In honor of Pride weekend, let’s talk about some awesome queer literature!
Specifically, I wanted to highlight a few works that have positive depictions of transgender characters, as the “T” is often neglected in “LGBT” publicity. In particular, trans women tend to get the short straw in the real world and in media, so today I’ll focus on some works with positive portrayals of trans women.
Positive depictions of trans women in media are unfortunately in short supply. Biologist, author, and activist Julia Serano describes the two stereotypes that trans women are often thrust into in film and media (the terms are hers):
The “deceptive” transsexual: a sex object until the moment when *gasp* she is revealed as trans, which in works that feature this stereotype usually means horror and revulsion because she’s “really a man.” Examples Serano notes: Dil in The Crying Game; Lois Einhorn/Ray Finkel in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
The “pathetic” transsexual: a character who could never be a sex object because she appears masculine or doesn’t “pass” as female. (Note: real trans folks do not “pass” as their actual sex. They may have spent years passing as the sex they were assigned at birth, though.) Examples from Serano: Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp; Bunny Breckenridge in Ed Wood; Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Julia Serrano says,
While characters based on both models are presented as having a vested interest in achieving an ultrafeminine appearance, they differ in their abilities to pull it off. Because the “deceivers” successfully pass as women, they generally act as unexpected plot twists, or play the role of sexual predators who fool innocent straight guys into falling for other “men.”
The intense contradiction between the “pathetic” character’s gender identity and her physical appearance is often played for laughs.
-from Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by Julia Serano (Seal Press, 2007)
Here are a few works that have a fantastic, non-trope-y trans women characters (and are not completely depressing stories of constant persecution and death, either):
In Rachel Pollack‘s run writing the weirdo DC alt-superhero team Doom Patrol, she introduced the character Kate Godwin, a.k.a. Coagula, a trans woman with the power to dissolve matter. Pollack’s writing is strongly influenced by classic and the occult–Kate’s powers are related to alchemy, and there is a storyline that references Tiresias, Oedipus’ adviser who became female for seven years. Kate is an unapologetic badass who has some great conversations with her fellow teammates, including a particularly salient conversation about what gender is with a male-identified robot. Tragically, Pollack’s run on Doom Patrol has not been collected into trades, but issues are decently easy to find. Check out a thorough run-down of the series over at The Toast.
Written by Warren Ellis, Trees is a strange dystopian tale of earth after the most underwhelming alien invasion ever. All over the world, giant alien structures called “Trees” have landed, and stretch from the ground to the atmosphere. They seem to do nothing, except occasionally emit toxic waste. Nobody knows what they are. The storyline of Trees follows many groups and characters, covering both very personal stories and grand political machinations. One storyline in particular is about a Tree in China and the a liberal city/huge art colony of Shu that’s accreted around it. A newcomer to town, Chenglei, a young man who befriends Zhen, a transgender woman and artist who lives in the colony. Zhen is an interesting, three-dimensional character whose friendship and possibly romance with Chenglei is endearing to follow. Trees is ongoing; it’s got a dozen or so issues out and one trade paperback.
Questionable Content is a long-running webcomic written and drawn by Jeph Jacques. The characters in the comic are quite diverse, in particular with a wide range of sexualities represented. There is an asexual character, several gay and lesbian and bi characters, and Claire, a trans woman who is currently dating Marten, the (cisgendered) protagonist of the strip. Claire is a library intern trying to figure out her adult life, a common quest of the characters in the strip. Her relationship with Marten is pretty darn adorable. Here’s Jeph Jacques talking about Questionable Content and Claire.
Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls by Jessica Udischas is a slice-of-life comic strip that tackles moments of transmisogyny, cissexism, and struggle experienced by the protagonist, Jesska Nightmare, and her friends. While the strips are, by and large, about the often depressing reflections of the realities of being trans, they are nonetheless injected with wry humor and wit. Trans women and anyone who’s ever worked as a barista will find this strip particularly cathartic.
Unlike the film examples listed up top, the trans characters in these examples are played by actual trans women actresses. Gosh.
Sense8 is a Netflix original show written by J. Michael Strazynski (Babylon 5) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix). The show traces eight people who have become psychically linked despite living all over the world. It’s the same kind of “high-concept” science fiction as Trees, and although the plot moves slowly and it doesn’t explain a lot, it’s right up my alley. For one, I appreciate it because the eight people who are getting de facto superpowers exist all over the world and not Mostly America. (coughHeroescough) For two, I appreciate the character Nomi (played by Jamie Clayton), a trans woman and ex-hacker living in San Fransisco with her girlfriend (played by Freema Agyeman). There are some pretty hair-raising scenes involving her being trapped in a hospital, but she is not stuck being a damsel in distress by any means. Two words: psychic hacking.
So I’m not usually one for romantic comedies, but this is a pretty darn adorable romantic comedy, suggested to me by Alyson over at Persephone Magazine. Boy Meets Girl is the tale of Rikky (Michelle Hendley), aspiring fashion designer and young trans woman living in the South. Rikky becomes friends with the new girl in town, or rather, the girl who’s back from prep school and lives with her rich family and Skypes with her military fiance. As they begin to strike up a romance, Rikky’s best friend from childhood, Robby (Michael Welch) becomes increasingly nervous for her sake… I won’t spoil the film for you, but suffice it to say that it’s got just the right amount of classic romance ingredients and doesn’t fall into cliche nor into cheesiness. Boy Meets Girl is also available on Netflix.
I have not been reading a ton of fiction these days, but I thought this short story was worth mentioning.
This is a short story in the Magic: The Gathering universe. You don’t need to know anything about the universe to read the story, which is about a warrior named Alesha undergoing a trial of combat, kicking ass, and taking names. Well, name. Her name: Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. Check it out!