Saying Something: Trans Characters in YA Fiction

By Clarence Harlan OrsiJuly 16, 2019

Saying Something: Trans Characters in YA Fiction
THE YOUNG ADULT NOVELS of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I grew up, did not particularly reflect my life experience. Mostly, I remember the Holocaust novels. After nights reading Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) or Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars (1989), I’d lie awake wondering if I had it in me to give my last potato to my starving mother, or to run for the barbed wire and risk being shot.

What the YA novels of my generation never did was make me lie awake questioning my gender identity. Since I’m now a trans man, I can give credit to other cultural forces for that. Today’s trans youth, however, can see themselves in contemporary fiction. Since 2004, when Julie Anne Peters published Luna, a novel about a young woman’s relationship with her transgender sister, there has been a small but significant explosion of YA literature with transgender themes. There are books about trans girls, such as Alex Gino’s George (2015) and Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson (2014); books about trans boys, such as Kirstin Cronn-Mills’s Beautiful Music for Ugly Children (2012) and Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish (2007); books about the family members of transgender kids, such as Luna and Tanita S. Davis’s Happy Families (2012); books about intersex characters, such as Alyssa Brugman’s Alex As Well (2013); books about genderqueer characters, such as M-E Girard’s Girl Mans Up (2016); and a tiny handful of books about transgender kids of color, such as Cris Beam’s I Am J (2011). With the recent publication of trans author Meredith Russo’s second novel, Birthday (2019), and non-binary author Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best (2019), this body of work only continues to grow.

A lot has changed for trans people in the last 15 years, yet the novels reflect a relatively unified perspective. This unity comes despite their superficial diversity — they are set in quite different places, featuring varying family backgrounds and protagonists with distinct personalities. And yet, after reading only a handful of these books (I’ve now read 12), I could usually predict what would happen next. Some of this predictability might come from my own life experience. In the end, though, I felt the books themselves were teaching me how to read them, just as they teach the kids (and parents) who read them what it means to be trans.

So it’s worth asking, in this moment of heightened visibility for trans issues: what does it mean to be trans in YA novels?

The pedagogy of these novels entails setting up a series of rites of passage and then repeating them in different iterations. This roster of rites is typical of YA novels generally — e.g., the first kiss, the prom, the changing guard of best friends, the realization of parental fallibility — but it also includes rites specific to the trans experience. There’s the moment when the trans character uses the bathroom of their chosen gender for the first time, as when, in the novel George, trans protagonist Melissa’s cis friend Kelly pulls her into the girls’ bathroom (“The tiles were gray and green, not pink as Melissa had imagined”). There’s the moment when the trans character dresses in the clothes of their chosen gender for the first time, as when Justin sees his father in women’s dress at his debate performance in Happy Families (“That lady in the white suit looks enough like your dad to be your aunt,” his friend says). There’s the visit to the therapist (“You’re bringing some of your anger out, where we can deal with it,” her counselor tells J in I Am J) and the choosing of an avatar in a video game (“They never make girl characters that look like me,” the genderqueer Pen says in Girl Mans Up). There are also traumatic rites of passage, such as the onset of puberty or the first public bullying or the difficult coming out conversation with family.

There are also common motifs that seem to have nothing to do with transitioning genders. Each of these books features a work of art that’s important to the plot, allowing characters to express their inner truths through artistic mediation. “Art is the lie that tells the truth,” as one character in I Am J paraphrases Picasso. It’s through J’s own photographs that he is able to come out, somewhat obliquely, to this friend. And it’s through Pen’s secret-revealing photo project in Girl Mans Up, entitled “The Truth Is,” that she’s able to convey the fact that everyone, not just the trans person, is hiding something.

Plays provide an even more efficient mechanism for expressing the truth of gender via artifice. When George’s protagonist Melissa wins the part of the spider in Charlotte’s Web, she’s thrilled because “playing a girl part wouldn’t really be pretending.” The other middle-grade-targeted book, Gracefully Grayson, also features a play at its center: when Grayson gets into her Persephone gown for the first time, she says, “I finally see myself the way I’m supposed to be — my inside self matched up with my outside self.” In Parrotfish, meanwhile, the patriarch coerces the rest of the family into putting on a Dickensian Christmas pageant for the benefit of the neighbors. Though Grady, the trans boy at the center of the novel, performs this ritual grudgingly, the play ends up helping him express what he needs to say about his gender to his family.

There are stylistic commonalities too, like the flashbacks to moments of heightened trauma (as when Gabe gets his period in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, or Regan’s shock at first learning her brother’s secret in Luna). Then there are formal tropes occasioned by the unique linguistic problems involved in depicting transgender experience. Due to the obvious pronoun issues, most of these books are written in the first person. Names present a similar dilemma: Should the given or chosen name be used to refer to a character? If both, at what point should the switch occur? George, one of the few novels written in the third person, changes its protagonist without comment from George to Melissa when she wears girl’s clothes for the first time. This name switch exerts perhaps undue pressure on the markers of external identification to validate internal identity.

The formal device that unifies all these books, however, is the need to explain. First, there is the characters’ need to explain to those around them that they are transgender, but more important is the authors’ need to explain what that means to the reader. There is also new vocabulary to be explained, norms to dissect, and admonishments to make. Like a science fiction novel that must figure out what techniques to use to map the contours of an unfamiliar world, trans YA books can’t take anything for granted. They must deploy the narrative equivalent of a roster of sensitivity trainers (sometimes actual sensitivity trainers, as when representatives from an LGBT community center visit the high school in Rachel Gold’s Being Emily [2012]). These sensitivity trainers are Trojan horses, ineptly disguised. Often, a trans character will say something to a confused cis person and then be compelled to stop and explain, as Luna does when describing sexual confirmation surgery to her sister: “Sorry. I should keep you filled in on the lingo.” Or a transphobic joke will be inserted into the plot and characters will have to discuss it, as Parrotfish’s Kita and Grady do when they conclude that a prank involving men dressing up in women’s clothes “makes a joke out of something really serious” — namely, gender dysphoria.

There are many genuinely funny, well-observed, and moving moments in these books, but they never occur when explaining transgender experience to the reader. In Happy Families, Justin and Ysabel go out to dinner with their father after he tells them he wants to live as a woman. During a tense conversation, Justin finds himself “wishing that we were just all here for real, being together like before. But Ysabel has it right — we’re here to say something to each other.” The family is gathered to Talk It Out. Justin and Ysabel, as ciphers for the reader, will overcome, through education, their reluctance to accept that their father is trans.

Many times while reading these books I, like Justin, felt corralled around a table by my parents and compelled to listen while someone Says Something. I do understand where the sense of didactic obligation is coming from. Gender transitions are, in fact, difficult to explain, and not only due to the technical knowledge required to parse them. They’re also difficult to justify in the first place. Transitioning is a selfish act (I say this as someone who’s done it), one that inevitably creates problems for even the most welcoming community.

That trans characters must necessarily make the lives of people around them difficult poses a problem for the likability requirements of a YA protagonist. As a result, these novels must show that their protagonists need to transition, that in some way the impulse to change genders is out of their control. These characters can’t help the havoc they’re wreaking. You can hear this justification in the ready answers they have for how long they’ve known they were trans. It’s always early, almost pre-language. When Gabe’s friend John, in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, asks Gabe if he’s always felt like a boy, Gabe talks about not wanting to line up with the girls in kindergarten (gender divided lines are another traumatic rite of passage). John seems soothed by Gabe’s narrative of wrongly assigned embodiment, as if he’d been asked to validate Gabe’s desires: “That says [transgender] to me.”

Another common justification provided for these characters is how bad they are at performing their assigned birth genders. In George, Scott admits that his sister Melissa doesn’t “make a very good boy.” This concession is Scott’s way of showing his sister that he accepts her transition, but it’s also the novel’s way of showing us that Melissa’s transition is valid. Melissa doesn’t make sense as a boy — she’s not good at it — but as a girl, she performs well. Her brother, who swigs from the orange juice bottle rather than pouring a glass, is there to show us what being good at being a boy really means. It’s difficult to imagine any of these characters being “good” at their assigned genders and also wanting to transition. Even the two books that involve intersex and genderqueer identities feature protagonists who express a gender preference different from the one they’ve been assigned — a preference that in turn points to the gender they are better at performing. Characters are constantly being forced into the bathrooms, roles, and clothes of their assigned genders (when Pen in Girl Mans Up asks her mother for black T-shirts, she receives black T-shirts with Disney princesses on them) in order to show just how wrong those roles are.

These rigorous efforts to prove the validity of characters’ desired genders indicate that it is not enough to simply want to transition. Rather, these books must prove that changing genders is the only thing that will keep these characters alive. There are several references to past suicide attempts, as when Amanda, in Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl (2016), tries to kill herself just as she’s beginning puberty as a boy. The most striking survival justification, however, involves the animal kingdom itself. For Parrotfish’s Grady, the existence of the titular species of sex-changing fish exists proves that there is something natural about being trans. It’s also inevitable; in the case of the parrotfish, the book informs us, “[g]ender shifting occurs only when it’s necessary for survival.” Grady, too, thinks that transitioning is necessary for his survival. He may not be wrong — 42 percent of non-binary youth have attempted suicide.

The desperation that lies at the core of these narrative justifications reflects a world in which people do not believe trans children, a world of articles about whether a child really needs to transition or whether it’s just a phase. “You’re only ten years old,” her mother points out after George’s Melissa comes out. “You don’t know how you’ll feel in a few years.” If we are to believe teenagers, then we must accept that they are who they say they are, even when this involves a seemingly stable identity changing. The novels ask us to give teenagers autonomy, to listen to Pen when she tells her mother “I get to decide” about what to wear and whom to kiss.

But teenagers are difficult to believe in part because adolescence is a fundamentally incoherent time. Teenagers, the ultimate liminal creatures, shift personalities, beliefs, and even physical form by the day. Ironically, these trans YA novels actually serve as something of a corrective to this incoherence of identity. In contrast to the chaos that is the typical teen’s psyche, these novels feature one clear element that is “wrong” with the child (gender assignment), which is then fixed by the end of the book (or on the way to being fixed). Adolescent becoming is thus made comprehensible. When Luna tells her sister that “the real me is on the inside,” parents and others worried about teenage incoherence can breathe a sigh of relief. Luna’s identity has been stable all along; it just wasn’t visible to the outside world. We don’t need to let her become something incomprehensible. We just need to let her become who she has always been.

Because these books try to neatly package adolescent chaos, their trans characters always come out more normal as their chosen genders than they were as their assigned genders. “Inside the body of this strange, never-quite-right girl hid the soul of a typical, average, ordinary boy,” narrates Parrotfish’s Grady. “Normal” for Grady, as for the other characters, means performing the conventions of one’s chosen gender, affecting compliance with (rather than rebellion against) family and other authorities, and often (though not exclusively) becoming heterosexual. When If I Was Your Girl’s Amanda flirts with her crush, Grant (who doesn’t yet know she’s trans), she says that she “felt, at least for a moment, what it was like to be a normal teenage girl.” Grant’s heterosexual attraction both validates her gender and reveals her deep desire for normalcy. Emily in Being Emily wonders despairingly, “Would I never fit in anywhere except for the transgender community?” She, like almost all of the other characters, just wants to pass.

The fact that their central problem is external — the gender assigned by someone else — means that the protagonists can, and indeed must, be good persons internally. This serves both to consolidate the book’s core conflict (a good person treated badly) into something that can be solved and also to serve as a justification for the transition (this good person deserves it). How can you begrudge the needs of a kid who cries over Charlotte’s Web and keeps a hidden stack of girly magazines only because she wants to be friends with the models?

Nowhere is the culturally imposed pressure to be good more visible than in these characters’ neutered sexualities. They are allowed to have chaste romances, of course, some of which appear to be genuinely deep connections, like the one Pen has with the frankly amazing Blake, a self-aware, badass gamer girl in Girl Mans Up, or Amanda and Grant’s bonding over Star Wars and “mudding” (driving your truck in mud) in If I Was Your Girl. A very few of them are allowed to express sexual desire. Only one of them, however, is allowed to take sexual pleasure in their trans embodiment itself, and that is Alex in Alex As Well, in a delightfully shocking scene where she masturbates in a dressing room while trying on girls’ clothes.

I understand that YA novels as a genre aren’t orgiastic idylls. But these books seem to contort themselves to deny any connection between gendered embodiment and sexual pleasure. Most protagonists are captured in the pre-transitional moments when they are, like J, “just a hovering brain without a body,” or the improbably-post-op-as-a-teenager Amanda in If I Was Your Girl, who has seemingly solved the problem of her genitalia and moved on to never thinking about them again. The genitals on the pre-operative trans girls, meanwhile, are regarded as blemishes marring the achievement of gendered ideals — as the title of Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect (2009) problematically suggests. It’s seemingly enough for that novel, the only one told from the perspective of a cisgender man, to grapple with the toxic masculinity unleashed by the main character’s attraction to a girl who happens to be trans; it would be too much to suggest that the narrator may have been attracted to her transness. No, Logan must desire Sage despite her penis, not because of it.

Similarly, other novels feel compelled to emphasize that transness itself isn’t a kink. Being Emily goes to great lengths to disavow the idea that the arousal Emily experiences dressing up in girls’ clothes relates to her trans identity by having a “good therapist” figure affirm that she is probably just excited about being a girl in general: “Your body doesn’t always know the difference between that excitement and arousal.” Why does there have to be a difference? It all seems like semantic contortions until you realize the pressure these characters are under to have pure, justifiable gender transitions unsullied by murky matters of sexual desire.

This need to justify transition through sexless purity is but one manifestation of the low-grade panic about doing trans “correctly” that infuses all these books. Part of this nervousness likely comes from the YA community, which has a vocally prescriptive fan base. You can see the authors addressing the concerns of this readership in their afterwords, when they take on the question of why, as cisgender authors, they’re writing about trans characters. “It’s scary to take an imaginative leap and write a character who is not you,” Cris Beam remarks in the author’s note to I Am J — as if to say, please go easy on me. Rachel Gold, author of Being Emily, says that, in the time since her book’s original publication, she’s come to understand herself as genderqueer. Kirstin Cronn-Mills, author of Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, even claims that, as a cis woman, she shouldn’t have written the book in the first place, and urges us to go read books by trans authors.

All this points to an important tension in trans literature. On the one hand, there is a need for the specificity of trans characters’ experiences to be rooted in their social marginalization: I have suffered, they seem to say, and therefore I have a right to tell my story, and you should listen to it. On the other hand, there is an impulse to connect the trans person to the cis person, to say they’re (we’re) just like you. Gabe, the suave high school radio DJ in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, likes to ask his listeners: “Are you an A side or a B side?” He’s referring to his own motif — that he’s the B side to Elizabeth, his A side — but the analogy works outside a trans context. The reader is reminded that we trans people aren’t the only ones who keep parts of ourselves hidden. When wise trans woman Marcia, in I Am J, says, “Oh honey, we’re all transgender,” she doesn’t just mean her fellow sex workers on the Greenwich Village piers. She means it in a more enigmatic and global sense: we’ve all felt out of place in our bodies, felt the disconnect between our inner and outer selves.

There’s nothing wrong with connecting trans and cis people. In fact, cis people would do well to think of the ways they share qualities of transness, instead of examining us as if we were alien artifacts. And in general, I should state for the record that I’m glad these novels exist. They certainly have made — and will continue to make — young trans people feel less lonely, something I very much want. They very well might have helped me as a kid, might have spoken to me even more deeply than Hannah’s choice to save her future aunt Rivka from the gas chambers. Perhaps they would have allowed me to envision the possibility of transitioning long before I did.

Our culture is fascinated with trans people, and we are fascinated with teenagers. One might even say the public is at an adolescent stage in its fixation with trans people: old enough to know the basics but not enough to appreciate nuance. Media representations of trans people usually exotify and then neutralize us — a structure not unlike the Amish Rumspringa, a ritual during which teenagers have a moment to be free of social constraints before they are expected to return to the fold.

These novels are the important and necessary first generation of YA trans stories. But for the second generation, I’ll be looking for books that let us stay out of the fold a little longer. I’ll be looking for books that take for granted the reader’s knowledge of the basic vocabulary of gender difference. Books where the cultural backdrop to the transition is not “neutral” (middle-class white), but visible enough to show how the character’s cultural/familial world shapes their transition options, as it invariably does. Books that talk about sexuality as it relates to gender identity, instead of forcing the two apart. Books where the kid is transgender but the main source of conflict lies elsewhere. Books where the kid decides not to transition after all. Books where the kid embraces being a freak. Books that are more funny than tragic. Books where cis people are self-reflective enough to examine their own perceptions of trans people.

Some of these books have these elements already. Almost Perfect bravely (albeit imperfectly) examines the crisis desiring a trans woman occasions in the average cis man. I Am J departs from the neutral white middle-class background to show how growing up without money shapes paths to transition: “I could do anything if I had a room with a door.” Alex As Well breaks almost all the rules, especially the injunction to be good (her dad refers to her, gloriously, as “a hyperactive, self-obsessed little shit,” and we can’t help but agree with him). Girl Mans Up is both culturally specific in its depiction of a Canadian Portuguese family and nuanced in its take on gender.

These are, nevertheless, scattered examples that stand out in contrast to the whole. If you’ve read enough of these books, as I have, you know that the characters are indeed there to Say Something — and you know, too often, what will be said. With each struggle over the bathroom, each dress-up drama, each strained coming out conversation, the canon cements. If nothing else changes, at least the participants in those fictional conversations should be more informed about the mere existence of trans people. When characters come out to others — even to themselves — it shouldn’t be so much of a shock anymore. If these trans characters are as introverted and bookish as the typical YA protagonist, then they’ve probably already read some books featuring people much like themselves.


Clarence Harlan Orsi is an associate professor of English at Cecil College in northern Maryland. His essays and fiction have appeared in publications including The Believer, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and n+1.

LARB Contributor

Clarence Harlan Orsi is a graduate of the PhD program in writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His essays and fiction have appeared in publications including The Believer, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and n+1. He is an associate professor of English at Cecil College in northern Maryland and lives in Baltimore.


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