Show of hands, please: Have you ever read a YA novel with a transgender character?
No need to mumble an apology if you haven’t. Seriously. There are so few of these books out there that unless you specifically seek them out you’re unlikely to come across one. Oh, except for the one that hit the NYT bestseller list last June. (Thanks, Libba Bray!)
(By the way, if any of the terminology in this post is unfamiliar to you, here’s a good guide.)
The second book I wrote, the one that led me to my current agent (but which sadly did not sell), had a trans protagonist and a gaggle of trans-spectrum supporting characters. Said trans protagonist had originally been the best friend character in the very first book I wrote, and revealed himself to be trans about halfway through the writing of that first book (this being one of those situations in which the character knew far better than the author). I loved writing about him, which is why I put him at the center of my second book; he’s my all-time favorite character I’ve created, and even though I haven’t worked on his story in more than a year, he still talks in my head a lot and I love thinking of future stories for him and his friends. (Side note, does anyone else do that with your characters long after the book is done? Because I have this whole fantasy in my head for my former protagonist’s frat brother’s complicated adult life as an investment banker looking for love.)
Anyway, the book I just finished doesn’t have any trans-spectrum characters. At least, not as far as I’m currently aware (see above re: characters and the secrets they hold out on us). Which I am actually kind of concerned about. I have ranted before about how I think authors have an obligation to represent a full spectrum of characters, and I try to live by my own rants whenever possible.
But all of that leads into Deep Thoughts about what is involved in presenting a trans character, especially when they aren’t the protagonist. Which by necessity leads to Deep Thoughts about what it’s like to be a trans teenager, either of the out, closeted, or semi-closeted varieties. Because whereas with some categories of “diverse” characters you can get away with a couple of words of explanation ― for example, in the first chapter of your zombie apocalypse book you can establish a character’s diversity credentials with lines like “Kathy’s mocha-colored skin” (remember how in the mid-2000s it seemed like every best friend character resembled some sort of caffeinated beverage?), “Gary’s boyfriend,” “Trisha’s wheelchair,” etc. ― when it comes to trans characters it seems like there’s some obligation to educate the audience with a detailed, long-ass section like “Zach’s gender was assigned female at birth, but Zach feels more closely identified as a boy, and so at school he uses male pronouns, but his parents make him wear dresses on Sundays” and on and on and on, and poor Zach has to spend the rest of the book explaining what pronouns to use and he never has time to engage in any zombie-killing before his brain gets eaten (because zombies don’t care about your preferred gender pronouns, just how yummy your neurons are).
But to get back to the point about representation ― if kids on the non-straight end of the sexual orientation spectrum are underrepresented in YA (and they are), just think about how underrepresented that makes trans kids. Malinda Lo’s handy set of graphs shows that fewer than 1% of YAs have queer characters ― and of that tiny number of queer YA books published from 2000 to 2011, only 4% are about trans characters.
Given that, I tried to make a list of the YA novels I know of that have trans characters. It is a very short list. And while it’s possible that I’m missing some, the numbers would seem to indicate that it’s also entirely possible that I’m not. (It’s also worth noting that every book on this list came out within the past eight years, and the majority were within the past four. If you were looking for a trans YA book in the 20th century, sucked to be you, kid.) (ETA: I should note that more trans YA novels are listed in the left sidebar of Lee Wind’s fantastic blog, but I’m not personally familiar with most of the others on his list.)
YA novels with trans-spectrum protagonists who narrate the story:
- Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger (female-to-male, 2007)
- Freak Show by James St. James (gender non-conforming, 2007)
- Cycler and (re)Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin (defies categorization, 2008 and 2009)
- I Am J by Cris Beam (female-to-male, 2011)
YAs with trans main characters who don’t narrate:
- Luna by Julie Anne Peters (male-to-female, 2004)
- Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher (male-to-female, 2009)
- Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde (female-to-male, 2010)
YAs with trans supporting characters (and surely there have to be more of these that I just don’t know about, right? Right???):
- Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (male-to-female, 2003)
- Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole (genderqueer, 2008)
- Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (male-to-female, 2011)
- I Am J by Cris Beam (yes, I already listed this one above, but it’s the only YA I’ve come across that has more than one trans character in it, so it goes here too; 2011)
I have also ranted in the past about the phrase “I want to read about more characters who just happen to be gay,” which is something I hear said a lot, and which generally bothers me because it seems to dismiss or at least diminish something that’s actually a really important part of who a character is.
And yet, every now and then I do hear myself thinking, “I wish there were more characters who just happened to be trans.”
Because I look at a list like the one up there and I think, “Holy CRAP, we need more trans characters in YA in every way, shape and form.”
Because if a trans character can only make it into a YA if they’re the main character (which that paltry list of trans supporting characters would seem to indicate), and a YA with a trans main character only gets published once every year or two (as the lists of trans protagonists suggest), then that adds up to almost no representation whatsoever of an entire demographic. At all. Except for the same teeny tiny handful of books that everyone recommends over and over and over again.
And it’s not like YA literature is the only space where this is a problem. How many transgender kids have you ever seen on TV aside from on talk shows about transgender kids? And aside from the occasional “fabulous” drag queen, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trans-spectrum teenager in any movie, ever.
But that said, I would love to hear that this is all my own damn fault for not reading the right books, watching the right shows, or Fandango-ing the right movie tickets, so please, if there is stuff featuring trans characters that I’m missing, tell me now so I can go check it out!
In the meantime, I think I am going to go reread I Am J again, so I can pretend it is 10 books instead of one.