Today, we have Riley from Reading Books in Bed talking about trans* narratives in fiction. I’m not an expert on this area, so I’m really glad we have someone who’s better qualified to talk about this, and what we have is an eye-opening and personal, post.
The phrase people are most likely to use to describe a trans* person, especially a transgender character, is "born in the wrong body." I can guarantee you that if you go to the Goodreads page of any book centered on a trans* person, the blurb, a large amount of the reviews, or both will use some form of this phrase. I guess it's a simple way of describing things; it's not difficult for people to understand the idea that the body you were born in doesn't match up with what's in your head. The wrong body, though? Like some sort of trans-Freaky Friday? The fact is, there are trans* people who just don't feel that they were born in the wrong body - a body that isn't their ideal, maybe, or one they feel comfortable with, but not wrong. Honestly, to me, that sounds scary - it sounds like the plot of a paranormal novel. That's not how I want to think about my body, as much discomfort as I often feel in it, and that's not how I want others to think about it. Obviously, from trans* person to trans* person, this varies. There's a wide spectrum of ideas about bodies in the trans* community, because, you know, people are individuals.
Also, while most trans* invididuals experience dysphoria - the conflict between a person's biological sex and their gender identity - it isn't a prerequisite for trans-ness. No, really, I can't speak for all trans* people but many of us don't spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week hating our bodies! Which is why it's so upsetting to me that readers of YA may come away from certain books on the subject thinking that all trans* people utterly despise their bodies - especially the ones who are struggling with gender identity issues themselves. "Well," they might say - I know I did - "I don't feel this much hatred towards what I'm like physically - I guess I'm not transgender, after all."
For a personal example: the first trans* book I can remember reading, before I'd even started to question my identity, was Luna by Julie Ann Peters. The narrator recalls a memory of her sister, a I never felt an urge to do anything like that. It's not like I ever tried to cut my boobs off or anything when they first showed up. If this is what transgender people feel, I guess I can't be one. Or even recently, only months ago, I was sitting on a Greyhound bus with a copy of Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills (a book I otherwise really relate to) and again, in flashback, the protagonist Gabe gets his first period and is absolutely devastated, to the point of nearly committing suicide. I put the book aside for a moment, trying to think back to my own experience. Absolute terror that I was dying before I realized, oh, that's why I'm in so much pain - yes. Suicidal urges - no. Is this something every trans man felt but me? I wondered. I didn't even know trans* people were a thing, really, at that time, let alone that I could be one, and the past few years of relatives covertly handing me books on puberty had prepared me for the whole thing. Even now, more secure in my own identity, the few stories of people like me being told not matching up to my own (or the ones shared with me by trans* friends) makes me question myself.trans woman, as a young "boy," attempting to cut her penis off so she could look like the other girls. I remembered that book one night when I was browsing through LGBT forums, hoping to find the one definite sign that would tell me: am I really a boy or not? And I remembered that scene, because who wouldn't? It's heartbreaking. And I thought to myself:
Now, I know there will probably never be books to match up with every trans* experience. There are a lot of trans* people in the world, after all; that would be one hell of a lot of books. But can't we at least do better and step outside the box that says trans* individuals must hate their bodies, that their bodies are fundamentally wrong? Can't we portray more than just that one experience? If a wider variety of ideas about how trans* people relate to their bodies is going to make one less confused kid out there tell themselves that their feelings are invalid, then to me, it's all worth it.
Thank you very much for writing this! Riley would also like to share this, a short document from the American Psychiatric Association bringing to your attention that gender dysphoria is NOT a disorder.