Something big happened in Lumberjanes Issue #17 today. Jo, one of the central characters — a girl of color with two dads, a girl who’s a kid genius, April’s bff, a deeply loyal but also sometimes insecure friend and an expert on what it means to be a Lumberjane — talked about how she’s also a trans girl. Let me say that again: one of the five main characters of a best-selling all-ages comic book that sold over 65,000 copies of its first trade in two months talked to one of her friends about being transgender on the page of the latest issue.
Back when I was a kid, we used to go to the library together as a family all the time. When I was around eleven years old, I started noticing the comic book/graphic novel section. Of course, I had been watching Batman the Animated Series and The Adventures of Superman, so when I went upstairs and found a section full of books of these heroes, my whole world changed.
My world changed even more when I realized that there were a good number of these books about women and girls. You see, when I was young I was desperate, and I mean desperate, to find ways that I could like the things I liked without people questioning my gender or sexuality. I could sit and read comics featuring Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Storm, Kitty Pryde and all my other favorites all day long. Since these were comic books, they were still very OK for a “boy” like me to read. So that’s what I would do. I would check out any comic book from the library that had awesome female characters. Or, if it still seemed too girly, even for a comic book, I would just read it there, a little afraid that if I brought it home, that might set off some alarms. But if I was just reading it there, nobody would think it was weird.
Right now, I’m imagining finding Lumberjanes at my local library. I’m imagining seeing this awesome, funny, beautifully illustrated, action-packed comic that I know eleven-year-old me would have flipped out over. I’m imagining waiting for the library to get each trade paperback in. Then, one day, they would get the book that has issue #17, and when I got to the page where Jo talks about how Barney reminds her of a younger version of herself, and how, no matter what other people thought, she was always meant to be a Lumberjane and never a Scouting Lad and I would have completely freaked out. I would have seen my thoughts written there on the page. “How do they know?” I would have thought, “how do they know what’s going on in my head?” My world would have started spinning around me, I would have got anime eyes the size of the moon; my heart would have pounded straight out of my chest. I would have started crying right there in the library until either my parents or some confused librarian came and found me there smiling with tears streaming down my cheeks.
I would have, from that moment, become obsessed with Jo. I would have seen someone like me who actually was living the kind of life that I dreamed of living. Honestly, I had zero idea that it was even possible to be trans when I was that age. I thought I just had these messed up thoughts and feelings that I would be stuck with for the rest of my life. But if I had seen Jo, I would have realized that I didn’t have to be sad anymore. I didn’t have to wish every day that I would die. I didn’t have to always feel uncomfortable about how I saw myself or how other people saw me.
This comic would have saved my life. Now, obviously, I’m still alive and I eventually came out. But just thinking that if I had seen Jo in this comic I could have had teenage years and a college experience that wasn’t defined by dysphoria, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. I know that there are other trans girls out there who are currently like I was. Now they’re going to see Jo and they’re going to learn it’s okay to be themselves.
That’s the thing about queer representation in all-ages media; it gives kids an opportunity to see themselves in ways that they’ve maybe never been able to see themselves before. It lets them know that they can be the hero, they can get the girl, they can be who they really are. That’s why it’s so vitally important. As co-writer Noelle Stevenson told me, having Jo be trans helps trans readers “to know that this is just one more way to be normal, and that you can be the protagonist and you can be loved while being yourself.” Lumberjanes co-creator and current co-writer Shannon Watters similarly told me that she sees the series as aspirational, especially for young readers.
Lumberjanes is the ideal, right? We write Lumberjanes like it’s somewhere we wish existed, all while hoping that maybe the mere fact of its existence in fiction might make it easier and better for some humans who live in the real world… We wanted this moment of Jo’s to be portrayed honestly and truthfully and positively, and to perhaps make the journey in this scary real world of ours slightly easier for a young person going through it there right now. Jo is someone with a loving family, a rock-solid best friend, and a group of close pals who are there for her no matter what. She is a Lumberjane. And I hope that seeing one’s self in her makes it slightly easier for someone out there to be okay with themselves and the scarier parts of being a queer kid.
One of the reasons many trans girls feel so hopeless is that they don’t see any examples of happy or successful trans girls and women. And then here’s Jo. Like Watters said, she’s surrounded by a brilliantly amazing, supportive and loving group of friends who don’t hold her at a distance because she’s trans. She’s completely accepted and supported for who she is. She’s going to give readers a chance to see a happy future for themselves, possibly for the first time.
Some kids, like me when I was younger, don’t even realize being trans a thing that’s allowed, or even possible. If you’ve never seen it happen before, why should you believe you can do it? Stevenson told me that she hopes “this book can be a safe space for everyone, even if you don’t necessarily have one in real life. And to know that Lumberjanes has its doors wide open to every hardcore ladytype, whatever that means to you.” That’s exactly how I felt when I read this issue.
I can list off more than a dozen examples of cartoons and books and other things aimed at kids that I saw when I was eleven that had boys who dressed up like girls, or boys who magically turned into girls, or boys who switched bodies with girls. But every single one of those examples was played off as a joke. Or, worse, played off as something terrible or deceptive or even creepy. I had zero, exactly zero, examples of positive trans representation in all-ages-media when I was a kid. I couldn’t look anywhere and see kids who were like me. Thanks to Jo and the Lumberjanes team, eleven-year-old trans girls no longer have to say that.
How great is it going to be when 6th grade girls pick up issues of Lumberjanes and think for the first time, “I can have a cool haircut like Mal? I can be the hero of my own adventures? I don’t have to fit into one, narrow box? I can be strong like April? I can like science and math like Jo? I can HAVE A CRUSH ON A GIRL?” Or kids realizing they can be like Barney! And little closeted trans girls realizing they can be like Jo! And then those kids realizing that they can be and do all those things and still have a supporting and loving group of friends! That’s maybe my favorite thought in the world right now.
Since I first learned about Jo being trans, I do have to admit that representation has gotten a little better. Nomi was great on Sense8, Cole made a few more appearances on The Fosters, Jazz Jennings has her own TLC reality show, and of course, Caitlyn Jenner came out and got a show of her own. Still though, I don’t think any of that will have the same kind of direct effect on young trans girls that Lumberjanes will. Neither The Fosters, nor I am Jazz, nor especially anything Caitlyn Jenner does is specifically and explicitly aimed at kids and more specifically empowering said kids in the way that Lumberjanes is. When we see Jo, and we see her being embraced by her friends who have no doubt that she’s a girl, that she belongs with them and that she fits in, we’re seeing something radical.
Additionally, even when we’re seeing more and more representation for trans women, a lot of isn’t so great. You just have to look at Charlotte DiLaurentis from Pretty Little Liars, transmisogynistic jokes in nearly every comedy to come out this summer and continued jokes about Caitlyn Jenner. We still have a long, long way to go before trans people can look to the media and see themselves represented in a positive way. This is especially true for trans girls and women of color. So what makes this even more great is that Jo is a trans girl of color. There are huge numbers of trans people of color, yet most of the trans people we see in the media are still white.
Now to actually talk about the moment where Jo talks to Barney about being trans.
As a trans woman who actually was a Boy Scout, I totally get where Jo is coming from when she’s reluctant to have Barney, a Scouting Lad, join their group of Lumberjanes. I have zero love for the Boy Scouts. I had terrible experiences there and all my time there did was remind me that everyone else saw me as a boy and desperately wanted me to be a boy. Jo sees something similar. She sees Barney and is reminded of who she might have been. Or more importantly, who she might have had to be. Who she might have had to be if she didn’t have a choice, if she didn’t have support, if she didn’t have love. What she sees in Barney is more than just the misery of being forced to be someone she isn’t, it’s the misery of losing her family her friends and her community.
She also knows how hard it is when you know you’re really someone other than the person that people expect you or want you to be, and she knows the importance of friends. So when she sees someone in need, someone like her, she reaches out to him and shares a very vulnerable part of herself. It’s really heartwarming and delicate and, just, really, really wonderful. Here are two kids, one of them a confident trans girl, the other a kid who’s not sure where he fits in, and they’re able to be themselves and not feel alone.
The team wanted to make sure that they got this moment right, and they’ve really been putting a lot of effort and hard work into it. Stevenson said that she’s wanted to show this conversation ever since the comic introduced Barney.
No one in Lumberjanes is going to question Jo for who she is, and so Barney supplies tension. He represents something to her. But he’s not antagonistic either. He looks up to and admires her, but he’s at a different place in his journey to figuring himself out while Jo is very secure in who she is. It gives us an avenue to discuss it while still keeping it positive and showing that there are many different kinds of gender expression and identity.
Watters added that the team knew how important this moment was for trans readers. “It took me a long time to write because I’m a cis, white 30-something lesbian writing for a trans teenage girl of color and I wanted it to feel as true and natural as possible,” she said, “Noelle and I talked it out a lot as well as researching and interviewing a few friends before sitting down and actually doing it.” Stevenson added that issues #14-17 “were my last issues, and the ones closest to my heart,” and that she wanted to make sure she left the series on a high note.
Now, full disclosure: back in February, I got an email from Shannon Watters telling me about this storyline and asking if I’d be willing to look over these scripts and offer my opinion. You have no idea how hard it’s been to sit on this information for the past six months. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Instead, I read the scripts and silently screamed about how excited I was, especially when Issue #12 came out and showed a picture of young April and Jo, prompting a lot of fans to speculate on Jo’s trans status. One commenter on my review of that issue even said they were surprised I hadn’t mentioned the picture of the two of them. So, here I am, finally talking about it.
The moment where she actually talks to Barney about being trans is so sweet, and it’s done in a really great way. It’s not clinical or fake-sounding and it doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with what’s happening. It does it in a way that readers who are trans or queer or questioning or just struggling with feelings about their gender and who they are and where they belong will understand and will see themselves on the page, even if the word “transgender” isn’t there. Jo can see that Barney is struggling with his gender like she did earlier in her life and so she talks to him. But it’s also not the only thing she ever talks about. Watters told me that when writing this issue, they wanted the conversation to feel very natural and even subtle. “Jo being trans is an important part of who she is and who she has become, but it’s not her entire identity,” she said, “To write her character like it is would’ve been unfair to her and to the kids reading who need to see themselves in her the most. They’re badass athletes, and dreamy poets, and goofy pranksters, and trans.”
That’s another thing that makes Jo stand out so much as a trans character — she’s so three dimensional. Not only that, but she seems real, she seems like a real teenager and she seems like a real trans girl. According to Watters, this is because the idea to have Jo be trans wasn’t forced. “Jo’s trans identity was just another integral part of her character, and it developed very naturally — she was a leader, she was VERY passionate about being a Lumberjane, she was also trans,” she told me, “As soon as it came up in character discussions, we all went, ‘Oh yeah, of course Jo is trans.’ It was a very organic decision among the whole team.”
As overjoyed as I am, I do have to wonder, what does this mean for the upcoming Lumberjanes movie? Will Jo be trans in the movie? Will she be played by a trans girl? I hope so. Those may be lofty goals, but hey, five years ago I didn’t think there was a chance that there’d be a trans character like Jo in an all-ages comic. Now she’s here, she’s central to every issue and she’s holding up a mirror for every trans kid to see.
Watters, Stevenson and artist Brooke A. Allen really did something special in this issue, and co-creator Grace Ellis did something special when she co-created Jo and the world she lives in. I absolutely cannot wait to hear the first stories of trans kids who came out after reading Lumberjanes and finally seeing themselves represented in a positive way for the first time. Trans youth need to know that it’s possible for them to not only be themselves, but also be loved and supported after they do so. Trans youth need to know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. Trans youth need to know that the future is wide open with possibilities of adventure, excitement and friendship to the max. Jo is going to do that.