By Maya Sungold
I still remember how it felt the first time someone used the correct gender pronouns for me, warm and alive, and absolutely perfectly right. For many trans, nonbinary, and gender-diverse people, our pronouns are not just words, they are an affirmation that people see us exactly as we are. And thanks to decades of LGBTQ+ organizing, the world is starting to follow our lead—at the beginning of 2020, the American Dialect Society voted “(my) pronouns” as the word of the year and “they” as the word of the decade.
In middle grade and young adult fiction, more stories than ever are being published that introduce gender-inclusive pronouns and language. It cannot be overstated how important these books can be for young queer readers, seeing as 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ youth use gender-inclusive pronouns and only 1 in 5 report having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their lives (less than 1 in 10 among nonbinary youth). Books can be the place where these young people see themselves represented on the page.
Anna-Marie McLemore’s books are among those that imagine a better world, where gender is celebrated as the limitless universe that it is. On why they write gender-diverse stories, McLemore told WNDB: “I’m Latinx, queer, trans and nonbinary, so when I’m writing trans boys like Samir in When the Moon Was Ours and Alifair in Dark and Deepest Red, I’m writing myself and my communities into the kinds of stories I didn’t think we were allowed to have when I was growing up. I use they/them pronouns, so when I write a genderfluid character like Bay Briar into the enchanted gardens of Wild Beauty or Page, who uses alternating pronouns, into the fairytale woods of Blanca & Roja, I hope to make space for readers like my trans and nonbinary siblings made for me.”
This kind of space-making can be life-saving as we move through a world where we often struggle to be seen and supported. For Ray Stoeve, author of the forthcoming contemporary YA novel Between Perfect and Real, “The most important thing for me about writing gender-diverse books is that kids get to see themselves and their friend groups reflected in the stories they read. Representation can give us words we need, can save our lives even, if we know there is a place for us, a path, a possibility for our life.”
With this in mind, Stoeve put together the YA/MG Trans and Nonbinary Voices Masterlist, a database of young adult and middle grade titles with trans and nonbinary protagonists written by trans and nonbinary authors, so we can find and access our own stories. Booktuber Jesse of Bowties & Books created the Enby Book Club for us to create community around these books: “I wanted a safe place for [nonbinary] folks to read about themselves, to ask questions, and to interact with each other—it’s so important for us to have spaces designed by us.”
When I was younger, I didn’t have a book club like this and without a community of people to ease the ever-present tension of being nonbinary in a binary world, I escaped to science fiction and fantasy. At the time, this was where many gender-diverse stories could be found, and it’s easy to see why. Paging through classics like Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, I got lost in worlds that imagined beyond reality, with no modern constraints on what gender is and could be. As much as I loved these stories and the ideas about gender they explored, the gender-diverse characters were often portrayed as aliens, robots, and other non-human beings, and I needed to read about humans like me living in a future I wanted to be a part of.
Today’s science fiction and fantasy is delivering on this, like in Ana Mardoll’s fantasy short story collection No Man of Woman Born, which breaks, subverts, and fulfills traditionally gendered prophecies by rewriting old legends to center trans and nonbinary protagonists, many of whom use a wide variety of neopronouns like xie/xer or kie/kir. In Akwaeke Emezi’s Walter Award-winning speculative YA novel Pet, Black trans girl protagonist Jam’s gender identity and pronouns are never an issue, but rather an inherent part of the story and the world.
McLemore also brings forward the stories of trans and nonbinary people, as well as other diverse communities, in their reimaginings of classic fairytales: “When I write fairytales about characters of color, queer characters, trans and nonbinary characters, characters with disabilities, those stories become spaces to talk about that which sometimes goes unspoken in fairytales. In Dark and Deepest Red, I use the fairy tale The Red Shoes to talk about what racism looks like across centuries, and how marginalized communities—Romani communities, queer, trans, and nonbinary communities—find each other even in times and places that outlaw their identities.”
Imagining my communities in times and places we’re told we didn’t exist is powerful, but sometimes I want validation of my experiences in the here and now. Growing up, most contemporary fiction that included a trans character was written by cis authors who often wrote painfully tragic and simplistic narratives that left this character alone in the margins. I finally saw myself at the center when I met the nonbinary Ben in Mason Deaver’s 2019 contemporary YA novel I Wish You All The Best. It meant so much to see Ben come into their own and receive a wealth of support from their sister, their therapist, and their nonbinary best friend as they grew on their gender journey and beyond.
Now, these stories are dominating forthcoming middle grade and young adult releases, with 3 out of 4 found in contemporary fiction according to Stoeve’s list. On why we’re seeing such a big rise of gender-diverse stories in this genre, Stoeve shared: “I think one reason why the shift to contemporary is happening is because there’s increasing awareness that trans people are real, that we exist in the world as it is and not just in futuristic or fantastical settings. This is exciting to me because it means that, unlike my experience as a teen, kids now will have way more access to people who look and feel and express like they do. They have more words and possibilities for who they are, and the stories they read will reflect their real-life experience.”
Emery Lee is the author of one of these forthcoming releases, Meet Cute Diary, debuting in Spring 2021. E told WNDB that eir book is not just about telling a trans story, but about seeing trans people in all that they are: “[It is] about how trans people deserve to have happy endings and fluffy love stories just like cis people, and it’s something that I rehash a few times throughout the book. Noah, the protagonist, acknowledges the way that even if people accept trans people, we’re still not allowed to just be people who want love and happiness, and so his story is about making room for that trans joy, whether cis people understand why that matters or not.”
As more books written by trans and nonbinary authors get published every year, we’re getting to see a greater representation of trans experiences that help us feel like we’re part of life rather than excluded from it. But these books continue to be only a small number of LGBTQ+ middle grade and young adult fiction being published. Many are still the only one of its kind, which puts a special kind of pressure on how authors are expected to write a particular trans voice.
Jesse notes that main characters with neutral pronouns are still rare. “I see a decent amount of side characters or even major side characters who use neutrals, but I want those characters to be pushed front and center.”
McLemore wants to see “even more intersectionality, [like] stories about trans and nonbinary characters with a range of experiences related to faith and religion, especially religious experiences that are underrepresented on shelves.”
Lee wants people to know that “transness isn’t a genre or a theme or a trope. To limit us to stories that educate cis readers or stories that focus on tackling oppression really limits the way that cis people see us, but also the way that we see ourselves. We aren’t a lesson to be taught. We’re people, and we deserve to exist in every type of story, in every trope, in every style.”
And while we’ve seen an uptick in stories by and about trans masculine and nonbinary people, Stoeve wants to see “more stories by and about trans women and femmes of color, particularly Black trans women. These are the voices we should be prioritizing, especially in children’s literature.”
These stories are out there, but the book industry is still falling short on advocating for them. Publishing houses, literary agents, and marketing representatives need to actively invest in trans and nonbinary authors and their stories—and hire more trans and nonbinary people to do so. Lee & Low’s 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey found that 97 percent of people who work in publishing self-reported as cis women or men. How can trans and nonbinary stories truly be represented if our voices aren’t even in the room?
Jesse told WNDB that gender-diverse books are about “being understood, being centered. Trans folk are in a constant state of empathizing with cis folk, but the reverse is not true. We are routinely expected to see ourselves through cis-centric language. When I read trans narratives, I feel powerful. I feel loved. I feel camaraderie.” With the power the book industry has to shape how gender-diverse communities are seen and supported, it also has a responsibility to us to center trans and nonbinary people in our stories.
We can start by reading books by trans, nonbinary, and gender-diverse authors, both with trans characters and without. If you don’t know where to start, your local librarian or independent bookstore will probably have booklists and book displays at the ready! For those looking to discuss these books or find a community of other LGBTQ+ readers, these places will also often have a book club you can join, or you can find one online like Jesse’s Enby Book Club or the Enby Spoken Histories Book Club. We can also support authors directly by following them on social media, joining their Patreons, attending their book talks, pre-ordering their upcoming novels, and requesting that our public libraries buy their books.
We can also continue making spaces more inclusive by asking for and using gender pronouns, building a culture where these moments are less vulnerable and risky so we don’t have to choose between being seen and being safe. Model practicing pronouns by sharing your pronouns in your email signature, name tag, bio, even pin it to your jean or suit jacket! Read up on gender-diverse vocabulary and issues (check out this comprehensive Trans Language Primer) and use gender-inclusive language in your conversations, such as saying, “Welcome, folks” rather than, “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen.”
Remember that pronouns are just the beginning of what we can do to respect and validate part of someone’s identity and experience. Don’t just think about gender as a one-time go-around in your classroom, workplace, or relationships. Think about what long-term practices we can put in place to support one another in challenging binary habits and assumptions about gender identity and expression. Gender pronouns can make a profound difference in our sense of safety and support, and I hope practicing more of them in the lives we lead and the stories we read can continue to push us to change the way we think about gender and build a better world for all.
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.