Sex and Romance in Trans YA, a guest post by Vee Signorelli
by Vee S. (@rausicabklvr)
The first time I read a sex scene with a transgender character, I cried.
I was just figuring out that I was trans, and trying to piece together what that meant for me. I thought that no one would ever be able to love me. I thought that maybe it’d be better to kill myself than to live in this way for the rest of my life.
That sex scene changed so much for me.
Trans YA can have a strong impact on what trans youth understand about themselves. I’ve learned about identity politics through tumblr and non-fiction works, but reading trans YA helped me figure out how I could exist happily in the world. Seeing someone like you go through the things you’re going through, and things you never thought you’d experience can change a lot. Reading about trans characters in romantic relationships helped me see a future for myself and expel most of the seemingly infinite amount of shame I had around being trans.
A lot of trans YA has romance subplots, but they’re usually not exactly romantic or sexy, and oftentimes the cis love interest is weirded out because the character is trans. I want to share the books that I have read that are different. The books in which trans characters have sex, get swept off their feet by a dashing love interest, explain to their date that they’re trans and have them respond affirmatively. I want to share the books that opened new doors for me, the books that made me look forward to the rest of my life, in the hope that they might do the same for someone else.
Trans Characters as Romantic Interests
Though cis people often have an odd, voyeuristic fascination with trans bodies, trans people are not depicted as desirable by our culture: trans bodies are things to be reviled and ogled simultaneously. Our culture says that trans people are too freakish—mentally, physically—to ever be found desirable.
This is why it is important to have trans characters depicted as romantic interests. The following six books do just that. These are not the books in which the cis character is disgusted that the person they’re attracted to is trans, but the books in which the cis character barely blinks when they find out the person they like is trans. These books can make you squeal and giggle and curl up in a little ball and fill your stomach with butterflies.
Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block
“I’m not what I once was.”
“I don’t give a fuck what you are or were. I just don’t want you to go away. Ever.” -131
Description: Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead.
Why I’m recommending it: Although it’s told from a cis girl’s POV, this book takes the archetypical sci-fi/fantasy romance, and puts a trans guy as the love interest. Showing a trans character in such a typical romantic storyline normalizes and validates trans people as romantic interests.
The Micah Grey series by Laura Lam
“You’re not odd. This, what you can do… it’s beautiful.” He came close, and wrapped me in his arms. “You’re beautiful.”
Description: R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.
Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star.
But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.
Why I’m recommending it: Spoiler/not spoiler: Gene and Micah are the same person, and Micah is intersex and nonbinary. The romance in the first book, Pantomime, ends badly, but Shadowplay gives Micah an excellent romantic storyline. Also, in Pantomime, it seems like Micah is being portrayed as a “non-human” because he is intersex—something that’s really not OK. But in Shadowplay, it’s made clear that that his abilities have nothing to do with him being intersex.
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
“I like whatever it is that makes you the person you are.” Pg 80
Description: Told from the perspective of two gay men who died of AIDs, Two Boys Kissing follows the stories of several different boys. One of those boys is trans, and just getting into a relationship.
Why I’m recommending it: Avery, the trans boy, is gay. It’s really cool and very validating to see his experience as a gay trans guy included in a book that’s about the varied experiences of gay men. It also lays out one potential roadmap for dating as a trans person in the real world, an important balance to the trans romance in fantasy books.
Freakboy by Kirstin Elizabeth Clark
“My junk doesn’t dictate who I am.”
Description: From the outside, Brendan Chase seems to have it pretty easy. He’s a star wrestler, a video game aficionado, and a loving boyfriend to his seemingly perfect match, Vanessa. But on the inside, Brendan struggles to understand why his body feels so wrong—why he sometimes fantasizes having long hair, soft skin, and gentle curves. Is there even a name for guys like him? Guys who sometimes want to be girls? Or is Brendan just a freak? Along with the alternating POVs of Brendan and Vanessa, is Angel, a young black trans woman, navigating her way through her life and a new relationship.
Why I’m recommending it: Angel is a young black trans woman, and the depiction of her new relationship is wonderful. Freakboy also delves into her difficult past, and represents the myriad experiences of trans women of color through a supporting cast of several TWOC. The storyline of the main character and their girlfriend may be hard to read for some people, however, as Vanessa, Brendan’s girlfriend, is very weirded out about Brendan being trans.
“I think you’re beautiful. And brave. And really fucking cool. And you can make Charles Dickens puns.” Pg. 247
Description: When a plane crash strands thirteen teen beauty contestants on a mysterious island, they struggle to survive, to get along with one another, to combat the island’s other diabolical occupants, and to learn their dance numbers in case they are rescued in time for the competition. This is a fun, satirical, feminist romp, following the storylines of multiple girls. One of the girls, Petra, is trans.
Why I’m recommending it: This is a goofy, delightful read, and in it, Petra has a goofy, delightful romance. It’s important to have a trans girl represented that way. The two best-known books featuring trans girls, Luna by Julie Anne Peters and Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, have some pretty problematic content (the titles are linked to posts detailing the problematic nature of these books). Having Petra’s storyline and romance in this satirical/semi-fantasy book is important to begin to counteract those narratives.
Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff
“We’re in love. You can’t hurt us.”
Description: When you’re sixteen and no one understands who you are, sometimes the only choice left is to run. If you’re lucky, you find a place that accepts you, no questions asked. And if you’re really lucky, that place has a drum set, a place to practice, and a place to sleep. For Kid, the streets of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, are that place. Over the course of two scorching summers, Kid falls hopelessly in love and then loses nearly everything and everyone worth caring about. But as summer draws to a close, Kid finally finds someone who can last beyond the sunset.
Why I’m recommending it: The protagonist and the love interest in Brooklyn, Burning are never gendered, and both the characters can be easily easily read as trans, of any identity. (When I read it, I read both characters as nonbinary.) That establishes a safe space within the book for trans readers.
Detailed Sex Scenes
There is very little information out there for trans teenagers about having sex. It’s hard to even imagine what sex could be like! How do you have sex when you’re uncomfortable with some parts of your body? What safety precautions are important/necessary for sex after you have surgery? How does taking hormones affect sex? What words do you want to use for your genitals? How do you communicate all of that to your partner?
Stories can’t take the place of real, comprehensive sex-ed. So, before I get into those, I want to recommend Girl Sex 101. Though the title may be off-putting for some transgender folks, it is incredibly inclusive and respectful. I would highly recommend it for trans-feminine and trans-masculine folk alike.
Stories do provide something that sex-ed can’t, however: real-world contexts, and characters you love. In the following three books, you will find those.
Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block
Quote: I curl [my fingers] into a soft fist and stroke him the way I used to touch myself before the Earth Shaker, when touch wasn’t something you thought you’d have to do without and when love wasn’t the difference between life and death.
Description: [see above]
Why I’m recommending it: The sex scenes in this book have a strong focus on the romance and sexiness. The scenes are rather dubiously consensual, unfortunately, but this is an important contribution nonetheless.
Her fingers started touching me so gently I almost couldn’t feel them at first. “You have to tell me if I do something you don’t like,” she said. “Or something you really do. Okay?” pg. 151
Description: Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag University, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.
New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.
Why I’m recommending it: The sex scene in this book is very detailed. The characters discuss what they are and are not comfortable with, and consent is prioritized. Through Ella’s thoughts we hear all the fears she has about having sex. It’s incredibly sweet and sexy. And it’s also between two girls!
Khaos Komix by Tab
Description: Khaos is a webcomic about eight teenagers navigating gender and sexuality. There’s one cishet character out of the cast of eight. There’s a Charlie, a trans girl and Tom, a trans boy, who both have lovely romantic storylines. I wanted to talk about them here, though, because there’s some NSFW side-stories that are just gold.
Why I’m recommending it: The sex scenes in the NSFW side-stories really explore some of the different ways trans people can have sex. The characters have conversations about what they’re comfortable with, and in one case they stop sexytimes to make a list of things they do and don’t want to do. Also, the trans boy is gay and Latino!
None of these books are perfect. If you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you probably know I’m very critical of trans representation. I have issues with how transness is portrayed in almost every single one of these books. But sometimes representation doesn’t need to be perfect for it to be enough to make a difference for transgender teens.
I hope that in coming years there will be so much trans YA that includes romance and sex that this post will no longer be needed. These things should be so common that they don’t need to be hunted down. But until then…
Because of the way these books depict trans people romantically and sexually, I would recommend them for: trans teens looking for representation, cis readers who want to broaden their reading horizons, librarians who want to put together trans-inclusive reading lists and collections, and anyone else who is interested in spreading the word about positive transgender representation.
On one last note, I wanted to talk about sexual violence (since this is the SVYALit Project, after all!)
Sexual violence is a very real thing for trans people. Multiple studies have shown that 50% of transgender people (or one in two) experience some form of sexual violence at some point in their lives.
I haven’t read a single trans YA book that reflects this reality. I’m hoping that as more and more trans YA books come out, particularly ones by authors who are themselves trans, more of this will be represented. Sexual violence is a terrible, confusing thing and YA has a unique opportunity to offer guidance to teens dealing with it. (Which the SVYALit Project has done an incredible job of pointing out and utilizing.)
In lieu of those books existing, I compiled this short list of resources in case anyone needs them.
FORGE was founded in 1994 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to provide peer support for those in the transgender community who are survivors of sexual violence. They also provide a lot of resources on how to keep yourself safe going forward.
Pandora’s Project’s mission is to provide information, facilitate peer support and offer assistance to male and female survivors of sexual violence and their friends and family. To meet its mission, Pandora’s Project sponsors the internet’s largest support community for those who have been the victim of sexual violence.
Though Pandora’s Project is a resource for all survivors of sexual violence, they are very inclusive, and they have a separate forum for LGBTQ members and a separate forum for teens.
Meet Vee Signorelli
Vee S. spends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. They’re a passionate feminist, a huge fan of actual representation in media, and a lover of theatre, mythology, and biology. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. Find them on Twitter, Goodreads, or Tumblr.
Filed under: #SVYALit, #SVYALit Project
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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