This is a difficult, scary time for the transgender community. There are currently more than 400 anti-LGBTQ+ laws being proposed that focus at least in part on curtailing transgender rights, especially for young people.
As a transgender person who was unable to come out until adulthood because I lacked the language to express who I was, these laws terrify me. I suffered from depression from adolescence onward and as a young adult, fell into several abusive relationships that reflected my feelings of invisibility. Laws forbidding parents to provide transition care to their kids or teachers from calling them by their chosen name and correct pronouns threaten the health and safety of transgender kids. Many families feel desperate for a way to help and protect their transgender members.
I’m a fiction author. For me, stories are a form of advocacy. Reading and writing fiction won’t solve all of the problems the transgender community is facing, but I know that it can help combat both the causes and effects of the rampant transphobia in this country.
Words and stories have power. Psychological studies show that connecting with fictional characters can increase empathy in a way that reading non-fiction does not — something which is sorely needed right now. Fiction can not only help transgender readers feel less alone and afraid during this tumultuous time, but can also help cisgender folks understand us and become stronger allies.
For transgender readers, fiction can provide a sense of belonging too often lacking in their own lives. When transgender kids have a supportive adult in their corner, they become far less likely to attempt suicide. Unfortunately, as I learned when I worked as a crisis worker on the Trevor Project hotline, many transgender kids don’t have that type of support. The adults in their lives may not understand or accept their gender identity, and for kids in rural areas, the nearest LGBTQ+ center may be hundreds of miles away. I often counseled transgender callers to find a small way to express themselves such as wearing a necklace underneath their shirt that reminded them of their gender identity; however, reading fiction is a more powerful way to diminish feelings of isolation and invisibility.
When a child reads a story such as Cris Beam’s “I Am J,” it provides the same sense of camaraderie as hanging out with other trans kids. The protagonists of these books may be fictional, but they’re also transgender and can feel like friends.
These stories can also be empowering. Kids who feel unable to express their authentic identity might feel less so after reading about what fictional trans kids are doing, especially if those characters successfully overcome problems and achieve their dreams by the end of the story.
Realistic fiction that isn’t specifically about bullying, fantasy stories, mysteries, and other types of stories can help show that there’s more to the trans experience than dealing with constant bullying and hatred.
Transgender readers, especially kids, need this more than ever right now so they feel like there’s a future waiting for them that’s worth experiencing despite what might be going on in the world around them.
Fiction is just as important for cisgender people who might support us if they understood our struggles better. I’ve found that far more cisgender people want to be supportive than the news would have us believe — the dozens of parents I’ve helped learn how to support their trans kids better is a testimony to that.
Unfortunately, though, the transgender experience is often framed as something that cisgender people can’t understand. While it’s true that cisgender people can’t understand what it feels like to be seen by most of the world as the gender you’re not, it’s also true that everyone, regardless of gender identity, has had moments in their life where they realize they are living inauthentically and need to make major changes.
When framed that way, cisgender people can understand why transgender people need to take action to express their true gender. Fiction can help with this in two ways. Obviously, if cisgender people read stories about transgender people, they can identify with the protagonist and develop more empathy. But it can also be effective to use fiction about cisgender characters to build bridges. For example, my novel “Reinventing Hannah” is about a cisgender teenager’s transformative journey from silence to vocal advocate, and I make a point of discussing the similarities between her transformation and the transgender experience.
Fiction is only one type of advocacy; obviously, books alone can’t stop the torrent of restrictive legislation. But if you want to help support transgender kids and promote understanding, books are the most powerful tool we’ve got. Just ask our enemies — why else would they be trying to ban books as part of their attempt to cling to power?