Advice needed for writing a trans character

ElaineB

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Know that I’m coming from a place of wanting to do good, so feel free to save me from doing harm.

I’m writing a science fiction novel, set about 150 years from now, and a lot of currently controversial things will be settled (though not all and history is remembered). I would like to have a trans character. And here’s where I could step wrongly and am looking for advice (says the cis lesbian, FWIW). In my MC’s distant past, this character was a reporter who helped her expose the dirty dealings of a space exploration company. This gets a brief mention in the first book as something that happened, but the character is not mentioned by gender or name.

Fast forward to the next book in the series and I’d like to have this character return. I could just make them cis, but I would like to make him an ftm, something that happened away from my MC’s awareness. My MC will then be contacted by this reporter for a new story he’s working on.

Is it OK to misgender, even deadname, this character because the MC does not know yet about the transition? I feel like that’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but trans folks must have to deal with their former selves. I’d like to know how best to handle that.

Once the transition is established, MC is fine with him instead of her and they go on their merry way exposing more malfeasance. Where this hits my MC’s vulnerability, so why it matters to the story, is that she’s encountered a lot of things to make her distrust everyone, so she does have a moment of worry that this reporter is not who he says he is. There’s a moment where he has to prove he’s the same reporter from years back. And he does, and MC is relieved, and no problem. From this point, he’d be gendered correctly and, frankly, the transition need never come up again.

Which leads to a corollary question of, when does being trans become not worth mentioning and therefore not visible?

I want to represent diversity and his being trans isn’t the point of his role in the story; it’s just a fact of his life. I thought it’d be nice for trans men to see one in a story. But if it’s not the point, does it even need to be mentioned?

My POV is close third, in the MC’s head, so it’s not easy to have the narrator take the reader aside and mention that this character is trans. The reader needs to learn at the same time the MC does.
 

lizmonster

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I think there's a bit of a contradiction in your worldbuilding here. If you've got a future where transness is ordinary, I wouldn't think the change for the reporter would tweak your MC's mistrust any more than, say, a name change. Which might tweak her mistrust as well! But if you are positing a world where trans people Just Are, I wouldn't make it exceptional to the MC, either.
 

Fi Webster

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Once the transition is established, MC is fine with him instead of her and they go on their merry way exposing more malfeasance. Where this hits my MC’s vulnerability, so why it matters to the story, is that she’s encountered a lot of things to make her distrust everyone, so she does have a moment of worry that this reporter is not who he says he is. There’s a moment where he has to prove he’s the same reporter from years back. And he does, and MC is relieved, and no problem. From this point, he’d be gendered correctly and, frankly, the transition need never come up again.
I think there's a bit of a contradiction in your worldbuilding here. If you've got a future where transness is ordinary, I wouldn't think the change for the reporter would tweak your MC's mistrust any more than, say, a name change. Which might tweak her mistrust as well! But if you are positing a world where trans people Just Are, I wouldn't make it exceptional to the MC, either.

I see your point, Liz, but I don't read Elaine's synopsis as the MC finding transness itself exceptional. Rather, she has a moment of needing to get her head straight that this is the same person she knew long ago. If she's distrustful in general, presumably for having been hurt badly by betrayal, she might also distrust a person who'd changed their name.

I've had the experience myself, more than once, of someone becoming intensely suspicious of me when I've casually mentioned that my legal name isn't the same as the particular nom de plume through which I first got to know them. Or the other way around, when they know me first through my legal name, then find out later that some of my writing and artwork is out there under a different one. Ours is a society where it's very common for writers, artists, musicians, etc., to use an alternate name and persona for their creative work, so I'm always surprised when people make an issue of it. People can be funny about such things.

If the MC is not especially good at remembering faces or voices, or if the reporter's transition has altered their face or voice, her temporary confusion over the gender change doesn't seem inconsistent to me with a trans-accepting world.

The part of Elaine's tale that seems (says cis bi me) the most critical to handle with sensitivity is the moment when this guy has to "prove he's the same reporter from years back." How will vehemently will the MC express her distrust? What will she accept as proof? Will that happen easily by the reporter's providing details from their shared experience?

I have a couple of trans friends, so I'm not ignorant of issues like misgendering and deadnaming, but I can't answer Elaine's specific question about those. I do hope one or more trans people will respond to this query. @ChaseJxyz would be a good person to consult.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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In my MC’s distant past, this character was a reporter who helped her expose the dirty dealings of a space exploration company. This gets a brief mention in the first book as something that happened, but the character is not mentioned by gender or name.

If this first book hasn't been published yet, you really should mention at least the reporter's name, otherwise "oh I was that one reporter vaguely" is going to look pretty sussy in book 2. Would take all of 2 seconds to write in.

Fast forward to the next book in the series and I’d like to have this character return. I could just make them cis, but I would like to make him an ftm,

ftm is an adjective, so you wouldn't say "a black" or "a gay"

Is it OK to misgender, even deadname, this character because the MC does not know yet about the transition? I feel like that’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but trans folks must have to deal with their former selves. I’d like to know how best to handle that.

Misgendering happens when you KNOW a person is trans and you CHOOSE to use the wrong name/gender/pronouns. If you do not know that the person is trans, because you have never checked up on them or were told about it, then you are not doing anything out of any malice. So if your MC thinks "gee I wonder what Jane Doe is up to, helping her with that news story was a fun time!" then that's fine.

Once the transition is established, MC is fine with him instead of her and they go on their merry way exposing more malfeasance. Where this hits my MC’s vulnerability, so why it matters to the story, is that she’s encountered a lot of things to make her distrust everyone, so she does have a moment of worry that this reporter is not who he says he is. There’s a moment where he has to prove he’s the same reporter from years back. And he does, and MC is relieved, and no problem. From this point, he’d be gendered correctly and, frankly, the transition need never come up again.

I think this is fine, too. If this is far enough in the future, there would be lots of surgeries (perhaps even gene therapy), so how someone looks pre and post transition can be radically different, including factors like height and bone size/shapes, which aren't that changeable with our current tech. So if your MC is naturally distrustful, she would have her doubts.

Just have the distrust not be "oh no a trans person, this means they are inherently untrustable" and instead be more centered on the MC's own fears. Like "Big Rocket has tried sending impersonators after me before, now this is a step too far!"

Which leads to a corollary question of, when does being trans become not worth mentioning and therefore not visible?

You're never going to get an answer to this one lol. There are some trans people that feel that you should always make it explicitly clear if someone is trans, as anything less is erasure. There are also trans people that feel that their transesness should NEVER come up, because it is marking them as inherently different i.e. by saying "Trans woman" you are saying they are different and, therefore, separate from regular "women." There is no way to make both groups happy.

=====

This is part is now going to be My Opinion Zone, so take it with a big grain of salt: I feel that many of the trans people who live stealth is more of a them problem than anything. Like there are trans people that honest to god believe that NO ONE should ever know you're trans. Including your husband/wife. Which, okay, good luck hiding your hormones from them for the rest of your life. I'm sure they're going to think that's a totally normal thing when they inevitably figure it out. They totally aren't going to be hurt that you distrust them/are afraid of them to that degree.

There are also trans people who have total bullshit opinions, too. Like if you're a trans guy and a bottom then you're not really a man, because real men are only super dom tops. Or you can't be trans unless your dysphoria is to the point of active suicidality. Or that nonbinary or fluid identities aren't real. Or if you don't change your legal name then you don't actually want to be trans enough, so you're not trans. And I could not give less of a shit what these people think, because I know that so much about my identity would piss them off, because I'm living how I am and being happy and that is setting off their internalized transphobia/homophobia/misogyny. That is their problem that they need to solve, I'm not going to change my life to make theirs more comfortable. It's not okay for a cis woman to tell another cis woman that her not wearing makeup is upsetting, so it's not okay for one trans person to tell another trans person they're not transing the right way.

So with people who say "don't mention they're trans! It shouldn't matter at all!!!!" I am going to ignore them, and I recommend you do, too.

=====

My POV is close third, in the MC’s head, so it’s not easy to have the narrator take the reader aside and mention that this character is trans. The reader needs to learn at the same time the MC does.

That's fine lol. That's how stories normally go.
 

StarsForScales

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Which leads to a corollary question of, when does being trans become not worth mentioning and therefore not visible?

I want to represent diversity and his being trans isn’t the point of his role in the story; it’s just a fact of his life. I thought it’d be nice for trans men to see one in a story. But if it’s not the point, does it even need to be mentioned?

Speaking as a non-binary person, I like the idea of having more stories where trans people exist without it being The Point. Our lives are about more than our transitions, after all. We deserve stories about people like us who have adventures and achieve great victories and suffer tragedies just like anyone else. All of which is to say, to me, at least, a trans man exposing far-future malfeasance sounds delightful!
 

ElaineB

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Thank you all for the thoughtful responses! :Hail:

As Fi said, it’s not that transness is odd, it’s MC’s mistrust and once she gets that proof, she’s fine with him (the proof is he knew something from that past reporting about her that was never mentioned, something quite personal).

And much to my surprise, I did not name the reporter in the first book, but he has a big enough role in this one to get some backstory. This is a very early draft, though, so anything can change! I’ve already cut one character completely.

That’s helpful clarity on misgendering. And he will become recognizable to MC once she knows to look for the similarities (eyes and mouth, or something).

And I’m kind of relieved not to get an answer to my last questions so I don’t have to overthink this anymore. :) I can see both sides of that—always mention/never mention. And your opinion is welcome, Chase, since all opinions are valid (well, except maybe TFG’s) and that’s what makes creating characters so compelling and challenging! In fact, I’ve written a trans woman who did not conform to the rules of at least one reader. It almost scared me off trying again, so your words help. No, you most definitely can’t please all the people all the time.
 

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It's come up in the POC thread that no one person can speak for an entire group, but at least you've done your due diligence and have an idea of what to expect.

FWIW, I read it as "this person is claiming to be this person I knew but looks different and has a different name" suspicious.
 

Fi Webster

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If this is far enough in the future, there would be lots of surgeries (perhaps even gene therapy), so how someone looks pre and post transition can be radically different, including factors like height and bone size/shapes, which aren't that changeable with our current tech.

FWIW, painful and expensive surgery to have one's leg bones lengthened, to increase height by three to six inches (8-16 cm) is most definitely a thing. See this article.

There are also trans people who have total bullshit opinions, too. [...] That is their problem that they need to solve, I'm not going to change my life to make theirs more comfortable. It's not okay for a cis woman to tell another cis woman that her not wearing makeup is upsetting, so it's not okay for one trans person to tell another trans person they're not transing the right way.

Thank you, Chase, for stating this so clearly. There are always people with total bullshit opinions about how other people should live their lives.

The short legs vs. long legs disparity, for example: my parents used to lecture me mercilessly about how I don't "walk like a lady." I take long strides because I am 5' 3" with disproportionately short legs. As a doctor walking quickly around hospitals with other doctors, I have to keep up with long-legged colleagues.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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FWIW, painful and expensive surgery to have one's leg bones lengthened, to increase height by three to six inches (8-16 cm) is most definitely a thing. See this article.

I know those exist, but that's not part of the WPATH standards of care for gender-affirming care, and I have literally never heard of anyone ever getting that for gender reasons.
 

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Yeah but who knows what they'll be doing/can do in 2172?
 
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I am but an egg really or a baby trans so I don’t think I can add much validity to anything. But I do love the idea of this. You sound like you have a good hold on everything. The only point that sounds like it’d be going into iffy territory for me is having him convince her of who he is. I think it’s fine to do, just handled carefully.