In Laurie Frankel’s new novel This is How it Always Is, an American family grapples with prejudice about transgender children. Youngest child of five boys, Claude, in addition to wanting to be “ a chef, a cat, a vet, a dinosaur, a train, a farmer” when he is older, tells his parents that he wants to “be a girl”.
The Walsh-Adams family readily embrace his difference, but the world beyond is less capable of processing the gender non-conformity of a five-year-old child. At kindergarten, Claude is permitted to wear dresses, but is castigated for using the boys’ bathroom. After his decision to become Poppy, a school friend’s parent threatens violence in the face of Poppy’s imagined queer contaminating effect upon his son.
Coupled with a transgender woman being shot on a local college campus after a sexual encounter, the family decides that Madison, Wisconsin is an inhospitable environment for Poppy and moves to more progressive Seattle. Nevertheless, they still find it easier to start again without explaining that Poppy is transgender.
Frankel’s novel was inspired by her own experience raising a transgender child. Western culture is currently facing the challenge of understanding transgenderism and the first generation of openly transgender children.
John Phillips, author of Transgender on Screen, suggests that “the crossing of genders will prove to be the most significant single cultural challenge” of our era “because of the redefinition of sexes and sexualities that necessarily accompanies it”. Practical issues such as preferred pronouns, bathroom usage, eligibility to participate in sports, and hormone treatment for young people remain contentious.
In attempting to reshape our understanding of sex and gender, it is helpful to look back at how we have represented – or, most commonly, omitted – transgender people in popular culture. The historical lack of understanding of transgender people is evident in a cultural tendency to depict them as objects of comedy, or, most often, as freakish or monstrous.
Sensational freaks and psycho killers
Ed Wood’s cult film Glen or Glenda (1953) was designed to shock and is primarily about a man who cross dresses. The film’s final section “Alan or Ann”, comprised largely of stock footage, is more specifically about a transgender (and potentially intersex) character.
Alan was born a boy, but raised as a girl and then served as a man during World War II. While recovering from combat in hospital, Alan learns about gender reassignment surgery and becomes a “lovely young woman”. The “Alan or Ann” section of the film was reportedly added to meet distributor calls for a sensational “sex change” film, implicitly suggesting that transgender people were a freakish spectacle who would increase ticket sales.
While Wood was sympathetic to the practice of cross-dressing, categorising himself as a transvestite, most horror films and thrillers that followed situated transgender characters as villains. The list of transgender murderers is extensive and persistent from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Homicidal (1961) features a murderous woman, Emily, who wears a wig and prosthetic teeth to conceal that she is, in fact, Warren. Nevertheless, Warren was actually born a girl, but raised as a boy by her mother because his father desired a male child and would have harmed a girl. In keeping with the sensational representation of transgender killers, the film was screened with a “fright break” at its climax, in which audience members could leave the theatre and seek a refund if they were too scared.
Hammer Horror’s 1971 film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde makes the famous splintered personality tale more disturbing by motivating Jekyll to concoct an elixir of life serum with female hormones from murdered corpses. The serum transforms Jekyll into an evil woman, who eventually kills girls in order to obtain more hormones to maintain the transformation.
The 1983 slasher film Sleepaway Camp has an infamous final scene in which the serial killer is revealed. The character of “Angela” stands naked, smeared with blood, with her penis clearly visible to onlookers who scream, “Oh my God! She’s a boy!” Angela was originally a boy named Peter, but was forced by his mother to assume the role of his twin sister after her death.
Being forced into a particular gender role is clearly traumatic, as in the well publicised case of David Reimer who was raised as a girl after a failed circumcision. However, the implication of Sleepaway Camp and other films with serial killers who are arguably presented as transgender, such as Silence of the Lambs (1991) (and even Psycho ), is that gender non-conformity is frightening and unnatural. As Phillips suggests, revelations of transgender murderers not only make the killings bizarre and monstrous but also “trade on the otherness of transgender to engender fear and loathing”.
Life in pink: transgender children
It is only recently that transgender children have begun to be overtly represented in literature and film. This is indicative of shift from demonising transgender people to greater attempts to understand them and represent them positively, as in mainstream films such as the award-winning Transamerica (2005).
One of the first representations of a transgender child was the Belgian film Ma Vie En Rose in 1997. It playfully blurs the line between fantasy and reality in order to show the thoughts of a seven-year-old boy, Ludovic, who wants to be a girl.
Despite its arthouse aesthetic and the fact that Ludovic, as reviewer Roger Ebert suggests, exhibited “no sexual awareness in his dressing up”, the film was given an “R” rating in the United States. The rating suggests that two decades ago there was still significant discomfort with the idea of a boy who might not “grow out of” his femininity. It also signals that young people should not be exposed to the reality of transgender children.
This sensitivity explains why there were only a handful of stories intended for children — usually fantasies — that included characters who might be understood as transgender until very recently.
The most notable of these is Princess Ozma, who appears in every book in L. Frank Baum’s Oz book series (1900-1920) apart from the first. Princess Ozma is born a girl, but transformed into a boy named Tip by the witch Mombi, in order to prevent her becoming the ruler of Oz. Tip has no recollection of being a girl when Mombi is compelled to revert him to his original form as the girl Ozma.
Children’s books have historically been willing to show boys and girls who “play” as the other gender (often categorised as “sissies” and “tomboys”), but the expectation is that these characters will mature into cisgender, heterosexual men and women.
It was not until the new millennium that a young adult novel featured a transgender protagonist. Julie Anne Peter’s Luna (2004) depicts a teenage boy, Liam, who progresses from only assuming his true self, “Luna”, at night to eventually making the decision to publicly transition.
Victoria Flanagan, in her study of cross-dressing in children’s literature , explains that contemporary Young Adult fiction has begun to recognise that “cross-dressing has implications that relate to sexuality and sexual/gender identity”. These ideas were previously cordoned off into the realm of adults only, as culture was largely uncomfortable with children reading and viewing stories about queer or gender non-conforming characters.
The next wave of representation
This is How it Always Is is symbolic of the next wave of representations of transgender people. In novels and films for adults, psycho killers who were forced into the “wrong” gender by a parent, or tragic figures such as trans man Brandon Teena, whose real-life rape and murder is dramatised in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), are being replaced by more positive depictions of transgender people.
We are beginning to see stories of young people who are being supported by friends or parents to live as the gender with which they identify – such as transgender boy Cole in The Fosters – and of teens learning to accept a parent’s transition, as in Australian film 52 Tuesdays.
The newfound ability for transgender children to begin their transition or at least delay puberty means there could be a transgender boy or girl in almost any school classroom. Rightfully, novels for young people are also beginning to represent transgender children.
Nevertheless, as with the continued challenges to depictions of gay and lesbian characters in fiction for young people, transgender characters are still rare and sometimes considered inappropriate.
Now it is not the threat of the freakish transgender monster, but the threat of disrupting long-held ideas about gender binaries that has the most potential to send transphobic people to the fright room