Rise of the Gender Novel

Too often, trans characters are written as tortured heroes. We're more complex than that

woman looking at face in mirror
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

Under Discussion

For Today I Am a Boy (2014)
Kim Fu

Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab (2014)
Shani Mootoo

Annabel (2010)
Kathleen Winter

Middlesex (2002)
Jeffrey Eugenides

Years ago at a writing workshop, I composed a few essays about being transgender. A well-meaning classmate told me that she liked my pieces, but wished my work could help her understand what it feels like to be trans. In response, I privately sent her my most intimate piece yet, one I was still working on. The classmate wrote back the next day, saying that she enjoyed it but still didn’t understand what my experience felt like. Then she said, “Maybe I was asking you to explain something that is simply unexplainable.”

Gender transition seems to fascinate just about everyone who hasn’t gone through it, so it makes sense that we get a lot of literary fiction on the subject. Several recent Canadian novels in particular—Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab, Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy, and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel—were released to glowing critical praise and nominated for major awards. Annabel scored a literary hat trick, landing on the short lists for the Giller Prize, the Writers’ Trust Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. All these books were penned by cisgender—that is, non-transgender—authors. In that, they join a very twenty-first-century sub-genre: sympathetic novels about transition by people who haven’t transitioned. Call them the Gender Novels—books about Gender with a capital G. Hovering above them all is Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2002 blockbuster, Middlesex, which won over both the Pulitzer committee and Oprah’s Book Club.

On the surface, the protagonists of these books are completely different. In For Today, Audrey, a trans woman, is a cook from a Chinese immigrant family living in small-town Ontario; Sydney, the trans man at the centre of Moving Forward, is a painter from Trinidad who builds a family in Toronto before transitioning; Middlesex’s Cal is an intersex man raised as a girl, and a dapper Greek-American diplomat from Michigan; Annabel’s Wayne is a feminine intersex loner from Labrador, raised as a boy.

To get it out of the way: the Gender Novels fail to communicate what it’s actually like to transition. Their portrayals of gender-identity struggles are ham-fisted, and despite the authors’ apparently good intentions they often rehash stale, demeaning tropes: a coy mix-and-match of pronouns; descriptions of trans women as fake and mannish; the equation of gender with genitalia and surgery; a fixation on rare intersex conditions that allow for tacked-on, unrealistic transition narratives. (Many intersex people, those born with atypical sexual or reproductive characteristics, don’t transition from one gender to another; as well, Wayne’s self-impregnation—a major plot point in Annabel—is a medical impossibility.)

All of which is frustrating but unsurprising. What’s surprising, even flat-out weird, is how alike all the protagonists are. Their lives unfold almost identically: they grow up in unsupportive families; their fathers are domineering or distant; their mothers are kind but frail. When they come of age, they leave humble hometowns to find new lives in the big city. They rent crappy apartments, work menial jobs, detach from their families, and fall in with crowds good and bad. Most of them are physically or sexually brutalized.

By the time the novels end, all four protagonists have fully embraced their true selves, their fathers have been killed off (with one exception), and they make some peace with their old lives. The conclusions are steeped in melancholy hope; in fact, each novel ends with a character gazing, literally or figuratively, into the unknowable distance. From the last page of For Today I Am a Boy: “The waiting plane gleams on the tarmac, propellers roaring, louder than God. Go, his father says. Go and be reborn.” From Middlesex: “I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next.” From Annabel: “Only in wind over the land did Treadway”—Wayne’s father—“find the freedom his son would seek elsewhere.” Moving Forward is content to end with birds soaring toward the ocean.

Each protagonist is a chosen one, a lone wolf plodding on against adversity. They do no wrong; they remain gentle and stoic in the face of difficulty. Whatever imperfections they show are forgiven, usually by dint of gender trouble. “I felt unusually brave that day, a soldier alone in the trenches,” Sydney says, describing a cold trudge to the clinic for chest-reconstruction surgery. This might make for inspiring reading, but it’s odd to spend a few hundred pages with someone who goes through hell and emerges with all the flaws of a Disney hero. The reader scarcely knows anything about the characters’ inner lives.

These novels aren’t just clichéd by the standards of transgender literature—they’re clichéd by any standard. Meanwhile, the sections of these books that don’t deal with gender variance are often vivid and fully realized, particularly in Middlesex and Moving Forward. It’s not that Fu, Winter, Mootoo, and Eugenides aren’t talented writers. So what does it say that four very different authors set out to write four very different people—and came up with the same non-person? And why are cisgender readers so moved by such one-dimensional characters?

In mainstream discussions, trans issues are relatively new and hot; last June, Time magazine featured the actress Laverne Cox on its cover, with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.” These novels are well positioned to yank at liberal heartstrings, promising both uplifting narratives and the safe nudging of comfort zones. However contemporary the Gender Novel is, though, it’s tapping into a much older form: the epic, with its quests and journeys and brave deeds. This is drawn explicitly in Middlesex, which frequently alludes to Greek mythology. Cal is originally named Calliope, after the muse of epic poetry; later, in a stage production, he plays Tiresias, the blind prophet made to live as a woman. The element of myth lends these novels their synchronicity and broad appeal. It also makes them fantasies.

The violence the characters face underscores this. Audrey is raped. Cal is beaten and urinated on after his assailants attempt to rape him. Wayne is raped as well, and sliced with a broken bottle; he then narrowly escapes death after a pack of boys try to throw him off a cliff. (Only Sydney escapes untouched, but he, too, faces moments of fear.) Transphobic violence is real, but how it functions in these narratives is telling: it happens in the big, bad city to which our heroes have fled, during the third quarter, just before the victorious climax. Violence, in other words, is a hurdle to get over, a one-time plot device—as opposed to, say, a lifelong reality that brings with it an array of dangers and traumas.

The characters don’t experience other spectres of death that frequently threaten trans people, such as addiction and suicide. Instead, the violence turns them into perfect victims. Near the end of For Today, this is brought to an illuminating extreme. A trans woman has been murdered, and Audrey fears that if she transitions she’ll be next. She then recalls a friend who told her, “Even Jesus didn’t want to be Jesus. He cried out at the last minute.” Think about that: “Even Jesus.” The Gender Novel doesn’t aim to tell stories about real, struggling people. It idealizes a very particular kind of struggle.

Books by writers who have actually transitioned, on the other hand, are quite different; their characters are free to be flawed. Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, published in 2013, is about a broke post-transition woman who, among other things, blows her savings on heroin and gets fired for being late to work. Nevada does not end with uplift. It is searing and funny; upon missing an estrogen injection, the protagonist says, “Not giving yourself your shot is like slamming your fingers in a car door over and over, or forcing yourself to drown a kitten every morning or something. Totally unproductive.” Trans critic Katherine Cross notes this in Bitch magazine, in an article discussing Nevada and Janet Mock’s superb memoir, Redefining Realness. “What Binnie’s novel gives us, as surely as Mock’s memoir does in its loftier register, is a portrait of the trans woman as human,” Cross writes. “Not inspiration porn, not a feel-good story of triumph over lone bigots, not lurid medical examinations, but a decidedly human story.”

Cis writers can write good trans characters, too. Josh in Zoe Whittall’s 2009 novel, Holding Still for As Long As Possible, and Cox’s portrayal of Sophia in the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black are two popular examples. For those characters, being trans is just one aspect of their whole, holistic beings. Josh has an imploding relationship and a stressful job as an emergency medical technician. Sophia occupies herself as a hairdresser and develops a friendship with a nun. They’ve already transitioned, and their lives have continued. Perhaps their writers realized that the bigger challenge in creating those characters was simply in giving them something else to do.

In For Today I Am a Boy, Audrey is asked, “What’s your dream? ” She thinks to herself, “If I had other dreams, they stayed hidden behind the bulk of the one dream that consumed all my thoughts, dominated my existence. What else did I want? I couldn’t see past it. I had no energy left for other fantasies.” It’s hard not to ache for people like Audrey, who face such adversity and fight so hard. I can ache for these characters, too, but only by disconnecting from what I know about transgender life as it is actually lived, and by avoiding the questions that knowledge invites. Questions such as: What if Audrey did have energy for other fantasies? Or what if she transitioned, only to find that it didn’t solve all her problems? The world of the book would open up; the easy, romantic tragedy of it might not remain. I understand why cis people love these characters, but the Gender Novel does not represent the truths of trans lives.

When I raise such objections, the books’ defenders often say that they are “doing good” or “educating readers,” even if they lack nuance. Annabel was a finalist for Canada Reads under the theme One Novel to Change Our Nation, and For Today was longlisted under One Book to Break Barriers. (Most novels are not asked to act as tolerance workshops first and good books second, but we’ll leave that aside.) This makes me think back to my writing classmate. Would she have liked these books? Would they have provided the explanation she was looking for? If these novels can “break barriers,” is it really so bad that they’re popular?

If the only alternative were a return to The 40-Year-Old Virgin or CSI—using the trans character as a punchline or serial killer—then perhaps the Gender Novel, for all its literary deficiencies, would still have political merit. But that is not the only alternative. There are people out there writing good trans characters; many of those writers happen to be trans. In any event, there is something unsettling about an archetype that—intentionally or not—demands purity and bloodshed as a condition of the reader’s compassion.

“The horror is real,” Sybil Lamb, a trans woman who wrote a novel based on her survival of a vicious beating, once said. “The horror is also way more complicated than you even fucking know about.” Lamb, whose I’ve Got a Time Bomb is anarchic and excellent, is one of many worthwhile trans writers. Others include Binnie, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Morgan M. Page, Everett Maroon, Ryka Aoki, and Trish Salah, to name a few. Their trans characters betray, rescue, destroy, fuck, fuck up. But rarely do these writers reach the readership afforded to cis authors who fancy themselves our chroniclers. That transgender people are readers, as well as characters, generally escapes literary discourse. Meanwhile, we continue to go about the world: mundane, beautiful, wholly un-Jesus-like, having every kind of dream.

This appeared in the April 2015 issue.

Casey Plett
Casey Plett is a winner of the Amazon First Novel Award. Her work has also been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Sébastien Thibault
Sébastien Thibault draws for the New York Times, L’actualité, and The Atlantic.