Transcending Flesh: Hi, My Name Is Tran S. Gender

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

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This essay is one in a series which focuses on writing gender in science fiction and fantasy settings that provide body modification options beyond our current level of technology. Note that you can download this collection of essays from my website here.


Transcending Flesh:
Gender and Body Diversity in Futuristic and Fantastical Settings

Essay #8: Hi, My Name Is Tran S. Gender

Estelle is an author who is trying to include trans people in her novel, but she's understandably worried over one thing: how will her readers know her trans characters are transgender? Let's first go over some "don'ts" that I've encountered in the wild.


- Don't employ phrases like "born a boy". Trans people are not "born" a gender that they later "change". If you must reference an assigned gender at birth, do so in a way which emphasizes that the assignment was wrong (i.e., "mistakenly thought to be a boy"). Having said that, it would be better to avoid defining trans people by their birth events. Rarely are cis people introduced with a reference to their birth years ago.

- Don't misgender the character unless the misgendering is quickly addressed as incorrect. Someone calling a character a girl and being corrected ("Did you not read his email where he came out to everyone? Theo is a boy, Carol.") might be fine. An announcement which misgenders the character ("King Allows Girl To Join Knights!") is not fine unless a character remarks upon or otherwise corrects the announcement. The key here is that it's okay for characters to be wrong if the narrative makes it clear they are wrong.

- Don't rely on stereotypes to make all your trans characters the girliest girls, the manliest men, and the most androgynous of nonbinary peoples, such that they all seem obsessed with maintaining a flawless gender presentation. There are feminine trans girls and masculine trans boys and androgynous enbys, but we come in more flavors than that! Trans people aren't playing a part or trying to win a gender presentation prize. Give your trans characters more interests and hobbies and traits than just "being trans".

- Don't linger over descriptions of their bodily features in lurid ways which highlight how much their gender presentation does or doesn't "match" what is expected for their gender. Cis authors often spend a lot of time on how trans people "look" and whether that look "matches" their gender, with the implication that it's a tragedy when it doesn't and a relief when it does. Trans people do sometimes care about our appearance (and body dysphoria is a thing many of us experience) but it's hardly all we think about or amount to as a person! Lingering over how a trans character looks suggests their appearance is the most important thing about them and tends to be deeply othering of the character, as though they're a zoo exhibit to gawk at.

~Transness as an Experience~

Now you know some things not to do, but you might still be stuck on how to introduce a character as trans. I think where a lot of writers get caught here is they're accustomed to describing people and bodies as a state of being rather than as an experience. If a character's eyes are blue, you can just tell the audience that their eyes are blue. It's there staring them in the face. But this leads authors down the path of trying to describe transness the way they would describe a body feature, which tends to go in bad directions.

Instead of trying to describe your trans character as a physical state of being, think about what their experiences are like--particularly in this world you've built with magitech which allows them to experiment with their body. How is a trans person's life different in this world from a cis person's? Do they have medical loans from the body modification they received when they were younger? Do they have an excitable and embarrassing parent who likes to show baby pictures to new friends and lovers? Does someone in their life still slip up and call them by the wrong pronouns before apologizing and correcting themselves?

If your world is entirely without stigma, your trans characters might bring up their transness themselves, or might joke with their friends about it. They might disclose their transness to other trans characters in need of a friend through a tough time. They might still be navigating the process of changing paperwork in your world, or otherwise still transitioning--either legally, socially, medically, or in some other facet of their life.

Speaking of transition, how was that experience for your character? Not every trans person experiences dysphoria or bigotry or unsupportive families, and many might experience much less so in a world with cool BodyMod magitech. Too often, cis authors write trans characters as miserable, and transition as a scary thing rather than an affirming experience. If body modification is a simple matter of a painless weekend at the magitech spa, make that clear in the narrative. ("Oh, yeah, I told my parents I was a girl when I was four years old so they took me to the Gender Witch and everything has been awesome ever since!")

If your world does have bigotry, they will need to navigate that. Be careful when writing bigotry! Your trans readers could be hurt by slurs or violent scenes. Ask yourself whether those things are necessary to the story or whether they're gratuitous and should be removed. As a general rule, too, your trans characters will have heard bigotry before and shouldn't be "shocked" by it, nor should a protagonist earn "good person" credit by standing up for them. Don't build up a protagonist by hurting someone else; that's cheap and exploits trans pain in order to make a protagonist seem like a good person simply for not being terrible.


In my opinion, cis authors ought to avoid lingering on trans people's sexual characteristics, because they almost always linger on the wrong things in the wrong ways.

However, if you want to discuss genitals in a setting with BodyMod magitech, ask yourself what value is being added in a scene which lingers on a trans person's private parts? Is the scene affirming the character and showing their joy at having a body which feels right to them, or is the scene gawking at them and cheapening their happiness by making it appear fetishistic? Is the scene thoughtfully exploring how a character feels being in a body which seems wrong to them, or is the scene mocking them for their body?

Be very careful describing bodies in ways which convey disgust. Scenes which linger on the "grossness" of hair, smell, shape, feel, arousal, or erection can be hurtful and stigmatizing to readers. They can also be deployed in ways which perpetuate harmful stereotypes; not all men spring an erection upon entering the same postal code as a woman. It's an old, trite, and predictable trope for a character to gain a penis and suddenly be overwhelmed with how "lusty" and "driven" this body part supposedly is. Be more original than that, and treat your characters like people rather than collections of organs.


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