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The Genre of Gender: The Emerging Canon of Transgender-Inclusive YA Literature

Contemporary young adult literature is a remarkably open universe, integrating controversial subjects and allowing topics earlier considered inappropriate for teen readers to become legitimate areas of exploration, conversation, and debate. Today’s teen readers are accustomed to novels containing drinking and drug use, gay and lesbian characters, active sexuality, teen pregnancy, and violence. Yet all of these topics were at some point considered taboo, and most made hesitant first appearances in books that were heavy-handed and issue-driven.

newsweek_may 21 2007Media coverage of transgender issues is increasing, as evidenced by articles such as Newsweek’s May 21, 2007, cover story “The Mystery of Gender: Aside from the Obvious, What Makes Us Male or Female?” And transgender characters are being incorporated into pop-culture entertainment in movies such as Boys Don’t Cry and documentaries like TransGeneration. But transgender-inclusive YA fiction is hard to find. Most of what does exist has been published within the last three years, and most of it suffers from an unbalanced attention to issues — gender and the feelings around it — and is too didactic to appeal to most readers, even those who identify as transgender themselves.

Yet these first books are paving the way for an entire canon of transgender-inclusive YA literature; as such they have a responsibility to present a constructive representation of transgender issues. There’s a lot of room for interpretation with transgender characters: the personal nature of gender expression, transition choices, and feelings of disconnect with one’s birth gender all differ greatly for each individual who identifies as transgender. There are no universal truths, but one thing that must be present in these YA novels is a respect for atypically gendered characters. Not that these characters should have no problems or be loved by absolutely everyone they know — but the narration, character descriptions, and other supporting information needs to be written in a way that does not make the character into a lesser human or exploit them for comic relief. Practically, this means that the authors need to have some understanding of gender, both traditional and atypical. Intentionally using incorrect pronouns is unacceptable, as is referring to a person as an “it.” “He/she” or “s/he” is similarly offensive. For example, in the name of humor, Lemony Snicket uses offensive phrases in his Series of Unfortunate Events books, several of which include an androgynous villain identified throughout as “that person,” “it,” and “the creature.”

At this point, we can classify the YA novels written about transgender issues or featuring transgender characters into four categories. The first category features characters who are consistently identified as the opposite gender but do not identify as transgender themselves. In Carol Emshwiller’s 2005 Mister Boots, Bobby, despite being biologically female, has been raised as a male. Bobby struggles with gender issues that might resonate with transgender teens — “It isn’t that I want to wear dresses so much, I don’t; it’s more that I can never be the truth about myself” — but the book’s conclusion, in which Bobby’s gender problems are neatly resolved by her decision to live as her birth gender, may lessen the draw for readers with a transgender interest.

Books in the second category present and perpetuate negative stereotypes. Infinite Darlene, a star quarterback/drag queen, plays a supporting role in David Levithan’s 2003 Boy Meets Boy. She is presented as a cliché: “There are few sights grander at eight in the morning than a six-foot-four football player scuttling through the halls in high heels, a red shock wig, and more-than-passable makeup.” Infinite Darlene is consistently dramatic, gossipy, and brazen — a character seemingly added for entertainment value only.

The third category (by far the most populous) presents the option of passing as a different gender as a quick fix to a problem. Most have contrived story lines and shallowly developed characters, and are of little worth to teens seeking out either a mirror or a window into gender identity. In Blake Nelson’s 2006 Gender Blender, Emma and Tom are ex-friends now that they are in middle school. When they accidentally bang heads, their bodies are switched because of a “magical arrowhead” Tom had in his pocket. They learn “valuable lessons” about the fact that anybody can do anything, but gender here is simply an excuse for slapstick. In Francess Lantz’s The Day Joanie Frankenhauser Became a Boy (2005), Joanie has just moved to a new town with her family. A misprint on the school attendance sheet results in her being called John. Joanie, who has always liked sports, masculine clothing, and getting dirty, jumps at the chance to pretend to be a boy — cutting her hair, making friends with the popular guys, and writing exciting adventure stories (for which she was criticized as a girl). When some of Joanie’s guy pals start to hassle a classmate about her developing breasts, Joanie declares her real gender. Joanie’s teacher’s reaction — “I don’t think what happened is an indication of any serious psychological  problems” — implies that gender exploration is an indicator of a psychological disorder. Unless readers need to be reminded that girls have as much a right to play football and write stories as boys, this book need not come off the shelf.

Terence Blacker’s 2005 Boy2Girl has a plot outlandish enough to intrigue readers: a typical American teenager moves to London and is dared by his new friends to attend school for a week disguised as a girl. His masquerade lasts longer than expected, and he seems to enjoy it: “A few days in a skirt and Sam was essentially a girl in his gestures: the way he talked all the time, and bumped up against his friends when they were walking down the corridor, or touched their arm when telling them some little tidbit of gossip. A weird and frightening fact began to emerge…Sam was changing. He was actually becoming nicer, easier to talk to.” Eventually, the truth comes out — but the plot is so awash with gender stereotypes that any potential message of gender equality is lost, all the way up to the ending sentiment: “I cleared my throat, sniffed, squared my shoulders, and walked towards them. It was no time for girl stuff.”

Then there’s the fourth category: those few — very few — novels that craft believable, multidimensional characters who embody or face transgender themes in a plausible way. Julie Anne Peters’s groundbreaking Luna, published in 2004, is probably the best-known  work for teens involving a nontraditionally gendered character. Narrated by Regan, a likable teenager with a transgender sibling, this novel offers a thoughtful look at the complexities of knowing and loving a transgender person. Regan supports her brother Liam’s transition into Luna but harbors doubts about the process. Interspersed throughout the novel are Regan’s memories of Luna’s past: birthday parties where Luna hoped to receive a bra, Regan discovering Luna dressed as a girl in their parents’ bedroom, and a young Luna attempting to cut off her penis with a kitchen knife. Peters uses appropriate language in Luna and incorporates technical information about trans issues. While Luna is a compassionate and accessible book, there is a discernable distance between the reader and Luna (with Regan as the intermediary), and the message is heavy-handed and conveyed in overly didactic dialogue, as when Regan tries to explain what Luna is experiencing to a friend. “‘It’s horrible because you want to be this person you are in here,’ I pressed my heart, ‘and here.’ I touched my temple. ‘But you can’t because you don’t look the way you should . . . Every day you have to put on this act, play a role, and the only time you can ever be free is when you’re alone.’”

Another pioneer in writing gender-variant teen characters is Charlie Anders, author of Choir Boy, published in 2005 by Soft Skull Press. Berry is a thirteen-year-old with a beautiful prepubescent voice, which allows him to excel as a choir boy. On the cusp of puberty and desperate to retain his voice, Berry follows the example of the castrati and attempts to remove his testicles at home. When his body and voice continue to change, Berry tries other methods, including testosterone-inhibiting drugs. All the stress lands Berry in therapy, where he meets a transgender prostitute who builds a mentoring relationship with him. While Berry is never overtly defined as transgender, his unusual behavior and body modification lead the reader to imagine that he will become a woman in the future. The text includes some potentially confusing medical jargon, and the plot is unrealistic, almost to the point of fantasy, but Choir Boy stands out as one of the least didactic works of transgender-inclusive fiction to date.

wittlinger_parrotfish updateThe newest full-length novel with a transgender protagonist is Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish (2007). The first to feature a female-to-male transgender teen, Parrotfish has a straightforward plot: high-school student Angela comes out as transgender, assumes the name Grady, and helps his family and peers come to terms with his identity. Grady faces adversaries in reluctant family members, insensitive teachers, and some classmates, but he also has allies, including the school nerd, a gym teacher, and his father. Although Grady deals with typical high-school drama (such as his crush on the hip and kind Kita) and a not-always-perfect family life, the novel is narrowly focused on his struggle to discover his true identity. Many gender-focused internal monologues serve to remove the reader from the book and slow the story’s momentum. From his early musings about not fitting into his gender as a girl (“I wasn’t unhappy exactly; I was just puzzled. Why did everybody think I was a girl? And after that: Why was it such a big freaking deal what I looked like or acted like? I looked like myself. I acted like myself”) to his decision to come out at school (“It was the day I was going to school with my hair parted and combed the way a boy would, my chest bound tight under a boys’ flannel shirt that was tucked into a pair of boys’ baggy jeans. It was the day I was going to the principal’s office to ask that my name be changed on all my records…It wouldn’t be an ordinary day. It would be the day that, for better or for worse, I became myself”), Grady comes to terms with his situation through self-talk. Every interaction Grady has seems to get him going about gender. When he changes the diaper of his infant cousin: “I couldn’t help but notice his little penis, which at this point in his life was of no more interest to him than a hand or an ear. I hoped that by the time he did understand what it meant, he’d be happy with the equipment he’d gotten at birth, or — less likely — that the world would have changed so dramatically that it wouldn’t matter all that much.” However, Parrotfish uses appropriate terms and language throughout, and Grady is a strong character who may inspire teens to believe in themselves and their identities.

Most teen readers who select a book with gender-variant characters are not looking for a manifesto on gender or gender angst. Instead, readers seek a mirror of their own feelings or experiences to relate to and help them understand the world around them. A few titles do offer transgender-inclusive, nonpedantic, engaging narratives. Claiming Georgia Tate (2005) by Gigi Amateau includes a transgender character named Tamika, a helpful neighbor who essentially saves Georgia’s life. The narration makes it clear that Tamika is transgender — “There is also a woman — well, really a man — who lives upstairs…In the daytime, she wears a bandana over her hair, just like Marie-Bernard does, only with curlers underneath. She always has a cigarette in one hand and a Tab in the other. Except at night — then she looks like a movie star” — but consistently uses female pronouns and approaches Tamika’s differences as interesting but inconsequential. Tamika’s home is described as immaculate, her manners perfect, and her demeanor kind and gentle. The fact that she is transgender does not play a major role in the plot, nor is it examined in an overly enthusiastic way. Similarly, Todd Strasser’s Can’t Get There from Here (2004) focuses on a small group of street kids living in New York City. A secondary character called Jewel is consistently referred to with male pronouns but often dresses and acts very feminine and sometimes uses female identifiers when speaking. Strasser leaves room for reader interpretation of Jewel’s true identity and does not make gender a central part of the story, but Jewel’s nontraditional gender expression is visible and used effectively in character development.

An unexpected treasure of transgender YA fiction can be found in short stories. “Dragons in Manhattan,” from Francesca Lia Block’s book of stories Girl Goddess #9 (1996), focuses on Tuck Budd — a young girl who lives in Manhattan with her eccentric lesbian mothers, Anastasia and Izzy — and her quest to find her father. Tuck does some investigating and finds her father’s name — Irving Rose — as well as an address in Los Angeles. She eventually acquires a photograph of her father: “Of course. How could I have been so dumb? Who else had red hair and the warmest gap-toothed smile? Who else was beautiful and made everyone feel happy? Izzy. Izzy Budd was Irving Rose. Irving Rose was Izzy Budd…Izzy was not just my second mama. Izzy was my father.” Tuck’s response to this information is a mix of emotions, but Izzy, Anastasia, and Tuck are able to continue living as a strong family unit. In Block’s signature magical-realism style, this is a rather ethereal tale, but Izzy’s character is written with care and consistency.

cart_love and sexEmma Donoghue’s “The Welcome,” published in Love & Sex: Ten Stories of Truth (2001), is a well-developed and compassionate example of trans-inclusive fiction. J.J., the newest resident of an all-women’s housing cooperative, is much more private and reserved than her housemates. The narrator of the story, Luce, falls in love with J.J. but is too timid to act on her feelings. Tensions in the house are high for a variety of reasons, and eventually one roommate, apparently tired of J.J. acting like a “prude,” attempts to forcefully remove J.J.’s dressing gown. J.J. reacts by punching her offender and leaves the co-op the next day. It is only in the last few pages that the reader — and the story’s narrator — learns that J.J. is transgender and was not comfortable showing her body because it did not match her identity. The story is sweet, gentle, and funny and uses appropriate language: a model for transgender fiction to come.

Julie Anne Peters’s story “Boi,” published in her 2007 collection grl2grl, is about a transgender teen who goes by the name Vince. The details of his home life are sparse but give the impression that he lives in a rough, urban area and is cared for by his grandmother. Vince’s older cousin Kevin is his strongest ally, shuttling him to work, buying him a “packer” to wear in his pants, and supporting him emotionally with his gender changes. The language in the story is graphic throughout, including this description of a prosthetic penis: “It wasn’t an object; it wasn’t detached or separate from me. My packer was a part of me. It made me. The shaft was big in size, six inches.” Just as Vince is beginning to feel good about himself as a “boi,” he is brutally attacked by the brother of a co-worker. The ending of the story leaves Vince distraught, thinking that he’ll never be okay again. This is probably the most hard-hitting piece of YA fiction with a transgender protagonist, and it is distinctly unsettling: the reader is pulled to feel sympathetic toward Vince and to celebrate his happiness in claiming his own masculine identity, so his despair at the end is devastating.

There’s one more place to look for transgender-inclusive YA literature, and that’s online. In Fool for Love (2005) and its sequel, A Queer Circle of Friends (2006), Lisa Lees has written about characters representing a wide variety of genders. She focuses on a relationship between a female-to-male transgender teen and an intersex teen in the first book; in the sequel, that relationship is expanded into a polyamorous bond with a male-to-female teen. These two titles, published through Lulu.com, have the potential to be good resources for teens, but at present, with their graphic subject matter and less-than-professional editing, they would be difficult to incorporate into library or school collections.

As with early gay and lesbian fiction for young adults — which followed a progression from a few scattered novels containing discreet or euphemistic references to books featuring gay friends and relatives of the main character to books in which the protagonists were gay or lesbian themselves — transgender fiction is making a stumbling debut. While some of the first attempts offer readers thought- provoking topics and well-developed characters, at least as many include offensive language and trite characters, and most — even some of the best — don’t move beyond problem-novel formulas. The future of the genre could prove to be valuable for teen readers, but not until authors can both lighten up on the didacticism and deepen their books to go beyond gender — moving, like their heroes, into a larger world.

From the September/October 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

For more in The Horn Book’s Pride Month series, click on the tag LGBT Pride 2016.

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