Gender in Romance is a series of posts focusing on the various experiences and perspectives of some of the top voices in queer fiction. Read more from the series here.
Let me start with an understatement: when you’re trans, it’s hard not to compare yourself to cis people.
I’m a queer man; I go through life every day as a dude who likes other dudes. I’m about as excited as a person can be for that Dream Daddy game. But I’ve never quite felt like a “real” queer man, whatever that means, because I’m not a queer cis man. I didn’t have what’s usually defined as a queer male adolescence. After all, it was my affinity for dressing butch, cutting my hair short, and dating girls that marked me as different, and if I had wanted to date boys, no one would have batted an eye. Instead, it was the word girlfriend that I was afraid to say aloud. Even now, I suspect I have a different relationship with my gender than many cis men; navigating the world as a normatively masculine man feels like getting away with something I ought to be punished for.
At the same time, didn’t I have a kind of queer male adolescence? I want to say yes — not because I was butch, but because I’m a queer man now, and all of my life has led me to become the person I am.
I want to say yes, but stories are powerful.
I’ve always craved stories about queer men. I read and wrote them long before I knew I was trans, never quite able to explain my fixation on queer masculinity. Those stories felt personal, but they weren’t for me; they weren’t about me. They were always, at the end of the day, about men with certain bodies, certain experiences, certain ways of navigating the world.
I wish I could say that it feels different now, but as a queer romance author, I feel a similar sense of rejection and alienation from most M/M. It’s not that most M/M is about cis men; I don’t actually mind that. It’s that manhood in these stories is often defined in opposition to bodies and lives like mine. It’s that trans romance is segmented away from the rest of queer romance; trans people rarely appear in mainstream M/M and F/F as equal and legitimate partners. It’s that I know I would sell more books as an author of cis M/M or F/F, because readers would view my characters as inherently more desirable, more relatable, more worthy of love. It’s that I know how often, even in trans romance, trans lives are treated as curiosities and trans bodies are treated as burdens. It’s that I know how many readers and authors are still content to define the orientation of a relationship in terms of whether or not the partners involved have matching junk.
At the heart of this struggle is the fundamental idea that “real” men and women are cis, while us trans folks are just running to catch up, following a roadmap to living that was never meant for us. It’s the idea that stories about us are complicated, uncomfortable or strange. As a trans person, cis people are posited as the original to your copy, the legitimate to your counterfeit, the ideal to your reality. And it doesn’t really matter if most cis people don’t live up to the ideals of gender anyway; cis people still get more room to be varied and complex, to be challenging and interesting and compelling. Meanwhile, I’ve seen even the most friendly, straightforward trans romance torn apart in reviews for not explaining or justifying the presence of trans people — for not being educational materials instead of, you know, romance novels.
All of this makes it particularly challenging to write trans people in same-gender relationships, because the power dynamics are especially stark. If you write a romance between, for example, two trans men, you’ll have to contend with perhaps twice as much disinterest or confusion in response to your book; but if you write a romance between a trans man and a cis man, you’ll have to contend with the fact that your trans protagonist will face far more scrutiny than his cis counterpart. Your cis protagonist will simply get to exist, while your trans protagonist will be examined from every angle to make sure he qualifies as a “real man”.
It’s exhausting to think about, and even more exhausting to see it happening to other trans authors and the allies who write about us. It wears us down, trying so hard to be seen and loved. All I want is for queer trans stories to be welcomed, not interrogated.
I wonder how differently I would’ve felt as a young person if I could have seen examples of what same-gender love looks like for trans people. If I could have envisioned myself in a relationship with a man without thinking of it as a contest I could never win, where I would always be the lesser partner, struggling to catch up to a standard that was never meant for me. If I could see myself as part of a spectrum, different but equal and equally beloved.
I wonder how differently I would feel if I could see that now.
Austin Chant is a bitter millennial, decent chef, and a queer, trans writer of romance and speculative fiction. He cohosts the Hopeless Romantic, a podcast dedicated to exploring LGBTQIA+ love stories and the art of writing romance. He currently lives in Seattle, in a household of wildly creative freelancers who all spend too much time playing video games. His works include Peter Darling, Coffee Boy, and Caroline’s Heart (in the Magic & Mayhem anthology).
Please note: all opinions and statements expressed are those of the author and not of Open Ink Press or its affiliates.