I started this article originally to write about transgender superheroes in comics but that proved much more difficult than I first thought it would be. For a start there are, in my opinion, no transgender superheroes in a mainstream comic universe. You can find a list of DC trans characters here, and Marvel characters here.
Those who used to exist were not exactly positive representations, and I didn’t want to write them up as some huge success. Instead, I ended up with masses of research and nothing of value to add to the conversation – which is something of a dilemma when you’re supposed to be a writer.
I then realized that I knew an awful lot about transgender superhero representation throughout comic book history, and this got me thinking about how to make a modern transgender superhero. After batting this around on Twitter I think I came up with a decent guide. I really hope you are listening Marvel, DC, and every other publisher, as it came down to these ten simple rules:
#1: Shape-shifters, or magic users changing appearance, are not transgender unless the default form they live in 99% of the time is transgender.
This is the modern-day cheaters way of including transgender characters. It’s usually temporary and often used just for humour. It’s no basis for creating a character whose gender will be a publicised issue. This also removes characters like Loki and Mystique, as well as the only main-universe current Marvel transgender character Xavin (Runaways), as they are a shape-shifting alien Skrull with no fixed gender. Marvel officially lists the character as genderfluid, which fits into trans* but isn’t transgender.
#2: Your transgender superhero should not be tragic. They should not be an addict, or a prostitute, or any other “tragic trope.”
I support people that chose to do adult work, but not every mainstream trans character has to be a sex worker. Coagula, for example was created by writer Rachel Pollack, who also happens to be trans; but although Coagula is a powerful lesbian superhero and the Vertigo imprint tackled a lot of gender issues, the character firmly fits into this standard tragedy trope as she was “a sex worker who gains the power to dissolve solids after a sexual encounter with a radioactive bi-gender being known as Rebis.”
Show that trans people also lead everyday lives because we almost all do. We’re teachers, doctors CEOs and lawyers – and many, many, more standard jobs, so reflect that reality.
#3: Your transgender superhero is not the comic relief for other characters or the audience. They can, of course, be humorous – but not intrinsically so.
So many things poke fun at transgender people. Pure coincidence, and I swear this is true, the last two things I watched were Last Vegas and King Julian. Both contained jokes at transgender people’s expense and both were released in 2014. Cis people may not always spot them or understand how much these jokes can hurt, but I assure you the constant small pokes wear you down like a river through rock until you are carved bare to your soul.
#4: Creating a transgender superhero that is killed off counts for nothing. Nowt. Nada. Zip.
I would imagine that it could go something like this – there would be a huge announcement about a transgender superhero creating much publicity and good will for all involved. Then they quietly kill character off a year or so later and everything returns to how it was before. Nope, if you are going to try to publish a transgender superhero character then plan for the long haul, you will have a lot of eyeballs on your endeavours – so commit to them.
#5: Having characters swap brains or bodies does not count. The transgender character has to have been born transgender; it can’t be an accident.
This is about agency. The character should be self-determining and not a creation of circumstance. People are born transgender and, regardless of how long it takes them to accept it, they have always been transgender. This is the problem I have with Mike W. Barr’s Sir Tristan from Camelot 3000; they were reincarnated as a woman when originally they’d been a man. That’s not transgender, and involves no agency. Mantra also falls into this category, and it also arguably removes the only current transgender DC character, Miki – once human, but now an avatar of The Grey, a fungus that takes over minds and is currently robotic (explanation level: comics).
#6: The focus of the comic book story should not be all about gender. The hero should be a normal, well-rounded character as they arenormal.
Don’t constantly focus on the fact the character is transgender. When I wake up in the morning I don’t wake up thinking about trans issues, how to fight the gender binary, or the latest way to oppress men. This may ruin it for some people, but all I do is wash, dress, and go to work. My life is just… normal.
#7: A transgender superhero needs to be a main character, have agency, and not perpetually be a background character or a sidekick.
I have a hope that Alysia Yeoh in Batgirl will develop out of being a background character that we even celebrate even appearing in a single frame of an issue. Perhaps she’ll learn from Batgirl and become a hero in her own right. We can hope, right?
#8: Transgender superheroes should not be dressed in a way that shows they are transgender. Clothing in and out of uniform should be normal, mainstream superhero clothing.
“Normal superhero clothing?” Yes, I know that statement in itself is wacky, but I’m saying that the character should just be a hero, they shouldn’t be draped in the trans flag or have a trans symbol on them. They shouldn’t be in a uniform of two colours divided down the middle, or something sparkly and outlandish. How about giving the character something practical and cool to fight crime in – something like Batgirl’s new outfit.
#9: The hero’s villains/opposing force should not be gender or sex related. No one called ‘Codpiece’ ever again, please.
Codpiece was Coagula’s first villain. He had a large gun on his crotch that shot out rockets. No, really, some editor approved that. Making the opposing obstacle about sex or gender is missing the point. Yes, villains can be as weird as heroes, often more so, but they are usually a reflection of the hero. As the story should not be focused on the fact that the protagonist is transgender, then neither should the villains be based on sex or gender. The emphasis would be in the wrong place.
#10: A transgender superhero should be a positive character. With almost no positive representation in the media for transgender people, this is vital.
They should not be the villain or low in skill or power and in need of rescue, like Jessie Drake. Doesn’t mean they need to be a tier one character, but they need to be competent at what they do.
Last year Marvel Comics showed that diversity can be both done right and be popular – it’s my understanding that Ms. Marvel is not only one of Marvel’s top-selling digital comics, but it’s also one of the highest-selling comics in print. It’s just one comic, though; publishers can and should be doing better. It’s 2015, folks; we have no excuses anymore. Yes, you can still have your white straight dudes punching other white straight dude through buildings. No one is taking that away from you. It’s all about adding to the stable.
Times are changing, but progress is slow, and the publishers don’t have enough internal diversity to always get things right. Look at Batgirl’s recent problem; it wasn’t through malice, but through ignorance. This is why DC and Marvel need to have more diverse teams working in comics. Publishers – big and small – I offer my free transgender consultation service. Appropriate representation is that important.