Last Thursday my friends at Shout Out did a great segment with author B.J. Epstein about her new book, Are the Kids All Right? Representations of LGBTQ Characters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature (which is sadly not available as an ebook so I don’t have it yet). The show is available as a podcast here (28th Nov. 2013 show — we need direct links for individual shows, Mary — Update: here is it, thanks!).
That’s recommended, but what I want to talk about here comes from a conversation I had with B.J. on Twitter yesterday about the representation of trans kids in literature. Here’s the important bit.
@CherylMorgan We need more good books with transgirls/women. At the moment, the transguys are getting stronger books!
— Dr. BJ Epstein (@bjepstein) November 30, 2013
Like B.J. says, trans boys are getting much better coverage in YA novels than trans girls. It is useful to have books like Luna available, but it gives a really unflattering impression of what a young trans girl might be like (my brief review here). So why are there so few good books about trans girls, as compared to books about trans boys (I recommend f2m: the boy within; B.J. recommends I Am J), or YA books with trans women in them (such as Eon)?
Well, I’m reading the new Julia Serano book, Excluded, right now, so I know the answer. It is all about different social attitudes towards gender transition.
Any YA book containing trans characters is going to need support to get it to market. You won’t get that from conservative people who regard all trans people with horror. So you need to get left wing people on your side. If you write a book about a trans boy, what you’ll be seen as doing (by people who don’t understand trans issues) is writing about a girl who does boy things and ignores girl things. So the kid might have an interest in cars, or science, or being a rock guitarist, but will have no interest in clothes and make-up. This will be seen as feminist, because it is showing a girl doing things that are traditionally “boy things”. Your left wing friends will approve.
Suppose, however, you are writing a book about a trans girl. What might her interests be? Well if she is anything like me when I was a teenager she’ll be interested in pretty clothes, make-up, boys and babies. She may well be interested in traditional “boy stuff” too, but what she will really want are the things she can’t have because her family are raising her as a boy.
Of course there are plenty of books for young women that deal with those things, but they tend to get published by conservatives types who won’t want to touch trans issues. If you take a book like that to left wing types you’ll probably get told that you are “reinforcing the binary”; that you are damaging young women by encouraging them to focus on “trivial” things like clothes and appearance.
Now of course as trans women grow up they will come to their own accommodation with femininity. Some of them will end up presenting very boyish, because that turns out to suit them. Others will still want to present feminine, but will have a better understanding of the social implications of that choice. However, if you are writing a book for teenagers, about a teenager who is struggling to claim her femininity in the face of social opposition, you need to allow her to be traditionally girly. That will incur the wrath of many cis feminists, which will in turn make it hard to get the book to readers.
Doubtless we’ll get there in the end, but there is a long, hard struggle to be fought first against feminism’s traditional distaste for things feminine. We need more Julia Seranos.