In writing this article, I went out and asked for the perspectives of a few trans and non-binary people I know on how trans or non-binary people are represented in fiction. I understand that the opinions of a few people don’t represent everyone in a vast group. But I think for me, as a cisgender person who writes fiction and wants to represent people in a respectful way, I think it’s important to ask and consider the opinions of trans and non-binary people I know.
I became interested in looking into this issue after the J.K. Rowling controversy.
Of course, getting opinions from a few people I know is no match for researching and reading up on the subject matter (as one of my sensitivity readers quite reasonably pointed out), and in terms of writing outside my demographic, nobody is going to give me permission for the entire community.
One of the transgender people I shared this article with made a great point. “One ought not write trans characters to get a pat on the back, one writes trans characters because trans people exist and are people in the same way as nearsighted people and left-handed people.”
In doing this, I got asked a very important question by one of the people I interviewed. They asked me why I was writing this and not a trans person. This is a very good question!
I suppose in writing this, I (as a cis person) was trying to learn about the opinions of non-cis gender and non-binary people and let them explain this issue to me. And in writing this article, I’m simply sharing what they said—their perspectives, not mine. I hope it can be helpful for those wanting to learn more about this issue.
I am going to use anonymous initials and names for everyone I interviewed who requested to be anonymous. I got permission from everyone I interviewed to share their answers. There were only minor edits for clarity, consistency and to preserve anonymity.
MY INTERVIEW WITH JOHN:
John: I’ve been on testosterone for several years, had top surgery and a hysterectomy. I’ve got my name legally changed and all my documents changed.
JBJ: How has that been going for you?
John: Pretty good, actually. I “pass” very well, so most people just assume I’m a normal male.
JBJ: I know that’s been your dream for a long time.
John: Thanks. I didn’t think I was ever going to come back out of the closet, but in my mid 20’s I met some trans people that seemed to be getting by just fine, and I thought, hey, maybe things will be ok if I transition. Also, it seemed like trans rights were gaining traction at the time.
JBJ: Yeah, things are much different now than they were even 10 years ago. I’m just curious, what are your opinions on the whole thing of what J.K. Rowling said about trans people?
John: Well, I don’t agree with her views. Personally, I feel like if she kept her mouth shut, she could just live out the rest of her days resting on her laurels as a beloved children’s fiction writer.
JBJ: How do you feel about the current representation of trans/non-binary people in books and shows?
John: I honestly haven’t seen a lot of trans/non-binary characters in any recent movies or shows, so I’m not sure.
JBJ: Are there things that you would like to see more of?
John: This is just specific to movies/TV, but I think it’d be great if they chose trans actors to play trans roles. Recently, Halle Berry accepted a role to play a trans man, and I think that kind of representation is very damaging because I think it makes trans men look like “girls playing dress-up that want to be boys.” Shortly after announcing it, there was a huge uproar and she stepped down.
JBJ: What are your favorite trans or non-binary characters you’ve seen in a book or show?
John: I liked Krem a lot from Dragon Age: Inquisition. There’s even a conversation you can have with one of the characters (Iron Bull) that’s very trans positive and he just treats him like one of the guys. I also really liked Damien from Dream Daddy (the gay dad dating simulator, lol), because it’s refreshing to see a trans man that’s somewhat effeminate. I’m not the model of masculinity myself, and not all trans guys are hypermasculine lumberjacks.
I guess what I really worry about the most is society viewing trans men as just butch lesbians that want to play dress up.
Like I just want to be seen as male, not as some oddity. I don’t tell any new people I meet that I’m trans and I just want to live a normal life.
Oh, one other thing I liked about Damien from Dream Daddy is being trans wasn’t the sole focus of that character. Some people claim that since it’s briefly mentioned and not explored in-depth, that it was “empty tokenism,” but I disagree. I like that it’s mentioned, but it’s not like the whole character’s personality and storyline revolved around it.
JBJ: Is it okay for cisgender people to write non-cisgender characters?
John: I think it’s alright, but it might be a good idea to have someone non-cis look it over. This is a small example, but Mass Effect: Andromeda had a trans NPC and, during your conversation with them, your character asks what their old name was. Generally speaking, asking a trans/non-binary person’s old name, or “dead name”, as many call it, is a very, very personal question. And honestly, I wouldn’t answer that question if someone I just met asked me. So, there was a bit of an uproar about it because it’s rude to ask and it seems to normalize the question, making it seem ok to ask some trans person you just met something like that. Anyway, they patched it and got rid of that dialog. Little things like that seem pretty innocuous and I know that their intentions weren’t bad, but I think all of that could have been avoided if the scriptwriters just asked a trans person to just look it over or something.
JBJ: Great point!
MY INTERVIEW WITH HM:
JBJ: I’m currently writing an article about the representation of trans and non-binary characters in fiction and decided to ask my trans and non-binary friends about their views.
HM: So, you’re asking about my views on that as a broad topic or…?
JBJ: Yeah, whatever you’re comfortable with.
HM: Okay well… trans characters played by trans actors are unfortunately fewer than I’d like.
HM: I think that, while trans women get more exposure than trans men or non-binary people, the rep we get is often very very bad.
JBJ: I’m sorry to hear that. That sounds very frustrating.
HM: You have no idea.
JBJ: What is an example of representation you saw that bothered you…if you don’t mind my asking?
HM: Often, what I see is a character for whom being trans is a major plot point and/or character trait. I mean any example where a trans woman was played by a cis guy or a trans man was played by a cis woman or a non-binary person played by a binary actor.
Honestly? Laverne Cox has had two roles that bothered me which sucks because I like her as an actress
JBJ: Yeah, I’m familiar with her role in Orange is the New Black.
HM: One is Orange is the New Black, where her entire plotline was about her being trans, having no access to hormones, and just generally lacking in agency in that regard. The other is Rocky Horror because I am deeply uncomfortable with any narrative that pegs the trans or gnc [gender non-conforming] character as evil
JBJ: Yeah, that makes sense.
HM: I really prefer more casual rep.
She-Ra sorta did that, but it was very much the sort of “If you’re not in the know you don’t know” kinda rep which im kinda on the fence about.
Jessica Jones had a trans woman in the cast for the second season and nothing was ever made of it. I liked that.
Unfortunately, my next example is goddamn Warrior Nun because there’s a trans character who has a really great moment without ever saying she’s trans outright, though it still suffers from the fact that said moment still relates to that.
JBJ: How did you feel about J.K. Rowling’s comments?
HM: The trans community has known Rowling was a TERF for years now. It’s on y’all for ignoring or dismissing us.
So yeah for that reason her comments don’t surprise me.
Why are YOU writing this? Why not a trans person?
JBJ: That’s a very good question to ask. I’m basically just asking all the trans/non-binary people willing to talk to me, and putting their opinions out there, without showcasing my own.
HM: While it is nice to see trans characters in media, it would be really really really good if they were written by trans writers.
Ahhhhh I forgot to mention something else, and that’s the concept of a character’s transness being used to cause grief or pain or character growth or whatever for a cis character. I hate that shit.
JBJ: That’s a good point. I think they did that in Orange is the New Black too.
HM: Yeah and I think it might be a plot point in like The Crying Game or whatever (which also includes a lack of agency for the trans character when it comes to the “reveal.” There’s an article somewhere about that iirc)
JBJ: Do you watch Supergirl?
JBJ: Do you like the character Dreamer?
HM: Fuckin love Dreamer
HM: They gave a good reason for her character to be trans without making it her whole character (admittedly I’m not caught up) AND they had the universe support it.
Like, in-universe her powers confirmed her identity
JBJ: Yeah, it was cool the way they did it.
HM: I do also wish we included more trans women who don’t necessarily get read as women (I hate the term “passing” for a variety of reasons) because it sucks that we have to exactly appear a certain way and I’d very much appreciate it if we saw more TWOC [Trans Women of Color] in roles like that.
Actually, I should widen that out. It sucks that trans people in media are often either “binary and appears cis” or “non-binary vaguely androgynous AFAB person.”
And there should be more trans POC in general
JBJ: Yes, they should have more roles.
HM: Not just roles, they need to have important ones like Dreamer or what’s the girl’s name from Sense8?
JBJ: Oh shoot, now I forgot her name. But yes, Sense8 was also an interesting show. Nomi!
HM: Yes, but she falls into one or two of those concerns. She’s white and she reads as a cis woman if you aren’t told she’s trans. Those aren’t BAD things, but they don’t represent our entire community. I rarely if ever get gendered correctly by people I don’t know so when I see these characters it’s like hey that’s neat but also that’s not necessarily my experience.
JBJ: That’s a really good point.
HM: I don’t wear makeup often, I’m not hyper-feminine (which, if you get a chance, I think Julia Serrano’s book Whipping Girl goes into the idea of the double bind for trans women as it pertains to displays of femininity). I like dresses, sure, but I don’t wear them often. Often what movies and TV do is like… they’ll have main characters who only have at most two oppressed identities. Dreamer is both trans and a woman.
Is she ND? disabled? POC? gay? (Okay so sometimes they choose three but I sometimes have mixed feelings about every other trans woman in media being gay because it’s like yo a guy can date us without that “making him gay” but also a LOT of trans women are gay or bi soooooo)
MY INTERVIEW WITH TOVA:
JBJ: Hey there, I was wondering if I could pick your brain on an LGBTQ related issue. If not, it’s all good.
Tova: Hey there, of course!
JBJ: Thank you so much!
I’m a science fiction author who is trying to learn more about the representation of trans/non-binary people in fiction and how to do this representation in a respectful, informed manner. I hope this question isn’t too personal and out of nowhere, but do you identify as non-binary?
Tova: That is so wonderful!! Yes, I do. I use They/Them/Their pronouns.
JBJ: Do you see yourself as cisgender or not cisgender?
Tova: Well, being that non-binary is a spectrum of trans, I don’t see myself as cisgender.
JBJ: Gotcha, that makes sense.
Tova: I see myself more in the middle of the gender spectrum
Sometimes more femme, sometimes more masc, sometimes a mix of both but without a name for it.
It’s interesting being a non-binary hijabi because most days, unless I wear a more “masculine” style of hijab, people will address me as “Ma’am” or refer to me as a “lady.”
JBJ: Ah gotcha, is that ever frustrating?
Tova: Sometimes but I know it’s not their fault, which makes me less frustrated.
We’re conditioned to associate certain looks to certain genders and unless I have a VERY big button with my pronouns, they won’t know. I have a cute They/Them pin but I realized after I got it that it’s hard to see I try to wear my queer pins on my hijab.
The top pin is my They/Them one, it’s too shiny to read sometimes
But I have the non-binary flag pin, now.
My parents still refer to me as She/Her, but I give them more time to process it.
And my partner knew me before I transitioned, so I give him more time as well.
JBJ: I was curious, what were your thoughts on the whole J.K. Rowling controversy on her comments about trans people?
Tova: I think she’s a disgrace and a hypocrite. Why have queer-themes in your book but then sh*t on a huge part of the LGBTQ+ community!? I am so ashamed of her and will not purchase any more of her items from here on out. I want my money to go to authors and companies that support my people and social justice causes. I love Harry Potter itself but won’t add to my HP collection anymore, lol.
JBJ: Also, how do you feel about the current representation of trans/non-binary people in books and shows?
Tova: I think there’s a move to make more inclusive and diverse characters, which is great! I hope to see more of a push for that, especially in romance novels. I want to see a romance novel with queer/trans, poly, interracial, interfaith characters with complex backgrounds. I have to look VERY hard to find gay/bi romance novels that aren’t in sex shops, jeje. I know the move for these characters are slow right now, but I hope within the next 10 years, especially with our generation and Gen Z, more inclusive and diverse characters will be the protagonists and not just side-characters.
I know that was a mouth full, jeje.
JBJ: No prob, I appreciate the well thought out answer.
Do you ever see something done in fiction about trans/non-binary people in a way that is offensive? Or that you would have done differently?
Tova: I haven’t seen many because there aren’t too many trans or non-binary folks in fiction, but the little I have seen haven’t been really diverse.
JBJ: Anything you’d like to add?
Tova: I want to add a show that has a non-binary theme that I just remembered.
In Sailor Moon Stars, the new Sailor Guardians (Sailor Starlights) are teenage boys in their human form and girls in their Sailor Guardian form. This was never aired in the US because of the gender blurring (along with the fact that Sailor Neptune and Sailor Mercury are lovers and were always open about it) and it was never dubbed in English until recently. The fact that these characters experience both binaries, yet are not binary, and that they’re both male and female, shows how progressive the creator Naoko Takeuchi was. She was ahead of her time and if this final arc of Sailor Moon was able to be on tv during the early 2000’s in the US, I know many of us “Moonies” would’ve been able to come out earlier and see more representation on screen. Anime is usually known for blurring the gender normative and I love it for that
Tova: Of course.
MY INTERVIEW WITH DG:
JBJ: Hey there, I was wondering if I could pick your brain on an LGBTQ related issue. If not, it’s all good.
JBJ: Cool. Thanks.
I’m currently writing something about the representation of trans/non-binary people in fiction…whether books or shows or movies.
I know you were starting to identify with the non-binary label?
DG: Yup! Thought it was trans but this seems like a better fit
JBJ: Cool. Glad you found something that fits.
DG: So inside the nb umbrella I think genderfluid is where I stand specifically
I was curious, what were your feelings on the comments J.K. Rowling made about the trans community?
DG: Honestly, I had too many other things to give it much thought, so I’ve been reading up on it now…but from what I’m reading, I can at least kinda see where her brain is coming from. Maybe. At least in regards to physiological sex. Gender is a different story, and I definitely see why she’s been eating a lot of shit for it. It kinda looks like she was speaking as though they’re the same and didn’t bother to learn the difference despite the backlash.
JBJ: What is your opinion about the representation of trans/non-binary people in books and shows?
DG: We’re getting more now, and that’s awesome. There’s a new wrestling league (All Elite Wrestling) and their first women’s champion was a trans woman from DC.
There was some backlash against her as you might imagine, she handled it well and the company is very straight up about being super inclusive, both the wrestlers and the fans.
Different shows have been getting more open about that stuff too. Bojack Horseman, Steven Universe in particular. It’s a slow creep into more mainstream media, but it’s there.
I’m sure Riverdale has some, too.
Of course there needs to be more, but these things are becoming a lot more commonplace, at least in Florida being very queer friendly. We went to target yesterday and found pride stuff, that even had different price hearts. IN TARGET! No ace stuff though, sadly.
There were aro, nb, trans, bi, gay, don’t remember if lesbian but I’m sure there was
JBJ: That’s pretty cool.
DG: It was a validating feeling
Disney has embraced pride
JBJ: Oh cool.
DG: Not specifically anything, but they love their rainbow shit. And it’s definitely not just for the sake of having a rainbow.
JBJ: Are there things that you would like to see more of in fiction?
DG: Absolutely. When we see another ace or nb or whatever character, it’s nice to feel acknowledged. I’m sure it’s not that different than passing a Bechdel test
Simple but gives more weight to the piece I suppose.
JBJ: Do you ever see something done in a way that is offensive? Or that you would have done differently?
DG: A lot of works don’t outright say these things. It might be a little forced sometimes and I get it, but sometimes it’s good to use the platform of whichever media to educate. Bojack Horseman does that, Steven Universe, despite being a “kid’s show,” just treated everything like it was all perfectly normal in such a healthy way. I don’t really see much else about it often, and when I do it is sometimes insulting or derogatory. I think internet culture is normalizing things more. It’s being discussed more. BLM has been helping queer communities as well both being marginalized by bringing difficult topics up, and I’m sure that is getting reflected in new media.
People need to learn somehow, so giving peeps the courage to include more Black characters or queer or Native American or whatever is important rn.
What are your favorite trans or non-binary characters you’ve seen in a book or show?
DG: I think stuff that’s coming out (lol) soon will show a lot more than what’s been out.
Omg, like everybody from steven universe
Have you seen it?
JBJ: I have not. But I’ve had three people now recommend it! So I guess I have to now.
DG: I like Futurama for rewatching stuff, but Steven Universe is my favorite show overall.
The writing is just ugh, so good.
It’s so freaking apparent that they have queer people in creative.
JBJ: Yeah, that’s important. Queer people writing about queer people.
MY INTERVIEW WITH RM:
JBJ: Hey there, I was wondering if I could pick your brain on an LGBTQ related issue. If not, it’s all good.
RM: Sure! I am happy to answer any questions as more Danica Roem or Wendy Carlos than the average bloke!
JBJ: I don’t know if this is too personal, but I know you’ve mentioned in the past that you’d prefer to identify as a woman. So, would you see yourself as trans, or at least not cisgender? I’m asking because I’m thinking about writing something on this topic.
RM: My opinion, as you can clearly see as identify with Roan and Carlos is I am a woman so trapped but my opinion is more along the lines of my friend [name removed for anonymity], in so far I like being per se fertile even if I’ll never reproduce. When, as I closely approach the average age of menopause, I will consider this less of an issue. And, with a different significant other who accepts and appreciates my male bits, I would be less inclined to physically align. The pressure isn’t as great on me as other women who were once cismen. But I clearly identify as cisman but also non-binary in the gender sense which is my preferred grey area. Non-binary is an interesting notion as it’s usually used by ciswomen to indicate some tomboyish tendencies. I’m using it the reverse sense as a bit effeminate and sissy in the pejorative sense. I’m not ashamed that I have feminine tendencies, that I prefer consensus and cooperation over aggression and superlatives. So I’m happy with who I am and accept things as they are. I’m, at core, a pragmatist. So, I’m a cisman but non-binary. Is that clear?
JBJ: Yes! And thanks for sharing that for me!
In light of the whole J.K. Rowling situation, I was interested in getting the opinions on non-binary people about non-binary representation in literature.
Like, I was curious, how did you feel about her comments?
RM: JK has opinions that would be the norm 50 years ago when Walter Carlos became Wendy (Wendy composes the haunting music to A Clockwork Orange, if you didn’t know). I look at her comments as foolish, uninformed, and lacking empathy. But I think it no more diminishes how I enjoy Harry Potter than to enjoy Hemingway despite his view, suicide, and thirst for Iberian war. I don’t believe in shutting down or boycotting Rowling. I don’t think ostracizing helps, it only shrinks a social circle into diehards that agree and re-enforce her. I don’t mind she doesn’t recognize transgender and non-binary because I’m not going to her for advice on those topics. When I want to talk about Non-Binary, I listen to folks like Rebecca Sugar, who created Steven Universe, and who identified as Non-Binary yet has a wonderful Cismale husband. I know that’s nuanced but does it make sense?
JBJ: Yes. How do you feel about the current representation of trans/non-binary people in fiction?
RM: I have written about it before, but I feel I’m wiser now with more trans colleagues and even a very close friend who is a trans man. But, I haven’t been reading a lot of fiction involving transgender folks recently.
JBJ: In terms of non-binary characters, do you ever see something done in a way that offends you?
RM: Non-binary comes up very rarely in literature. It’s also a very recent concept. In the 1990s, probably even the ‘aughts, people would look at you funny if you said that.
JBJ: Should binary people write non-binary characters?
RM: Yes! Can women write gay men? Yes! Can men write gay women? He can as long as he does it with research. One of my best friends is also a gay male so I can observe and get his perspective. This is just an expansion of many other isa arguments, not African American can write an African American character? Yes, with research and talking with African American friends. American Indian, same thing. Men can write women, women can write men. It’s all relative to the time and research you put into it. If you don’t take the time to learn about some other way of life, you’re going to bugger it!
IF YOU’D LIKE TO LEARN MORE, CHECK OUT THE FOLLOWING LINKS
Disclosure Documentary on Netflix
In this documentary, leading trans creatives and thinkers share perspectives and analyses about Hollywood’s impact on the trans community.
Paris is Burning Film on YouTube
Paris Is Burning is a 1990 American documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Hispanic, gay, and transgender communities involved in it. Critics consider the film to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the “Golden Age” of New York City drag balls, and a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America.
Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images on Television
Pre-WWII Accounts of LGBT+ Individuals: Books and Documents
Reddit thread on this topic