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Being Trans Is a Lot like Being a Book

Some of the best stories happen back to front. Your understanding grows as you read, and your mind jumps back to previous events filled with new significance—sudden realizations about what the characters were doing in that place, how the murder weapon was chosen, why she said that in the heat of the moment. There are plot twists that make you want to start the book over, to reread it with new knowledge in your mind. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favorite authors for this kind of twist. She had a way of building a dozen different mysteries simultaneously, only to reveal them all at once with amazing simplicity. When you reread these stories, it’s astounding to find how clearly they point to the twists you never saw coming.

Coming to terms with being trans was, for me, remarkably similar. Once I came to understand that I was trans, my life suddenly began to paint an obvious picture. The mysteries of my adolescence resolved, and the discordant scenes of gender confusion became legible as such. The explanation I had been struggling to accept all along, that I was just a strange and unhappy person, was replaced with the understanding that I had been experiencing something that most trans people experience. And where before I had been limited to understanding my experiences as “inexplicable but deep and lifelong discomfort,” now I had a lexicon; I had the language of dysphoria to explain my unhappiness, “gender euphoria” to explain the delight I felt at finally tossing off my assigned gender.

But all that might never have happened if not for what I was reading.

For years I had been dipping my toes into trans narratives. I had long considered myself an ally who had an odd amount of common experiences with out-and-proud trans people, who cried too hard at Ma Vie en Rose. I’m deeply grateful to those trans storytellers who laid out their own narratives so that I could see where our experiences overlapped. Most of them were, like me, terrified young millennials posting on their blogs. Few of them could relate to the depictions of trans people we had grown up seeing in the media: classic portrayals of gender-nonconformity as disturbed, sexualized, and freakish. But in their shared experiences, a set of narrative tropes began to emerge—the beats of stories utterly different and far more human than the ones being told in the mainstream.

I finally applied the lens of those real trans experiences to my own life, and that was when my life began to make sense.

This still happens every time I speak about my trans identity with other trans folk. One of us relates an experience, and the rest of us pour out in solidarity or dissent. We begin to make sense of the world, to map out what defines our personal transness, what we share with others. The broader trans community feels to me like a second family, and like all families, it has an intimate history filled with stories. Which is why I feel their absence strongly in the place where people most commonly search for stories—in fiction.

It wasn’t until I was twenty that I first saw a book about a trans person who was over thirty, in a healthy relationship, and not on the verge of suicide. Until then, the books I was reading had hardly presented that as a possibility. Other things I failed to see in literature include trans people being loved and desired as people, not as objects; stories set after coming out, where the protagonists deal with actually living as trans; stories about the many different ways that people experience dysphoria, many of which cannot be summarized as “trapped in the wrong body”; stories about trans people who have happy endings; stories where non-binary people exist at all; stories where trans people just get to exist, unmarked as others, and make all the mistakes and swing all the swords and pilot all the spaceships that cisgender people get to. In short, stories where trans people are not just seen, acknowledged, and studied, but are actually explored, developed, and allowed to express the whole spectrum of trans experiences.

The trans community is filled with stories, both those imposed upon us from outside and the stories we tell each other to motivate and validate ourselves and others. Coming out as trans always seems to involve a narrative of some kind: stories of self-realization, growth, and transition. Being trans fundamentally involves a certain amount of language and narrative transformation, from the obvious changing names and pronouns to deeper and more complicated shifts in how we understand and express the concepts of gender, bodies, power, and relationships.

But the stories that get told about trans people are, generally, shockingly basic—if not outright offensive. The sensationalized “before and after” transformation story; the tragic and agonizing coming-out story; the story of the hardships faced by a trans person’s cisgender partner, parent, or child; the story of a trans murder victim being investigated and dissected by cisgender people. These are popcorn stories, meant for easy consumption by a broad audience. They don’t serve to advance transgender equality because they aren’t really about trans people; they’re about the rough idea of trans people, packaged up to be fascinating and scandalizing. And there are so many other, better, truer stories to be told.

I look back on my childhood and find narratives I never recognized running through my life, often disguised or dismissed in the moment but glaringly obvious now. I can only imagine how much easier my own process might have been if I had encountered people like myself in the books and films I devoured as a child. We use stories to make sense of our experiences when we lack representation, when our culture as a whole lacks narratives that explain us. We link together moments in our lives so that they tell a recognizable tale. And we, trans folks, need more of them.

March 31st, 2016, was the seventh annual Transgender Day of Visibility, a day of recognition and awareness-building for the transgender community. Each year, I see my timelines flooded on March 31st with the stories of friends and strangers alike, all of them taking the incredibly bold stance of being open and out in a world that demands invisibility, conformity, and silence from transgender people. This year, I suggest that we honor them by telling more and better stories, by not relegating trans visibility to just one day, and by holding the media accountable for our inclusion, or lack thereof.

The theme of this year’s Transgender Day of Visibility is #MoreThanVisibility, which points to the fact that acknowledgment of the existence of trans people isn’t enough. Visibility alone is simply dangerous. We need action that moves to combat transphobic violence, whether it manifests as hateful legislation or violent crime or the many daily microaggressions and dangers that most trans people experience.

And for those of us who consume and create fiction, we need to move beyond basic trans narratives. We don’t need any more stories written by cisgender people that read like scientific exposés or academic studies on the strange and tragic existence of trans people, like astronauts encountering a new and fascinating kind of Martian; we don’t need stories that cast us as outsiders, martyrs, and freaks. We need stories that will reach out to a vulnerable but resilient community, especially those of us who have not or cannot come out. We need stories that will hold our hands through every step of our lives. We need stories that will promise us a future. We need stories that will show us the way. And not just for one designated day, but every day.

AUSTIN CHANT is a bitter millennial, avid gamer, and a queer, trans romance writer. He is the co-host of The Hopeless Romantic, an LGBTQIA+ romance fiction podcast. He lives in Seattle with his partners in crime, a pleasant collection of game consoles, and an abundance of tea. Find him on Twitter @austinchanted and online at austinchanted.weebly.com.

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