The importance of transsexual/ transgender fiction

In short, the importance of trans-lit is to reflect the experience of transgender/transsexual people in a way that is accessible to those who are not. In so doing, the experience is normalised so that, when a transsexual/transgender person is encountered in the course of daily life, there already exists a level of comfort with the idea of gender fluidity or sex change for the non-trans person.

The paucity of literary fiction at the moment means that many people’s experience of the trans-community is derived from the media. The media’s treatment of the subject is usually sensationalist – “look at this man who wants to be a woman!” – and reminiscent of the Victorian freak show. By this, I do not mean that the participants in the tabloid reports or reality style shows are freaks, but the approach of the showman’s publicity is that of the exhibitionist using the basest of human instincts to drum up an audience.

The most impressive offerings are to be found in drama. Chloë Sevigny’s recent performance in Hit & Miss, Felicity Huffman’s role in Transamerica, Daniela Sea’s portrayal of Max in The L Word and Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry are notable. These pieces feature trans-characters, but also have strong storylines that make them accessible to a non-trans person. This is what is currently lacking in literary fiction.

Trans-writers find themselves in a tricky position. By writing about being trans, they fear exposure of their own nature and experience, with all the complications that can bring. But, in not writing stories that contain trans-characters, the prejudice that gives rise to their fear will never evaporate.

Currently, trans-lit exists mainly in the self-help section of the bookshop in the form of memoirs about transitioning, the market for which is probably reaching saturation point. This is where homosexual literature started, as academic texts, when Krafft-Ebing, Hirschfeld and Ellis were writing at the end of the 1800s. When homosexual literature came out of the scientific closet and became literary fiction, writers had to persuade publishers to take a chance on a work that was perceived as unlikely to sell except to a small minority. Trans-lit is in this position today; another reason that trans-writers may be reluctant to nail their colours to the trans-mast.

However, technological advances mean that the trans-writer no longer has to persuade anyone else that his/her book is worthy of publication. This makes the proliferation of literary fiction featuring trans-characters a much more realistic proposition. The length of time until there is a body of work that can be called trans-lit should be shorter and the ability of writers to promote that work to a global audience should enhance its absorption by all readers.

My publishing company, Liberation Publishing, strives to introduce the reading public to sympathetic characters who deal with gender and its fluidity. In my first novel, the genealogist-hero, Arty Shaw, is a female-to-male transsexual. Arty’s transition is not referenced until chapter four, and then only obliquely. It is confirmed for the reader in chapter six. By that stage, the reader has processed and accepted Arty as male. The fact that Arty is trans is not key to the story in any way, any more than the fact that he drives an old Dodge. The story isn’t about Arty’s sex change or his choice of car. It is just part of who he is.

By setting out to write a good mystery, I have tried to ensure that the story is enjoyable for any reader. By including an aspect of Arty’s character not often experienced or encountered in daily life, I have tried to demonstrate that being trans does not make Arty anything other than a regular guy. I hope I have succeeded.

Black Art is released on 1 November 2012.

Copyright © 2012 Liberation Publishing (

A piece discussing the problems of trans-lit: by Cheryl Morgan

A response to the problems of a genre called trans-lit: by Joy Ladin