I have been thinking a lot about diversity in romance books. I am focusing mostly on romance here because this is the genre I am staying in most of the time. Why, I will explain a bit later. While I can say I am glad there are more diverse romances in terms of not only including white people, it is not my place to comment on them. I am a super-white person living in super-white environment and I am not qualified to recommend or comment on the rep there.
So here, I want to talk to you about non-cishet representation in romances. I grew up believing Nicholas Sparks belongs to romance and that romance novels are for women. Which was a reason I have always avoided them. I was in the ‘I’m not same as other girls” which…honestly, was later shown to be true but not in the “I’m not like other girls and that makes me better than them” sense. I never managed to fit in with girls. I wasn’t accepted among guys because I was a girl. Now yes, that was based purely on biology and my gender assigned at birth but I’ve only learnt that FTM people “exist” around a year ago so I’m telling this as it was. 14 or 15-year-old me didn’t know what was going on. She didn’t know that biology, gender assigned at birth is not necessarily your “real” gender. I have always said I want to be a boy. I wanted to be a boy when I was young, I wanted to be a boy when I was older. But I knew that biologically I never could be. There was no magic button that would transform my body into one equal to assigned male at birth body. From that time, the only book I remember that kind of touched my feelings was Enid Blyton’s George from Famous Five.
The other book I remember touching the subject before I started reading romance books was Luna. For me it was, in a way, revolutionary. It was the first book with openly trans character I have read, but it was MTF. Not to mention that lately, I have heard things about it and realised it is extremely problematic. I have read it young and clueless about issues. Mind you, I have been raised not just in extremely white, but also super cishet normative environment. The only kind of famous trans person was this woman…who did problematic things, or at least I think they were. I have watched her in a show a year ago, and I liked her. So, I don’t know if she did problematic things, or if media was exaggerating, or maybe both. But she is the only trans person I have heard of for more than a decade.
Now comes my entry into romance community. While my first author was problematic and shall remain nameless, I have later realised I have read a story by Jay Northcote when I was still reading fanfiction. And here, things start happening. I have read a book or two. Then, there was a Trans Visibility Day offer of freebie – Starting from Scratch by Jay Northcote, my first book with FTM protagonist ever! And things started to slowly unravel. And by slowly, I mean super slowly. The second book with trans character, also FTM, was also by him, Second Chance. This book was the first one I ordered signed, and it is a comfort book, one I always have in my bag. And looking back, there’s one line in my review of Second Chance on my blog that should have clued me in.
“Sometimes I find stories with FTM characters a bit hard to read because there are so many emotions that I identify with. I can’t say what the stories are like in general because this is only the second one I’ve read and is also by the same author than the first one.”
I have been looking at this quote for a while. And I marvel how I have not realised it back then, how it took me a few more months to actually figure out what was happening. I was lucky to have found some support while I was in the difficult questioning phase, with old friends and new.
Do you ever have a feeling and you think that there are two possibilities? Either that everyone feels like this, or that you are the only one who feels like this? These books, especially the ownvoices ones, showed me that no, not everyone feels like this but I am also not the only person who does. They showed me that there are people like me. People I have not known existed till I read the books. These books were open door into a space where people like me were. People with same doubts, people with same or at least similar feelings. People who, like me, didn’t belong to cishet normative society.
The realisation that I was trans didn’t come immediately, as the quote above attests. It took months. But once I figured it out, I saw all the things from my childhood more clearly. I saw my struggles. I saw the dysphoria.
And you know what else I saw even more clearly than before? All the homophobic and transphobic comments. Things that were thrown around as insults casually. I heard shit, and I saw shit online. I saw news about transgender people beaten up, refused service, abused online and in real life. I saw the “bathroom debate”. I realised how hetero- and cis-normative the society around me was. Debates about strangers’ genitals. And I saw how alone I was. Yes, I have some support in my best friends. They don’t care about me being trans. They asked me if they should use new pronouns or my chosen names. But I can’t. I can’t have them call me Alex in front of my mum who is not really ready to actually accept it yet. I can’t have them using male pronouns for me while I still look like a girl. I get told to dress nicer, I get asked why I don’t wear make up anymore. I get called “lady” or “madam” and flinch internally. My language is super gendered. Every sentence has a gendered word, not like quite neutral English.
I found a community online, especially thanks to queer romances. But do you know what I saw in their community? Support for each other, but also hurt. Everyone has been hurt. Rejected by friends or family. Not accepted. People refusing to use correct pronouns. Doctors not wanting to treat them. I saw hurt and pain, and I saw community, I saw support.
Now, why romance books? I stay mostly in queer romance. That includes m/f romances where either of the character is queer, like in Small Change by Roan Parrish where Ginger is bi, and ends up with Christopher. Or upcoming book Reverb by Anna Zabo, where David falls in love with Mish. David is a trans guy, and the book is m/f.
What does queer romance offer me? It gives me the chance to see people like me. People who are not straight, not cis. People who have dealt with crap and still get their HEAs.
I have read two books recently that featured trans side/secondary characters. One was Rebound by L.A. Witt, where the daughter of one of the main characters is trans. The other one is Playing Around by Suzanne Clay, where one of the roommates is trans. I was super excited when they came out and then things just…moved on. No questioning genitals, no transphobia, just acceptance. So even seeing just secondary characters is moving. But seeing trans main characters?
I have already mentioned Reverb by Anna Zabo but it deserves another mention. And that is because, though David is a trans guy, this is NOT A BIG DEAL. We’re not following him through transition or pain. He’s trans and Mish is pan, and Zavier is aromantic. The book is not centered around David being trans. It is an important part of him, yes, but it is not all that he is.
These books are good, and most of them are ownvoices.
Then, there are bad books. If we wander a bit away from the romance genre, not long ago, a book called My Brother’s Name is Jessica came out. If you hang around on Twitter and follow at least one trans person, you have probably heard of it. The author is a white cis gay man, who rejects the word “cis” because it is “imposed on him” by trans people. The title alone is a huge red flag. The book focuses on a boy whose sister is trans and yet the title says “brother”. I have not read the book. If I could get it for free, I would probably hate read it. But some people have, and they have said it is full of harmful stereotypes. Books like these focus on cis people and their feelings towards trans people, as well as perpetuating oftentimes dangerous stereotypes. Luna, the book I mentioned before, belongs in this category and I am told its title in French was something similar to My Brother’s Name is Jessica.
Not only have queer books gave me chance to explore my sexuality and my gender. They gave me friends. I met other trans people through them. I met my friends. I started blogging and found an accepting community, people who stuck with me when I whined, people who still stick with me, who followed me to the other Twitter account when I decided to change my name to Alex, at least online.
I might have gone my entire life not realising that what I feel towards my body was dysphoria. I could have gone my entire life trying to fake belonging to “women”. Instead, the romance community, the acceptance, and diverse books have helped me discover who I really am.
I have also struggled with what my gender might mean for having kids. I have female reproductive parts, yes, but if I am a trans guy am I allowed to want my own biological kids? People were telling me yes, but it’s…it’s hard to understand it on deeper level. Your brain knows, but you can’t make feelings listen to reason, right? And then it happened, as if I needed a sign, Ed Davies’ book Forever. It’s not the most perfect book ever, but at that moment? It meant so much. There’s a character in it who has been on hormones for years and is constantly read as male. Yet, he wants to be pregnant and have his own kid. And he doesn’t let anyone stop him. In that moment, the book was a godsend. I needed it. And that’s why good rep matters. It can help you, make your day, make you feel seen and understood.
I came out a few times. Coming out is happening all through your life, it’s not a one-time occurrence, as I am sure people know. The responses were mostly supporting, no one actually left me. But I do know there is a part of my family that would shun me just for being bi, not even mentioning being trans. I have severed ties with them because of other things but it never gets easier.
Another book I really have to mention is Coffee Boy by Austin Chant. It is also ownvoices but what is special in it is that Kieran, the main character, has a “girl mode” for one of his jobs. He doesn’t feel like he can be out, so he goes into this mode, and pretends to be a girl because people see him as a girl. He is not though, and I think it’s a good explanation of the fact that some places just aren’t safe for us to be out. It doesn’t mean we are faking being trans, it is a self-preservation. Why mention it? Because to the outside world, to the people in real life? I’m not out. I am in Kieran’s “girl mode”. This doesn’t make me any less trans, it just means the environment isn’t accepting enough for me to tell everyone. It makes me feel less shitty about me not being out when I see other people doing the same, and it doesn’t matter if they are real people, or if I just read about them. It matters.
A few days ago, I got a reply on my tweet about hyping up actual trans authors who do good work instead of transphobic authors. There was a reply that “it’s art, why police it” or something similar. Yes, it is art. But people who don’t see the need to have any diversity in it are the people who are represented in them. I swear, the white cis(het) men who are against diversity in books would throw a hissy fit if they suddenly weren’t represented in most books. And that’s why they don’t think we need more diverse representation. We are not considered default, and people who are, don’t want the change.
So why does diverse representation matter? It’s not only because we have the right to be justly represented, but also because it can save lives. It can show us that there are people like we are, that we are not alone. I have mentioned ownvoices books a few times here, and I just want to stress that yes, people can write what they want (although when it comes to marginalised groups, the least they can do is some research!). But we have to be allowed to criticise the representation of ourselves. Because in some cases it is not criticism or pointless attacks but the desire, the need to help things change for the better.
Good representation can save lives.