Storify: Magical Body Modifications and Transgender Characters

Storify is shutting down in May and has informed users that we have to migrate our content elsewhere if we wish to save it. This is one of my old threads.

I've been thinking a lot this weekend about trans characters in magical / sciency settings where body modifications are available: A Thread. Nota bene: I am not the trans pope. But I am trans and here are some things to be aware of and/or avoid.

Let's talk about what transness is, really briefly. Bear with me, those of you who know this already. Gender is a social construct that has to do with how you view yourself, how you interact with the world, and how you interact with others. Other social constructs include things like "Texan", "Democrat", "Hufflepuff", "Spouse". Try telling a Texan they're not really Texan!

Social constructs are important even if there's not a physical component that doctors could point to and say, "there's the Democrat spleen." Now, our society likes to have genders for EVERYONE, including babies. And babies are notoriously bad communicators. So what we do is, we hold up a baby and say, "well, we don't KNOW your gender, so we're going to use [gender] until you say otherwise." Later, Baby can tell us what their gender is. If it matches what their assigned gender was, they're cis. If it doesn't match, they're trans.

Just so we're clear: Gender isn't determined by genitals. Gender doesn't change with genitals. So with that foundation laid, let's talk about writing trans people in settings where magical body modification is freely available.

#1. As a general rule, a trans character's pronouns should not change when their body changes. Let me elaborate. If you have a character who is a man, the narrative should not switch to "she/her" if he has a vagina or breasts at that point in the story.

An example of what not to do: "Jos knew she was a man. She just needed to get permission for the surgery to make it official."

Another example of what not to do: "Jael shuddered as the spell took hold. He hated the feeling of breasts growing on his--no, HER--frame."

These examples of pronouns changing with body modifications have the effect of implying that pronouns and gender are determined by genitals. Now, I will not say no trans person ever would not think this way. That's silly; we're not a monolith. But a cis author should avoid this.

There may also be times when a limited-perspective POV may not know someone else's gender and they take a wrong guess. That's fine as long as you, the author, understand that the guess is an incorrect one. Obviously characters will not be psychic re: gender.

I will add a caveat to this rule for genderfluid people. Genderfluid people's gender can change regularly. And in a setting with magic, it would not be surprising for a genderfluid person to choose to change their body whenever their gender changes. But in these genderfluid cases, the genital change doesn't CAUSE the pronoun change. Their gender changed + their body changed.

#2. Trans people are not all going to want body modification, even if it is freely available in your setting. A setting with perfect, free, easy, painless body modification will still have trans people whose genders don't "match" their genitals. This is because gender doesn't *align* with genitals! People can be any gender in any body and that's okay!

Not all trans people experience body dysphoria and not all trans people who do experience body dysphoria experience it equally. There will be trans men in your magic setting who opt-out of breasts but keep their vagina and are totes happy with the arrangement. There will be trans woman in your setting who opt-into breasts but like their penis and see no reason to change what works for them.

There will be nonbinary trans people in your setting who innovatively mix-and-match things up and break any NOTION of a body-binary. In short: A setting with easy, free, magical body modification will look nothing like a binary system of bodies. It'll be beautiful chaos.

#3. There are gay trans men. There are lesbian trans women. Trans people come in every sexuality available. A character who enjoys sex with men will NOT automatically wear a body with breasts and a vagina.

Gender and sexuality are intertwined for some of us in complicated ways, but body modification and bodily autonomy are MY identity. In a setting where I can magically custom-build any body I want, I'm going to build what *I* want, not what prospective sex partners want.

This may seem obvious (I hope it does!) but trans women are *not* gay men who thought body modification was the best way to meet guys. If your only on-page examples of trans people are straight trans people, I'm going to wonder where you're hiding the trans lesbians! (While we're talking trans people and sexuality, yes, trans people date each other. Quite often, in fact!)

#4. Trans people do not base our gender on a list of stereotypical things we like and enjoy, therefore our gender must be X. There are femme trans women, butch trans women, androgynous trans women. Every possible aesthetic of trans woman exists.

There are trans men who love plaid and rock lumberjack beards, who wear suits like James Bond, who wear gorgeous makeup and skirts. Our gender journeys are pretty much never "well, I like dresses and makeup so I *must* be a girl". That is infantilizing and insulting.

A setting with magical freely-available body modification will be a beautiful chaos of life and color and aesthetics, just like it is NOW. Magical body modification isn't going to suddenly jam our existing beautiful chaos into one of two types: girly girl and manly man.

#5. The belief that all infants come out with one of two models of genitals is incorrect and unscientific. Intersex people exist and have beautiful bodies. They are not all longing for surgery. They would not all opt-into magical modification. Any setting which performs body-mods on infants will need to understand that is hostile to personal autonomy and a human rights issue.

#6. Genital changes should not be referred to in binary ways, like "opposite" or "reversed" or "flipped".

#7. Genital changes are a matter of personal bodily autonomy. My body, my choice: whether abortion, pregnancy, tattoo, haircut, magic spell. Other people have bodily autonomy too, of course. My spouse is not obliged to touch or be touched by me. No one is obliged to touch my body. But authors should understand that trans people who alter bodies within the context of a relationship are not "harming" the other person. The other person can choose to stay or go, but my genitals are still MINE to alter or not as *I* choose. My body, my choice.

#8. Cis authors should take care lingering on actual genitals in a story with a setting like this. There is a prurient craving of details some cis readers have, like, "yes, they SAY they're [gender] but what's in their pants?"

This does not mean you shouldn't discuss genitals in a book with a setting of magical body modification, of course! But it's important to ask whether certain lingering details are necessary to the text or if they are fetishizing and othering.

#9. Related to #8, are those details used to affirm the trans character's identity or undermine it? This is very Your Mileage May Vary, but I feel good with scenes exploring how happy Jos is with his surgery and how his body feels so right. I am less thrilled with scenes about how Jada is uncomfortable having a visible penis/erection because it makes her feel less of a woman.

This is complicated because dysphoria DOES exist and SHOULD be explored, but I would much rather have that from an ownvoice trans author. When it comes from a cis author, it's too easy to hear "...because [character] isn't REALLY [gender] if the body mod hasn't been done yet."

There's an established tradition of playing trans characters as Always Miserable and of surgery being scary rather than good and pleasing. This is especially important if the setting is one where body modification is easy and stigma is non-existent!

Here is a great example of a one-off comic with a well-done trans story in an easy-body-changes, low-stigma society. "Such a hassle, an entire WEEKEND of my life," he gripes. We smile because we recognize how different his setting is to ours.

You most certainly will have some miserable trans people in your setting with magical body changes, but where are the happy ones? "Oh, yeah, I told my parents I was a girl when I was 4 so they took me to the Gender Witch and everything has been awesome ever since!"

#10. Speaking of trans children, it is important to understand that even if bodies can be changed easily, childhoods *cannot*. A trans child who was allowed to access magic at 4 or 5 or 8 will have had a different experience than one who was forced to wait until 18.

Authors can sometimes get wrapped up in "they can change later" and forget that childhood validation and affirmation can't be changed later. Furthermore in a society lacking stigma and with perfect magical body changes, why wouldn't a child be allowed to self-determine their body? "We can change it later, so therefore you can't change it NOW" makes so sense unless stigma is in play.

@_mamadeb: Question - can a character choose to change pronouns during the story? They realize they're a different gender during the story?

Ooh! This is a GREAT question! YES. YES THEY CAN. Not everyone knows what gender they are from birth, partly because ALL social constructs have to be learned over time. There is not even necessarily anything wrong with a character going "you know what? I like this penis, I think I'll keep it and use he/him." The important thing is just making sure that isn't the ONLY trans option we see in this magical body-modification utopia society. For books and settings like these the problem rarely lies in a specific character but rather in the aggregate picture of all the characters.

#11. People can misgender your character. You, the author, need to be aware that those people are WRONG (when done on purpose). Deliberate misgendering is an act of violence. You can have violent characters in your novel! But you must recognize they are violent. If you have a character who is a man and has told people he's a man and his family continues to call him "she/her", they are not loving.

12. If someone forces a body type on someone else, they are a villain. This is not a "trans thing". This is a question of bodily autonomy. People who egregiously disregard bodily autonomy are villains.

My firm and settled opinion as a rape survivor: Forcing a penis onto someone is as much an act of violation as forcing a penis INTO someone. Anyone who rapes or tries to rape a character is a villain. Anyone who forces a character into a body they don't want is a villain.

13. Speaking of rapes in a setting with body modification: Do not put penis-having rapists into vagina-having bodies.

This is a Trope and it needs to stop, so I'll break down here why it is a thing. For one, it is a common revenge fantasy to put a penis-having rapist into a vagina-having body and now, haha, HE will become the RAPED one. Relying on rape as a punishment for rape only props up rape culture more. We cannot dismantle our own tools. Rape should not be a tool.

For two, it a based in a harmful notion that only penis-havers rape and so taking the penis away "reforms" the rapist. This erases the many, many people who have been raped by rapists who didn't have a penis. Do not add to their erasure with this trope.

@quartzen: Is there a best way to handle pronouns for a character whose pronouns change in scenes when the character is mentioned but isn't there?

14. Good question! If the POV character knows that Jordon's pronouns change regularly, there are some options. For one, the POV can go with "last used pronouns". "I saw Jordon yesterday and he said he was angry with Mat, so I expect he still is." The last "he" in that sentence assumes that Jordan is still a "he" today, until told otherwise.

For two, the POV can have asked Jordon if there is a "neutral" option they prefer people to default to when unknown. I have a WIP where that is used; the protagonist knows her babefriend is genderfluid with changing pronouns, so she asks. "If I wake up and you're not here and I need to ask people if I've seen you, what pronouns should I use then?" "They/them is fine."

For three, with some caveats*, "they/them" is right now considered a polite way to default out of using a gendered term if you don't know. (*Caveat: Some transphobic people use they/them on trans people whose pronouns they DO know, so use this with care. It will usually be obvious the difference between a respectful they/them and a "I'm not going to acknowledge their gender" they/them.)

@katsyxo: thank you so much for this! can i ask--do you have recommendations for how to make it clear a character is trans in a world w/o that term?

#15. This is another good question that does not have an easy answer. A good guideline would be: How would a trans person's life be different in this setting from a cis person's life? Do they have medical loans from that body modification they got when they were 6? Do they have a grandma who likes to show baby pictures?

If the world is *entirely* without stigma, they might bring it up themselves, or might joke with their friends about it. Maybe. MAYBE. This is tricky, because a lot of authors say their setting is stigma-free and then write a stigmatized setting without meaning to. And it's also tricky because you're trying to be inclusive and have trans people without looking like HEY EVERYBODY TRANS OVER HERE.

If the world *isn't* without bigots, then maybe they face some bigotry they have to brush off. That is complicated to write, too! As a general rule, if they experience bigotry, they will have heard it before. And the protagonist shouldn't earn cred by "rescuing" them. Don't build up a protagonist by having a bigot hurt someone else, and then the protag seems awesome in comparison for being decent. But something like, "Are you okay?" "Yeah." "That guy was an asshole!" "You'd be surprised how often it happens." "Shit. That sucks."

^^ That would at least be familiar to me, as a trans person. If there's bigotry in the setting.

@Tuplet: Question about irl, if somebody was a he when something happened, is it wrong to recount it with those pronouns if he is using she presently

#16. Good question! My answer, as Not Trans Pope, is to NEVER do this. Let me elaborate. Trans people are not a monolith and some of us DO view our pronouns as changing over time. That is a thing some of us do. But in general, people should use our current correct pronouns for any and all stories about us, past-present-or-future.

Many of us trans people were never "[gender] at the time". People may have been CALLING us [gender] but they decided that for us. So using the wrongly gendered term people applied to us in the past can be a way of asserting power over our stories. A way of saying, "You may SAY you're xie NOW, but *I* say you were nee THEN because you hadn't asserted otherwise yet."

That assertion of power, of deciding FOR us what words apply TO us, is the same root violence behind deliberate misgendering and deadnaming. Now, because we are not a monolith, in a perfect world we would just ask. Example: "Laen, when I tell stories about our childhood should I use your pronouns or do you prefer me to use the ones we used at the time?"

But as a general rule, if you're writing a fictional character, pre-op flashbacks should NOT switch pronouns. Why? Because: Gender isn't determined by genitals. Gender doesn't change with genitals.

#17. This isn't *directly* related to transness, but depending on your magical science fiction setting, there may be impacts to disability. All technology has a ripple affect to other fields. The ability to grow a uterus from scratch will affect more than just trans people. It is important to sit with that, not just brush aside "well in the fairyland / far flung future, disability isn't a thing." We get erased from so much of fantasy and science fiction, and it adds up to a lot of harm after awhile--not to mention eugenics.

....................and that's all I can think of for this time! The takeaway is that it's super cool and okay to write a society with magical genital changes, just as long as you're careful.

Oh! A couple more things.

#18. As a general rule, avoid using the term "gender identity" when talking about trans people. I will explain. I have a gender. My gender is one of my identities. True! But "gender identity" has come to be used as a dogwhistle to undermine our gender.

Example, Bad, Avoid: "Please stop upsetting Bobby by questioning her gender identity."
Example, Good, Do: "Stop misgendering Bobby."

Example, Bad, Avoid: "Bobby's gender identity is that of a demigirl."
Example, Good, Do: "Bobby's gender is demigirl."

#19: Related, do not use these frameworks:
"Caro feels like a girl."
"Technically, Caro is a girl."
"Socially, Caro is a girl."

All of those words are a way of saying "okay, but they aren't REALLY, because their genitals aren't." But genitals aren't gender.

#20. If you want to say someone has a vagina, say they have a vagina. Not a "biological girl" or "born a girl". Say they have a vagina.


Post a Comment