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The Necessity of Trans Joy

I. A Note About Audience

I think often about Charlie Jane Anders’s magnificent and heartbreaking story “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue.” As I read it, one of the story’s goals is to help cis people (that is, people whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) understand something essential about trans experiences. It explores the horrors of being forced into a body that isn’t yours and makes an abstraction (“trans people often feel like they’ve been born in the wrong body”) into something emotionally real, something vivid.

The work of making trans experiences legible to cis people is essential. But there’s other essential work that is less frequently discussed. Often, trans folks are writing for ourselves, or to each other. In those stories, cis readers are being invited to listen in on a conversation: it’s an invitation that shows respect. In return, it asks one to sit with discomfort and recognize that trans people need to be able to make art whose primary audience isn’t cis people.

 

That’s what I’m asking of cis readers as I write to my fellow trans folks.

 

II. Seeking Trans Joy

My dear fellow trans writers, I’m not here to tell you what to write, read, or think. Rather, I want to share with you what’s helped me through these bleak times, and see if it resonates with you. I crave stories of trans joy.[1]

I want stories like Susan Jane Bigelow’s “The Heart’s Cartography,” which breaks and rebuilds me every time I read it. Jade, a trans girl who is isolated and lacking support, meets a time-traveler whose friendship offers a glimpse into the future. In another author’s hands this tale might be straightforward escapism, but in Bigelow’s it becomes something much more. “We survive,” Jade writes in her diary, a realization that is simple, heartbreaking, and deeply joyful. Like Jade, we—survivors, every one of us—get to decide what to make of that survival.

I want stories like R. B. Lemberg’s novella The Four Profound Weaves, a multiple award nominee. It’s the tale of two trans elders, each of whom have spent their lives feeling trapped by external forces, who find in themselves and in each other precisely what they need to face down an authoritarian threat. As the story unfolds, it shows us that no one is too old to transition or to find meaning in their life. Lemberg’s novella further insists on two truths: we rely on each other, and each of us is essential.

I want stories like Emma Osborne’s “Don’t Pack Hope,” where the horror of a zombie apocalypse mirrors the trauma of the transmasculine protagonist’s past. While that sounds like a depressing tale, it unfurls into something gorgeous and hopeful. It vividly reveals that not only can we survive apocalypses, we can thrive in spite of them. When we consider what we’ve already endured, the apocalypse feels manageable.

I want stories like Xander M. Odell’s “Ink,” which follows a trans tattoo artist who magically helps ease the transitions of other trans folks in ways he was never able to experience. It’s a story that knows both the joy of transition and the weight previous generations of trans people have borne to hold space for us. It tells us that the work of trans liberation has been done by many who came before us, and will be done by those who come after us. Our task is not to finish the work, but to continue it.

As Laura Jane Grace sang, “we can be the bands we want to hear,” and since I want to read about trans joy, I’m also writing about it. No one would mistake my work for being overly cheery, but I believe we can find trans joy even in the midst of terrible circumstances. It’s a subject I return to often in my fiction, such as in my story “Five Reasons for the Sign Above Her Door, One of Them Unspoken,” where a metaphorical trans community finds space for mutual protection and support in the face of bigotry and violence.

 

III. We Need Not Look Away

In calling for stories of trans joy, I’m not asking that we be naive or ignore the horrors we’re facing. (If you’re cis and you don’t know what I mean, I implore you to read more trans authors and listen to more trans voices, because things are pretty terrible right now for trans folks.) One thing I love about the stories I’ve mentioned is that they are stories in which characters find joy despite terrible circumstances, despite pain, loss, and trauma.

These are tales that insist on facing the horrors of the world and finding joy despite them. I come back to them, and to stories like them, to remind me of a truth: despite everything, despite the fascists and the transphobes and the cis “allies” who ignore or turn on us when we needed them, despite all that and more, our lives are brimming with joy. We find it by being our true selves, in trans communities, in love, and in art.

 

IV. We Can Thrive

The world remains deeply hostile to trans people. As I write this, a hospital is under a bomb threat made because it has dared to provide gender-affirming health care to trans folks. Our suffering is real and worth writing about, but it is not, and must not be, the only story we tell. The narrative of unalloyed trans pain may be comfortable for many cis readers, since it often invokes pity while still framing us as desperate, doomed characters in other people’s stories.

Allow me to say, with all the tact I can muster, fuck that. We deserve stories as rich and varied as the stories about cis people. We need stories like “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue,” and stories of joy. When we write trans tragedies, they’ll be the tragedies we need to tell, ones that center us, that help us make meaning of this transphobic world. And we won’t limit ourselves. We’ll write comedies, romances, erotica, weird tales, thrilling space adventures, and stories of triumph.

Even in our worst times, we will find joy. We’ve always found ways to have it and we’ll keep doing so. And when those joys seem impossibly far away, fiction can help us hold on.

 

1 Not all the authors I mention here identify as trans. I mention these stories as personal touchstones.

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Izzy Wasserstein

Izzy Wasserstein is a queer and trans woman who teaches writing and literature at a university on the American Great Plains and writes poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless SkiesClarkesworldFantasy, and elsewhere. She shares a home with her spouse Nora E. Derrington and their animal companions. She’s an enthusiastic member of the 2017 class of Clarion West. Her debut short story collection, All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From, was released with Neon Hemlock Press in 2022.

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