I have seen countless reviews written by cisgender people that as a trans person make my stomach turn. In the majority of reviews written by cisgender readers, the trans characters are misgendered, transness itself is sensationalized, and the cisgender author is commonly called “brave” for writing about “such a controversial issue.” To top it off, most of these reviews contain the phrase: “this book opened my eyes so much!” It hurts to see these. It makes me feel so helpless to see people who care about trans people accidentally spread harmful misconceptions that contribute to transphobia.
Most of these harmful reviewing methods come from confusion and misinformation, not ill intent. The layers of complexity around transness can be incredibly difficult to understand. Learning about and understanding transness is a process—I’m trans, and I’m still confused about some things, and learning lots of stuff! So I am not here to point fingers or blame anyone. My intention is only to educate.
I think that a major source of misinformation for readers can come from the book’s blurb and marketing material. Whichever way the blurb/marketing material describes transness is often (understandably) seen by many readers as an appropriate way to talk about it. Unfortunately, most blurbs of trans books are written by cis people and are often transphobic (for an extreme example, a transphobic slur is used in one of the recs on the jacket copy of I Am J). So the fact that problematic reviews have become commonplace is understandable.
Why is it important that reviews get better? Because trans books do not exist in a vacuum and neither do reviews. If a cis person reads a book with a trans character and it opens their eyes—great. But that’s not enough. That newfound inner understanding and empathy needs to be translated into outward actions. A really big part of treating trans people right has to do with the language you use. If you don’t do things as simple as referring to trans people by the correct pronouns, and by their chosen name, you are not treating trans people with respect.
It’s also about changing the culture of the YA community, and ensuring that it is a respectful and safe place for trans people. Because, right now, it’s not. I and so many other trans people can barely stomach reading the reviews of trans books by cis readers, and don’t even want to touch discussions of trans representation that are led by cis people. Transphobic reviews and language make us uncomfortable in a place that should first and foremost be for us. That just shouldn’t be the case, not in an area that’s full of people claiming to understand and support us.
So, this is my guide to reviewing trans books as a cis person. I’m not the only trans person out there, obviously, and there are for sure many other trans people whose opinions differ from my own. So I offer this guide as a starting point to shifting the conversation to a trans person’s perspective, and encourage you to listen to the perspectives of other trans people as well.
1) Use the right pronouns. Even if it is never explicitly discussed in the book. For example, in Gracefully Grayson, Grayson never specifically she says that she wants she/her pronouns. But it is clear that she is a trans girl, and while there are certainly cases of trans people not wanting to change pronouns until they’ve transitioned, that is a personal choice and not an OK method of referring to trans people as a whole.
I cannot overstate the importance of this. Using “he” for someone whose pronoun is “she” or vice versa is saying that you don’t see them as the gender they are, which is one of the major catalysts of transphobia.
If the character is genderfluid, genderqueer, nonbinary, or a similar identity and hasn’t stated a pronoun preference, use they/them, other gender neutral pronouns, or simply the character’s name.
2) Use the right name. This is as important as using the right pronouns. Never use a character’s birth name (often referred to by trans people as their dead name) to refer to them, unless they have not picked a different name. So, for example, it’s okay to refer to the trans girl in Gracefully Grayson as Grayson— she never talks about a different name that she’d like to use. But referring to Gabe in Beautiful Music for Ugly Children as Elizabeth, or Luna in Luna as Liam is not ok: those characters have stated a new name for themselves.
3) How do you describe a character being trans?
Here’s a brief guide from GLAAD that should help. After you read that (and seriously—read it. Especially the “Terms To Avoid” section. It’s short, yet very very important) here are my own additions:
My general thoughts on language—the simpler the better. It’s not necessary to be flowery when explaining that a character is trans. You can simply say “This character is [a trans girl/a trans boy/nonbinary]” or “she is a girl that the rest of the world sees as a boy.” Trans people are trans people—it’s not necessary to use flowery language to describe them being trans, like “when Grayson looks in the mirror and spins around, he sees a girl looking back at him.” Simply say that the character is trans!
In particular, please stay away from phrases like these (in the case of describing a trans girl): “Believed he was meant to be a girl,” “he wants to be a girl,” “a boy who is transgender”. These are not appropriate ways to explain that someone is trans. When someone is trans, it means they are the gender they feel they are. Grayson (from Gracefully Grayson) does not want to be a girl—she is a girl!
The phrase “born in the wrong body” is a highly contested phrase in the trans community. Some feel that it’s a completely inappropriate way to characterize being trans, some identify heavily with it. It’s fine for trans people to define themselves that way. I don’t think, however, that it’s an OK way to characterize transness in whole, and I think it’s inappropriate for cis reviewers to describe transness in that way.
4) Lots of reviewers will talk about how “brave” the cis author is for writing about “such a controversial issue.” (I just love being called a “controversial issue”!) Why is it brave for a cis author to write about a trans character? Being trans is not something they’ve experienced. When I see this in reviews, it makes me feel like the reviewer sees trans people as an issue, a topic, a taboo, and not as real people. It dehumanizes trans people, positions them as something to be talked around. It assumes that trans people won’t be reading the review. And it positions the cis person as doing trans people a favor, of somehow finding it in themselves to write about these freakish people.
5) Put a “cisclaimer” at the beginning of your review! Something along the lines of “Cisclaimer: I am cis! I know/don’t know [x amount] about trans issues.” This doesn’t alleviate your responsibility to refer to the character respectfully, but I believe it is an important step to show that your opinion on the book, as a cis person, is not the most important one.
6) Try to find a review of the trans YA book you’re reviewing from a trans person. Even if you don’t agree with all of it, or understand it, having the perspective is vitally important. (If you can’t find one, it doesn’t mean you can’t review the book! But please remain aware that your perspective on a trans book is not as important as a trans person’s. ☺)
Please, leave me a comment or tweet me @findmereading if you have any questions! Also, if any trans readers have thoughts to add, or disagree with something I said, let me know! I want to hear your thoughts. 🙂
Thanks for listening!