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Making the World Safe for Transgender Characters

I am afraid of what will happen when I publish my first book with a transgender main character.

Not because I know it won’t sell well (It won’t; I’ll love it anyway, and hopefully so will someone out there.). Not because I’m afraid to write trans characters (I’m not; that’d be hard to do, considering I’m trans.). Not because I’m afraid of reviewers (I read reviews, and almost every single one of them, positive or negative, helps me do better with my next book.).

It’s because I’m scared to death of how people will treat my trans characters.

I’ve built up a Twitterspace that consists of trans and trans-positive people. Every author, reviewer, and reader I follow is someone I respect, and someone I know respects me. Social media inherently allows you to create your own bubble—your own safe space. And yeah, that’s the kind of thing “anti-SJWs (social justice warriors)” complain about. That the whole world isn’t a safe space, and people who cultivate safe spaces and stay in them aren’t prepared to handle what’s really out there. Blah, blah, blah.

The thing is, romance is a safe space for me. A place for me to forget the ugliness for a little while. I mostly read things my Twitter people recommend to me, so I go in knowing that I’ve got a 98 percent chance of reading a book that isn’t racist, doesn’t slut or fat-shame its characters, and doesn’t treat anyone—gay cis men included—like teacup purse puppies who are shown around to be gawked at and objectified. Having a safe space in romance doesn’t mean I’m not prepared for negativity. Like I said, I read reviews. Plenty of them are negative. And I’m okay with that! People can critique my writing and my plot holes and my characters all day long. It makes me a better writer, knowing what works and what doesn’t, what people like and what they don’t.

But I know it will be hard for me to handle real-life transphobia and transmisogyny seeping into those reviews.

I’ve already seen it.

A year or so ago, a close friend came to me. She’d been asked by our publisher to participate in a series, and she wanted to write a book with a transgender main character. Since she’s cisgender, she wanted a trans beta reader to help guide her. I’d betaed her previous trans book, so I agreed right away, and we fell into our usual rhythm: every night, we hopped in the book’s Google Doc, and she and her co-author wrote while I did coursework or ate dinner or g-chatted with my girlfriend, all the while keeping an eye on what was going on in the doc. In a way, it felt like I was writing the book, as well, even though all I did was offer advice and my point of view as a DFAB (designated female at birth) nonbinary trans person.

As she wrote, I saw her consult other trans people—people whose experiences were closer to her main character’s than mine were. She asked me many times if what she was writing was respectful, and if her character was well-rounded. She made me think. I, too, write books where characters are transgender, but their gender isn’t the main part of the book. In most cases, it’s only mentioned in passing, while the rest of the plot deals with, well, anything but their gender. I was proud of the book my friend wrote, and proud of my part in it.

Then the book came out. I tagged along on the Goodreads page, reading reviews as they came in. The majority of the responses were positive. But there were a few people who criticized the publisher for labeling the book M/M when the main character wasn’t a “real man” and the book had sex scenes where his vagina wasn’t ignored. There were a few who said they weren’t attracted to the “type of man” he was. There were a few who thought his gender wasn’t addressed enough, likely because it wasn’t a story about him transitioning, or about struggling to come to terms with being female-to-male transgender. He was already happy, and content with his body.

One day, I will publish my trans books. One day, I know people will read my books and post transphobic things about how my trans character wasn’t really trans, or how they were disappointed there was no discussion about why a “supposedly female” character still has a penis and doesn’t want surgery. One day, I will see characters I spent months living every day with ripped apart—not because I wrote them poorly (although, like every writer, I’ve done that and will definitely do it again), but because they weren’t trans enough, or trans in the right way.

I know there’s a solution to this: don’t read reviews.

And when that day comes that I publish my first trans book, I probably won’t. It’s been disheartening enough to see reviews on other people’s books—not just my friend’s. It’s disheartening to be reminded of how much hate swirls around us, pressing in, and even more so to be reminded that that very same hatred can infect our happily-ever-after bubble at a moment’s notice.

The most difficult thing here is that, while I—and lots of other authors—write books about trans characters, not Trans Books, those books are received by a largely cis audience, some of whom expect those books to be Trans Revelations. I just wanna write a thriller about werewolves and spies and machine guns. I don’t want to have to write a trans manifesto, or have everything my trans character does politicized, turning them into either a “good trans” or a “bad trans.” It seems impossible for people to write books about trans characters without that book becoming a torrent of conversation surrounding political correctedness and people’s subsequent dislike of how SJWs are taking over everything from films (cough, the latest Mad Max) to what’s supposed to be M/M.

I think I just don’t want to see my characters suffer because they’re trans. I see it enough with the women in the TV shows and films I love. They’re held to ridiculous standards, and aren’t forgiven the same character flaws, traits, and mistakes for which a male character would not only be forgiven, but also celebrated. A strident man with angst over losing his entire combat team is precious and to be protected. A woman who acts the same is bossy and insecure and obviously can’t do her job. A trans person is… what? What gender role will people try to assign a genderqueer character? An agender one? Will they be able to make wrong choices, too? Will they be able to lose people and love people without it being held against their body, and the bodies of every trans person?

Romance is my safe space. I love the people here. The friends I’ve made are the best of my life. My readers are generous and harsh and lovely. I adore what I do, the good parts and the not-so-good parts and all. But knowing that one day I’ll probably see a character of mine referred to as a “he-she” or an “it,” or that I’ll have someone put my books out there and point and yell about how it’s proof we need mass correction of “trannies,” makes my space seem like it’s getting a little smaller. Like the place where I fit in the romance world—in the world at all—is getting a little tighter.

SAM SCHOOLER is an Ohioan university student studying journalism with a minor in American Sign Language and a specialization in African American studies. She is both queer and genderqueer, and has found a home in writing trope-themed New Adult stories about people of all genders and orientations. She has a wicked and extremely noticeable soft spot for werewolves. After graduation, she intends to flee to Canada to join her fiancée Alex and escape the customs regulations that keep her separated from her truest love: Kinder Eggs. If you’re feeling daring, follow her on Twitter as @samschoolering to get the full immersive experience, and find her at her website.

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