Representation and Health 101: Beyond Binaries

To say that gender only exists in terms of “male” and “female” is to so severely and narrowly restrict our varied identities. These terms, with all the baggage they entail, are so limiting unless we move beyond them and strict definitions of them. Comics, with their varied worlds, characters, and identities, are a perfect place to explore what gender is and how it manifests within everyone. However, comics unfortunately suffer a problem similar to a lot of science fiction: in a world where the sky is not even the limit, we still conceptualize characters in a very binary way.

There are so few transgender and nonbinary characters in comics it is beyond ridiculous. We do have some great examples, like Alysia Yeoh, who is a transwoman and shaping to be quite the hero in Batgirl, and Xavin from Runaways, who defies those in a race of shapeshifters that adopt the gender binary. We also have newcomers, like Jo from the Lumberjanes, who has been featured in at least one other column I’ve done under the banner of Representation and Health (but, I mean, she’s that awesome, right?). There is an immense value in characters who exists beyond our narrow views of gender, for people who are like them and for people who are cis.

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One topic I’ve lightly touched on is the idea of modeling. In psychology, models help us to reconceptualize things like behavior, but also how we view ourselves. Thus, having healthy models represented in media can be powerful for us in solving problems we relate to. Having healthy representations of our identities becomes significantly important when we hold marginalized identities, especially when we face significant oppression and violence. For trans and nonbinary people to have these models can be monumental when you consider how the media portrays gender non-conforming identities: often pathologized, a function of dysphoria and distress, villains, etc.

For so long I advocated a “born this way” approach to gender and sexual orientation, but it was trans and nonbinary people who taught me that it’s okay to “choose.” Sometimes this choice comes from having the right language to define our identities, and sometimes someone’s identity is discovered over time. No matter what, this doesn’t mean people have the right to oppress anyone regarding their gender. So, if we had more comics that addressed various genders, we are giving more people more tools to explore who they are. This self-exploration is vital for everyone as far as I’m concerned, because if we only take what we’ve been given, we end up with narrow views of ourselves more often than not.

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Batgirl #45 features the wedding of Alysia Yeoh, out October 28!

Having trans and nonbinary characters in comics also allows a safe way for people who have diverse genders to discover their identities. For many people, coming out as gender diverse does not always ensure security and well-being. Unfortunately, the price of authenticity sometimes is violence or death, as we have seen in the case of many trans women of color throughout this year alone. Expanding gender representation can give someone an avatar through which to navigate identity in ways that may be more affirming. Living in the South, especially Arkansas, I’ve seen many people struggle with environments, whether people or spaces, that did not affirm who they are and they deserved so much more than that. Yet, I’ve also seen trans and nonbinary people discuss the power of certain characters in helping them feel more accepted, more validated.

Gender diverse characters in comics also help readers who may be cis. Consider that, instead of looking to trans and nonbinary people to be walking encyclopedias (please do not do this), we can have characters that encompass different facets of identity, educating other readers about diverse identities. This also gives us the chance to better explore if other identities better fit for us. For instance, in queer spaces I’ve taken to saying “mostly cis” rather than “cis male” because that’s a better descriptor of my identity (and a reason I use gay and queer interchangeably). When we are placed in narrow boxes at birth, we aren’t given all the tools to explore ourselves, and gender is one of those places we put some of the most intense restrictions.

While I love how comics are expanding in terms of creators of diverse races and, to some degree, orientations, I am waiting on gender diverse creators. Why? Well, for much of the reason I love being Black and gay/queer: there’s so much life, flavor, and creativity in my community. I’ve seen so many stellar trans and nonbinary artists and creators and their stories are amazing. By expanding who is creating the comics, we create new opportunities for new stories. We can get more trans characters, but more diverse storytelling overall. We are missing some grand opportunities by having primarily cis writers and artists in comics, and the comics industry should start advocating for gender diverse creators.

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Remember, this is my take on how expanding trans and nonbinary characters and including gender diverse creators can be helpful for all readers, but especially those with various genders. Living as mostly cis, I can miss so much as a function of my treatment but also my privilege in society. Look to trans and nonbinary nerds to get a more intimate look at how this can be helpful, but also the state of the industry. While I understand the issue in one capacity, they more fully live the experience as being gender diverse, and their voices are important.

Who are some trans and nonbinary people talking about representation and comics and how to expand it for gender diverse characters? Who are some gender diverse creators you know who deserve all the shine? What are some other issues to address here?

 

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