In the early stages of writing The Art of Being Normal, I asked a group of young transgender people if they felt fairly represented in the arts and media. Their answer was a resounding ‘No!’ When I was younger, I loved stories about magic creatures and far-off lands, but every so often all I wanted to do was read a book about someone like me. These teenagers didn’t feel they had that option.
That’s not to say there aren’t books featuring transgender characters out there. There is Luna by Julie Ann Peters, Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect and Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde, but none are from the point of view of the trans person. They are also all by US authors. This is not a complaint, but I have been struck by the lack of British YA books featuring trans characters.
The Art of Being Normal was inspired by the time I spent working at the Gender Identity Development Service with under-18s who were struggling with their gender identity. From observing group therapy sessions, I quickly realised there was no such thing as a universal teen trans experience. Although the participants shared a deep unhappiness with their biological gender, they were clear that it didn’t define who they were as people. It would be incredible to get to a point where trans characters can feature in a book without their gender identity being referenced. Sadly, I suspect we’re not quite there yet. A 2008 study revealed 79% of trans people in the EU have been victims of transphobic abuse—verbal, physical or sexual violence—in public. The majority of young people I met had experienced some form of bullying or harassment. All agreed that increased visibility of trans characters could challenge existing prejudices and, in doing so, start changing perceptions.
The gender spectrum is wide, with an ever-expanding vocabulary, and we need books that acknowledge and reflect this. A heightened presence of trans, gender-queer and gender-ambiguous characters in YA literature will not only better reflect modern society; it will increase the likelihood of a young person who doesn’t identify with traditional gender labels walking into a bookshop or library, and picking up a book in which they can finally see themselves.
Lisa Williamson is the author of The Art of Being Normal (David Fickling Books, January)