After two years as the online voice of Darby Pop, and the last few months writing intros for Darby Pops Off, it feels like I’ve shared a lot of information about myself, but there’s one fact I don’t think has come up yet.
Being trans gives me a slightly different perspective on the world. On the “creator” side of the fence, this translates to an added layer of authenticity when I’m a part of a project that features transgender characters or themes. What exactly do I mean by “authenticity?” And how important is it? Read on…
Until next time,
I’m the first person to admit that the LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) community and, especially, the transgender part of that acronym is an alphabet soup of constantly shifting terms and designations. Before we get started, let’s define a few of the words I’m about to use so we’re all on the same page:
Transgender/Trans: Someone whose gender identity differs from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. It’s a broad term describing a whole community of people.
Trans Woman (MTF): A term for a transgender individual who identifies as a woman. MTF stands for Male-to-Female.
Trans Man (FTM): A term for a transgender person who identifies as a man. FTM stands for Female-to-Male.
Genderqueer: Someone who doesn’t identify as entirely male nor entirely female.
Cisgender: Someone not transgender. Someone whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth.
If you’re curious about other gender identity related definitions, click here.
Now that we have that out of the way, I’ve been working in comic books in one fashion or another since 2011. And an amazing thing has happened more than once during that time: I’ve had comic book creators come to me with questions about the trans community, to learn definitions, hear about my personal experiences, or just to have me read over something with a trans lens to ensure it doesn’t come across as insulting. I call this the “voice of authenticity”; hearing directly from a member of a community to get more of the facts right. Whether that’s having a blind person describe the challenges they personally face on a daily basis, or going to a Star Wars fan to learn how the prequels are inferior to the original trilogy. In my case, the topic happens to be gender identity. Does that make me the definitive resource on the topic? Not in the slightest. Like any group of people, my experiences can vary quite a bit from another transgender person and even another trans woman. A voice of authenticity does not guarantee “getting it right.” No one person can speak for a whole community of people.
To elaborate on how then a voice of authenticity can be useful, let’s use the example of my most recent project, editing the comic Trans* Planetarium for writer Flip Knox. Trans* Planetarium is the story of Alice, a transgender woman saved from her suicide attempt by a divine power who challenges her to face her inner demons, literally. The first issue may well be available now but at this time last year there was a lot undefined about Alice and the plot. Flip is an LGBT ally and wanted to make a comic that had a positive message for the transgender community. But, even with the best of intentions, there was a lot he didn’t know. His terminology was a mess, mixing elements of intersex and genderqueer together. And Flip lacked personal experience, so many of the intricacies of transgender life escaped him: how it can affect someone’s career, their relationships with their family, or even something as simple as using a public restroom. We discussed support groups, the unique struggles of dating as a transgender woman, and even used parts of my own transition story and experiences in these areas for Alice’s backstory. Flip and I will both say that Trans* Planetarium is a better book for it.
So my work is done right? Wrong. When we posted a preview of issue #1 a few months ago the first question I received was “Is there a trans person working on this comic book?” My role as the “voice of authenticity” extends to the marketing of the book and here’s why: I know I’m comforted when I see a trans actress or director or writer or whomever working on a piece of entertainment that features a trans character. That’s a sentiment I’m hardly alone feeling because, oftentimes, people like Flip, can have the best of intentions but not get the details right.
So is a “voice of authenticity” required? Should a writer have to receive a firsthand account in order to write a character different from him or herself? Answer: It’s never a bad idea, but in my experience, it seems to depend on the community; some are easier to seek out than others. Most female writers can seek out a male perspective as an example, but with only 0.3% of Americans being trans, that same opportunity isn’t available for many writers. Likewise, because of the ratio, it’s significantly more difficult to find information straight from transgender people, and there’s more incorrect information floating out there than for some other minority groups.
That’s only part of the problem. I hate to pick on my own community, but no community is more sensitive to the wrong details than the trans community. When Dungeons & Dragons put out a sidebar in their new player’s handbook that welcomed people of all genders, I saw it torn apart on social media by trans people. It wasn’t good enough; the language was too imprecise. And while I agree D&D could have picked a better phrase than “trapped in the wrong body,” I was thrilled to see its inclusion. Someone at Wizards of the Coast had taken the time to consider other perspectives and wanted everyone to feel welcome.
Even when some frustration and outrage has been justified, such as the Batgirl #37 kerfuffle, negative reactions can go too far. The creators — Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr — issued a lengthy apology, but I know people who wouldn’t accept it. While I don’t know the Batgirl creative team personally, I have heard from writers who are transgender allies that they often receive hate and frustration from the trans community when trying to include transgender characters in their work. It’s enough to make many not bother.
I will never forget March 2013 at WonderCon. I asked a panel of LGBT writers and filmmakers if they would ever include a transgender character in their work. Brad Bell aka “Cheeks” of Husbands fame told the blunt truth that he was “too afraid” to do so. Too afraid of getting it wrong and too afraid of the backlash he would face.
That deeply worries me. Does that mean that portrayals of transgender characters should be left solely to transgender creators? While I would love to see more diversity among comic book creative teams, and especially more transgender creators, there is a limit to what can be done especially with a community as small as the trans community. We need cisgender creators to step up their game, too. For every Batgirl or Airboy, there is a positive portrayal out there. Look at Lumberjanes’ Jo and Rat Queen’s Braga, or even Questionable Content’s Claire; these are portrayals of trans characters that are handled with respect and with lots of research under their belts. I don’t know if there is a “voice of authenticity” behind any of those portrayals but I know there’s not one at the forefront. I can’t help but wonder if even in these positive portrayals, the writers received hate mail. If you’re going to pass along your criticism to a creative team, make it positive, add a thank you to those creators who genuinely tried.
To the writers out there who want to portray another perspective: research, research, research. There are lots of helpful websites out there for whatever perspective you’re taking, and, more importantly, people you can reach out to learn the full story. And I’m not just talking about the trans community in this case. Whether you’re writing men, women, black, Asian, someone with a disability, whatever. Everyone has a unique perspective that should be explored and all of us deserve to see ourselves represented fairly and honestly in the media we consume.
About the Author
Kristine Chester is a Marketing Associate at Darby Pop Publishing, a Senior Contributor at Fanboy Comics, and the Editor of BratCat Comics’ Trans* Planetarium. When she’s not working on or providing commentary about comics, she’s usually reading them. She can be found on Twitter @12thKnight. To learn her transition story and to hear her story on what it’s like being a transgender comic geek, listen to her two part interview for the podcast FBC Presents.