Trans Representation in YA Fiction Is Changing, But How Much?

I was 15 when I found the book.

I checked it out from the library, hoping my parents wouldn’t question me about the two girls on the cover, one with her head leaning on the other’s shoulder. I’d never seen a book about gay people before, and I devoured that first one, hoping to see myself in its pages.

I did and I didn’t.

Well into the mid-2000s, queer young adult fiction was a cis person’s game. The characters I encountered in my teen years were almost solely cis gay or lesbian characters, all of them white, and if there was a trans character, they were written by a cis person. Of those books, there were just a few. At 15, I didn’t know there was more I could want, out of my books or my existence. The T in LGBTQ existed as an abstract concept, made real only by the women I saw mocked and exploited on daytime television. Nonbinary people and trans men did not exist, at least in my world. That was 2005.

Other trans authors had similar experiences.

“I had zero access to trans or nonbinary people in any kind of media growing up,” says Aiden Thomas, author of the forthcoming novel Cemetery Boys. “I don’t think I even heard the word ‘transgender’ until I was in college? Maybe once or twice in high school but I didn’t understand what it meant.”

“What representation of trans and nonbinary characters I did see growing up was pretty brutal,” says Anna-Marie McLemore, author of Dark and Deepest Red and other books. “It became one of many voices that made me hesitant to come out.”

In 2009, I’d been questioning my gender for a year and was closeted, again, the same way I had been in 2005. I’d always loved writing, and now I wrote a few fragments of a young adult novel about a trans teen. I wanted to write the book that didn’t exist for me as a kid, but I didn’t see a way forward, for the novel or my transition. I left the story in fragments, convinced myself to live on as a girl.

Now, a decade later, those fragments have become my forthcoming young adult debut. A decade later, trans representation in YA is changing, in what feels like the upswell of a publishing wave.

I keep an online database of young adult (and some middle grade) fiction written by trans people about trans characters, called the YA/MG Trans and Nonbinary Voices Masterlist. I track both self- and traditionally-published books, the latter category divided into two: books published by independent publishers of all sizes, and those published by the Big Five, the companies who together publish the majority of books in the United States. In addition to the gender of characters, I track data about their race, sexual orientation and romantic orientation.

According to the Masterlist, the first traditionally-published YA novel about a trans character by a trans person hit shelves in 2012. That book was Being Emily, by Rachel Gold, about a trans girl, and it was put out by Bella Books, an independent publisher specializing in fiction about queer women.

“I initially sent it to an editor at one of the Big Five publishers and she said that she liked it but couldn’t buy it; it was too niche,” Gold says. Bella Books turned out to be a great home for the book, particularly because, Gold added, they affirm trans women as part of the lesbian community.

Four years later, in 2016, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo became the first YA novel by and about a trans person published by a Big Five house.

“I wrote If I Was Your Girl because I’d just started transitioning, I didn’t really know any other trans people in real life (and very few online), and I needed a way to process some things that were on my mind, mostly fears about the future and wondering what a post-transition self would look like, what problems she would have,” Russo says.

If I Was Your Girl went on to win the Stonewall Book Award, a Walter Dean Myers Honor, and become a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Since its publication, the number of YA novels by and about trans people published by the Big Five houses has steadily increased, following the example set by independent publishers. Except in 2020 and 2021, independent publishers have published more trans YA than Big Five houses every year since Being Emily was published in 2012.

What does a steady increase look like when we talk about trans YA, though? It means one or sometimes two more books than were published the year before. 2021 is the first year in which the number of YA novels by and about trans people published in a single year will break ten. In contrast, the number of YA novels about cis queer protagonists published each year is much higher. In 2018, for example, Malinda Lo’s annual count of LGBTQ YA recorded 56 books about cis queer girls alone. The number of 2018 YA novels by and about trans people of any gender, according to my masterlist?

Six.

While queer representation in YA shouldn’t be seen as a competition, and my count differs from Lo’s somewhat in terms of criteria (for example, I track only fiction, while Lo includes nonfiction in her counts), the disparity is stark. The numbers are a reflection of the obstacles trans authors and trans stories face within the publishing industry, which is largely white, straight, able-bodied and cis from agents and book reviewers all the way up to the leadership of publishing houses.

Kacen Callender, author of Felix Ever After and other books, knows the industry from the editorial side too. They previously worked as an associate editor for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Hachette. While there, they tried to acquire a book about a trans character, but found themselves frustrated by some of the resistance to it.

“In retrospect, I do wish I’d fought for the book harder, but I was often in a situation where I felt I was constantly fighting to acquire books by marginalized authors, and worried about pushing my luck too much,” Callender says.

“There’s some incredible cis allies in editorial positions, but even their best efforts still mean the trans books being acquired must, in some way, speak to a cisgender perception of the trans experience,” says agent Z.R. Ellor, also the author of the forthcoming novel May The Best Man Win.

That cis perception can influence whether a publisher believes a book will sell, and is therefore worth acquiring. The idea of marketability is one of the hurdles trans authors have to cross in publishing. It was what kept me from believing, at first, that there would be a place for me in traditional publishing. Before I even had an agent, I assumed no one in the industry would want me, a trans author, or my book about a trans teen.

Thomas came up against that same fear when they pitched Cemetery Boys to their editor at Macmillan. The book stars Yadriel, a Cuban/Mexican gay trans boy who accidentally raises a classmate from the dead while attempting to prove he can be a brujo to his brujx family.

“I was so convinced it would be too queer, or too Latinx, or too trans,” Thomas says. “That itself is so wild — that I thought my marginalizations were so unmarketable that it would be impossible to successfully pitch.”

The idea that trans stories are unmarketable — that no one will want to buy or read a book about us — hinders authors when they are querying agents too, before their books ever get to an editor.

“In fact, I had two agents tell me that they couldn’t see a world where my little trans book was published because they didn’t see a market for it. I think about that a lot,” says Mason Deaver, author of I Wish You All The Best, about a nonbinary teen. “And then I look at the framed bestsellers list that I keep on my bookshelf where my book ‘that didn’t have a market’ debuted at number nine.”

Other challenges include structural oppression that exists outside the industry; the pressure, real or perceived, to educate, within the book itself and with one’s publishing team; and transphobic reviews from trade publications, something that Callender recently experienced from Kirkus.

Some within the industry are working to change the obstacles trans authors face. Natashya Wilson, an editor at Inkyard Press, a HarperCollins imprint, says she’s had no difficulties acquiring books by trans authors, apart from the normal acquisitions process. Similarly, Thomas’ editor was “absolutely thrilled” by their pitch, and their whole team has been nothing but supportive of the book. The buzz around forthcoming titles, and the success of I Wish You All The Best — not only an Indiebound Bestseller, but a 2019 Junior Library Guild selection that made it onto several Best Books of 2019 lists— indicates stories by and about trans people are in high demand.

Nicole Brinkley, manager at Oblong Books, has been part of the YA community for more than 10 years. “As both a reader and somebody watching the industry, the hunger for ‘ownvoices’ books by trans people has grown and continues to grow exponentially,” she says. “It’s one of the most requested things I see on websites like LGBTQ Reads, and authentic queer stories are something I get asked after a lot in the bookstore.”

Queer and trans people intimately understand why representation matters. Representation can make us feel seen or help us see ourselves; representation shows us we aren’t alone, that we belong to a larger history and community, that there is a place for us in the world. Representation can also help others see us differently, and hopefully, embrace us in our complexity.

“Misrepresentation is so dangerous to the point of being potentially fatal to trans people, so I believe we have a duty to be as careful as possible in how we create these representations,” says agent Beth Phelan, who created #DVpit, a Twitter pitch event for historically marginalized authors. “I also believe deeply in the power of representation behind the book—the power of being in control of your own story—and putting that power in the hands of trans authors to write trans characters, and for trans teens to get to see them with that power.”

While cis authors can and do write trans characters, their books often lack the nuance and depth supplied by the richness of lived experience trans authors bring to their books.

“Trans and nonbinary characters can be everything at once: self-assured, confident, messy, chaotic, neurotic, mean, lovable, unlikeable, heroes, spotlight stealers, important behind-the-scenes thinkers, advocates, change-makers, villains,” says Steven Salvatore, author of a forthcoming novel about a Mariah Carey-loving genderqueer teen. “But I think too often cis and straight writers writing trans or nonbinary characters tend to make them one-note and stereotypical, and the thing about stereotypes isn’t that they aren’t true, it’s that they’re just one tiny piece of a much larger puzzle.”

For many authors, writing their books helped them embrace themselves.

“I wasn’t out to many people, but when I started Yadriel’s story, it really gave me more courage,” Thomas says. “I more publicly changed my pronouns, I was talking about it more because of Cemetery Boys, and then I used my advance to actually get top surgery.”

“My books have been a space where I can write about other people dealing with similar explorations. Through their journeys I take more of my own,” Gold says. “I didn’t do that purposely for my first four books, I just wrote about what interested me — but after three of those books focused on gender, I had to take a long look at myself.”

“It was also really important for me to write a book where queer, trans and Latinx kids could see themselves being powerful heroes,” Thomas says. “Right now, these kids are living in a world where a lot of hate and suffering is zeroed in on them. I wanted them to see themselves being supported and loved for who they are.”

Their books are making a difference for readers, too. Many of the authors I spoke with mentioned the mail and social media messages they receive and treasure, from trans readers who felt seen by their books.

“One of my favorite moments of my career, ever, was meeting two librarians who spoke to me about their sons, and how much a book like Felix Ever After means to them, and we all just ended up hugging and crying,” Callender says.

While the state of trans representation in YA publishing is changing, there’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure that change is equitable. In February 2020, I reviewed the Masterlist and found that, out of the 33 books then listed with trans protagonists, 27 of those protagonists were white. Of the remaining titles, three characters were biracial, two were black and one was Latinx. There have been a few more books announced since that post, but the proportion remains fundamentally the same. Similarly, many trans authors have noticed a gender imbalance in books coming out in 2020 and 2021.

“I’m really excited by the uptick in trans masculine voices, but I’m dismayed to see that there haven’t been as many new voices in trans feminine novels, especially when trans women of color are one of the most attacked and harassed groups of people in this country,” Callender says. “I’m not sure I would believe that there are no trans women trying to write their own stories; it’s more likely that they aren’t being given the platforms or the chances that everyone else has.”

Representation also lags for characters who are disabled, working class or poor, or otherwise marginalized. Most of the traditionally-published YA novels on the Masterlist feature protagonists who are white, lower-to-upper middle class, and able-bodied.

Besides the lack of diverse trans voices in trans YA, there also simply aren’t enough books being published. According to my Masterlist, two Big Five publishers, Hachette and Simon & Schuster, have yet to publish any YA novels by trans authors about trans characters at all.

“When there aren’t a lot of books with trans characters coming out from year to year, there also isn’t a lot of diversity amongst the ones that are,” says Read Davison, bookseller at Harvard Books. “I’ve had the same customer come in twice, about half a year apart, to ask for YA books with trans characters of color as the protagonist.” The second time, Davison had only one new recommendation for that reader: Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi.

According to the Masterlist, Pet is the first traditionally-published YA novel with a black trans girl as the protagonist written by a black trans author.

“Pet was actually commissioned, so publication was fairly certain,” Emezi says. “My main concerns were whether the publishing team would see a story like that as commercially viable, but fortunately it was championed well and it made it through.”

Pet was nominated for the 2019 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, along with another book by and about a trans person, Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve. Pet became a finalist for the award.

The book is notable for many reasons, one being that it features a trans protagonist whose trans status is a non-issue, and barely part of the story. For most of the books on the Masterlist, this is not the case. However, while there has been much discussion of the focus on coming-out stories in queer YA, trans YA seems to have bypassed that focus. Of the traditionally-published YA novels on the Masterlist that feature trans protagonists, many of them take place after the protagonist has already come out. Only a few books, mine included, begin with a protagonist who is closeted and pre-transition. Some books feature protagonists who are stealth — they are read as cis and choose not to share that they are trans — and some books feature protagonists who have already come out and begun transitioning, socially and/or medically. Many of the books do not focus strictly on the character’s trans identity, but rather explore experiences such as falling in love, playing sports, or figuring out one’s future goals with the added nuance that comes with being a trans teen navigating those things.

When I look at the Masterlist, it also seems trans YA is going through a balancing-out of genres. About two-thirds of novels traditionally-published before 2020 fall under speculative fiction, science fiction or fantasy. That figure has flipped for 2020 and beyond. Two-thirds of the novels coming out are contemporary, in that they take place in a real-world, relatively present-day setting without magical or speculative elements. It remains to be seen whether contemporary will come to dominate or if trans authors will be able to expand into other genres and conventions with equal frequency.

For trans authors, the recent uptick in acquired and published trans YA novels is just the beginning of repairing decades of exclusion and misrepresentation.

“I think trans and nonbinary representation has become way more visible, but is that because a spotlight is being shone on the very few titles that are out there, or because the industry has truly changed and is publishing queer rep in equal numbers to non-queer books?” Salvatore asks.

There are active steps those with power in the industry—agents, editors, and publishers—can take to acquire and support trans voices.

“When I was an editor, I would seek out voices by reaching out to various groups and organizations to ask if there were any writers who were interested in publishing novels for children and teens, or even people individually online who I saw were aspiring writers,” says Callender.

“At Inkyard Press, we acquire projects through agents, and I’ve found that by simply letting agents know that Yes! We want to see stories by trans authors, about trans characters, we are open to and looking for them!—I received submissions that included trans representation,” says Wilson.

Organizations such as Lambda Literary and We Need Diverse Books, and initiatives that support marginalized authors, have also made significant inroads into improving representation. Phelan’s #DVpit is one such initiative. When I created my Twitter account in fall 2017, #DVpit was the first pitch event I learned about, and it made me believe that maybe, just maybe, someone would want to publish my book after all. I was right — thanks to #DVpit, I signed with my agent, Lauren Abramo, in spring 2018, and she sold my book a year later.

Representation must also change among the gatekeepers.

“As ever, publishers need to be hiring more trans editors, and editors of color so that more manuscripts written by trans people and trans people of color make it through the acquisitions process,” Davison says. “Once a book is acquired, publishers need to really put in the effort of marketing those titles—I may purposefully seek out books with trans representation in them, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still titles I’m missing due to poor marketing, or that there isn’t a wider audience being missed due to a lack of resources being dedicated to certain titles.”

Some days, improving representation feels like a daunting task—like when a cis author announces a book about a trans character with a deeply transphobic premise, or a trans author shares how they were publicly misgendered at an industry event—but there are many people working tirelessly behind the scenes to boost, acquire, and publish trans authors in YA. Trans authors are also beginning to receive the recognition they deserve in the form of award nominations and wins, as well as selections to various children’s book lists. We are in a crucial moment where we can change trans representation in YA and do it in a way that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

Now, when I think about my book, about all the books coming out in 2020 and 2021, the few announced for 2022 and the ones that have yet to be announced, the deals that trans authors, maybe even authors I know, are keeping under wraps right this moment, I think of my 15-year-old self, so afraid and uncertain. I think of the book I held in my hands and the promise of its cover, the hope that somewhere in its pages, I’d find myself. There are still trans teenagers waiting for their books. We are here, writing them.

Ray Stoeve is a queer & nonbinary writer. They received a 2016-2017 Made at Hugo House Fellowship for their young adult fiction. They are a contributor to Take The Mic: Fictional Stories of Everyday Resistance, an anthology out now from Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Books. Their first young adult novel, Between Perfect and Real, will be published by Amulet Books in spring 2021, with a second standalone novel to follow. When they’re not writing heartfelt queer stories, they can be found baking, making art in other mediums, or hiking their beloved Pacific Northwest. They live in an intentional community home in Seattle with their partner and chosen family. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

Ray has written 1 article for us.

6 Comments

  1. I love this article so much! Thanks for articulating things so well. Hello from the library side of things, where there’s a bunch of us pushing for this as well! (-Ari, trans librarian & current chair of the Stonewall youth book award)

    • Hi Ari!!! YAY trans librarians! I wasn’t able to get librarian voices into this but you all are such vital members of our literary community…so much appreciation for your work. I miss the library SO much right now.

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