The Problem of Plot: Transgender Representation in Literature.


The rise of transgender representation in media, books in particular, has made great progress in raising awareness in recent years. With this comes one particular risk; the creation of the transgender victim of violence as a new social stereotype. In many ways, this has become a standard for the emerging genre regardless of the long term harm that it does to youth and to future media representation. While plot is by definition driven by the overcoming of an obstacle, in the LGBT+ genre this obstacle is limited to harassment, bullying, and physical harm in the coming out process. 

As a genre, a majority of books with transgender protagonists are written by cisgender authors- an issue that stands independently. It is, however, relevant to the topic of violence because it shows just how little influence transgender people have over their own media portrayal. Furthermore, the majority of these books are driven by the formulaic coming out plot. This begins with the character coming out accidentally, or by force, reaches a high point with parental intolerance, and later features violence against the protagonist. Novels such as Gracefully Grayson (Ami Polonsky), Something Like Gravity (Amber Smith) , and The Symptoms of Being Human (Jeff Garvin), among so many others, feature gender identity based violence and intolerance as the main plot point. Aside from physical violence, the support of family and friends is often hard won, giving authors license to write offensive dialogue in the name of the plot.

​What these authors have not considered is their audience. Most often, the readers of these young adult novels are young transgender people. While it is in human nature to take a certain degree of intrigue from maudlin stories of pain and violence, this intrigue is lost on the transgender youth who are looking for a relatable protagonist, and instead it instills a new kind of pressure and fear. This fear is universal, whether the reader has been a victim of such violence previously or not. To see no other representation for themselves than physical harm is universally frightening. Representation for these youth comes at the cost of offensive dialogue and threat of violence. This discouraging of the coming out process unintentionally makes transgender youth uncomfortable in a genre intended to include them. 

It must be noted that the majority of books written with these transgender protagonists are male-to-female transitions.  This is an important distinction because it is transgender women who face the highest rates of physical violence and murder, particularly in the United States, which has reached even higher rates as of late. The fact that this is the group that faces the most violence and is also the group about which books portray the most violence are inextricably linked. 

It is this formulaic plot that has created a new stereotype in the LGBT+ genre, the victim of violence (particularly in stories about transgender characters). We have created the expectation that transgender youth will face violence when coming out, implanting fear through the very thing they looked to to see themselves reflected. This expectation is what leads responses such as ‘you’re so brave’, a response indicative of the new gender based violence victim stereotype. This statement is a controversial one, as it implies that physical violence is expected. And while we hurt the youth who are reading these stories, we also change the way that mainstream news sources pick up on transgender stories.

​When it comes to media coverage, formulaic stories will only last so long before desensitization and burnout set in. As previously mentioned, the number of attacks on and murders of transgender women have grown rapidly in recent years. The small percentage of these attacks that are picked up by the media make up the bulk of media representation for transgender people, and they are certainly more common than the stories of transgender excellence and achievement. The bulk of coverage does not even begin to cover all the victims of this violence, because over time the grotesque details desensitize the audience and what originally attracted viewers now diminishes their numbers. To tell only stories of transgender violence does not lead to justice, as violence is expected, but only to desensitization and slowed progress for the LGBT+ community. 

​Stories of transgender people start with expected violence and end with personal acceptance- not retribution for the harm done. Personal acceptance is necessary to a degree, but it is important to point out that it doesn’t excuse the violence. Personal acceptance is not the only necessary element to progress.

Media for transgender people has made great strides, with prominent roles in television series, books and national news. The next step in the LGBT+ community is representation not based on coming out, violence, or intolerance by the family and friends of the protagonist. The truest form of representation is not a niche collection of media on coming out, but simply on the presence in the story, with the character’s identity not singularly driving the plot.

William Swift

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