Beyond Male & Female: Gender In Writing

by , Wednesday June 14, 2017
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Beyond Male & Female: Gender In Writing

Beyond Male & Female: Gender In Writing

A self-styled interview looking at how and why to write stories with cisgender characters

 

Hi there! I’m May and as part of Diversity week I’ve been asked to talk a bit about gender. For some reason I decided to do this in the form of a strange self-interview but hopefully it makes some sense and will give you some insight into what it’s like to be transgender and maybe it'll inspire you to try writing a trans or non-binary character in one of your future projects! Enjoy!

 

The door slides open and a head pops through the frame, curious eyes behind large, plastic glasses glance about the room. A clump of messy curls hang across her face, soon brushed aside. She steps in, carefully shutting the door behind her, and taking three, light steps before planting herself on an aging armchair.

 

The Interviewer clears his throat, taking a sip of tea, dunking his biscuit, taking a bite, and eating the throat sweet before beginning:

 

“May, shall we start with a little about yourself? It says here you are ‘transgender,’ what does that mean, exactly?”

 

“Most people are ‘cisgender’ which means their gender and sex match up. People who are transgender experience that their gender and sex do not fit together perfectly. In my case, it means I was born male but identify as a woman.”

 

“What do you mean by 'identify?'”

 

“Well…” May pauses to consider. “It’s like the way I think and feel and see the world is feminine. Some people describe it like being trapped in the wrong body, as if the person in your head doesn’t match your biology.”

 

 

“I see…” The Interviewer opens a bag of crisps with the utmost care and makes a couple of notes with his other hand. A white ‘M’ on a blue coaster seems to stare at him, reminding him that this is supposed to be about writing.

 

 

“So...how much representation do you get as a transgender person in books, films, media, etc.?”

 

“I think in general, things have improved recently. You see quite a few TV shows and documentaries nowadays which start to cover gender in a more modern way. There are some books out there as well, but I think the problem is still that any book featuring a transgender character becomes all about that issue. Obviously, it is going to affect the events in the book but I don’t think transgender people necessarily want books that focus on the gender issue - rather, we want transgender characters to feature as heroes, love interests, or detectives and for their gender not to define them entirely.”

 

 

The  continues to stare at The Interviewer.

 

“Do you have any advice for someone writing a character that isn’t cisgender?”

 

“Ah,” May rubs her hands together with glee. “Finally we reach the author-y bit! Advice, advice, advice…”

 

The Interviewer taps his pen with impatience.

 

“Okay, so, every experience with gender is different. But I suggest, if possible, talk to someone who’s actually transgender or non-binary. If you don’t know anybody, see if you can find some accounts of what it’s like. Your character is likely to be very different depending on if they are still questioning or if they’ve worked through those issues already. The questioning phase is often the darkest, most confusing and stressful part of the journey, which can certainly add complexity to a plot. But there is definitely a lack of post-transition characters, which I think the community really needs.”

 

The Interviewer nods.

 

“Also, try getting creative - non-binary genders often feature in sci-fi and fantasy worlds as well as realism. Non-gendered or multi-gendered species or races can make for wildly different cultures to our own - and even the way different parts of the real world treat different genders can be interesting to explore.”

 

“So what would you say are the main risks or things to avoid when it comes to writing these characters?”

 

“The main danger is that it becomes all about stereotypes; pretty dresses and makeup or football and chivalry. Remember that it is about a lot more than appearance, and that transitioning both socially and medically is a slow and often challenging process. Of course, it’s not all sad and depressing, there are moments and times that stay with you as huge positive steps, but it is very, very rarely the case that everything goes smoothly. To be transgender or non-binary is not a gimmick, and yes it makes a huge impact on life, but it doesn’t define an entire character. Given the relatively low representation - there is a lot of responsibility on people providing that representation to highlight the complexities of gender but also that whatever your gender, you’re still human.”

 

“It’s hard to write about something without understanding it, so how would you best explain what that feels like to be transgender to someone who isn’t?”

 

“Hm...that’s a tough question. I suppose the best way to think about it is, if you’re a girl, imagine what it would be like for everyone to use male pronouns all the time and to have to use the male bathroom and see a male body looking back at you when you look in the mirror. Those things are probably the most noticeable things day to day, but a lot of it is harder to explain and deeper down than appearance or social situations.”

 

“Ah,” The Interviewer eats a crisp with perfect precision.

 

“Can you touch on those deeper issues?”

 

“I can try,” May says. “It’s usually called ‘Gender Dysphoria’ which is, technically speaking, dissonance between the body that the brain expects and the body that you physically have. So for me, my brain expects me to have female “features” but I actually have, at the moment, male “features,” and that causes me quite a lot of discomfort. That discomfort is the driving force behind many people going through transitions to alter their bodies.”

 

“Any final thoughts?”

 

“If you want to write a trans or non-binary character, go for it! It will be a new challenge and often leads to some interesting relationships. Just remember this can be a sensitive issue for some people, so treat it carefully.”

 

 

Have you read or written anything exploring gender? Do you have any more questions for May? Comment below!

 

Thank you to May Hayashi for this blog and Prodigy for the banner

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