One of the terrific things about the webcomic renaissance of the past five or so years is that more and more stories are being told that include trans characters as central players. But it seems like writers, lacking good examples to follow in other media, still have some difficulty handling their transness within the narrative. Today I’m going to examine some different webcomics with trans representation, the different approaches they use to reveal to the audience that a character is trans, and what the best (and worst) applications of each method are.
Before we start, some caveats: the first moment a character’s transness comes up in a story (ie the “reveal”) is only one facet of trans representation, and arguably the easiest one for writers to navigate. Ensuring that your portrayals of trans people are strong and natural is a far more complex issue, one I’ll be delving into later. Lastly, bear in mind that the following are categories I just made up; they may not be perfect, exhaustive, or even the only way to categorize these things.
The explicit reveal
In real life, you can’t know that someone is trans until they tell you. Fiction is a different story, but sometimes it’s still best to just have a character say “I’m trans” or “I’m [insert gender here]”. Coming out is a complicated thing that we have to navigate all the time with strangers and new acquaintances, but if a character wants someone to know them better, it often makes sense for them to share their transness with that person.
A variation on this theme is when the character is closeted, passing as the gender they were assigned at birth. In this case, coming out is usually a big deal, and not just for the character!
If your audience has gotten to know a character as one gender, it’s important to help them shift their understanding of that character’s gender; just having a single coming out scene is not enough. Including dialogue or narration that genders the character right or corrects misgendering are recommended ways to remind readers of the change – but be prepared for 5000000 comments from readers who STILL don’t get it, no matter how clear you are.
In real life, coming out to someone who’s not familiar with trans issues is often met with uncomfortable questions – “so like did u used to be a boy” “whats ur junk look like” “whats ur old name” etc. – so it can make sense to have certain characters respond in this way, either out of bigotry or simple ignorance. But bear in mind that trans readers may have negative gut reactions to these sorts of scenes, and its always important to show that these questions and other similar reactions are inappropriate and hurtful to us.
Be careful: It’s good to normalize transness by having characters talk about their identities, but avoid shoehorning in mentions or discussions of transness where they wouldn’t naturally occur.
The oblique reveal
This reveal uses sideways references to a character’s identity or transition, without specifically naming them as trans then and there. This is often a very natural way to go about things, as trans people in real life don’t generally insert “I’m trans btw” into conversations with people we already know, but we sometimes mention things like taking hormones or what our pre-transition lives were like when talking to friends.
On the other hand, this method is more likely than most to just fly over the heads of cis readers. Trans people know exactly what “before I transitioned” or even more sideways phrasings mean, but cis people are often not familiar with the terminology or experiences involved here, so it can be helpful to follow an oblique reveal with something more concrete later in the story that they can’t miss.
Be careful: Trans people talk with friends about the minutiae of our lives all the time, so it’s hard to go wrong with this one – just make sure you’re actually familiar with the concepts and terms you’re using! EDIT: Also, know the difference between a reveal and a hint. It’s possible to be so oblique as to be totally ambiguous, and while that can have its place, it quickly becomes baiting if you don’t follow your hints with something more explicit.
The body reveal
In this reveal, the artist shows the character’s body, allowing the audience to see the “incongruities” between their body and their identity. Often it includes visual “explanations” for the character’s normal appearance, like a chest binder or breast forms, but it doesn’t have to involve nudity at all: a visible crotch bulge or 5 o’clock shadow are just as common.
Cis people LOVE this sorta shit, because our bodies are endless mysteries to them that they want desperately to solve. As such, body reveals tend to be voyeuristic crap, fetishistically focusing on what’s “wrong” with our bodies with agonizing closeups and dressing/undressing montages. Don’t do this.
But it is possible, in theory, to use a body reveal well. If a character is comfortable with others seeing them fully or partially naked, then it can be very natural, although even this can easily stray into exploitation if handled poorly.
Be careful: If you’re cis, you should be 10000% sure you know what you’re doing before even considering attempting this. Don’t contribute to the awful legacy of this type of reveal.
The cast page reveal
Honestly this one is one of my favorites. Being trans is central to a character, but in a lot of stories it’s not central to the plot. In such stories, there’s no need to drag it out; no need for narrative tension around it or an in-story reveal of any sort, dramatic or casual. In these cases, many authors choose to just identify the character as trans in the introductory copy, such as the “back cover” synopsis or the cast page.
This can be a fantastic way to reach trans readers; I for one am much more likely to pick up a new story if I know before page 1 that it’s about someone like me. People who are underrepresented in fiction have to do a lot of guessing and finger-crossing to find works that they can relate to, and being up-front with your representation goals can eliminate a lot of that.
Be careful: Lazy writers stop here and pat themselves on the back for their cast diversity, but it’s just as important that a character’s transness come up in the story itself! There are no shortcuts to truly positive representation.
In all the above approaches, there’s an assumption that the character already identifies as trans. But that’s not always true, and some characters’ arcs include a progression towards that understanding of themselves. Perhaps it’s inaccurate to call this a “reveal” – we learn about a character’s transness as they do, through the events of the story.
Be careful: This is another popular one with cis people. If you’re basing your trans narrative on the crap you’ve seen in shows and movies, you should probably go back to the drawing board.
A writer’s instinct
So which one of these should you use? Well, I can’t tell you, because it all depends on the story! Each reveal method has its place, and each one has right and wrong ways to employ it. As a storyteller, you’ve gotta cultivate an understanding of when something feels natural and when it feels stilted, forced, or fake; this applies the same to trans reveals as it does to any other aspect of the craft!
It’s critical to know and understand what and who you’re writing about in order to have that sort of intuition, and many cis writers would benefit from getting to know more real live trans people – through our stories, our histories, our essays, and our lovely selves. But if you’re familiar enough with our experiences to have a gut instinct about how to show that a character is trans, trust that instinct.