Representation Difficulty

I’ve got a character I’m not entirely happy with, and this post is largely me working through my disappointment but also might possibly be helpful to some other (white cis male) writer. It’s going to be long and rambling, I’m sorry.

I’m writing a science fiction universe. What I’m going for is popcorn space opera, the old rockets and rayguns, excitement on every page, plot driven, big stakes and big villains, you know. Lensman, Flash Gordon, Star Wars. But I want to work in more character, more nuance and depth than the old pulp stuff. I am who I am, and that’s what I want.

So in Banks’ Culture series, one of the many things that stuck out at me (in a good way) was the Culture’s handling of gender transition. Culture citizens have all sorts of implants – artificial glands to produce narcotics for example – and they basically live in a bitchin post-scarcity socialist utopia run by AI. (Side note, if interested, definitely check out the Culture and for an intriguing counterpoint follow that up with Neal Asher’s Polity novels.) Anyway, how a person transitions in the Culture is they simply change the way they see themselves. Their implants take this cue and make the physical body match the mental picture. By changing their self image, a person changes their physical self.

I love that, because I think (and I’m an outsider, so grain of salt) it gets it. The point of transitioning (as I, again an outsider, understand it) is to fulfill the understandable desire of making your physical body match your internal self.

Anyway. My science fiction universe. It ain’t the Culture. Human tech is nowhere near as advanced. Voidstrider is much closer to The Expanse than The Hydrogen Sonata.

But it’s important to me to depict a future that has seen actual social progress, not just fancy gizmo progress. Some asshats will decry this choice, but look.

I’m pretty sure prejudiced attitudes and unfounded biases will always be an unfortunate aspect of the human condition. But I just don’t believe those things remain static over centuries.

And I might be optimistic and naive here, but guess what? It’s my fucking fictional universe. Go play in your own if you don’t like mine.

In short: I believe that, should humans actually survive that long, then 500 years from now the big cultural sticking points will be different ones from today. Islamaphobia? Dude, Mars has nukes. You’re worried about abortion in a solar system with illegal clone banks on the moons of Saturn? Can’t wrap your head around trans people in a world where furries aren’t wearing costumes, that’s their literal body now?

All right, so I know that in my imagined future people aren’t fighting over the same things we are today. But I need to show that. In this particular example, I want to show that there is no longer any culture clash or social stigma of any kind on trans folk.

But! I’m a white cis male. I must tread carefully, even with the best intentions. This I know for certain: I cannot tell a trans person’s story for them. (For one thing, I don’t know that story.)

Representation without appropriation. (Appropriated stories are always terrible, just sayin.)

Okay, but say: here’s this woman. I can tell you everything about her taste in music or film, her political beliefs, point out who she’s attracted to … and there’s nothing there to indicate she is anything but a cisgendered woman.

Which, really, is ideal – in the real world.

Trans women are women, trans men are men. Done. But as far as representation in fiction goes? Ah.

(Side note 2: I’ve promised myself to never pull a Rowling and, ten to twenty years later, be all like “oh, that one character? Trans the whole time!”)

I want my story to include visible representation. This is good for readers who want to see themselves in stories. This is good for realism, as humanity is a diverse tapestry of majestic variety. It’s also good for just maybe expanding a reader’s viewpoint if I’m really really lucky.

So the crux is this: I can’t have truly visible representation of trans folk without (at least in passing) mentioning their transition. Which (I’ll get to this in a second) is actually really missing the point.

Look, I want to show readers that my future society has accepted the idea of transitioning. I’d also like to offer an optimistic view that the actual experience of transitioning has improved by then. Not to the godlike level of Banks’ Culture novels, but at least … something.

So I know that in Voidstrider there have been major advances in the medical science involved in transitioning. And that sociocultural attitudes are accepting, non-judgmental, etc. And what I want to show in the text is this advancement, not the trans-specific life experience of a character. It’s not exactly visible representation, but maybe it’s actually better?

In that, once again, trans women are women and trans men are men and if the future really has accepted and internalized this then explicit visible representation would actually look regressive.

The style for these books is very plot-driven. I try to layer character beats into the constant movement and action. Reactions to the environment and events help sketch the characters. Relationships with other characters let me work in memories and backstory.

So: I have a character encountering an old acquaintance who, in the interim, has transitioned.

It was the best I could come up with, but I don’t think I nailed it by a long shot. For one thing, I may have gone too far in avoiding a properly-ownvoices plot beat. My transitioned character is not someone who was misgendered, not someone who experienced any dysmorphia.

She’s trying it out for a few years to see if she likes it. I went with this in part to demonstrate how easy and socially accepted transitioning is in this future, but I’m worried that it serves to invalidate the real experiences of trans individuals.

I probably should have gone with an “oh, you finally transitioned, wonderful” and moved on with the scene, but… I wanted it to be an easy and affordable thing that a character in their forties wouldn’t just be getting around to. I didn’t want to have a trans character who dealt with that shit years back effectively outed by clumsy narrative, either.

I’m stuck between wanting to be inclusive for trans readers who do not live in a world that accepts them and makes their path an easy one versus not wanting to perpetuate the idea that a trans person is somehow Other than the gender they are.

As of this writing, I don’t have a fully satisfactory conclusion.

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