Transgender issues have been in the spotlight lately with Target’s new policy and North Carolina’s anti-LGBT legislation. Neither of these news items tell us much about just what it is like to be a trans person, other than that going to the bathroom in public places can be like playing Russian roulette where all the chambers are filled but one.
I decided to go ahead and write this after seeing a post on a Facebook group I’m a part of asking writers how they write genderqueer characters. While well meaning, many of the comments showed a fundamental lack of understanding of what it means to be trans or genderqueer. So I’ve tailored today’s post to cis-gendered writers looking to write trans characters sensitively. As I’ve said before, there are some issues best left to trans or genderqueer writers, but please don’t be afraid to write a trans character. I’m hoping this post will help you be more confident in portraying them.
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms – including transgender. Some of those terms are defined below. Use the descriptive term preferred by the individual. Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to change their bodies. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon medical procedures.
Writing a Transgender Character
So you want to write a transgender character? That’s awesome! Here are some thoughtful questions that you can ask yourself about your character to help you better understand how they see themselves and how they interact with the world:
- Which gender does your character identify as?
- How does this gender manifest and how does your character show/perform it?
- How does your character think/feel about being transgender? Does it give them an advantage/disadvantage? Is it a big deal to them or not?
- Do they deal with gender dysphoria? If so, how do they handle it? If not, what other identity challenges might they face?
- When did your character discover that their gender identity did not match their assigned gender? What kind of experience was it?
- Does your character plan to transition to their gender? Why or why not? If so how do they plan to transition (hormone therapy, surgery?) and what challenges might they face?
- How does the character interact with the world?
- How does your character want to be perceived by others? How are they actually perceived?
- How do other characters react to your character? Do they use their chosen name and pronouns or not? How does your character handle these reactions?
- How does the society in your story treat your character?
This is just to get you thinking about building a complex character who is transgender. If you can’t answer all these questions now, then just keep them in the back of your mind for consideration as you continue to develop your character.
- Keep specific gender traits for your character consistent. A character worksheet can help you to make sure you have the details down.
- Don’t fall into gendered stereotypes for gender expression. There is nothing wrong with any of the activities themselves, but be careful about using them to portray a specific gender expression. Remember that some people are gender non-conforming. A female character can act masculine without being trans.
- How your character expresses their gender should fall in line with their personality. They are still the same person no matter which gender they identify as. Personality traits are not gender dependant.
- Pronoun usage should match your character’s chosen pronouns unless the character speaking is someone who refuses to address your trans character properly.
- As with pronouns, names should stay consistent within a scene. If your character prefers a particular name for their gender identity this should be used when the character is the point of view character in the scene. Other characters might use or disregard their chosen name with appropriate reaction/consequences.
- Remember, gender identity is independant from sexual orientation. A person who transitions from male to female and is attracted only to men may identify as a straight woman. A person who transitions from female to male and is attracted to men would most likely identify as a gay male.
I hope this will help you get started writing a transgender character. As with any gender identity it’s important to remember you are writing a person, not a gender. Who they are is more important than what they identify as and while it is a large part of their personality, it shouldn’t be the sole focus.
It’s worth it to note that crossdressing is not the same as being transgender. GLAAD states:
While anyone may wear clothes associated with a different sex, the term cross-dresser is typically used to refer to heterosexual men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup, and accessories culturally associated with women. This activity is a form of gender expression, and not done for entertainment purposes. Cross-dressers do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. Replaces the term “transvestite.”
PLEASE NOTE: Transgender persons are not cross-dressers or drag queens/kings. Drag queens/kings are men and women, typically gay or lesbian, who dress like men or women for the purpose of entertainment. Be aware of the differences between transgender persons, cross-dressers, and drag queens/kings. Use the term preferred by the individual. Do not use the word “transvestite” at all, unless someone specifically self-identifies that way. (http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender) Wording changed to be more inclusive.
How NOT to Write a Trans Character (this post contains language and terms some might find offensive)