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
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
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
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
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
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.
Need an editor? We’re at your service.