May 24, 2016
by Evelyn Deshane
Romance novels have received a bad reputation over the years. In spite of being one of the most popular and best-selling genres, romance is repeatedly ignored and often mocked by critics and readers alike for being predictable, uncreative, and lacking critical insight. Most romance scholars chalk up this dismissal to the fact that romance is one of the largest industries produced and consumed by women. Viewing romance as frivolous or simple ends up being yet another way in which misogyny is expressed in contemporary culture. Because women are the leading writers, editors, and producers in romance, their work is frequently dismissed by literary critics and most writers outside of the genre, along with a bevy of readers.
One of the strongest components of the romance tradition—and a frequent source of derision among critics due to its formulaic structure—is the happy ending. According to Janice Radway in Reading The Romance, the happy ending as understood in the context of patriarchy serves as a coping mechanism for readers who feel constrained by oppressive social forces. Romance readers are permitted to explore new worlds, read about people like them, and are given a happy ending that is often lacking in “real life.” These readers also form communities where they can meet and talk to others. Romance novels aren’t just a frivolous pastime—they have produced a strong community that has grown more diverse in recent years.
Thanks to the advent of digital book platforms and other technological advances in the publishing world, the niche romance market for LGBTQ stories has grown considerably. In the same way that women picked up a romance novel to give themselves a way to imagine a better, happier future, queer people have turned to their pens, computers, and other publishing platforms to imagine a happier ending for themselves.
One of the most recent additions to the LGBTQ publishing world has been the influx of transgender romances. Most romance novels focus on a relationship between two people, and within most transgender romance novels at least one member of the couple is trans. They might be a trans man, trans woman, genderqueer person, or nonbinary person and identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer, asexual, or heterosexual—but they are, importantly, not cisgender. Since the romance genre (and most of the publishing world) still overwhelmingly tells the stories of cisgender relationships, these stories about transgender characters falling in love and living happily ever after are complete game changers—in more ways than one.
J.K. Pendragon is a genderqueer romance writer from British Columbia, Canada, who posts photos of their cats, their new home, and their nails on their Instagram account. In 2014, Pendragon released To Summon Nightmares, which went onto win the Rainbow Award for Transgender Fiction. Cohen, the protagonist, is a YouTube star who has moved to a country house to complete his new book after coming out as a trans man. Cohen soon meets Niall, and together they learn how to defeat a curse while also falling in love. Pendragon has written several other transgender romances for Less Than Three Press, an LGBTQ publisher based in North Carolina, including Witch, Cat, and Cobb and Double Take, a short story which uses non-binary pronouns (xe, xem) to tell the protagonist, Teka’s, story. Less Than Three Press also features other trans romance writers like Alex Powell, Francis Gideon, Cecil Wilde, and E. E. Ottoman, in addition to publishing transgender romances across numerous sub-genres like the paranormal Selume Proferre and urban fantasy Bloodguilty. Riptide Publishing and Harmony Ink (a subsidiary of Dreamspinner, one of the most popular gay romance presses) also seem to understand the growing demand for books that have transgender protagonists and end happily.
These up-and-coming writers who depict trans characters in the romance genre are fundamentally challenging the normative transgender narrative, which has undergone revision in the past few years due to the mainstream media’s recent coverage of what Time Magazine called “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Although there has been a recent influx of trans characters into mainstream film and television (for example, Transparent and The Danish Girl), the narratives still use clichés and tropes to tell rather depressing stories, where it is overwhelmingly assumed that:
- All transgender people want surgery.
- The transgender person’s identity is the main source of conflict.
Although there are many damaging and overused tropes employed by popular media, these two are critical to understand because they misinform cis audiences on the complex lived realities of trans folks. They grant cis people permission to become preoccupied with or inquire about “the surgery,” or become the sole reason trans people are deemed “brave.” Within these tropes there’s an implicit understanding that if someone is trans, their genitals will become a topic of conversation and that their very trans-ness puts them at risk. For example, the conflict in the Emmy-award winning Transparent is centred around how Maura’s transition troubles her relationship with her family. If trans identity is not employed as a source of contention or conflict, it is often used as a tragic mechanism; many transgender characters in TV and film ending up dead by the end of narrative, such as Lili Elbe, portrayed by cis actor Eddie Redmayne, in The Danish Girl or real life transgender man Brandon Teena, portrayed by cis actor Hilary Swank, in Boys Don’t Cry. These films and television shows impact the perceptions of those who watch them. It can be difficult to imagine a future for yourself as a trans person when every trans character is dead by the end of the film, or is treated as a problem by those closest to them.
The structure of the normative transgender narrative has been greatly influenced by the medical institution’s surgery process, which requires all transgender people to provide a reason for transitioning and demonstration of gender dysphoria. In North America, for instance, in order to obtain gender confirmation surgery, a trans person must tell a “gender story” to their doctor, therapist, and family members. After surgery, some trans people later re-tell this narrative in the form of an autobiography. Christine Jorgensen’s A Personal Autobiography (1967) is the most well-known example of this transgender “tell-all” book, but other transgender writers like Janet Mock, Kate Bornstein, and Chaz Bono have also written autobiographies to tell their stories and discuss larger social issues about being transgender. Some trans teens and adults have turned to YouTube and other blogging platforms to achieve similar goals of sharing their journeys and raising awareness. These gender stories usually begin and end in a similar way: it starts in childhood, where the first instance of “difference” is noticed, goes on to discuss growing up and feeling out of place, and then documents the success of surgery.
Then it must end.
As a genre, the transgender autobiography doesn’t go beyond surgery, because that’s where medical intervention ends. Since it was the medical institution that declared the “gender story” necessary in the first place, the audience disappears, and with them, trans visibility. When there is no example of a life beyond surgery, transgender and non-binary people who can’t, won’t, or refuse to have surgery are left with no representation of what comes next. By constructing transgender characters whose only desire seems to be surgery, it robs their inner lives and their social relationships of complexity and meaning. It takes away their happy endings.
This problematic representation in popular media affects queer writers who go on to pen their own stories. As J.K. Pendragon reflects about their own writing in a post for the website Queer Romance Month,
So where do I go from here? I’ve written my sad stories about internalized homophobia and un-accepting families, and crippling dysphoria. And in my personal life I’ve lived it, I’ve dealt with it, I’ve moved on. Because that’s the other thing the media gets wrong. Yes, most queer people have to live with things like homophobia and dysphoria our whole lives. But we get used to it. We have lives outside of it. We go off and have adventures, and sometimes we go days without even thinking about our queerness.
Pendragon isolates the difference between the drama that makes fictional stories interesting and the type of drama that consistently and continually uses transgender identity and queer experience as a plot device. The queer and trans audience already knows that they’ll suffer from homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and other intersecting systems of oppression. “We get used to it,” Pendragon states, and it’s precisely this “gett[ing] used to it” that’s what is, depressingly, one of the problems with cultural media like The Danish Girl and Transparent. They’re not saying anything new for trans people; effectively, these TV shows and films use trans plight as an entertainment tool for cis audiences.
The adventures Pendragon hints at in their Queer Romance Month post are active reimaginings of the default queer narrative that so often ends in tragedy. Romance becomes a genre in which queer lives can be reconfigured as happy (or even mundane in their normalcy) by flipping the typical tragedy narrative. LGBTQ romance novels allow their protagonists to go out and have fun, enjoy an adventure or two, and then live happily ever after—emphasis on live. Even the more ambiguous “happily for now” ending can be seen as revolutionary. Love and loving queerly and/or as trans isn’t punished—it’s rewarded.
Constructing a romance story for trans characters also acknowledges that there is life beyond or outside of surgery. By allowing love to bloom, these stories also effectively challenge the idea that a transgender person’s identity is fundamentally a conflict to resolve. Though some transgender romance novels still depict transgender identity as a “problem” and source of miscommunication in the story, many trans romances allow for the characters’ transgender identity to be incidental. Trans-ness informs the character’s lives, but it does not rule them.
When reflecting on the romance community as a whole, one that is still predominantly cisgender, Pendragon notes how important it is for cis writers to write trans characters beyond their dysphoria, surgery, or the outside world’s transphobia:
Yes, it’s important for privileged people to understand the struggle of minorities. But it’s also important for them to see us living our lives and having experiences like any other human being. Stories like that are so important because they show minorities as human. They challenge the idea that being straight and cis and white is the default. They represent the world in a more accurate, colourful and beautiful way. And they make all the difference in the lives of young people struggling to accept themselves and feel like they belong. That’s something that I’m thrilled and excited to be a part of.
The transgender narrative is still growing and changing, and with it, so do representations of what it means to be transgender and what a transgender life will look like. The role of LGBTQ romance novels in this process shouldn’t be undervalued. For the transgender authors writing them, and the transgender audience reading them, these stories provide a chance to see futures too often denied representation.
Evelyn Deshane has appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, The Rusty Toque, Hoax Zine, and the forthcoming Tesseracts 19: Superhero Universe. In 2015, The Steel Chisel released Mythology, a poetry chapbook containing Evelyn’s speculative poetry. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and currently studying for a PhD at Waterloo University. Visit evedeshane.wordpress.com for more information about collaborations, publications, and upcoming events.
Image by Meags Fitzgerald
“Happily for Now: The Future of Trans Romance” is from our FUTURES issue (spring 2016)