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.
I learned early that I was bad.
This wasn’t taught to me directly, like the ABCs. Of course the adults around me wanted me to be good and to believe I could be good. It wasn’t that I wasn’t loved, or that I didn’t try to behave.
It was more like the way I learned that an oven could burn your hand, or that staying out in rain could lead to a cold. On the first day of show and tell in school, I brought a cache of my grandmother’s costume jewelry to show off as one of my favorite things in the world. This was apparently one of the worst things I could have done, because it resulted in a target being painted on me—everything short of the “F’ word branded on my forehead—that seemed impossible to wash off. Though I also learned that if it hadn’t been this, it would have been something else.
Groups of boys would chase me until I couldn’t run anymore, then hold me down and beat me until they got tired. Sometimes directly in the sight of an adult. Afterward, the narrative would be that it was sad how I kept getting myself into these situations. Why did I have to cry so much? Why did I have to call attention to myself? Hadn’t I ever thought of changing?
There was a story that was so common that it seemed to be in the air I breathed—that people get what they deserve. The good are rewarded and the bad eventually face punishment. This wasn’t just in fiction, though these examples abounded—it was the ideology of comic book heroes, fairy tales, and television shows. It was also the message of Sunday school lessons, the slant on chapters of history books, the prevailing hope of my humble rural environment. That eventually all rights and wrongs are sorted out.
This creates a sort of inescapable logic when you keep getting hit with wrongs, and yet identified as the problem yourself. When I dared fight back against my aggressor for once, and got in trouble for it instead of him. When I learned that cross-dressers and homosexuals supposedly went to hell unless they repented. The world-view was adding up into a kind of massive “aha” moment. There we go—I was just bad. Guess I deserved it. Riddle solved.
This logic was maybe why the first few times I encountered a queer person in a book—especially an effeminate, flagrantly queer person—I didn’t have the relief that one might otherwise have. What I felt was fear. Fear that I was seeing the face of the badness in me. That maybe I was this thing, and this was why.
The problem seemed to be that I was still holding out for a redemption story. Stories in general were for me, like for many kids, among my best friends. Having learned to expect punishment, of course I craved the quiet harmlessness of fictional worlds, worlds designed to reward and comfort. And so many of them related to one of the best things I loved about my Christian upbringing—Bible stories about mercy, peace, and restoration. These adventures glowed with the message that even the evil could be saved—if they were willing to turn from their evil.
I didn’t know how to turn from what I was. It was hard to figure out what I’d done that was wrong. “I should be a girl,” I’d said, at the wizened age of three. I was the problem child who cried because the school’s hired Santa gave me the boy toy instead of the girl toy. And I kept appearing like some insistent, trouble-making pixie in the principal’s office. Much effort was poured into the holy grail of change. Of thwarting the cycle of isolation and punishment.
But I didn’t know what a redemption story for me ought to look like, and none of my books seemed able to help me. Even some of the best were peopled with wicked, sneeringly effeminate men, or (apparently) overly masculine women. If a person who seemed to share my breed of badness wasn’t an all-weather villain, they usually died. Or were eternally sad, a living cautionary sign with dialogue. What was the redemption there?
One of the first examples of a character in this atmosphere who didn’t shock me was Ozma, princess of Oz. Most of us are familiar with Dorothy, but I wasn’t satisfied with her alone. My aunt bought me a bundle of Oz books, and I read until they were all plumbed. In them, another heroine was revealed—Ozma, who had been a boy. She’d been changed into one by magic, and by magic she was changed back.
It was like lightning had been poured down my spine. Was this real? Greater still, she was good. Her “boyhood” was swiftly forgotten, but certainly wasn’t shown as a mark against her character. The only problem here, of course, was that the answer in this scenario was literal magic.
The trouble with magic seems to be that you have to have something to work with. The spell that changed her couldn’t have made anyone a girl—and, as pointed out in the book, it could not make ugly things beautiful.
That was the next obstacle. I found out, once into my teen years, that I was also ugly.
One might have thought the travails of adolescence enough of a burden on that front—acne, glasses, awkward height, excess weight. But it wasn’t just that. I had nothing a spell could have worked with. As time cut its intentions into me, I saw no material that could become even a redeemed princess. Hard, blunt jaw. Cumbersomely wide shoulders. The transmutation of a deepening voice and the fear of the dreaded beard on the horizon. It felt like the root of all that badness was written not in my heart, but in my body. That expressed itself in the law of ugliness, that of course those villains least worthy of redemption are also the most horrific to behold.
Before this, a duality seemed carved everywhere—between male and female, good and bad, knight and villain. But it was becoming clear that it was actually a triangle. Some literary theorists say that all narrative roles can be reduced down to a triad of hero, villain, and victim. This seems to map to the triad I was seeing—knight, princess, and monster.
Some people, and characters, fall in between these extremes. Alluring witches who could become princesses if their hearts were melted, symbolized by their nascent beauty, just waiting to be thawed by a kiss. But the further you lie in the “monster” corner of the triangle, the less likely redemption seems to be.
This emerges constantly in even modern storytelling. Pity-soaked transgender prostitutes and sociopathic transsexuals. My beloved fantasy genre has a legacy of gay characters who are sexual predators, or who became gay as a result of abuse. In all directions, androgyny is continually associated with immorality and threat. This is true on television, in books, in traditional concepts of manhood and womanhood, in a thousand assumptions too everyday to be counted. The world is still trying to add up that logic to me, the algebra of my badness and ugliness.
When I was nineteen, in therapy because of debilitating depression, I came to terms with something. All those memories of protesting “boyness” since before kindergarten, the cascade of violent object lessons, my inevitable inability to play by the rules of gender—they meant something. I was transgender.
Being a trans girl, of course the first available discourse was easy to find—this must be someone who couldn’t bear being a knight, so would rather be a princess. Why not? After all—it would mean no longer being a monster.
But what eventually became clear was that the difference between a monster and a princess is that the princess’s victimization is agreed to be wrong. It’s a question of deserve or don’t deserve. Vanquish or save. And as I had learned, often that distinction rode not on merit, or culpability, but shape. Beauty. The destiny inscribed into the body.
I look back and wonder if that was when the magic really started to happen. Because with that step toward the truth, a new possibility began to take shape amidst the images—
Someone still needed to save the monsters.
I could not live with the triangle anymore. I didn’t need magic to redeem the ugly—it was only necessary to care.
I hungered for a world that was unashamed to show it cared. Stories where the ugly and bad things were also true things. Where the real spells were laid in forbidden names and shapes, the misbegotten claws and teeth of my childhood.
My hungers, too, were undergoing a new transmutation. I was in the market less for the redemption story that never was, and more for the narrative that would show me how to live as a monster. Maybe even a happy one.
Among my first conscious examples of this were, interestingly enough, not my usual novel fare, but manga full of queer imagery. Entire volumes that seemed to turn the triangle on its head. Swashbuckling girls who were knights, fey boys who were princesses. Perhaps most bewitching of all, a new language of images overwriting the old logic. All those harsh jawlines, mechanical shoulders, rough faces, cast as beautiful, worthy of tenderness. Even as feminine.
The lightning came again with another spell, cracking open an abruptly vivid world where effeminate cross-dressers and masculine women were no longer divided by those who died sadly or who were irredeemably wicked. They were depicted with grace, gentleness, humor, desire. They could even be the saviors. Who not only could be saved, but saved in kind.
So many instances of this magic could not be a mistake. This rapidly burgeoning hope was gaining strength in me—that I did not have to be transformed. That I deserved to be protected after all. That a bad ugly monster could be loved.
This emotional landscape is why queer fiction means so much to me. The truism about art imitating life is girded by another magical law—that art also instructs us in what we otherwise cannot see. Like the spell that returned Ozma to herself, the virtue of magic mirrors and all such implements is that in the end, they only reveal what is true. Thus art is the glass held up to the sky, in hope that it will reflect someone else like us. Like me.
May Peterson is a writer and editor of queer fiction who has been known to cast a spell or two from time to time. She lives in Kansas City with two dark wizards and their dog familiars. May sometimes still wants to be a princess, but only if it comes with powers. She loves stories about wonder, victory, and restoration—especially stories that make you root for the monster.