The Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Transgender or Non-Binary Character

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Terms to Know

  • Trans: an inclusive term that includes all who are transgender, non-binary, or otherwise gender-nonconforming
  • Cis/Cisgender: someone who is not trans
  • AMAB: Assigned male at birth – someone who was marked as male on their original birth certificate
  • AFAB: Assigned female at birth – someone who was marked as female on their original birth certificate
  • Gender Binary: the one-or-the-other way that most Western societies view gender; one is either a girl, or a boy
  • Non-Binary: Someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female. They can identify as both, neither, fluctuating, or somewhere in between
  • To Pass/Passing: Appearing outwardly as the gender one identifies with. This can include clothing, voice, and mannerisms, and it implies that any stranger who comes across them will see them as the gender they identify with without question.
  • Misgendering: Calling someone by the pronouns (he/she/they/etc) of the gender that they do not identify with. Most often this is calling them by the pronouns generally used to refer to people of the gender they were assumed to be at birth – AFAB people called “she” and AMAB people called “he”
  • Dead Name: Also known as birth name, this is the name one was assigned at birth. Offensive/incorrect terms for it include real name or legal name.
  • T-Slur: Tr*nny is an extremely offensive term that refers to AMAB trans people. It should not be used, ever, even to make a point, unless it is handled very carefully.

DO: Respect the pronouns

Misgendering is a big deal. Depending on the person, it can result in anything from annoyance or discomfort to full blown panic or anxiety attacks. People’s pronouns need to be treated with respect, both in real life and in fiction.

There are three times people get misgendered in fiction:

  1. In Dialogue – This is probably the most common occurrence. Someone who knows the character is transgender will use the pronouns relating to their birth gender, either accidentally or intentionally. It can be done, but it needs to be treated correctly; if it’s done accidentally, it should not be brushed off as nothing. It’s not just an accident. Being misgendered is painful and often feels like they’re invalidating one’s identity and that the trans person isn’t being seen as who they are. When it happens, the best rout is to apologize and correct yourself, so that’s what a character should do too.  And if it is done intentionally (most often by family who do not support the transition or by antagonists), it should be treated just as badly as being called a slur.
  2. In Narration – This is the worst time to misgender a character. To misgender a character in narration, especially in third-person narration, is the same as saying you as the author don’t respect your character or their identity.
  3. In Flashback – When flashing back to a time pre-transition, obviously most people, if not all of them, will misgender the character, either because the character is not yet out as trans, because not everyone knows they are, or because people who might later accept them have not yet. Mind you, this is not always necessary; among the trans community, we often adjust names and pronouns when telling stories about our pasts.

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DON’T: Treat them as though they were raised as their gender

Being raised in a binary society, people are taught specific things and expected to behave a certain way based on their assigned gender. People who are raised as girls are taught cooking, are given dolls and dresses, and are called cute and innocent. Boys are taught sports, play with action figures and cars, and are expected to be handsome troublemakers. It very much effects how people think when they get older, even if they realize young that they are trans.

A large issue seen in books is the assumption that all trans people will deny their gendered expectations in their childhood. This is not true. Things like toys and clothing are not gendered naturally; girls don’t instinctively wear dresses and boys don’t naturally shy from skirts. These are things that are taught, rather then being intrinsic to a binary gender system. In fact, there have never been scientifically proven reasons for the differences in attitudes and aptitudes in the genders, neither in hormones or brain formation. While these things can have effect, there’s enough overlap and variation to assume that it all comes down to nurture, rather than nature.  This is especially true when we look at the many cultures that have three, four, or even more genders, rather than a binary.

Equally problematic is the assumption that all transgender people know that they’re trans from childhood. This is equally untrue. There are people who don’t realize or accept it until they’re teens, young adults, or even in their later years. There’s no such thing as too old to come out as transgender. I myself didn’t come out until I was 20 years old, partly because the family I was raised in didn’t talk about such things, and so I didn’t even know it was a possibility. Make sure to take one’s background into account when creating a trans character.

DO: Make the characters more than just “the trans character” or a stereotype

People are more than just their gender. Having token characters is offensive no matter what group you’re dealing with. Characters should have more to them than their identity, from motivations and hopes, to individual likes and dislikes, to a personality that goes beyond stereotypically masculine or feminine. Trans women do not have to like all things girly, and trans men don’t have to be the very definition of masculine. A trans woman is rarely depicted in pants and a t-shirt, because they are always expected to be in skirts and frills and lace; a trans man who isn’t into sports and video games is equally unheard of. However, in real life, this is far from true. Transgender characters should be people first, trans second.

DON’T: Make the only trans character the antagonist or the victim

Both of these ideas are common, and both are offensive. To make the only transgender character a criminal or antagonist creates the idea that trans people as a whole are villains, setting an entire community into a bad light. It’s doubly worse if someone’s identity in some way causes them to become violent or evil, either due to psychological effects or past mistreatment due to their identity. Alternately, it’s just as bad to make the only trans character a victim, which happens especially often in crime and mystery stories, shows, and movies.

You can have a transgender antagonist or victim. It’s not at all out of the question. Just make sure to have other trans characters in the story with roles and lives beyond villain or victim.

You also need to avoid a great multitude of the typical bigoted depictions that are commonly used. Some of these would be depicting trans people, especially women, as overly sexual or perverse, naturally violent, or as victims of sexual abuse (which, in often times, is accounted as part of the “reason” that they’re trans in the first place.)

DO: Research and understand methods of transitioning

One of the biggest issues in stories about transgender characters is a prevalent misconception about transitioning: that all transgender people want to transition in every possible way available to them. In fact, there are three main kinds of transitioning — hormonal, surgical, and expressional transition — and many trans people chose to only undergo one or two of these.

Hormonal: Hormonal transition refers to using hormone therapy to adjust and control the level of estrogen and testosterone in the body. AFAB trans people generally use testosterone injections to the thigh, while AMAB trans people normally use a combination of pills to block the testosterone that their body already makes as well as to add estrogen.

Surgical: Surgical transitioning includes subcutaneous mastectomy (breast removal), penectomy (removal of the penis), orchiectomy (removal of the testicles), metoidioplasty (changing the clitoris into an approximation of a penis) or phalloplasty (creation of a penis from skin grafts), vaginoplasty (creation of a vagina), and mammoplasty (breast implants). These surgeries are generally collected under the terms top surgery and bottom surgery. Not every trans person will opt for every surgery available, or even any surgery. (Especially common are AFAB trans people who decide to not get bottom surgery, as they are not yet reliable nor do they have particularly realistic results the way vaginoplasty and top surgeries do.)

Expressional: Transitioning in outward expression is most often the first transitional step taken, but not always. This includes growing out or cutting hair, starting or stopping use of makeup, changing the wardrobe and using clothing items like binders (vest-like tops that bind the breasts to make them flat) or gaffs (worn under the pants to tuck the penis and testicles out of view) to make the body look more feminine or more masculine. Trans women often also go through lazer hair removal, since hormones don’t stop the growth of facial hair on their own (or because they don’t want to transition hormonally).

It’s also important to treat post-transition correctly. For one, it’s not a sudden fix, the flip that they can switch to make everything in their life better. As well, there are going to be scars left behind, most obviously being scars on the chest from FtM top surgery. Just like any other scar, these can be something the person shows off proudly, something that makes them uncomfortable, or anywhere in between; it’s entirely dependent on their individual personality. Lastly, it’s a long and expensive process, and is not to be taken lightly or treated as trivial or superficial.

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DON’T: Hide their transgender identity

Some writers seem to like to not reveal the fact that their character is transgender until far later in the story. At best, this is a well-meaning attempt to show that the character is no different from any cis member of the gender they identify with, and at worse, they use it as a “gotcha” surprise, making a joke of it. The latter is clearly not okay — using someone’s gender as a joke and revealing it for humorous effect is offensive and demeaning — whereas the former isn’t as clear cut. The main problem here is that transgender people, and therefore transgender characters, are different than cisgender characters. We were raised as the gender our bodies conformed with at birth (or were made to conform with, in the case of intersex people) which oftentimes result in habitual things that slip into our lives; despite being a man, I sometimes still find myself making my voice go higher instead of lower pitched when dealing with formal situations. AFAB and AMAB people also are taught how to do different things and have different expectations put on them; many transwomen have a hard time with things like braiding their hair at first since they weren’t taught how to do so when they were young. Unless your character realized they were trans as a young child and had supportive parents from the get-go, they’re more than likely going to be dealing with this.

Mind you, that’s not to say that you have to have your main character know from the start. And if you want to reveal it to the reader at the same time the protagonist learns it, it’s certainly possible. You just need to make sure there are hints in the earlier part of the story, little things they did that the reader could go back and point to. Otherwise it will either feel like you decided while in the middle of writing that they would be transgender and just didn’t want to go back and fix the earlier parts.

DO: Make sure they transition in a healthy way…

…or make it clear that what they’re doing is unhealthy if they have no other choice. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Proper binding: AFAB trans characters will often bind their chests in order to pass. All too often they’re shown using things like ace bandages to do so, which is damaging and can break ribs and make it hard or even impossible to breathe. If the character has some way to get their hands on a binder — either bought online, given to them by a friend, or from one of the many online organizations that donate binders to trans people in need — make sure they do. And rather than ace bandages, which are made to constrict further once they’ve been put on and are therefore extremely dangerous, alternate options are high compression sports bras (some larger chested trans men will wear two bras, one frontways and one backwards), or duct tape over a bra or tank top. As well, none of these methods should be used for over 6-8 hours at a time because the continual pressure, even at safe levels, can cause damage.
  • Access to Hormones: Hormones should be gotten through a healthcare provider with a prescription and close monitoring of the dosage. While some trans people are forced to get theirs illegally, either online or black market, they can often be unsafe, either because the dose might not be correct or because the drugs can be cut with other things to dilute them. As well, some AFAB trans people might use things that have testosterone in them, such as creams or men’s vitamins or even off-brand viagra with testosterone in it as a source of T, while AMAB people might buy things like birth control from friends as a source of estrogen, but these are often by prescription or at least monitored, and would require theft from the store or bought through a proxy.
  • Proper tucking: Tucking is when an AMAB person binds their cock and balls back and under the body. Correctly, they would use something called a gaff, but some go for duct tape. This is less damaging than binding if done wrong, but often just as painful.
  • Transitioning is personal: not every trans person transitions the same way. Some choose to transition hormonally, others surgically, and some don’t do either. There is no wrong way to transition, and one doesn’t have to take or even want to take every possible step in order to be a “real trans person”. There are a lot of reasons why one might not desire to transition a certain way, from the cost to the health risks to just not seeing it as something vital to being comfortable.
  • Remember: Transitioning is not something done for fun or for pleasure, especially not for the sake of sex. It’s a long and often painful process that we go through because it’s worth it, because it helps us be comfortable. Be careful not to make it something more or less than it really is.

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DON’T: Make it just another hallmark ending or a sob story

Almost every story about a trans character ends either with the character dead or miserable, or with them somehow making everything in their life suddenly okay. The former should be left up to writers who have actually experienced such traumas, or as biographical non-fiction pieces, while the latter is unrealistic. If the character has been dealing with unsupportive family, while some might come around, it’s unlikely that every member will. If they’re dealing with problems at work, legal issues, transitioning, etc, those things can have perfect endings, but rarely do. Coworkers sometimes refuse to stop misgendering you and at best they’ll end up fired for discrimination. Laws at the moment are not often on the side of the transgender community and even if a trans character would win the case, you can bet some serious issues came up first. And transitioning can end wonderfully, but there will be pain, probably scars, and having transitioned is not some magical fix for all the other issues that come with being trans. Make the ending realistic.

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