It has been a long time since I posted last. In light of recent policies of exclusion regarding transgender Americans, I think it’s time I publish a response I drafted recently about my third book.
I will reply openly rather than sharing your original post, because I do not wish any backlash to befall you, and because I feel your concerns were both earnestly heartfelt and important to address.
Yours was a very kind note and I am so happy you enjoyed my books and even more happy that you read them with your grandson in a book club. I admire and applaud you for being involved in your grandson’s life. Modeling engaged, enthusiastic literacy is beautiful.
Your note came to a point when you expressed disappointment that I had chosen to include a small role for a woman of color who happened to be transgender. You expressed concern that seeing a trans character would cause gender dysphoria in young readers. The character was one of many that my main characters took under their protection while defending the city from monsters. Her monsters happened to be human.
“The hate/fear attack would be just as realistic and actually a more likely occurrence if Lydia Lee was simply a real female…” you wrote.
What you mean, of course, is that a lesson about not hating and fearing people would be more realistic if Lydia Lee were “cisgender.” (The word “real” implies that trans women don’t exist). And you are right in that there ARE more cisgender women than transgender woman by far. It IS statistically far more likely to come across a cis woman than a trans woman. You’re right that lessons about abused cis women would strike a real chord, as would lessons about abused women of color. You’re right that children ARE ready and able to learn that women of color are sometimes victims of terrible bigotry, and you seem to agree with me that it is appropriate to teach young minds to stand up for them. You seem to agree that that inclusion has value. What we include in literature affects students.
But your letter expressed the clear wish that she had not been transgender, too. What that tells me is that you are concerned about a society that stigmatizes women and people of color—but not about a society that stigmatizes transgendered people. What we avoid in literature affects students, too.
82% of transgender youth report feeling unsafe at school. They are real. Yes, there are more cis women than transgender women—but that’s just the point. Minorities are marginalized. Trans kids are subjected to horrible abuse on a daily basis, and that abuse is legitimized by authories who stigmatize their identity. When TV shows or novels include a trans character—simply acknowledging that they exist—those writers are often accused of pushing a political agenda. The very existence of this minority offends. So what do those students internalize? What do their bullies internalize?
As a teacher of young adults, I have had several transgender students in my classes. In my first year, I witnessed firsthand as a pair of bullies walked past one of my students and, to their face, vomited a litany of transphobic slurs. I was shaking. It was awful and ugly and dehumanizing. I caught up with the bullies and laid into them with absolute certainty that their hate speech was not welcome, and if I ever saw it again I would personally pursue their expulsion.
Then I caught up with my trans student and asked if they were okay.
“Yeah. I’m okay. That was nothing. I went through a lot worse at my old school.”
The response bespoke enormous fortitude, but also turned over a rock and revealed to me an infestation of ugliness that I had not realized was part of my community. That student later shared with me that at their old school, school staff had never done anything to protect them. A few teachers had even suggested that they brought it on themselves, provoking bullies by dressing that way.
That is reality for many trans young adults. It may be why I have had trans readers tell me that they were reduced to tears upon reading that same scene you wish I had not included, because it was the first time they had ever seen a cis character defend a trans character in popular lit.
Society as a whole rejects misogyny. It rejects racism. As my trans students know, however, society as a whole does not reject hatred toward LGBTQ individuals, least of all transphobia. Society often hates them just for existing. But they exist. They are real.
That may be why LGBTQ students—unsupported, undefended, and hated by much of their own society—are eight times more likely to attempt suicide. Sadly, I have firsthand experience with that, as well. One of my amazing, vivacious trans students made an attempt a couple years ago. Thankfully they survived. When they returned, their friends flooded them with love and support, and I personally hugged them and told them how happy I was that they were back. They graduated this year. I am so proud of them and of my community for showing them they matter—even if it was almost too late. I will never stop worrying about the world I send them off into next.
That’s why I am proud to include Lydia Lee in my cast of characters. She is strong and proud and brave, and she is an excellent female role model for my leading lady. She is fictional, but what she represents is very real.
Reading teaches empathy. Your grandson will be a better person thanks to all the books you have shared with him, and thanks to your own caring example. I am so happy that you selected my books among the many that will shape his outlook on the world, and I am all the happier with my decision to include Miss Lee.
I am confident that having a trans character in the same universe as your grandson has not caused him great emotional distress. I hope that, in some small way, reading about Miss Lee helped him feel more confident being himself and more comfortable respecting the diversity he will encounter in the world he is inheriting from us.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for writing. Keep raising a thoughtful, literate, empathetic young man. The world he is entering will need him at his very best.