Why I Write Romance with Trans and Nonbinary Characters

It’s Trans Day of Visibility, which always means your favorite celebrities and politicians will be posting on social media about how they love and support trans people for today. Tomorrow it’ll mostly be forgotten. Yeah, I’m cynical. As the trans rights movement has moved to the foreground of US LGBTQ politics in recent years, anti-trans sentiment and legislation has ramped up. The president of the United States says trans people are “made in the image of God” while drag shows are being banned around the nation under the misguided notion that they “groom” children into non-normative sexual behaviors and gender identities. This week, my mentor wrote a heartfelt post on Facebook about how ze has been unable to secure a doctor’s permission and insurance commitment for top surgery, despite being one of the most instrumental trans and intersex intellectuals of our time who has lived zis gender for decades. This is historically how culture works: the peak is often coincides with the rock bottom. That would be a fascinating subject of study if it didn’t mean, in this case, people actually dying, not being able to access health care, not being allowed to go to the bathroom, and suffering greater mental health crises.

So, instead of just tweeting out my love and support for all trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, I want to take a few minutes to reflect on what I’m actually doing as a writer to try to improve the very terrifying moment we find ourselves in.

People often ask me why I write romance with trans, nonbinary, and intersex characters, since it doesn’t have the same mass market appeal that cis male/male and sapphic romance does. I also get asked what my personal stake is. Am I trans or intersex? If I am, why don’t I talk about how I’m writing #ownvoices? Or if I’m not, what right do I have to tell someone else’s story? (That answer is complicated, something I’ve talked about a few times on this blog.) And why do I write such heavy stuff? People read romance for fun.

I write romance with trans, nonbinary, and intersex characters because there isn’t even romance about and for trans, nonbinary, and intersex people. That’s answer one.

Answer two is that I write those characters so cis and gender-conforming people can have the chance to see from someone else’s perspective along the way. That’s answer two.

Answer three is more complicated. Yes, romance is a fantasy. It promises us everything will always end happy, when real life doesn’t have a finite resolution. And because my stories have HFNs, I see that as a deeply politically act. When the world finds ways to reiterate over and over to trans people that they are not human, are second-class citizens, or don’t matter, how powerful is it to write a story in which trans people consistently find happiness? Isn’t that an amazing fantasy? It makes me wonder why there isn’t more trans romance!

But to write that effectively, I feel I would be negligent to ignore real struggles, so my books often engage deeply with issues of coming out, passing, social acceptance, transitioning, and deadnaming. For some readers, this might take away from the fantasy, but I like books to engage with the issues we face and then show me a fantasy of overcoming them, more than I like books that just ignore problems. Anyone who has ever had a stranger do the awkward double take – just trying to figure out what you are… – knows how this shapes every social interaction, and it doesn’t seem plausible not to put that in a book. So I do – but I let my heroes win the day. I think that’s pretty cool.

The Holiday Detour

In my debut novel, Charlie was first rejected by their family for coming out as queer. They came to accept seeing Charlie in a relationship with a woman (when Charlie was presenting as female), but they can’t make the leap to accepting Charlie as nonbinary. This fracture has driven Charlie to live away from the family and barely keep contact, and it takes the whirlwind of Christmas for the family to come back together.

Start reading it now

The Queen Has a Cold

My second novel is a royal romance with a nonbinary intersex hero. Remy, the heir to the throne, has been subject to medical interventions and finally cast away from home because their body didn’t conform to social expectations for a princess. Now an adult, Remy takes their body and identity into their own hands: going to an intersex specialist and learning about all the ways their body is actually just fine as nature made it and refusing to accept the queen’s decision that they should have genital surgery. While the subject matter in the book is tough, I love the ending in which the entire kingdom comes together to celebrate Remy just as Remy is.

A portion of all royalties goes to the Houston Intersex Society to support advocacy for intersex people.

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The Haunted Heart

My most recent book, in which two cis women fall in love while trying to eradicate a ghost from an apartment, doesn’t have a main character who is trans or nonbinary, but one of the women’s friends is a nonbinary yoga instructor. The crux of the book is about queer history, how a group of women in the 1980s refused to conform to gender norms and social expectations about marriage and child-rearing. That defiance, I think, is part of the same spirit that drives today’s trans rights movement. What does it mean when society thinks you’re a freak? What happens when society thinks something that is natural to you, something that is an essential part of who you are, is a choice that you should refuse to make? How do negotiate relationships with friends and family under those conditions?

In the case of Barb, my ghost, you do it with humor because that’s the most effective weapon sometimes.

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Romance is not disposal. It’s not trash literature. It’s not innocuous, fluffy reading. It’s powerful. And when I look at my writing career, I want to be able to say that I was using my words as activism. That’s why this website says “romance for social change.”

Love to all my trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming friends, who deserve so much more than this world often gives you.

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