Back in the mid-1990s, a friend confided to me that he (assigned male at birth) was going through something he didn’t understand. He’d never felt comfortable in his own body, but was now experiencing an increasing level of disgust over certain aspects of himself. Arm hair. Leg hair. Facial hair. The smell of his own sweat. Other stuff. Things were spiraling out of control and he worried that he was reaching the point where he’d no longer be able to look at a mirror or function out in the world.
I’m not qualified to say for sure, but I strongly suspect that my friend was suffering from what we know today as gender dysphoria. Except that he didn’t have that term in his vocabulary. Nobody did. If my friend had sought professional care at that time, he’d probably have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, dropping additional stigma onto someone who was already feeling insecure and vulnerable.
I’d never met anyone who’d gone through what he was going through, and neither had he. For all he knew, he was the first person to ever have had this experience, and that must have been terrifying. He’d found no help online in those early Internet days, no community, no support groups, and he didn’t feel that he could talk to anyone in his family. To keep from going out of his mind, he’d picked one friend to talk to. Even though we weren’t particularly close, he chose me as his lifeline, and I turned out to be absolutely useless.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t wrap my head around what he was telling me. I knew he couldn’t have been making it up, because why would anyone invent such a story about themselves? I knew he hadn’t chosen to have the feelings he was describing, because why would anyone choose to be confused about their own identity? But what he described was entirely outside my experience. I listened to what he was saying, and maybe that helped a little, but it must have been frustrating to him that I wasn’t able to really understand or identify with what he was going through.
My friend started experimenting with ways to present as a woman in order to feel more comfortable with themself (we never discussed a change of pronouns but it feels right to use they/them from this point on). Being out in public with a more feminine expression was mentally healthier for them. It was exactly what they needed, but it also put them in physical danger.
One day, things went badly, and my friend got the idea that it must have been because I had betrayed their confidence. They thought I must have told someone about their situation, and that person had told someone else, and that person had gone hunting for them. I tried to assure them that I hadn’t told a soul, but it didn’t matter. We weren’t friends anymore after that. We fell out of touch, and I haven’t seen or heard from them since.
Increased awareness leads to empathy, understanding, and acceptance, while a lack of awareness can lead to bigotry, violence, self-harm, and broken friendships. Unfortunately, a lack of awareness is currently the norm, as polling consistently shows that most American adults have never met a trans person. And for me, that lack of awareness made me a lousy ally, unable to understand or to offer practical help when a friend needed it most.
Without first-hand experience, the media we consume becomes the primary way cisgender folks like myself come to understand trans and non-binary folks, and also how they first come to understand themselves. The problem is that so many books, TV shows, and movies have represented trans and non-binary people as caricatures we’re meant to laugh at or despise, while positive depictions have been rare and actual authentic voices are like unicorns.
In my own writing, I try to raise awareness in whatever little ways I can. To broaden my narrow experience, I do research and try to be careful and deliberate in my approach to issues of identity. I don’t want to shout over authentic voices or crowd them off the shelf, but instead seek to weave my own truths with theirs into a chorus of diverse voices that define the human experience.
And yet, I will always fall short of this ideal, no matter how well-intended I am and no matter how hard I work at expanding my perspective. All I can do is hope that the good I do outweighs the unintentional harms.
When I started writing the first Galaxy Games book, published in 2011, I planned to include a character who would be revealed as trans over the course of the series. In the first book, they would be introduced as a boy, and subsequent books would capture milestones of their evolving self-awareness and transition into a trans girl.
Unfortunately, I didn’t write as many books as quickly as I’d planned. The gap of time between Book 1 and Book 2, published in 2016, meant that Kate’s transition had to happen off-screen. Many readers entirely missed that she was even meant to be the same character as before. To judge by the amount of awareness I was able to raise, this was a total fail. Turns out I can be as bad of an ally to my fictional characters as I was to my real-life friend.
For what it’s worth, Kate has a larger role in the Mad Messenger series that extends the Galaxy Games saga with ongoing episodes. Through this story, I am more motivated than ever to do right by this character and the readers she represents. An increase in awareness, empathy, understanding, and acceptance among all readers is still the goal.
And there’s no time to waste.
Transgender Awareness Week leads into Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, remembering lives lost to acts of transphobic violence. 2021 has been the deadliest year on record for such acts of hate with 45 incidents so far, already surpassing the record of 44 set for all of 2020. A disproportionate number of these acts target black and Latinx trans folk.
Raising awareness is the path to an empathetic, understanding, and accepting society where people are no longer targeted, threatened, or killed for being themselves. This week and every week, we should pause to reassess our progress toward that goal. My honest self-assessment is that I’ve done a crappy job so far, so please let me know if you have any suggestions for how I can do better.
Thanks for reading!