By Maya Sungold
Happy Transgender Day of Visibility! On March 31, we celebrate the lives of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. Established by trans activist Rachel Crandall in 2009, TDoV is a day to support the trans community and all we have accomplished. This day also raises awareness about the transphobia we still face. Visibility isn’t always easy, safe, or even possible for trans people. We can experience misgendering, discrimination, and violence that deeply affects our lives. That’s why it’s so important to make visible the positive trans narratives we know and deserve.
Visibility is not just about being seen, but about seeing authentic and expansive representations of who we are. We need stories about trans people that don’t only see trans lives as being inherently tragic. We need stories about trans people making friends, falling in love, and finding community. We need stories with trans people that transition in all kinds of ways, including not transitioning visibly at all. We need stories with trans people who are supported in coming out when they want to come out. And we need stories about trans people whose path to knowing themselves is hard, complicated, and messy too—particularly if they’re written by trans authors who have been there themselves. Rather than assume a singular trans narrative, we deserve to acknowledge and affirm all the tender complexity that our trans lives hold. Because trans people are all these things, and more.
When I was a young queer person grappling with my identity, explicitly trans narratives didn’t exist. The first YA novel to feature a trans teenager, Luna by Julie Anne Peters, didn’t appear until 2004—35 years after the first gay character appeared, according to Representing the Rainbow in Young Adult Literature: LGBTQ Content since 1969 by Christine A. Jenkins and Michael Cart. So I settled for stories of stubborn tomboys and gutsy girls who refused to play the roles they’d been assigned. There’s one I reread every year. First published in 1998, Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a middle reader historical fiction based on the life of legendary stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst. Raised as a girl in an orphanage, Charley runs away at age twelve, adopting a new name and dressing as a boy to travel out west. We follow Charley’s adventures throughout the mid-1800s as he works his way up from a stable hand to one of the best stagecoach drivers in California. Charley lived and died as a man, only discovered to have a different body than expected by the doctor preparing him for the funeral. My local library still lists its subject matter as “Mistaken Identity – Juvenile Fiction.”
A registered voter in the presidential election of 1868, Charley Parkhurst is often celebrated as the first woman we know of to vote in the United States. However, with so little known about this historical figure, it’s impossible to say if Charley lived as a man because he always identified as one, or if he did so to become independent in a time when women had very little freedom. For myself, as a young reader desperate for queer characters, I wanted to read Riding Freedom as the story of a trans man living a life he loved, and becoming the first trans person to vote in the United States to boot.
The lack of trans visibility in my life prolonged my understanding of who I was and how I moved through the world. I was already an adult when I came out as a non-binary trans person. With no one to compare myself or reflect back to, I thought I was just a tomboy for the longest time. Many of the adults in my life encouraged this and told me it was a phase that I would eventually grow out of. Some of my friends did grow out of their tomboyness and started avoiding me when I didn’t. To fit in better, I spent so long pretending to be someone I wasn’t that even I started to believe it. Years later, I reconnected with my identity when I started making more trans and non-binary friends who helped me see myself in the queer culture we shared. There was my housemate who joyfully sang “We Are The Crystal Gems” as we watched Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe on their bed. My colleague who brought me to the Sexual Minorities Archives in Holyoke, where I held Leslie Feinberg’s personal copy of Stone Butch Blues in a pink Victorian house filled to the roof with more LGBTQIA+ literature than I’d ever seen in one place. And my friend who trusted me with an early draft of their first novel, The Ship We Built, about a young trans boy learning how to stand up for who he is that deeply resonated with my own experiences in middle school. With more real and fictional trans narratives around me, I began to share with confidence that I was non-binary and trans and to believe I was trans enough.
Now as I begin a career in young adult librarianship, I’m dedicated to connecting young people to diverse trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming stories because I know how important it is to see yourself represented on the page. These stories help young queer people work out who they are and know that they are not alone and guide their cisgender peers on how to better understand and support them. And while some cis authors have thoughtfully written trans characters, they shouldn’t be prioritized over trans authors who intimately understand the trans characters they write. Trans authors deserve to tell their own stories and have them be read by young queer people who can trust that the narratives within will be honest and complex, pulled from a lived experience they can relate to.
Middle grade and young adult literature have come a long way from vague stories hinting at queer narratives. Now we have the middle-grade contemporary Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker, about trans girl Zen using her coding skills to solve a cybercrime with her quirky crew, including genderqueer friend Arli (who uses vo/ven/veir pronouns!). There’s the young adult fantasy Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, in which black trans girl Jam tries to save her world that doesn’t believe in monsters from the monsters all around them. We also get a love story between two Chinese-American teens, non-binary werewolf Tam and queer witch Nova, in the young adult graphic novel Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker. And soon we’ll get to read two upcoming novels coming out later this year: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, a young adult fantasy about Latinx trans boy Yadriel who tries to prove himself as a brujo and accidentally summons the wrong ghost, and Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, a young adult contemporary about black trans demiboy Felix navigating his identities and learning to love all of who he is.
These stories are not as powerful if they’re not actually accessible to the readers who need them. Libraries and schools receive hundreds of challenges and removals of LGBTQIA+ books and displays each year. According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, more than half of the most challenged books in schools and libraries each year include LGBTQIA+ content. In 2018, the number one most challenged book was Alex Gino’s George, a middle-grade novel about a trans girl who wants to play Charlotte in her class production of Charlotte’s Web. Libraries and schools are also pressured to cancel LGBTQIA+ programs and speakers. At the 2020 ALA Midwinter Conference, a panel of LGBTQIA+ authors discussed their experiences with soft censorship, including revoked invitations, administrative restrictions, and parental objections. Not only does this limit young queer people’s access to LGBTQIA+ stories, but it also robs them of the opportunity to meet real LGBTQIA+ adults, learn about their experiences, and imagine their own queer futures.
We need to protect access to these stories because they offer trans and cis people alike a reality in which our transness is not only possible, it is loved. So on this Trans Day of Visibility, celebrate the trans stories all around you. Read a trans book from your to-read list. Pre-order an upcoming trans novel. Request a trans title not currently available at your public library. Attend a book event for a trans author or invite them to speak at your school. And as always, on this and every day, love and support the trans people in your life.
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Maya Sungold (they/them) is a queer facilitator, fiber artist, and future librarian. They have led relational storytelling and community-engaged programming for young adults through the Ethics and the Common Good Project, including workshops at the Intergroup Dialogue Conference, Five College Queer Gender and Sexuality Conference, and Transforming Education for Social Justice Conference. They are currently pursuing a master’s degree focused on young adult librarianship, and are excited to connect young people to diverse stories that feature real, complex characters in charge of their own beautiful and messy experiences.