A Trans Romance Heroine and the Problems of Representation

Regular readers of this blog and those of you who follow me on Tumblr and Pinterest will know that I’m pretty keen on bringing feminism full-on into the romance genre. One of the things I’d like to see is greater numbers of heroines and heroes other than white, straight, cis, able-bodied, thin, wealthy people. (On which note: Dear Author recently had a thread recommending good romances that feature protagonists with disabilities, so let’s take a moment to cheer for that!)

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that there was a contemporary romance that featured a transgender heroine! It’s Two Spirit Ranch by Jaime Stryker, and reading it brought up a lot of questions for me.

But First, A Primer

The language for talking about trans experiences is still pretty fluid and I am still learning, but here is a lamentably brief and limited definition of the two terms that are valuable for the discussion in this post.

  • cis: short for either cissexual or cisgender, but no need to worry about that distinction right now. Cis was originally a chemistry term, but in social justice it just means ‘not trans’ — if your experience of your own gender matches the gender you were assigned at birth, you are a cis person. I love this word so much, partially because it is useful and illuminating, but also because it reminds me of the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul, which is just ‘Gaul that is on the near side of the Alps.’
  • dysmorphia: I can’t explain it any better than QueerSexEd, but trans people often experience a certain amount of distance from their own body. This varies from person to person and can be psychologically traumatizing.
  • trans: short for transgender or transsexual, another much-debated distinction that I do not feel qualified to tackle. A trans person is a person whose experienced gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. For instance, a trans woman experiences her gender as female though she was assigned male at birth.  (The article for transgender on Wikipedia is surprisingly thorough and link-heavy, if you’d like more information.)

And Now, A Review

Sad to say, Two-Spirit Ranch was not very good, as a romance. It’s riddled with lame cliché and, for all its evident enthusiasm, not very competently written. But plenty of romances are bad, and talking about things like the sheer, untrammeled idiocy of our sheriff hero is not nearly as interesting as talking about how this book succeeds and fails at representing characters from marginalized groups. (Though a disproportionate number of my reading notes consist of the words: “Stupid sheriff.”)

Because while the book received a lot of press from non-romance sources like Jezebel and MediaBistro, it didn’t get a lot of coverage within the romance industry itself. Partly this is a factor of the sheer business of the industry—so damn many books!—and partly this is a factor of the silencing that trans voices routinely are subject to in a culture that is hostile to their very existence. I am by no means an authority on trans experiences—I’m as straight, white, able-bodied, and cis as your average romance heroine—but it seems to me that someone in the romance community should be talking more about this book, and nobody else has stepped forward. That the existence of this book is a referendum on the state of diversity in romance today should be clear from this ChicagoNow headline: Will romance genre embrace new transsexual story?

You are heartily encouraged to call shenanigans in the comments.

Our Heroine

Overall, I felt that the depiction of our trans heroine Terri was positive and plausible. Female pronouns were used to refer to her throughout, except when her past as Terrence was discussed. This seemed appropriate, respectful, and fairly similar to what trans bloggers have written about all over the internet. The author has clearly listen to trans women talk about their lived experiences, and transgender blogger Cyrsti Hart agrees (though she enjoyed the book more than I did). For me, this authenticity was most clearly shown in this speech of Terri’s:

“Dont get me wrong. I’m proud of who I am. It took me a long time to get to this point in my life, and I had years of struggle. But sometimes you just don’t want to have to get into your story with every person. You just want to be who you are now. Not everyone is open to understanding.” (Kindle 1615)

The book’s most nicely written passage deals with Terry’s dysmorphia growing up, and is worth quoting at length:

The body she had lived in then had always felt like a stranger’s from as far back as she remembered. Looking at it now, the person seemed like a distant memory. Almost like the feeling of waking after a long dream. On a conscious level, she knew that was her in the photo, but it felt so unreal since she never identified with the person in that body. In fact, going through puberty was very difficult. Imagine the shock of seeing your girl friends grow breasts and wider hips while you were getting hairier and your voice started to deepen. (Kindle 377)

Even the fact that our heroine was often TSTL was kind of refreshing: she was shallow and frustrating in precisely the same way as any other poorly written category heroine. I liked as well that her trans identity was dealt with in the opening chapters—I refuse to count the prologue, which was word-for-word a scene from the novel’s emotional climax and was exactly the kind of unnecessary beginning that gives Angela James at Carina the fits—so that it was a part of our heroine’s thought process throughout, and informed her experience as she moved from busy New York to small-town Montana.

The quibbles I have are these. One: Terri was treated exactly like a woman—a stereotypical, girly, watches-her-figure (yes, she used that old-timey phrase) kind of woman. It was peculiar to find a trans-centered romance novel that was so heavily invested in maintaining traditional gender roles. It read less like an attempt to show that trans women are still ‘real’ women, and more like the classic Mars-Venus bullshit that is so insidious within the genre and the category romance in particular.

Two: Terri’s trans identity was used in classic romance fashion as a Deep, Dark Secret, one that she ‘should’ have told the hero right off and one that causes much romantic angst when it is eventually revealed. Normally the Deep, Dark Secret cliché is as good or bad as the writer who employs it—but in this case, it worryingly mirrors the idea that a trans person’s very existence is a deception. As Cord Jefferson explains in Good Magazine:

Time and again in both comedic and dramatic films, transgender people are cast as deviant tricksters out to fool innocent victims into sleeping with them. This narrative plays upon two of America’s deepest fears: sexual vulnerability and humiliation. Not only is your sex partner “lying” about their gender, victims who “fall for it” are then forced to grapple with the embarrassment of being had, of being seen as gay. Men “tricked” into sleeping with another man are embarrassed by the threat to their masculinity. So much culture has taught us that transgender people aren’t just sexual aliens, they’re also predatory liars.

The supposed deceit of trans individuals is often used against them—it’s a dehumanizing justification to hurt them, often violently, in the name of a false sense of self-defense. I cannot state this strongly enough: trans people have been and are being killed because of this attitude, and its presence in a romance is disturbing. Especially when it’s our hero who’s upset at having been ‘deceived’:

“I may be a small town sheriff but didn’t you respect me enough to tell me the truth? But I would have rather heard it from you first hand. Don’t you think I deserved at least that, Terri? Don’t you? Didn’t I deserve some respect after all we’ve been through?” (Kindle 1779)

He really sounds like a man working himself up to put his fist through a wall, and I was concerned. Especially since “all we’ve been through” consists of one day at the fair and one night’s good lovin’ (closed-door, to my disappointment). And even after the sex he’d had no idea she was trans until his evil condo-building cousin showed him the proof acquired from a private detective (don’t even ask).

This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, sexual and otherwise—you bet your ass any trans person would take their sweet time before revealing something so dangerous, no matter how sexy the sheriff.

Our Hero

But my main problem with our hero Jake is not his alpha-hole behavior (though there’s plenty of that). My main problem with Jake is that his backstory presents him as part Native American—and this brings up the biggest issue I had with treating Two-Spirit Ranch as what author Jaime Stryker wants it to be: a progressive novel advocating greater diversity in romance.

It must be stated: romance has a terrible history with Native American and First Nations characters. It’s noble savagery all the way down. And, sadly, so is this book: in its use of the two-spirit people as a solution for the plot, there is a distinct tone of Gosh, those Native tribes were so much more tolerant and environmentally friendly than we supposedly advanced white settlers:

“I had no idea,” Terri said, dumbstruck. “It sounds so much more advanced than our society now.”
The professor nodded knowingly. “When it comes to our society’s rigid views regarding sexuality or gender, you’re right. It was seen as a positive rather than a negative. Diversity was a reflection of nature and all its infinite possibilities.” (Kindle 1688)

And then Professor Redfeather goes back to digging up transgender Native pottery from beneath the lightning-struck tree on Terri’s ranch. No, really.

There is precisely one mention of “the reservation” in this book, and here it is:

Jake: “I hated being part Native growing up. Not only were they bad guys in the western movies, but sometimes I’d see alcoholic Indians begging on the streets of town or committing crimes around the reservation. At the time, I didn’t understand what was really behind some of that.” (Kindle 1085)

But the issue of what’s “behind some of that” is never discussed. Native Americans here are academics and people of the past—there’s no discussion of what’s happening on the reservation right now, on the fact that these supposedly magical, tolerant people are no longer here because we either killed them all or drove them away. The whole point of including the Native background at all is to ‘solve’ the problem Jake has with Terri’s trans identity.

And—pardon the swearing—it’s just plain shitty to present one marginalized identity as the ‘solution’ for another person’s different experience of marginalization.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, for all my criticism, I’m glad Two-Spirit Ranch exists. It can be easier to creatively respond to a bad representation than to a lack of representation: the No no no, here’s how that story should have gone! motivation is a strong one.

But frankly, I’d hoped for better. I think we as an industry can and should do better at including trans characters. And if anyone knows of any other examples out there, be sure to point me in their direction.

Further Reading

These are by no means the only resources on the web if you want to read more about trans or Native identity and issues of representation. (Let me introduce you to my friend, Google.) These are merely the websites I could think of right off the top of my head, and which have thoroughly informed my reading of trans experience, Native experience, feminism, and intersectionality. Any mistakes or missteps in the above analysis are entirely and completely my own.

Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog

How To Make Love to a Trans Person by Gabe Moses

Native Appropriations

QueerSexEd

Shakesville

Tiger Beatdown

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