Writing a Transgender Character

woman at sunrise

A piece last fall in Time magazine about the movie The Danish Girl inspired this post (I’m a bit behind). In particular this line, “Stories about transgender people have been received rapturously over the past two years…” And, “But when the script first landed in [Director Tom] Hooper’s lap back in 2008, he says, it was far from commercial.”

When I created a transgender character for my novel, Wishbone, there was nothing like the visibility trans people have today. And no, this wasn’t 20 or 30 years ago. This was 2007. The only trans people I’d seen—on TV—were the tennis player Renée Richards and Jennifer Finney Boylan, who appeared on Oprah when her memoir, She’s Not There, came out in 2003. Richards was more tabloid celebrity at the time, the 1970s. Boylan’s was the first up-close and personal story of transitioning I’d heard. She was fascinating and remarkable primarily for how unremarkable she was, still is.

In 2007, the Boston Globe Magazine ran a two-part story about a doctor who transitioned from male to female. The story was about her struggle to comes to terms with herself as woman who was born in a man’s body, but it was also about how her patients might react (overwhelmingly positively, it turned out).

A few things struck me. First, that she seemed more focused on hair and clothing than I, a cis woman, ever was. And, second, that she had a wife who was not handling this transition all that well.

What must it be like, I wondered, to come out as trans so late in life that you are married, or to be married to a man who tells you he’s really a woman and wants to transition?

Much fiction writing explores “what ifs.”

My novel has a supporting character, Jeff, a good friend of my main character. In the interests of having a subplot, I wanted to give him something to struggle with. But what? I made him an identical twin. (I’m fascinated by twins.) I considered making the twin gay. What would that be like for the other? They are identical, after all. Then I thought, maybe because of the stories I’d read and seen on TV, what if the twin was trans?

What if? That’s all it took.

Here’s how little I knew in 2007: Could one identical twin even be trans? Then, as I wrote the character, I made her a lesbian. Was that even possible?

Clueless, I tell you.

I wrote her anyway.

I purposely did no research until I had her fully formed in my mind and on the page. I didn’t want there to be any chance I’d copy her from real life. I wrote her whole life story, from realizing at age three, when kids begin to distinguish gender, that she was not a boy, Greg, but was a girl. And how poorly that was handled by her parents. She learned very fast not to say anything more about it. Not even to her identical twin brother.

As she reached puberty, the shit really hit the fan. Her body was changing in ways she did not like or want or could accept. She chose a college as far from home as possible in the continental U.S. There she explored her identity. Maybe she—still identifying as he—was gay. But he liked women, that was not in doubt.

He joined the school’s LGBT group and for the first time met trans people. It didn’t get better. With such a small sample size, Greg became even more confused. The one trans man liked women. That made sense to Greg. The one trans woman liked men. That, too, made sense. Greg liked women. What would happen if he became a woman? It was only when he met a lesbian that he felt he’d found his tribe. So Greg began to explore Gina, his true self. She. A lesbian. And no, the tribe did not universally embrace her.

The novel takes place after all this, when Gina, out of school and well into her transition, comes home for the first time as a woman. Needless to say, Jeff has a problem with her at first. That’s part of the story in Wishbone, so I won’t go into it here.

Once Gina was fully formed and written, I did the research.

I read She’s Not There. While Gina and Jennifer shared a profession, that’s the only similarity. I purposely wanted Gina to realize her true self early enough in life to transition at an age before male testosterone took its full toll and before she married and had children. That’s a whole other set of issues to deal with. Only more recently, with the release of Becoming Nicole, did I figure out that Jeff not knowing what was going on was probably impossible.

Along the way, I learned that, perhaps not surprisingly, some radical feminists don’t much care for trans women. I knew about the controversy and confrontations at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Men pretending to be women, the “radfems” say. I had a bit of that in the story. That maybe another lesbian character might not like Gina so much. She turned out to be more open minded than she might. If the story had centered on Gina, I might have thrown more conflict that way.

I found an old (circa my story’s time), no longer active online forum where trans women got to talk to each other. Yes, there were trans lesbians. It made perfect sense, and even Jenny Boylan had said on Oprah, when asked that awkward question of who she was attracted to, that sexual orientation and gender identity were not the same thing. Duh. That made sense.

On The L Word, Max, the trans man who had been a lesbian but was a gay man after transitioning, made me worry. His theory was that if you were attracted to “same” before, you’d still be attracted to “same” after. I chose to ignore that. Clearly it wasn’t true for everyone. But it threw me for a bit.

We humans come in such a variety of shapes, sizes, and types, that almost anything is possible.

At the end of my research, which included way more than the above, the only thing I had to change was where Gina lived on the West Coast. At the time of the story, if she had lived in California as originally written, she would not have been able to fly across the country with her photo ID pegging her as male. California required evidence of genital surgery in order to change the ID. She wasn’t there yet (that’s part of the story). Thankfully, Washington State is more open. She only needed a doctor’s letter attesting to her gender. She’d been in therapy and under a doctor’s care for years, so that was easy. Quick move to Seattle and she was done.

A funny thing happened in the years it took to write Gina. Trans issues went from obscure prurience to the front page.

In 2011, the Boston Globe featured a young trans girl in Maine (same family as in Becoming Nicole), the identical twin of a boy. She was lucky to have parents who were more supportive. It was an incredibly moving story. Also enter Chaz Bono. Laverne Cox stole scenes all through Orange Is the New Black. Caitlyn Jenner. A freshman became the first trans man on the Harvard swim team. Janet Mock. It goes on.

You can’t open a news feed these days without seeing a story, for better or worse, about the T in LGBT. Bathroom bills. Discrimination. Murders. Trans rights are the next frontier in civil rights activism.

Writers usually (should!) have readers look at their stories before finalizing. Also called beta readers, like a computer program in beta, testing, mode. When I gave beta readers my novel, I didn’t tell them about Gina. By then, I knew she’d be controversial. I even considered removing her from the story entirely. But she played such an important part in the growth of my main character that I couldn’t see the story without her.

So I sent off the manuscript and held my breath. The thing about beta reading is that you don’t get the advantage of a back-cover blurb or an Amazon “Look Inside” feature. You read blind. That’s kind of the point. No preconceived notions.

To my relief my readers liked her, even though they admitted that if they’d known going in, they wouldn’t have. Isn’t that true in real life?

Once you get to know the “other,” they aren’t so scary.

That’s my dilemma. If you don’t know about Gina ahead of time, you’ll find your mind either opening slightly or slamming shut more tightly. But to reveal her could close off any potential for her to do good.

My fears of blowback were largely unfounded. The novel has garnered little attention overall. It received a Rainbow Award Honorable Mention and, as I write this, is a finalist for a Golden Crown Literary Society award. [Update: it won!]

In online reviews, no one who loved the story makes much mention of Gina, maybe because there’s so much else going on. But the two critical reviews (one in the U.S. and one in the UK) are entirely about her. And the number of comments and “helpfuls” give those reviews more weight than is warranted.

While the positive reactions outnumber the negative, those hurt because they so disappoint me. If they came from right-wing zealots, it would be different. These are by lesbians. People who know something about being oppressed. About fighting to be accepted for who they are, whether butch, femme, or androgynous. Yet they make blanket statements that a man cannot become a woman, that no true lesbian would have sex with a penis (apparently penis-like dildos don’t count).

So Gina’s story is out, and there’s no longer a way to read the book and be surprised along with her brother, so I’ve decided it’s OK to explain why and how she came to be.

The negative reviews will serve one purpose—now readers have no excuse for not knowing about her. If you don’t want to read a story about a woman’s growth from abusive foster care and how she works to prevent and bring to justice cases of animal abuse, but happens to find herself drawn to a trans woman who is not the main character, then by all means do not buy Wishbone.

But you will miss out. Just as those who spit on you without knowing more than you are a lesbian will miss out on expanding their narrow world view to include someone who might have a different experience but also might bring a different perspective to the problems we all face.

I didn’t write Gina to check some diversity box. I feel awkward admitting I created her at all. I am a cis, gold-star lesbian. I haven’t touched the penis of any male out of diapers. Her story is, quite frankly, not mine to tell. I can only tell the story from the viewpoint of a lesbian. That is certainly my right, but I make no claim that she speaks for all trans women.

I created her to explore my own curiosity.

Why is it so controversial to born in the wrong body? I want to be accepted as a lesbian. There are those who will argue that I chose to be a lesbian. Trust me, I did not.

How can I deny someone’s belief, assertion, fact, of being born in the wrong body? And yes, there are trans people who don’t want the attention, don’t support trans rights activism. That’s the beauty and beast of being human. We love and hate in all shapes, sizes, colors, and gender identities.

But enough of that. Let’s talk about clothing and makeup.

Maybe it’s just an itch the mainstream media insists on scratching, but every story of a trans journey seems to start with a desire to wear the clothing of the other gender. This was true of the doctor profiled by the Globe. True of Jennifer Boylan’s story. Definitely true of the depiction of Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl.

Why is that? How does one even begin to think about gender? I grew up in a culture where boys did certain things that girls “couldn’t.” It was why I never took up the trumpet. No one even had to tell me that it was an instrument for boys, not girls. This was elementary school in 1960s suburbia.

Still, I grew up a “tomboy.” I wore hand me downs from my older brothers. I climbed trees, played army. Yes, I had dolls, but I also played with my brothers’ GI Joes. Our play was not coded pink or blue. I made Batman costumes for my trolls. I didn’t balk at wearing dresses, but I preferred pants. It was largely practical.

How did I decide I was OK being a girl?

I didn’t have to.

I didn’t notice because I felt right as me.

It’s when something feels wrong that you notice. Like how I noticed I didn’t react to boys the way other girls did. Like Gina, I learned early to keep quiet about that.

Perhaps clothing is to gender what flirting is to sexuality.

The first time I put on a pair of jeans, they felt right because they were comfortable, not because I decided I was really a boy. I’ve never worn makeup and never will.

A girl or woman wearing jeans is hardly scandalous, though at one time merely wearing slacks was. To this day, however, if a man wore a dress to the office, a lot would break loose and none of it good.

In Becoming Nicole, there’s a tough scene where, after being scolded for wearing a princess costume to a party with the neighbors, Wyatt (pre-Nicole) says, “Jonas gets to wear what he wants. Why can’t I?”

The only place I’ve seen it acceptable for men to wear skirts—at least in this country—is in the unlikely place of the White Mountains. Male hut crew members often wear skirts as they hike supplies up the mountain, because, simply, skirts are more comfortable. Makes perfect sense. So why don’t more men wear skirts? That’s topic for another day.

What if, when a little boy asked to wear a dress, parents reacted the same as if a little girl insisted on wearing pants? The book makes clear that gender identity is far more hard wired than the socializing we get as kids.

There’s a sign on the door of the women’s locker room at the gym I go to that says no one of the opposite gender over the age of five can enter. I’ve read the screaming headlines warning about men dressing as women so they can go into women’s restrooms and assault women.

So I’ve thought to myself, how would I feel if I encountered a trans woman in this locker room?

I’d be willing to bet she’d be more terrified of me than I would be of her.

Wasn’t there a time when being an out lesbian could get you in trouble—fears of you assaulting straight women in the locker room or bathroom?

Can’t we have a little empathy?


Further reading:

A Family Doctor’s Journey From Man to Woman” originally appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine on August 12, 2007; part 2, “Freeing Up Deborah,” appeared the following Sunday. (subscription required)

Led by the Child Who Simply Knew,” Bella English, Boston Globe, December 11, 2011

Also a book, which I have not read (but will soon) other than the excerpt linked below. Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt, Random House, 2015. Excerpt.

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan, Broadway, 2003 (revised in 2013)

My own plug: Wishbone. Blurb and buy links here.

More on empathy:

An excellent post from Writer UnBoxed. Forget that it’s aimed at writers. Anyone can benefit from this kind of thinking.

Brené Brown on empathy (I could do whole blog posts on her topics.)

My Empathy Quotient score was 51 out of a possible 80. Test yours.

Photo via Visual Hunt



  1. Doreen Perrine · · Reply


  2. Doreen Perrine · · Reply

    Insightful, Elaine! I’m an old school cis dyke myself, still puzzling over a youthful someone’s t-shirt that read, “Gender is Over” at the Pride Parade, and am self-educating as a lifelong process. So I suppose I could use some empathy–with a generous helping of patience–too.

    1. Thanks, Doreen. It’s a journey, right?

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