In February of this year, my sister approached me with a secret that she’d been hiding from our family for the better part of a year. She was extremely nervous about telling me, and only decided to share it with me, even knowing that I wouldn’t pass judgement on her.
The revelation that she identified more as a man, a gay man, and still found men attractive.
This was both surprising and unsurprising. My sister had never really adhered to feminine standards, tending to shun typical girl’s activities. The girliest toy she had was a My Little Pony, back when ponies looked like horses, and a barbie doll still in the wrapping. (She hoped there’d be demand for that particular doll, racking up resell value, but that probably only applies to boy’s toys)
LGBT issues had become prevalent in media recently. Elli (formerly Thunt) of Goblins fame recently came out as transgender, which certainly explained her sudden inset of depression, causing the comic to go into a year-long hiatus. I never thought that our household would become part of that statistic. We never think it’ll affect us until it actually happens.
What worried me upon hearing the news was that I might not be as tolerant as I first thought. I’d been so used to the idea of having a sister, that having a sudden brother filling in that role was a drastic change. (Especially given how much we fought as kids) But as soon as I saw my sibling, those doubts faded away. As long as I didn’t get tangled up on gender expectations and pronouns, it was no big deal.
The main problem was that I would have to acclimate myself in referring to her as a him, and use he instead of she. It’s easier when it’s someone I haven’t been associated with for years. That, and I still feel the need to call him by the old nickname of Chant, than Adam, his chosen male name. He said that I could still call him by that old nickname, since it was gender-neutral. Though he didn’t like my usage of Sie, Zir, and other experimentative alternate gender terms, which surprised me. I have problems with the collective noun "They", since it’s using collective nouns to describe a singular. even though I have trouble with using collective nouns to describe a single person. Saying “They did it!” while pointing to a crowd can be extremely confusing.
This common complaint was something recently pointed out in Robot Hugs, who is also Trans. The author has posted honest personal accounts, and devoted their artwork and stories to feminist causes. The title sounds like it comes from the main character having their feelings invalidated to the point of feeling like a robot. The actual truth is something different.
What surprised me was finding out that Transgender people routinely change their names, feeling that their old name causes physical pain. That it was on par with being called the N-word or having a pebble in your shoe. I had no idea that there was so much stigma attached.
One thing I worried about calling my sibling by his new name was saying his old name before remembering, thereby calling him "Chadm". It's one thing if the new name is close to the old name (Joe/Josephine, Karl/Caroline) but such a radical change takes some getting used to, even with repeat practice. Though, upon first learning about his preferred name, I naturally replied, “It’s like I don’t know you from Adam.”
And there was the subject of what their child was going to call him. I approached several suggestions, ranging from a planned (but never developed) story idea involving a girl who had two mommies, and would shy away when they kissed, because that was “mushy”, and call them Mother and Mum. But my sibling objected on being called “Father”, since that sounded too formal. I went through the range of early baby sounds, of Ba, Da, and Ma, rejecting Muda for being too memeable, and suggesting Dumas, in praise of Alexander Dumas.
Only recently did they finally reveal my sibling’s change to their child, and the mother would be called Papa, and the father would be Daddy. The child’s response was, “Is Daddy going to be a girl?”
My Brother-in-Law, has been remarkably supportive of his decision, even though it can’t be easy on their sex lives. The common refrain in getting married is that “You won’t be losing a daughter, you’ll be gaining a son”. In the same token that he wouldn’t be losing a wife, he’d be gaining a husband. But I don’t WANT a brother - I want a sister! And I’m sure “Daddy” feels the same way.
It’s kind of like the inversion of DAR! - a Super Secret Lesbian Diary, where the autobiographer identified herself as lesbian, then wound up marrying a man anyways.
In a way, I can kind of understand why he doesn’t want to be a woman, even if I don’t identify with the reasons for doing so. There’s so much maintenance involved. The constant application of makeup, choosing the right kind of clothes, beautifying oneself just to meet an impossibly expected standard. And keeping that up on a daily basis is too much trouble. So much time can be saved without having to care about looks.
On the plus side, it’s given me the excuse to introduce him to two genres that I’ve been obsessed with that deal with gender - the indie game Undertale, featuring a gender-neutral protagonist, and the cartoon Steven Universe, the show about Gay Space Rocks, NOT to be confused with Land of the Lustrous, the Anime about Gay Space Rocks. (LotL also has the cardinal sin of having the majority of Space Rocks have similar body types, which makes telling them apart difficult.)
When it comes to portraying boys who want to retain girlish quantities, well, there are far more accounts of those in number. But when it comes to showing women who want to be men, that figure drops dramatically. Sure, there are instances where females have disguised themselves to enter male-dominated territory, but I can’t think of any where they actually wanted to be a man in the process.
There’s an excellent comic about how it’s fine for girls to like boy things, but distasteful for boys to like girl things.
It's easy for me to identify with women, but it's far harder for me to identify with Gender Dysphoria. I’ve tried to read several autobiographies surrounding the issue, but my mind start wandering. The closest I came to was skimming through Trans Mission: My Quest to a Beard by Alex Bertie, which had the benefit of having pages filled with enlarged text. Despite getting into people’s heads and reading their innermost thoughts, I could never really relate. But I greatly identified with Being Ace, a memoir comic about being Asexual. Probably because the concept of being bewildered by the overwhelming daily barrage of sexuality greatly appealed to me.
The irony was that I oftentimes took out books dealing with gender identity without realizing my sibling's internal dilemma. One of which was Super Late Bloomer. In fact, I only lent that to him because I wasn’t too enamoured with the other gender identity comic books on the subject. But now that I know about his condition, I felt the need to show him the books I once thought wouldn’t be appealing. If there’s one thing I take pride in, it’s finding comics relating to any subject, no matter how obscure.
Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition by Julia Kaye - These comics were first available online in gag-a-day diary form and then collected later. A simple three-panel Newspaper daily comic and the most approachable introduction of someone getting acclimated into the new world of transitioning.
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe - a recent publication I pre-ordered as a birthday present, featuring the gradual mental process of a young child raised by hippie parents trying to figure themselves out. It’s probably the closest thing that relates to my sibling’s experiences growing up. A sample can be seen here:
Appelez Moi Nathan (Call me Nathan) by Catherine Castro and Quentin Zuttion - a French book that I found by sheer chance, and features a lesbian teen who grows increasingly upset about the obtrusiveness of hir breasts, and wonders how everybody else can possibly be fine with them. What most struck me were two symbolic NSFW double-page spreads, one where the protagonist is overwhelmed, drowning in a sea of breasts, and the other where sie has the mental image of tearing hir own breasts off, just to feel relief. It manages to say a lot with very little. There are large blank spaces surrounding the watercolour pictures, but there’s an intensity of emotion within these drawings not seen elsewhere. I sincerely hope this gets translated sometime soon.
Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash - I wasn’t expecting much with the silhouette cover and simplistic childish drawings, but the authentic scenarios and convincing dialogue drew me in, and I leisurely absorbed it, not wanting the experience to end. And once I finished the personal outing, I reread it again, which is something I rarely do for books that demand slow reading. The closest this comes to trans issues is when the titular character becomes more confident after imagining herself as one of the Backstreet Boys.
Gumballs by Erin Nations - I didn't know what I was getting into, and the subject came as a complete surprise. I mostly skipped over the single-page character profiles.
Part of It by Ariel Schrag - a collection of short comics throughout various ages of Ariel’s life. I particularly liked the ones about her gossiping on the bus, and her time spent teaching children. The longest story involves her dilemma over a pair of glasses. This mainly deals with Lesbian subtext, and the author has gotten in some trouble about a novel of hers. More details at the end of this post.(*)
Interestingly enough, both Gumballs and Part of It make a passing reference to Stand by Me, saying it was extremely influential during their formative years. It could be a coincidence, but maybe it’s because there are very few emotionally honest movies about boys.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang - a parable about a Prince who wants to wear dresses, and his personal Dressmaker who willingly obliges to his request. Despite the lush drawings, I thought my sibling wouldn’t like it, but he excused the ending, saying that it was a Fairy Tale.
Family Portraits - an online collaboration effort between multiple LGBT artists, sharing their personal experiences. Also ne of the few instances of a girl transitioning into a man, and something I thought would be presumably relatable, but wound up being pretty forgettable.
Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch - done by Molly Ostertag, the same artist of Strong Female Protagonist, but I wish the writing was better. I wasn’t a big fan of the constant put-downs of the titular boy for wanting to delve into the “forbidden” realm of magic only solely restricted to women, despite having the soul of one.
Flocks by L. Nichols - an autobiographical comic where the lead is presented in the body of a Puppet with button eyes. Apart from that odd dissonance, this book suffers from being extremely repetitive. The puppet in question is constantly beset by disturbingly hateful comments from the Church, feels bad, and cries all the time, feeling extremely confused. This goes on for pages and pages.
First Year Out: A Transition Story by Sabrina Symington
This was one of the first Trans comics I read, and I wasn’t a big fan, because I felt the dialogue felt stilted and artificial. I felt that it could've been done better. It might work fine as an introductory issue, but not much else. I gravitate more towards works that contain multiple topics of interests with trans issues being just one of the subjects
It’s the same problem I had with Bingo Love, a romance between two Christian girls rediscovering each other years later. The artwork was well done, but the narrative felt extremely wooden and the exposition was clunky. I Wanted to like it, but the execution fell far away from my expectations.
It’s as if these Trans people, given the chance to express their experience in a meaningful way, find themselves unable to articulate themselves so, their self-esteem having been ground into the dirt. As if their self-esteem was tied in with being misgendered for so long. As if they’re too timid to fully broach the subject that they’re extremely close to, offering up insecure platitudes that don’t feel honest about the personal issue. It’s a shame, because they’re the ones most closely associated with the subject, and can give honest insight that wouldn’t be available elsewhere.
For the most part, when it came to alternate comic representation of gender norms, you couldn’t do better than Manga, the gateway drug being Ranma ½. There were other notable titles such as Futaba-Kun Change!, Your & My Secret (Released by ADV, then picked up by Tokyopop, and annoyingly enough, the last volume was never released), Genshiken II, and, the Moto Hagio story X+Y in A’A Prime.
Yet for their willingness to explore gender-bender stuff, it hasn’t always knocked my socks off:
My Wife is a Man - Something I thought would be relevant to my sibling, featuring a man dressing up as a woman, and her husband still loving her all the same. Instead, the two of them were gay lovers before, and Yuki only transitioned into dressing up as a woman later. And rather insultingly, the wife acts too stereotypically female. Yuki has no other identifiable traits.
Wandering Son - one thing that particularly bugs me about Fantagraphic’s version is that they constantly divide the title from the page it shows on, leaving large singular textless pages. Another fault (that the artist admitted) is that many of the characters are hard to tell apart. And the sparse minimalist dialogue doesn’t help much. Also, the English publication has stopped at the 8th volume since 2015.
My Brother’s Husband - has a brother dealing with his Gay twin dying suddenly, and having to deal with his foreign husband who's Canadian to boot (given the artist’s propensity towards bear men). The Manga does a good job of showing the living brother's discomfort, and trying to overcome personal biases. But it feels like fluff in parts, and I felt the second half never really delved into the mental conflicts, and only skirted the issues.
Too often, I become alienated when the stories I read devote their time in taking the subject matter too seriously. I find that comedy works well as a coping and identifying tool when used appropriately. Such is the case when it came to titles such as Magical Girl Boy. It might not strictly apply, since like Ranma, the titular character doesn’t enjoy changing genders.
I also highly recommend the webcomic Never Satisfied, with a trans lead, and characters who respect xheir decision.
During the serialization of the last chapter, I was obsessively reading past pages over and over, delving their content for potential clues as to what could possibly happen next. Sure, you can read what happened now in one sitting, but waiting for the next page was exquisite torture.
I much more prefer it when transitioning or awakening sexual identity as ONE of multiple background elements, such as the Lesbian plot in Jason Lute’s Berlin, or the Reeducation Camp in the 9th issue of the survival comic, No Mercy.
In the time that I recommended Ariel Schrag's comic, I later found about her novel, Adam, a problematic book that was made into a problematic movie. It seems counter-intuitive that someone who wrote about growing up as a closet Lesbian that she would have a teenage boy pretending to be transgender to get into a Lesbian's pants.
It's a shame that someone who wrote so honestly about her own experiences simply wasn't able to get into the mindset of someone else different from her. Better she should've stuck with what she knew, rather than pigeonhole Bisexual and Trans issues in a RomCom setting.
Although the LGBTQA community is supposed to rally everyone under a single banner, there's a lot of discrimination among those ranks. Gender confusion should be common grounds, and yet, some groups condemn others for "infringing on their property." In the comments, it was pointed out that:
"Bisexuals are unfairly outed for being unfaithful and not "sticking to one side".
"Lesbians can be passionately transphobic and biphobic if they see the existence of those other groups as a threat to the legitimacy of their identity."
"I'm still trying to figure out how this resulted from a lesbian writer and a trans director. It's like if a black guy made Birth of a Nation (the first one)."
"There are some lesbians who have an 'I got mine, F you' attitude towards the rest of the LGBT+ community. I suspect that Schrag is one of them."Despite the problematic elements of Ariel Schrag's novel, I still felt the need to include her comic it if only to show the similarities in taste of Stand by Me. Her earlier work, Likewise, is leaden with dense Cerebus-style text crowding the pages. In other words, DON'T support Adam, but at least check out Part of It. Support the works that are deemed worthy.