They and He and She: Writing Beyond the Gender Binary

Hello. My name is Sabrina, and I’m gender fluid. That means my gender identity and expression varies between man and woman, and sometimes neither. I am also a lesbian. And while the inclusion of queer women in literature is something I could discuss for days, I’d like to focus specifically on gender in literature. Let’s face facts—literature has been dominated by straight, cisgender white men for some time. And while we’ve come, in more recent years, to acknowledge and value the work of marginalized groups, I see a distinct lack of gender being discussed. Whether that’s out of misunderstanding, fear, or indifference is up for debate. No one is required to write about gender. But I don’t think it hurts to consider and understand that gender exists beyond a binary.

Including other genders while writing, or at the very least, being respectful and conscious of their existence, adds another complication for writers. It’s difficult. It’s something new. Gender is not easy. Not everyone knows the vocabulary, which I admit is a veritable alphabet soup of terms that is constantly evolving. Gender is an often confusing social construct, and has nothing to do with assigned sex. Gender identity and expression transcends far beyond man and woman. Sex itself isn’t even that simple. But gender-nonconforming people exist, and they deserve to be acknowledged. I want people to know that it’s okay to use the singular “they” for a character, and that the term “transgendered” is considered offensive to most trans people. You might be thinking: This is great! I do want to be more inclusive in my writing! But you used the word cisgender and I have no idea what that even means! First—cisgender means your gender identity corresponds with the gender you were assigned at birth. Second—here are some ways writers can be more inclusive and respectful of gender-nonconforming people:

  1. Acknowledge trans and gender-nonconforming people exist. That seems simple enough, but if your writing consistently only portrays or acknowledges cis people, then you’re erasing trans identity. Consider the white person who never includes people of color in their writing. Don’t be that person
  2. Avoid stereotypes. I too often see the trope of the trans sex-worker or the idea that gender-nonconforming people are “confused”—if I read one more story that portrays a trans woman as a drugged-out prostitute, I might scream. Yes, of course, trans people are in the sex work industry, and due to discrimination, bigotry, and rejection from society, many trans people are homeless and forced into situations that are dangerous. But trans people are also parents, they are actors, they are writers. They travel and have diverse, rich stories to tell. Don’t leave these out.
  3. Do not co-opt trans and gender-nonconforming stories—essentially, don’t take someone’s story as your own. This is where things get tricky. How can cis people be inclusive but not co-opt trans stories? It seems to scare a lot of people away from writing about the topic in the first place. A good place to start is to think about whether you’re writing as an authority figure or not. It’s much like a white person writing a slave narrative. Can it be done? Well, yes, no one can tell you what you can or cannot write. But privileged people very often get the credit for writing about marginalized people, and that actually silences people from telling their own stories. (A good example of this would be Jared Leto playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Not only did this enforce a harmful stereotype that trans women are really just men, but it closed the door on trans women being able to represent themselves in media. Why would you not pick a trans actress to play a trans woman? Hello.)
  4. Learn about what it means to be trans and gender-nonconforming. There are a lot of stereotypes out there about what gender is, how it is portrayed, and how we are allowed to be ourselves. In 1918, pink was considered the absolute color for boys, and blue for girls. Look where we are now. Not every trans person opts for surgery. Some people experience full gender dysphoria, some don’t experience any. Some people are agender but lean male. Some gender-nonconforming people change their names. Talk to people. Listen to their stories. Understand each other.

Here are some good starting places for trans resources:




Sabrina Napolitano is an second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UCF. They are a winner of the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Award and have been published in Quarterly West. Every dog is their favorite dog.



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