In my experience as a reader on the lookout for transgender characters in works of fiction, the quintessential novel features a gloomy high school protagonist, who leads a pained existence and is often verbally and/or sexually assaulted by the end of the story. As per usual, this sort of novel is classified as a work of realistic-fiction, the only plausible way for a trans person to exist in the world. And while that certainly is an experience shared by some people, what I personally want to read in books is not the trans character struggling in a hostile environment and constantly being reminded of their other-ness at every turn. I am more interested in novels that take transgender characters and throw them into a universe that exists independently of their gender identity and treats them as though they were any other character. And, although I’ve yet to find the “perfect” novel, after countless tries, I believe I have a found a handful that fit this description, to a certain extent.
The first book that comes to mind is Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. It is a low-fantasy book, meaning it takes reality and reveals an otherwise hidden layer of magic, in this case, doors that lead to fairytale-esque worlds. In this story, people are sucked into magical realms as children and are occasionally returned to the mundane world once they get older. This results in various teenagers and young adults who are no longer able or willing to live according to the rules of modern society. An asylum of sorts is created to help them cope with their loss and move on—though many adamantly refuse.
With an interesting subject and a diverse array of characters, this story looked promising at a glance, yet I felt something about it was lacking. I failed to form strong attachments to any characters, not even Kade, a trans boy who is one of the most likable characters in the novel due to his genuinely nice and easy-going personality. Although I appreciated the author’s inclusion of a trans character in a fictional story that borders on high-fantasy, Kade’s presence alone—and even the inclusion of an asexual protagonist—wasn’t enough to salvage a book I personally did not care for, especially since some characters do not respect Kade’s pronouns or gender identity. Moreover, though this book treats trans characters better than many others I’ve read—with the majority of characters supporting and affirming Kade’s identity—I felt the repetitive inclusion of transphobic remarks as a means of generating drama and suspense was uncalled for. Still, it is a relatively short story and may be worth the read for those who are curious about the subject and/or Kade’s portrayal.
Next is Lord of Shadows, the second book in Cassandra Clare’s Dark Artifices series, part of the low-fantasy Shadowhunters universe, in which people who are half-human and half-angel protect the mundane world from demons. Despite the many controversies surrounding this author, I genuinely enjoyed Lord of Shadows, her most recent work. The cast of characters is incredibly diverse, with self-identified gay and bisexual characters, as well as Clare’s first canonically trans character, whose identity and gender I will not reveal in this article for the sake of spoilers. What I appreciate so much about this portrayal is how it shows trans people can exist in a world of fantasy and adventure and not be reduced to the simple fact they’re trans. Though they have made the decision to stay closeted in a transphobic world, there is no dramatic circumstance that forces the character to reveal their past in front of a large crowd they are not inclined to tell, nor is their gender ever thrown into question before they are ready to bring it up themselves. What’s more, the person they decide to tell is incredibly supportive, so the scene left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling I’ve never felt upon reading any other portrayal of a trans character, before or since.
While readers interested in this character will certainly have to read a couple thousand pages for only several dozens of trans content, I think this is partially what makes the character so important. In a novel about sword-fighting and demons and magic, trans issues are being brought up subtly without dominating the entire novel and for more than just an extra splash of drama, as I felt was somewhat the case in Every Heart a Doorway. For me, this is significant because I have struggled to find a happy medium between disheartening realistic fiction that centers around a trans teen and exciting fantasy novels that do no more than leave their readers speculating on which characters may or may not be trans. I also hope it will spark the curiosity of those who read this series knowing nothing about what it’s like to be trans. Encountering something new in a familiar context can be a wonderful way to open people’s minds, especially in a series marketed to young adults. Overall, I believe if more novels casually included trans characters and other marginalized groups, it could help readers expand their worldviews and gain incentive to research things they wouldn’t necessarily be dedicated to learning about otherwise.
The last book I believe fits this theme is Every Day, a novel and recent film by David Levithan, an author well-known for his contributions to the LGBTQ+ community. Usually, his books involve same-sex couples, as in Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Two Boys Kissing, but this work is subtler. It features a protagonist named A who wakes up every day in a different person’s body and has to learn to adjust to a new life that will last no more than twenty-four hours. Each person whose body A inhabits has a clear-cut gender identity, but A admits, “I didn’t think of myself as a boy or a girl—I never have.” Rather, they think of their gender as constantly changing whenever they swap bodies, and fans of the novel accordingly label them as nonbinary, usually as agender or genderfluid. However, no term is used explicitly in the book and A’s pronouns are never revealed since the story is told exclusively in the first-person point of view.
When I read this novel for a high school book club, I was excited to discover a character who felt so nonchalant about their own gender identity, as well as the gender identity of others. In one scene I remember, A is puzzled when their female love interest behaves differently upon meeting them in the body of someone who identifies as a girl rather than a boy. Gender means as little to A as hair color might to others, and I think that is an important perspective to illustrate in literature, as it matches up with the experience of many members of the queer community.
However, this message does not always come across to those who are not looking for it. For example, in my book club, I was disappointed to hear virtually everyone refer to A using he/him pronouns, presumably because the main love interest is a girl and because heteronormativity is a thing. When I voiced this observation, the main response I got was the conviction that A had a definitively male voice—whatever that means. While A’s gender may not be easily compartmentalized, it brings to mind the umbrella term gender-expansive, used in a Human Rights Campaign survey to describe those who self-identify as transgender or who chose to write a custom gender to describe their identity. This is an especially useful phrase for people to add to their queer lexicon, as some non-binary people identify as neither trans nor cisgender.
All in all, these three books are potential candidates for anyone interested in reading unique stories that reflect the ins and outs of gender in a world different from our own. Still, it is obvious transgender characters are not as well represented in fiction as they could be, and the identities of the authors who write them can have a big influence on the text itself. For instance, of the three writers whose books were described above, two are openly part of the LGBTQ+ community: Levithan identifies as gay and McGuire as bi, although it would appear none of them are trans. This means the authors had limited personal experience to draw upon in their works. However, I firmly believe this should not discourage any writers from including such characters in their stories; rather, it should encourage them to look to others for assistance and affirmation to ensure they are writing something accurate and inoffensive. Moreover, I have high hopes people are currently working to remedy the lack of trans characters in fiction. Members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community can show their support by not only reading inclusive books, but by actively purchasing, reviewing, and recommending them, as well as by encouraging authors to write more of what their fan-bases want to see. Or, those inspired to create the content they wish to see can dedicate themselves to writing new stories and sharing that content with the world. OutWrite’s Creative Writing page is just one example of a place where readers will encounter queer themes in fiction, written by queer folks themselves. Any interested writers can feel free to submit their works to OutWrite by emailing [email protected] ! The search for trans characters in fiction will undoubtedly continue so long as there are people out there to read it—and there will always be people out there to read it.