what a truly slipshod product they actually are.
      Don’t judge a thing by their standards. Be scientific.

  18. LiliesAndRoses

    I also wonder, can it be problematic, if the narrative shows either an “unrestricted” (or restricted in some other ways) shapeshifter that uses their ability to change their gender, or some creatures that are genderless because they are not divided into biological sexes and have no concept of gender (like gemstones in “The Land of the Lustrous”)? I’ve seen you pointed out as problematic when the only racial minorities belong non-human species (for example, the only dark-skinned people are dark elves, but all human beings are white), or when the disabilities are magically cured.

    • Chris Winkle

      I don’t think featuring that in the story is inherently problematic. In fact, I would say it’s a net positive to have more characters and beings that break the gender binary, even if those characters are aliens. What’s problematic is if the story treats gender changes or non-gendered beings as being strange and alien specifically because of these gender characteristics, or if it contrasts them against what’s supposedly normal for humans “Oh, you just have one gender? We humans have two.” Also, gender changing should never be used for humor or shock value.

      But similar your point about all dark skinned characters being non-human, it would definitely be valuable to also have a nonbinary human character in a story like that.

      • LiliesAndRoses

        Excuse me. I just wondered about a different thing. Sure, “fantastic diversity” itself is not problematic — e.g. like dark elves themselves are not problematic. But what was pointed (on Mythcreants) as problematic is “fantastic-only diversity”, for example, when the only people of color are, for example, elves and unicorn people, but all human beings are white (maybe because it erases real PoC and shows them as “merely fantastic”). So I wonder does that apply to trans people, for example, where the only people choosing gender identity are shapeshifters, but all those who don’t have that ability are cis, and the only agender or non-binary people are genderless humanoid (or not) sentient life (like gemstones in “The Land of the Lustrous”), but all human beings are either male or female. Does that erase trans people and show them as “merely fantastic”?

        • Cay Reet

          One problem with all human characters being white is that a normal world (fantasy or sci-fi) should come with climate zone. The hotter the climate, the darker normally the skin (which is why dark-skinned dark elves or drows actually don’t make sense – beings living underground should be pale rather than dark-skinned). If you only show white humans, you are denying that this world does have several different skin tones in its humans, meaning you’re eradicating the PoC in this world.

          A story which did skin tones very well while actually being fantasy, is ElfQuest (oldie, but goodie). There are four tribes of elves in this world (they’re not natural, their ancestors crash-landed on the world): the mortal Wolfriders (live in a moderate climate and are light-skinned), the peaceful Sun Folk (lives in a desert and is dark-skinned), the elitist Gliders (live in a mountain in moderate climate, the only elves to still reach the height of the ancestors, but without offspring for a long time), and the warring Snow Elves (live in a cold climate and are light-skinned, are at a constant war with the trolls over the ‘palace’ – the starship both trolls and elves came to the world with). Every tribe has its own specifics, but all of them are made up of individuals and not paper cut-outs of ‘that tribe.’ To make up for that, there’s not too many elves in every given tribe.

          The Sun Folk is very peaceful, but their life in the desert means they are not faced with humans often. The Wolfriders were in constant fight with the humans in their area over the food resources of the forest, which is why they decided to move away, first finding the Sun Folk and then others. The Gliders have established themselves as ‘gods’ to the relatively under-developed humans and are served by them, but they pay for their decision to live cut off in a mountain by having no more offspring – at least until the Wolfriders arrive and there’s a child born between both tribes. The Snow Elves, finally, were originally part of the Wolfriders, but broke away at some point and moved back to the cold north where the Elves originally crash-landed. They’ve been locked in an on-going battle with the trolls ever since, since the trolls, too, came with the palace and want it for themselves. Humans in the comics are also shown with different skin-colours and different cultures, so they’re not one type of ‘enemy,’ either.

          • LiliesAndRoses

            Yeah, I understand that. But I still wonder about my initial question. As far as I understand (correct me if I’m wrong), there are differences between sex and gender, and, in real life, transgender people are those whose gender differs from assigned sex. Like, trans-women who were assigned male at birth but belong to female gender. But, I worry, that if the narrative has shapeshifters (especially if they don’t have the “default” form, can choose any from they want and change gender routinely) are the only one who can change their gender identity (while completely changing their biological sex altogether), and everyone else is cisgender, it seems to me to be no less cis-sexist than having “all-white humanity” being racist. Just like the only agender or non-binary people are non-human sentient beings, who are that simply because they are not divided into biological sexes and because of that have no concept of gender, and it’s completely ignored that human beings (and any other sentient beings who are divided into sexes and have the concept of gender) can also be agender or non-binary. Doesn’t that eradicate trans people?

            I also wonder about “The Land of the Lustrous”. They have three races/species: immortal Gemstones (the “bones” of extinct humanity), who live on Earth, cannot reproduce and have no sex and no concept gender, mortal Admirabilis (the “flesh” of extinct humanity), who are reproduce sexually, and seem to have the concept of gender, and Moon People (the “soul” of extinct humanity, initially shown as enemy of Gemstones and possibly Admirabilis, but then stopped breaking Gemstones and accepted collaboration). I’ve seen two moments in manga in which Gemstones were confused because of not understanding gender: Phosphophyllite not understanding sexuality and sexual appeal when talking to Ventricosus, and when Aechmea (the Moon Person) asked Cairngorm to become his wife, Gemstones ask “what is wife?”.

            Also, what would you advice with portraying shapeshifters and sentient life that is undivided into sexes? Is it good or bad idea to show gender identity of those who has no biological sex (which doesn’t seem to make much sense — if there’s no biological sex, what reason would that sentient beings have to divide into genders? — mentioned above Gemstones don’t)? If they are portrayed alongside with sentient beings that do have biological sex, what advice do you have to portray relationships between them? What about “sexless” beings not understanding the concept of gender and other beings explaining it to them? What about “sexless” beings choosing gender identity in a society dominated by sentient beings that do have biological sex? It was previously pointed out which problematic moments can be when male character shapeshifts into female one (if character’s value lessens after shapeshifting, or if it becomes butt of jokes). I also try to be careful about representation of transgender people, and I feel that author needs to be careful about “playing with gender” as it could lead to problematic narratives (especially if author is cisgender and/or male).

          • Cay Reet

            There is indeed a difference between sex and gender. Sex is biological or genetic (and we can today change biological sex with the right treatment) and gender is a social construct – the way we define what is typically masculine or feminine. Gender and sex do not have to be aligned, a person can feel they belong to one gender, but be the opposite sex (trans people). Today, those people can have treatments to bring their gender and sex into alignment, if they wish (and as far as they wish to take it). In the past, some cultures have accepted trans people being the gender they choose to be (such as the two-spirits in several Native American tribes). Then there’s, of course, also the topic of people who are non-binary and fell they’re both genders or none. Gender is very much defined by society and gender roles and ideas can change. For instance, we hear today that ‘real men don’t cry,’ which would be outrageous to the Ancient Greek, where men were supposed to cry when appropriate (anger, grief, etc.).

            As far as shape shifters go, I don’t see them as a problem per se. Shifters often are shown as being able to shift between sexes (as their body shifts, it would be a sex and not gender shift) and there’s nothing bad about that. It’s more about how society reacts to them, because that is where you could get problems.

            If you have a group of people in your story who are not confirming to the way we are used to seing sexes or genders, you might have to establish them and how they see themselves. Do they find it strange that humans come in different sexes, because they’re all the same? (I did that in a Loki story with the Jotun which are described as being both male and female at the same time.) Do they have a concept of sex (in the biological meaning, not the deed)? How do other people see them and treat them? As always, do not make a specific thing which people, perhaps, are discriminated for, define the whole group. Don’t make it their defining trait. What goes for skin colour or ethnicity should also go for everything sex or gender (or sexual orientation) related.

        • Chris Winkle

          Every underprivileged group is different, and I would say that’s a concept that applies well to POCs but does not map as well to trans people. Not to say that it will never be an issue, but there are couples reasons why I don’t think it is in the current cultural climate. 1) Trans people have so little representation right now that just adding relatable gender-changing aliens is probably a step up and 2) the habit of depicting all relateable aliens as being either cis men or cis woman is inherently problematic, and reinforces the erasure of trans people. It’s not like skin color, where aliens in novels could easily have blue or green skin (that doesn’t mean they won’t be coded or interpreted as black or white, but that’s a big topic).

          That said, if you are writing a story like this than I would still add trans human character somewhere, because why not? But it’s definitely not a reason to avoid aliens that break the gender binary.

          • Cay Reet

            A trans or non-binary human could even get along with the aliens a lot better.

            And a shapeshifter who openly changes sex at will could really be a step up, because it would put a spotlight on the fact that sex and gender are not the same and don’t have to align.

  19. Bunny

    Regarding number 1, I know someone who says “ladies through gentlemen” instead of “ladies and gentlemen.” Do you think this is a reasonable alternative?

    • Cay Reet

      I have to admit I didn’t get the point reading it for the first time. ‘Gentlepeople’ might be an alternative, though.

    • Chris Winkle

      I think it’s better than the original, but still not ideal. It could be hard to hear the difference from the original, it’s a little hard to understand the meaning, it’s still framing nonbinary people in terms of the gender binary – which may make nonbinary people feel second class, and personally, I think we need to get away from putting so much emphasis on gender when we think about or refer to people.

  20. Anwyn Davies

    It’s a small thing, but I think it’s a pertinent correction: ‘Crocodile Dundee’ was framed as naive country mouse coming to, and by implication being superior to, the sophisticated city. The first incident you cite, with Dundee groping the genitals of a transwoman, without consent, is horrible – it’s also the moment where Dundee discovers such a thing as transwomen exist (and how that is handled is decidedly problematic.) My correction is this – the second time Dundee grabs the genitals of a women, she isn’t trans as you have described; she is a cis woman with a low-pitched voice and somewhat butch features. Dundee makes the assumption that any woman who does not present as stereotypically female is thus ‘suspect’, and ‘proves’ to himself her gender by grabbing her crotch, (and she is shown to be initially shocked, but ultimately flattered by this, which is its own bag of horrible). I’m bringing this up because I think that’s actually more problematic than ‘Dundee assaults a second transwoman for humour’, and should be noted.

  21. LiliesAndRoses

    If a human being is turned into, for example, spirit, sexless faerie or other sexless being, should they keep their gender identity or abandon it?

    • Cay Reet

      That depends on how strong the turn is. Do they retain memories of who they were before? Then they’ll probably keep their gender identity, because it’s part of their overall identitiy. But if they can’t remember who they used to be, they’ll also lose gender identity, I guess.

      The question is why you have sexless beings, though. How do these beings propagate and why do they propagate that way? It’s one of the first things the audience will probably want to know.

      • LiliesAndRoses

        Why do sexless beings need to propagate, why not just being immortal? (for example, I can’t imagine spirit propagating). They can just be brought to existence by other ways, not from other beings of their “species”.

        Also, what could a gender identity mean for, e.g., sexless faerie? Would such faeries go by he/him or she/her or xe/xir or other pronouns when faeries who aren’t transformed humans would go by they/them? How their gender could manifest itself outside the pronouns thing?

        • Cay Reet

          An immortal being has been created at some point, even if it doesn’t die. You need to communicate how they come into being, how they exist, even if they do not have a need or a way to propagate (which would explain turning a human into a faerie, of course, since that would be their way to propagate, then). Spirits are usually seen as the souls of the dead, so they do not propagate, obviously, but other beings have to, so they can exist. Spirits ‘propagate’ by new souls turning into spirits, but since the concept of spirit/ghost is well-known to humans, that doesn’t need an explanation. Faeries, on the other hand, do need an explanation.

          And even if gender identity wouldn’t mean anything to a sexless being, if that being once used to have a gender, as I pointed out, it would depend on whether or not they forget about their past life. If that human is turned so completely they can’t remember having been human once, they might not even have a concept of ‘gender’ any longer. But if they can still remember their past, they will probably have trouble understanding the concept of not having a gender, because especially humans put a lot of meaning into having one (otherwise, why would some people react so aggressively to those who do not confirm to one gender or are transgender?). So it depends on how you work your transformation. If the human has no memory of their past, they will conform to those around them, hence they will no longer ‘think’ in gendered terms. If they can still remember having been a human, they will cling to the idea of gender a little longer, even if they no longer have one – but they’ll get used to it eventually.

          • LiliesAndRoses

            Also looked about it in the Internet. As far as I know, gender identity can have different importance for different people. Some characters would not care about losing gender, just like they wouldn’t mind shapeshifting into the different gender. Some characters would welcome such transformation as liberation from gender or gender roles. There also could be characters for whom gender is very important, they consider it a part of their identity, and even after becoming sexless faerie, they would still prefer to be considered, for example, a woman and go by she/her.

    • Roger

      I’d say that predominately depends on how you treat the body-mind relation in your universum. Do souls exist in your world? If they do, what happens when they separate from a body? Which “traits” or “instinctive reactions” come from the body and which from the soul?

      Example 1 Blakeian world (“Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that called Body is a portion of a Soul discerned by the five senses”):
      – In this case I’d say the character retains his sex drive, sex-orientation as well as say his instinctual reflexes.

      Example 2 materialistic monism (“All mental states are created by material causes of the body).
      – In this case, I’d say the character loses both sex-drive and sex-orientation. The character now experiences all the stimuli and reflex reactions of the body he’s “inhabiting”. So for a faerie it might be an uncontrollable attraction to the smell of ferns or a reflexive fear of iron etc.

  22. LiliesAndRoses

    Also wonder about writing sexless beings living in a society mainly populated by humans or other gendered beings. Is it okay for sexless beings to adopt gender identity in such societies? Is it appropriate to have sexless beings not understanding gender, sexuality and/or marriage (like, in “The Land of the Lustrous”, Phosphophyllite being confused when Wentricosus tried to explain sexual appeal to them)? What do you think of marriage between genderless and gendered being (like, between human and genderless faerie)?

  23. Roger

    I would never include any trans characters in my own stories. Frankly: I’m afraid of backlash.

    1. I would not make a villain who is trans, because I’m afraid I’d face the backlash in the vein of: “You are villifying trans people and stereotyping them as mean and evil”.

    2. I would not make a major supporting character who is trans, because I’m afraid I’d face the backlash in the vein of: “This trans character exists only to aid and support the main priviliged character. Ii is no different than a magical Negro or Tonto trope.”

    3. I would not make a main character who is trans, because I’m afraid I’d face the backlash in the vein of: “You are misappropriating this identity without the necessary knowledge and personal experience” (Which would be entirely true btw: I do not know any trans people myself and I have never seen a trans person other than on TV).

    4. I would not make a very minor background character who is trans, becuase there would be justified backlash of: “You put him there just to tick the box of havign a tans character in a story. You are dismissing and sidelining the character”.

    The way I see it: It is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” catch 22 situation.

    • LiliesAndRoses

      I don’t quite agree with #3, because there’s big difference between “having a transgender main character” and “writing about transgender issues people face in the real life”. I doubt that changing cisgender character into transgender one is likely to be problematic, as long as you avoid transphobic tropes. As previously said, you can also add shapeshifters into your narrative, or sexless species.

      • Roger

        I wouldn’t be too sure about it.

        I still remember when I wrote a short political fiction story with one of the characters being a lesbian. There was no description of sexual activities at all in the story. The character was in a relationship, but the relationship was not the focus of the story at all. The character’s girlfriend did not appear in any other way than being mentioned in passing by other characters.
        All the chracters were politicians, members of a christian-democractic party. The focus was their actions after an internal crisis.

        I received several negative opinions explicitly stating that I should not write in 1st person as a lesbian character because of my RL sex and me being European. The argument was that this is “appropriation by a priviliged party”, not that the story is prejudiced.
        I replied with a short comment along the lines of: “I think my story should be judged on its own merit, not on my RL identity” which sparked a lot of drama and eventually one person got banned from deviantart.

        Overall the amount of fuss this created made me want to strongly avoid such a process again. I’m pretty sure I’d receive a similar, if not more emotionaly intense reaction if it was a trans character instead of a lesbian.

        (side note: I usually write these sort of political stories in 1st person, but almost always from multiple character’s perspectives within a single story. Often in a form of “found documents” or emails charatcers send to one another. Thus there’s no “one single main character” rather 3-8 “equal characters” in a story)

        • Cay Reet

          There will always be people who don’t like what you write or whom you choose as your main character. While the ‘white male’ default makes things a lot easier (since you’ll face less trouble), it doesn’t really help in the long run. Personally, I don’t really understand why they said you were too ‘European’ to write a story with a lesbian lead (because I’m from Europe, too, and we surely do have lesbians).

          It would be ideal, if specific groups were represented in writing by their own members – if transgender writers would write transgender characters, if lesbian writers would write lesbian characters, if female writers would be female characters, etc. But the world isn’t ideal and if we want more representation (which would, perhaps, encourage more people to write who they are instead of who is safe to write), we need to start making it happen..

          It’s your choice whether you want the drama. Personally, I look at chriticism of my work, decide whether it’s valid, and ignore whatever is not valid. I do my best to write characters which are not ‘myself’ (in my case male characters, for instance) well, I ask for help when I’m not sure about an aspect of their lives, but I’m not shying back from writing the characters I want to write and from making my stories diverse, just because some people like to create drama. Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m simply past that stage.

  24. Roger

    Cay Reet: “Personally, I don’t really understand why they said you were too ‘European’ ”

    It was an appropriation charge. The argument was that as a European male, I am an undesirably priviliged writer. Thus I musn’t be writing in 1st person as underpriviliged characters, because that is appropriation. If I do so, then it is brought up as proof that white men think they can do anything and own everything (and all sorts of drama follows as my readers attack one another over these points).

    To me it appears to be a catch 22. If I include lesbian characters, then I’m “appropriating”. If I don’t include them then my stories “lack diversity” or worse I am “purposly excluding minority groups by writing from a position of privilige”.

    In extreme cases it can seem as an argument in the vein of: “You shouldn’t write if you are a white European male. Please stop writing and make room for writers with a different identity”.

    (To be fair I’ve also saw people using similar accusations against other ethnic groups, especially middle easterners and Muslims in general).

    Obviously, I don’t enjoy that.

    Cay Reet: “I look at criticism of my work, decide whether it’s valid, and ignore whatever is not valid.”

    I agree, but that is possible only if the criticism is aimed at the content of the story, or the writing style etc. People care a lot about politics and I’ve had a lot of passionate feedback both positive and negative (none of my characters are based on real politicians, but the parties are based on RL paries so people sometimes got very upset if I had “their favorite party” do something bad in my story).

    However, this is all criticism of the content of the story or the narrative or the facts within the story. That is something I can discuss, learn from and change in the future if I see the criticism as valid. I’m quite fine with taht sort of criticism, even if its hostile or not very productive.

    A charge of appropriation however is entirely different. Criticism is not aimed at the content of the story, but as my identity as a person. I can change the way things happen in my story, or the way my characters talk, but I won’t change my own RL sex or ethnic background.

    I can either declare myself “guilty as charged” and stop writing as certain characters, or I can “deny the charge” and continue writing (which leads very undesirable drama amongst my readers). There’s no room for debate or compromise here.

    Overall I found I’d rather face charges of “stories lack diversity” than an appropriation charge. The former is at least adressed at my story, not me as a person.

    • Cay Reet

      This is actually what I mean by validity of criticism: There are people who will critique the content or style of your writing for very much those reasons and you can learn a lot from them. This is valid criticism and good for expanding your writing. And then there’s people who critique your stories for other reasons (they usually really enjoy creating drama). The art is to see which one is which. And to understand that you can never please everyone. Then you ignore those people and their critique and just go on writing. There’s no use in arguing with them over stupid arguments like “you’re appropriating this, because you’re a white man” any more than there’s use in arguing with people who claim climate change doesn’t exist. Everyone is welcome to their opinion, but that doesn’t mean you have to care about it or let it dictate your work.

      If you want to write first-person stories of lesbian politicians as a European male, do so. If people say ‘this is appropriation,’ let them. If they don’t want to read your stories because of that, it’s okay. Nobody likes everything. If someone who is a politician or a lesbian (or, ideally, both) critiques your story on rational grounds, listen to them and learn from them, but if it’s just a general ‘people shouldn’t write about other people’s lives’ thing which could be used for everyone who is not writing only about themselves, ignore it. The only important thing is that you take your character’s lives and backgrounds seriously. That you research the aspects which you have not experienced first-hand. That, perhaps, you find a beta reader or sensivity reader who can tell you where things are wrong. That’s something I’ve found every writer needs to learn at some point.

      • Roger

        Because I write Polit Fiction (some set in modern times and some set in antiquity), I do get some readers who are from the radical left and radical right. Some very radical. Thus a notion of a “sensitivity reader” would probably be moot, as I almost always get conflicting opinions depending on the political orientation of each reader.
        Also my German readers like to passionately disagree with my Ukrainian and Polish readers, but its another story.

        Heck, sometimes I feel I did a good writing job only if the extreme nutjobs on both sides of the fence go away angry after reading my story

        But more seriously, choosing a “sensitivity reader” would mean I will adapt and cater to that person’s specific political viewpoint. That clashes with my idea of equality amongst my readerbase.

        Again: comments and criticism are welcome as long as they are about the content of the story. Appropriation charges and other criticism of my RL identity are a different thing entirely.

        I’ve had enough of the backlash these create and that is why I learned to avoid creating certain types of characters. All it does is create a mess in the comments, pits readers against one another and distracts my readers from the story.

        Let trans authors write about trans chracters, at least they will be allowed to do in in peace.

        • Cay Reet

          Sensivity readers are supposed to make sure you write a specific kind of person (homosexual/disabled/transgender/specific ethnicity/etc.) right – that you avoid prejudices, stereotypes, or other things which will offend that specific group. So if you made a big mistake with your lesbian politician’s lesbian aspects, they would tell you about it and suggest how to do it better. That’s what they are for. You don’t need to use one, if you don’t want to. But the ‘I write the standard character, because I don’t want people tell me I’m doing it wrong’ thing is something a sensivity reader could help you with – because they’d professionally and rationally tell you what’s wrong, so you can change it before the general audiences get to see your story. So when people complain later, you know it’s not for rational reasons, but because of others.

          Especially with political stories, I’d say ignore your extremist readers and write what you think is right. As a writer, you have to stick up for what you believe in and what you want to tell. Saying ‘I’m not writing this, because I’m afraid of the reaction’ is the wrong way to go. One big thing a writer needs to learn is not to let criticism silence them. Stay with your safe default if you want, but not because you’re afraid, but because you don’t want to write something else.

          • Roger

            Cay Reet: But the ‘I write the standard character, because I don’t want people tell me I’m doing it wrong’ thing is something a sensivity reader could help you with (…)

            Oh I’m not at all bothered by people telling me that I’m doing it wrong. I’m bothered by people telling me that all this time I’ve been the wrong person to write.

            In general, I don’t write my characters as villains or heroes. Most of my characters can be summed up as being primarily motivated by self-interest and simply trying to go on with their life avoiding or defeating obstacles in their way (especially my ancient characters) with more or less ruthlessness.

            Based on feedback of my regular readers, I imagine that if I would take a right-wing-conservative sensitivity reader they would probably urge me to make minority characters more crazy and unpredictable. At the same time, if I would take a leftist-liberal sensitivity reader then they would urge me to make my minority characters more angelic and selfless.

            That is my beef with the idea itself of a “sensitivity reader” – it ends up being soft censorship tilted towards the political position held by this specific person.

            All in all, if there is flak to be taken because of some bias in my stories, I’d rather have it be my own bias and not that of someone else.

            Cay Reet: “I’d say ignore your extremist readers and write what you think is right.”

            Yeah, that is exactly what I usualy end up doing. I don’t ignore them entirely, because sometimes they point out something that actually makes sense to me.

            But much of the time it is entirely predictable what each side will say – you know how it is as in real life: A populist person starts talking about infrastructure spending and you already know what he will say and why.

          • Cay Reet

            You clearly don’t get the point about a sensitivity reader. There is no ‘right wing sensitivity reader,’ because right wing extremists are no minority with a special background.

            Sensitivity readers help you with portraying minority characters right. They give you tips on prejudices or stereotypes you should avoid when it comes to such minorities as homosexual people, disabled people, or people of a specific ethnicity (such as POC in the US) who have very specific troubles which can easily be forgotten by someone who is not part of that minority.

            Those sensivity readers do nothing more or less than to look at your text and see if something in there will offend or hurt people from that specific background. You could ask a lesbian to read through your stories with a lesbian politician and tell you whether, from the lesbian point of view, there’s something fundamentally wrong in the story. If you portray a lesbian in a way that is harmful to the group (like, slightly off topic, claiming that bisexual or pansexual people have a problem staying faithful, which is plain wrong, but a stereotype you encounter often). Then you’d correct that.

            Or, if you write a politician who is blind or deaf, you could ask a sensitivity reader who knows what it is like to be blind or deaf to go over your text (a blind person would do so through text-to-speech, I imagine) and check if you’ve shown something wrong in that aspect. There is no sensitivity reader who will tell you when you are offending right-wing or left-wing or other extremitist groups. Mostly because they enjoy being offended and able to complain about that.

  25. Roger

    Cay Reet: “There is no ‘right wing sensitivity reader,’ because right wing extremists are no minority with a special background.”

    You would be surprised. I personaly know a girl of African immigrant background. She is center-right on economy issues, while being very, very conservative with everything else.

    My previous boss was openly gay, and he was one of the most extreme “free market” persons I have met, very radical opponent of social welfare programs (he was a self-made man coming from a very poor home, I think this shaped his beliefs).
    He is a very smart guy, but I would never think of making him a “sensitivity reader”, because he would certainly prod me into chaning the charcters to fit his particular worldview.

    Maybe I misunderstood what you meant by “extermists”, but one can be very conservative or very pro-market and at the same time belong to a minority ethnic or sex orientation group.

    Cay Reet: “if you write a politician who is blind or deaf, you could ask a sensitivity reader who knows what it is like to be blind or deaf to go over your text”

    This sounds like censorship, something I’m fundamentally opposed to.

    If it was feedback providing me with additional information like: “You know you could make the character do this-and-this when he crosses the street, as it is something I do myself at times” then I would take note.

    But if it was feedback like: “please make this character less cynical, more honest, less egoistic, smarter, more faithful, less cold, more kind, less backstabbing…” then I’d probably ignore the advice.

    Would any “sensitivity reader” ever ask me to make “his” minority character more evil or less smart than I originally describe him/her? I doubt it.

    Everyone tries to make “his own guys” be nicer or at least smarter and more competent – I already know this much without a proof reader

    • Cay Reet

      First of all, being one thing doesn’t stop you from being another. Being right-wing is not connected to your race, sexual orientation, or gender and I know that. It’s not the point. The point is that ‘being right-wing’ isn’t a sign of belonging to a minority. You can be a minority and right-wing, but you are no minority because you’re right-wing. Just as you can be a professional athlete and a minority, but you’re not a minority because you’re a professional athlete (not in the meaning of minority=underprivileged). We all belong to different groups at the same time, if one of them is a minority, we qualify as a minority. That doesn’t mean we can’t also belong to privileged groups at the same time (or just groups which are neither privileged nor underprivileged). A white woman like me belongs to both a privileged group (white) and an underprivileged or minority group (woman).

      A sensivity reader is not censorship. It’s a way to avoid writing a character wrong. Which means you could write a trans main character and be assured that whatever someone tells you about not being the right one to write it, you did write it right, because people who know what being trans means helped you get the character right. And as has been said on this page before, you can write any character you write, as long as you’re careful about it (though it’s better not to go into the details of their specific problems in society, unless you have those problems yourself and can completely understand and convey them). Which means you could continue to write your lesbian politician without being worried at all about the ‘you have no right to write this’ crowd (especially, as you said, since her sexual orientation is no major plot point). That’s what a sensivity reader is for – so you get a character with a completely different background from yourself right and don’t have to worry about getting into trouble for a prejudiced or stereotyped character.

      • Roger

        You make some decent points here.

        I think a good sensitivity reader should be first and foremost someone who provides knowledge, providing both the facts that would commonly be seen as desirable (example: “Yes, most lesbian couples are long-term and quite stable”) and those commonly seen as undesriable (ex: “Yes, there are lesbians that objectify other women”).
        So that when a sesitivity reader disagrees with something in the story, it it because the story does not match what goes on in reality. Not because it clashes with her/his idealized wannabie vision of their own group.

        The former I’d consider extremely useful help, the latter simply censorship.

        The problem is that when we are sepaking about most minority groups, the facts are hard from clear and people don’t have the hard data to prove that their claims are true.
        People are usually biased and deceptive when they talk about their own nation, social group, their caste, etc (regardless if its a minority or a majority). So in situations of deficient data, they tend to sugercoat their own group (“On average Poles work longer hours than other immigrants”, “There is almost no crime among Bulgarian construction workers”, “Middle income homemakers almost never do drugs” etc).

        • Cay Reet

          The former (giving you hints on the reality of being a member of a specific group) is what you have a sensivity reader for. That there might be some influence on how they perceive their group can’t be avoided, but usually, sensivity readers try to be as objective about it as they can – it’s work for them, after all. They also know which stereotypes exist for the group they belong to and they will be on the lookout for them and tell you if you’ve fallen into that trap.

          If you talk to members of a minority group (ideally several), you will get a good overall view of what it is like to be a member of that group in the society they (and, perhaps, you) live in. Normally, it’s not about statistics or something like that, but about the everyday reality of, for instance, being black, being a woman, being blind, or being gay. What way you’re treated in the job or during commute or when you go grocery shopping (which can vary, depending on where you live, how well you’re known there, and what minority you belong to). You might ask a blind person how they navigate an unknown area or what system they have to keep their wardrobe organized. Or you might ask a woman what it’s like to be on the period (something most men have no idea about whatsover, apart from stereotypes and misinformation). Or what it’s like to walk in high heels, which is far from easy and not a skill women are naturally born with. There’s a lot of everyday things you can get right by asking people belonging to a specific group.

  26. Tifa

    Reading this whole exchange is rather like watching a tennis match in slow motion–where will the ball go next?!

    Joking aside, it always seemed odd to me how male crossdressers were almost always played for laughs…

    • cerabobble

      I agree, Cay and Roger’s comment debate is among the best on this site. And Mythcreants always has good comment debates! (As a side note, this is the first website that I read the comments… so now I am disappointed with the comment sections of literally all other websites)

      On your other point… the first male crossdressing that I came across was in Mulan. I remember thinking that it was a cool plan, and wondering why the other members of my class were laughing. That was elementary school, though.

      • Cay Reet

        I think one big problem with crossdressing men is that it’s usually done in a way in which everyone can see that the ‘women’ aren’t really women, despite the fact that real drag queens (or, for another example, Kabuki actors specialised on female roles) can look perfectly female in their full getup.

  27. Dvärghundspossen

    This has nothing to do with sensitivity reading, but I think it actually could be a good idea to have a conservative person read a novel with a conservative character… If you’re not a conservative yourself, I think it’s quite easy to turn conservative characters into silly moustache-twirling villains, ridiculously bumbling morons or the like, even if that’s not your intent. Or, perhaps, their thinking just comes across as really strange and alien.
    Note, this conservative reader should give feedback on the conservative character and whether their reasoning and motivation makes sense; NOT argue that, e.g., a socialist character in the same story should be much weirder and crazier.

    Same goes for writing characters of other views that radically depart from your own.

    • Cay Reet

      Well said.

      It’s always a good idea to get some help with a story when you have character in it who are not easy to understand for you. That goes for political positions you don’t share, but also for belief (like a devout Christian when you’re an atheist), or completely different upbringing. As I wrote a lot further up: you always have to do your research and ask other people when you need information you don’t have.

    • Roger

      People have the tendency to sugercoat their own group and present your opponents as evil and/or stupid.

      For every “self-congratulatory moustache-twirling conservative banker” presented by the liberal side, there will be a ” hypocritical blood-sucking pinko who rules a media empire sitting in his ivory tower, diconnected from real hard-working people” presented by the conservative side. For every “dumb corporate slave drone” there is gonna be a “drugged-out hippy living off his parent’s wages”.

      If you are not sure what to do about political characters, don’t ask for advice from rl representatives of said political option. If you ask me – do the opposite!

      Write conservative characters as liberals see them, then write liberal characters as conservative readers would like to see them. The world in your book may end up looking a bit bleak, but it will at least give people food for thought.

      • Cay Reet

        I agree that the ‘ask someone from that group’ approach comes with its own troubles. I’m not a specialist on political fiction, so I’ll go with your ‘shape them the way the opposition sees them’ – or, just, give them more spinach than a representant of the group gives them.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I should stress that I wasn’t thinking of personality traits or the like here. I don’t mean that you should write conservative characters as, say, highly responsible, loyal, brave, or as really intelligent businessmen or whatnot, just because they like to think of themselves this way.
        But if, say, you write a conservative explicitly going “Well, my evil plan is to force all pregnant women to die in childbirth by denying them abortions, because I simply hate women that much!”, and the conservative reader goes “uh, that’s not what we say, it’s about saving unborn babies!” then you should probably take note that your villain sounds a bit unrealistic and over-the-top, which is a problem if that wasn’t what you’re going for. (To be clear, I do think misogyny is the basic motivation for pro-lifers, internalized misogyny/sluthate for female pro-lifers, but that’s not how they ARGUE, and probably not what they think to themselves either, even when they’re just thinking.)

        (And yeah this example was a bit silly, I’m tired and couldn’t come up with a better one, but I hope you get my point.)

        • Roger

          I’d say the actual argument of pro-lifers would be something like:

          – We become human at conception. So a foetus, even if not fully developed yet, is a person with his integral humanity (or with a soul) and should be treated as such. Killing a foetus is not morally different from killing a 1 month old kid. This is a murder of an innocent.

          Well this is the basic argument. There are a few smarter or dumber variants of it.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Or, if you’re gonna write left-wingers the way conservatives see them, you might end up with something like that Sasha Baron Cohen bit from “Who is America” where he talks to conservatives about how his wife had an affair with a dolphin, but that’s fine because they have an open relationship, and they teach their pubescent daughter to bleed on the flag when she’s having her period… I mean the risk is that you don’t end up BLEAK, but downright SILLY.

        • Roger

          Well obviously take the level-headed criticisms, as opposed to total crazies.

          “US elites are a bunch of self-congratulatory crooks that are trying to protect their offshore accounts in the Caiman Islands” – that can fly.

          “US conservatives created AIDS to kill off black people and gays” – yeah that one is a bit too out there

  28. Dvärghundspossen

    Actually, you could probably combine what I say and what Roger says without contradiction, since we talk about different aspects of the characters.

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