The Trans Reveal

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

I don't agree with the idea that trans people need to "warn" their partners, but it's very in-character for the nervous shut-in Jo. From Threads from the Blue Rock Tapestry.
I don’t agree with the idea that trans people need to “warn” their partners, but it’s very in-character for the nervous shut-in Jo. From Threads from the Blue Rock Tapestry.

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!

We've met Feast for a King's androgynous Crimson before this flashback, but this is the first page where we start to understand her gender.
We’ve met Feast for a King‘s androgynous Crimson before this flashback, but this is the first page where we start to understand her gender.

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.

Band vs Band plays this a little too casually, perhaps. Also, Domme's identity never comes up again!
Band vs Band plays this a little too casually, perhaps. Also, Domme’s identity never comes up again! Frustrating!

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

Subtle, but unambiguous. This page from Cucumber Quest is a good example to follow.
Subtle, but unambiguous. This page from Cucumber Quest is a good example to follow.

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.

ShootAround has at least four offhand references to her transness, like this one. Nice and natural, but possibly too subtle for some readers.
ShootAround has a bunch of offhand references to Chau’s transness, like this one. Nice and natural, but possibly too subtle for some readers.

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

This isn't the reveal page for Milo or Maria in Bad Bad Things, but it's the page that shows why it works: they're totally comfortable with each other seeing their bodies, and the portrayal isn't exploitative. (Nip censored by me, gotta keep it SFW, sry)
This isn’t the reveal page for Milo or Maria in Bad Bad Things, but it’s the page that shows why it works: they’re totally comfortable with each other seeing their bodies, and the portrayal isn’t exploitative. (Nip censored by me, gotta keep it SFW, sry)

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

Collect 'em all! No ambiguity about characters' identities in Sharp Zero. I feel like Kate's in-comic portrayal isn't as strong, however.
Collect ’em all! No ambiguity about characters’ identities in Sharp Zero. I feel like Kate’s in-comic portrayal isn’t as strong, however.

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.

The Blue Valkyrie's creators bill it as the story of a trans superhero. Nice!
Though it lacks a literal cast page, The Blue Valkyrie‘s creators bill it as the story of a trans superhero. Nice!

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.

The journey

TFW someone thinks you're a lady and you realize they're right. From Goodbye to Halos.
TFW someone thinks you’re a lady and you realize they’re right. From Goodbye to Halos.

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.

9 comments on “The Trans Reveal

  1. This is a really good article and I´m very happy you covered the topic like that.
    It´s pretty hard to find a good way to get your readers to understand that a character is trans without seeming to brash (and maybe offensive) or to low-key, meaning that some readers might miss it.
    So I think this is a pretty good guide that will hopefully help many creators to include trans people or to get some ideas how to introduce the topic to their readers with already existing characters.

  2. Generally love this article, and thanks so much for writing it. I also want to add my second opinion, as a trans woman.

    I actually have significantly different feelings about the oblique reveal, especially as related to your comments on Cucumber Quest and Shoot Around. I think the issue that you have being that cis people might not get it is actually completely beside the point. I personally don’t really care if cis people can “figure it out”. Frequently, even when it’s explicit, they don’t anyway. Just look to the comments section on Goodbye to Halos as proof. Lots of people saying, “I don’t get it. I didn’t see this coming at all.” or “there really isn’t development toward this.” Like, uh, there frequently isn’t. My parents sure didn’t act like there was foreshadowing.

    Coming back to my original point, the Cucumber Quest reveal is mildly painful to me. Not only is it an experience that I don’t enjoy reading. I also think the whole, btw, here’s my dead name, so you can know who I am or was or whatever, thing is kinda bs. Like, I wouldn’t do it and have gone to great lengths to avoid it. I’d rather just let people not know or remember me (though I’ve burned A LOT of bridges, soooo…). It’s also kinda obvious that she doesn’t care about the legends either. If she doesn’t care about the legends, then why is it important for her to reveal that she’s actually in them? Anyway, it’s not a particularly pleasant read for me.

    As for ShootAround, I really like the way Chau is written. Her character is always played with a lot of humanity, and the scenes where she talks about being trans are character developing and important. I seriously cry thinking about them (but I cry at a lot in that comic… and in life in general). I think it’s generally evocative storytelling, and makes her being trans actually relevant and meaningful. The hormone retrieval being #1 priority immediately shows how awesome and supportive all the team are of each other. The photo scene shows loss that is specific to trans women. A loss that I personally know (y’know, not because of an apocalypse, though). I find those to be really thoughtful choices.

    I get your point, and I wouldn’t say you’re wrong. I just have a differing a opinion. Like, not in one of those waffling, everyone’s opinion is valid sort of ways, because there are a lot of terrible opinions on this. But I think it’s worth having both our opinions available. Again, I love that this essay is a thing. I’ve said it before, but I’m really grateful for the work you do here. I wouldn’t know about almost anything I read if it weren’t for your website.

    If given the choice between scenes that would appeal to trans women (or, y’know, me specifically) vs. be informative to cis people, I’d always choose the former without even a twinge of remorse.

    1. Regarding your last (and, I think, main?) point, I completely agree. Stuff that feels like it’s FOR me is always going to appeal to me more than things that feel like they’re just ABOUT me from some outsider’s perspective, and that’s pretty natural I think. But the intended primary audience of this particular essay is “outsiders”, ie cis people, because I really want their work to feel like it loves and understands trans people – at least more than we’re used to, you know?

      Regarding the Rosemaster reveal, I get what you’re saying! Bringing the dead name into that scene is a bit uncomfortable, but Nautilus kind of forced it with her “lol who r u” line, and Rosemaster’s reaction is pretty in-line with how I would react – an angry and condescending explanation. Could that scene have been handled without deadnaming? Perhaps. But I don’t believe that eliminating transphobia from stories is the key to positive representation! Portraying transphobia as ignorant and harmful is just as important, and I feel that the CuQu page in question does so.

  3. I really, really enjoyed reading this. As a genderqueer person myself who writes a webcomic with several different “trans reveals” as well as people coming to terms with being trans, I constantly am adjusting my writing to better fit a good combination of what I personally enjoy and also for my readers to find relatable.

    I actually did want to point out the Cucumber Quest reveal, as someone is already mentioned. I love Cucumber Quest, but I wasn’t very fond of how Rosemaster was handled. To me, it almost feels like..tacked on, sort of like, for example, J.K. Rowling revealed Dumbledore to be gay and just expected everyone to rejoice. Not saying that CQ tacked it on to be inclusive or anything, I think it was very genuine, it just sat with me the wrong way. But I’m very interested to see a different perception on it.

    I suppose as a trans person myself, sometimes I get frustrated when writers do an oblique reveal, because sometimes I feel things that I often feel when I’m participating in media that involves queerbaiting. It’s almost like..are you doing research to understand how your character can come out? Are you trying to be subtle so you don’t step over boundaries but still have an inclusive cast that caters to all different kinds of readers? Or are you just tacking on this label to be inclusive for your own personal gain. I know the third reason is a bit of a negative thing to think, but it’s been done plenty of times before. “This character is ___” to gain publicity. And it’s something I’m always wary over.

    Either way, this was still a really good article. A+ :>

    1. You make a good point; it’s possible to be too oblique, to the point where an author leaves the question of a character’s transness ambiguous. I consider this more of a “hint” than a “reveal”, and I’ll update that passage to address exactly that.

      As for the issue of tacking identities onto characters for Cred Points(TM), that’s a real issue, but because it extends to many more situations than I address here, I’m saving it for a future post.

      Check out my reply to Elise for my take on the Cucumber Quest reveal.

      1. Looking forward to the future post! I really am enjoying reading each of your updates, they always have something to walk away chewing on.

        Also, I was really glad I read that reply. I didn’t even think of viewing it from that perspective and I actually am quite pleased to be able to have a different way to view it! Thank you so much for that. Not using someone’s deadname is a really important topic I would love to see addressed more in media.

  4. I struggled a lot when writing The Blue Valkyrie with how to handle revealing that Chloe was trans. Very often when characters are revealed to be obliquely queer or trans, cis and straight fans will deny these characters identities, or somehow hand-wave them away (Steven Universe is currently struggling with this a lot). So I wanted Chloe’s transness to be incredibly overt.

    However, when I actually sat down to write the damn thing, I couldn’t think of a genuine and real-seeming way for Chloe to say “hi yes I am trans.” I have a lot of friends who are trans and we just don’t say so out loud very often—not because we are ashamed or fearful but because, well, we know each other. It’s like telling people what you do for work every time you want to tell a work story. If you know the person, you just say “today at work.”

    What I think separates Chloe and Alice from trans characters written by cis people is that their transness is core to who they are. It is not all they are, by any means, but it informs a large part of their worldview, and thus shapes their interactions with each other and with the outside world. So while it is certainly accurate to say that TBV has a “cast page” reveal, I do feel that these characters would simply not be the same people were they written as cis.

    Actually, part of why I ended up choosing not to say so affirmatively is that I ended up wanting to write a story about trans women, FOR trans women. I felt forcing “hello yes I am a transgender woman hi hello yes yes” into the story somewhere for the benefit of those cis readers to know was against my mission statement.

  5. Hi I’m a new reader,

    This is a cool guide! I do however, take some issue with the statements, with the “The oblique reveal” on “be familiar with the terms you’re using.” I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, so much of the terminology that seems really commonplace now didn’t even exist outside of academic circles, so depending on the context, that can come across at not being genuine as well. Much of my writing (sometimes subconsciously and sometimes very purposefully) reflects the raging ignorance of the time.

    For example, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I realized a “hermaphrodite” wasn’t an imaginary thing (even though I started identifying about age seven for a brief period of time, in spite of a rigid Catholic and later Mormon upbringing.) I had to get Victorian medical books to figure out that my treatment of a “hormonal imbalance” was actually causing me to transition to a different gender that I wasn’t sure I wanted. NO ONE talked about that outside of certain circles. Then because I had a career based on my looks, even trying to find any community was terrifying because I feared that coming out could’ve destroyed my career. Then, it wasn’t until less than 3 years that I heard the term “intersex,” and it took until about a year ago to finally not be offended by it. I still prefer the term “chimera.” I’ve also accepted that (at least for the time being) transwoman is part of my identity.

    I also grew in the era when many transfolk, with the drag community in particular, still called themselves “tranny”/”shemale” as something a reclaimed word trophy. I remember being really confused about the outrage over RuPaul and didn’t really understand what the big deal. It wasn’t until after I spoke to people more involved in the trans activism (ironically, my cis ex-girlfriend) and younger folks, I realized that with the mainstreaming of the trans community has caused divergence between transgender and CD, as well as the generational gap, to become more pronounced. In this era people don’t tolerate being demeaned, while during my era people were simply trying to defend the existence of their identity by any means possible. This is why in much of my work, the language seems misinformed and crass — it was my reality.

    I am often conflicted about the reality of the time about grew up in with and modern sensibility. I don’t like the idea of encouraging more bullshit, but at the same time, I am afraid that if I don’t remind people of how awful that period was, people will forget. This seems paranoid, but regression happened in Russia and I have seen signs that it might happen here too, if we aren’t vigilant. Anyway, thank you so much for the reminder and guidance. Keep up the good work.

    1. I don’t think Wisp meant bleeding-edge political terminology, but like, *literally* knowing what they mean rather than just throwing out buzzwords they’ve heard.

      Like, a lot of fiction about trans people by cis authors is just… stilted and awkward as hell and the characters’ personalities suddenly vanish as they switch to verbatim quoting definitions and stuff from some pamphlet or infographic the author saw once. Or it’s treated like some horribly tacky Very Special Episode, since that’s what the author’s seen abt us before and that’s all they know. Or they’re trying to show off what a Good Ally they are and the characters are awkwardly used as mouthpieces. Even worse, if it’s in that style and the author has never even talked to a trans person and just uses it as an opportunity for the characters to spout out what the author thinks about us from a general thirdhand impression, except it’s presented as authoritative knowledge.

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