Dangerous Transition Tropes

Dangerous Transition Tropes

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

Recently, my partner and I were discussing the portrayals of transgender characters in YA novels. Though we’re both excited to be seeing more transgender narratives play out, we’ve both become largely frustrated with some of the ways that trans people, particularly trans teenagers, are portrayed

Even when trans authors write these books, they often play into “standard” transgender narratives to appeal to the broader cis audience. This, on its own, is not inherently terrible. I support trans authors in writing trans narratives because, well, someone’s gotta tell our stories, and I’d rather we do it ourselves. 

HOWEVER, even trans authors can play into tropes that aren’t just harmful, but actively dangerous. And, when these tropes appear in young-adult literature, it can leave a harmful impression on transgender youth. Rather than helping them feel seen, it might just normalize potentially self destructive behavior. 

This can also give cis authors a false perception of how to portray trans characters. If you read a single book written by a trans author and decide that you know everything there is to know about writing trans characters, that’s your own stupid fault. I do, however, think that it’s worthwhile to actually spell out what’s harmful about some of these tropes, so that cis authors who are actually doing their research (hint: that should be all of you) can learn how to actually write trans characters.

So, without further ado, here are a handful of transition/dysphoria related tropes that are often portrayed in actively harmful ways!

Binding

This is by far the most common and egregious of the dangerous transition tropes.

Binding is the process of compressing breast tissue in order to make your chest appear more flat. This is common among trans men and afab nonbinary individuals. The portrayals of binding that fall into the dangerous transition tropes, however, tend to look something like this:

“It’s basically a medical bandage…that’s so tight it restricts breathing and squishes my organs together. Exactly what you want to wear for twelve hours on a hot summer day. I have read stories about trans men developing medical issues from wearing cheap binders for too long. Serious stuff like collapsed lungs and broken ribs. To me, it’s worth the risk.”

— Stay Gold, Tobly McSmith

This is not how binding should feel.

Binding might be uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be painful. Binding should not make it difficult to breathe. A properly fitted binder will fit snugly, but the person wearing it should have full range of motion and be able to take a deep breath. A binder should not be worn for more than 8 hours at a time.

Image of black halter-style binder from gc2b
This is what a standard halter-top style binder from gc2b (a popular and safe source for binders) looks like!

There are those in the transmasc/nonbinary community who do bind more tightly, especially those with more breast tissue, because they feel it is the only way to make their chests truly flat and alleviate their dysphoria. Though this is an experience that some folx have, it is NOT a universal experience and it can in fact cause damage to the ribs, chest muscles, and breast tissue of the individual in question. This should not be advocated as a healthy or normal way to approach binding. Binding is perfectly safe if done correctly — this method is not correct.

Similarly, don’t show your characters binding with ace bandages. Ace bandages are compression bandages and will do a lot of the same harm that a too-small binder will! If your character doesn’t have access to a binder, they might then wear loose/baggy clothing or sports bras to help alleviate their dysphoria. These are healthy alternatives to improper binding.

Tucking

Tucking is the process by which someone with a penis and testicles conceals the characteristic “bulge” of their genitalia by pushing the testicles into the inguinal canal, then laying the penis flat across the perineum and holding the situation in place using tight underwear or tape.

Common among drag queens and non/pre-op trans women, tucking is something that some people can do safely, but not everyone can. It becomes a dangerous transition trope when it crosses the line into being something that every transfemme person has to do.

Tucking has some pretty direct effects on fertility. It can also be painful and damaging for some — not everyone can tuck, or can only do so with a good amount of discomfort. If done improperly, tucking can restrict blood flow to the testicles and cause damage to the tissue. Leaving the testicles “tucked” for an extended period of time can also lead to damage

Like binding, there are ways to tuck safely and alternative, safer ways to achieve the same effect. Tucking for short amounts of time, without using adhesives like duct tape, is relatively safe if someone is able to do it comfortably. If someone can’t easily and comfortably tuck, it’s not good to force it. It’s also in general not good to tuck for long periods of time. 

If a character has trouble tucking but still experiences dysphoria surrounding their genitalia, consider that they could safely use a gaff — either store-bought or homemade — to achieve the same effect without the hazards.

Hormone Replacement Therapy

HRT is an essential, life-saving medical intervention that helps many trans folx alleviate dysphoria. However, there’s a long history of trans folx self-administering hormones because of transphobic doctors. This crosses the line into dangerous transition tropes when it’s portrayed as the only option available to all trans folx — especially in media aimed at younger populations.

Hormones affect far more than just your secondary sex characteristics, and require regular monitoring of blood hormone levels as well as cholesteral and other health indicators. It can also be dangerous to procure such products through dubious means, such as online, as counterfeit medication is dangerous and sometimes impossible to detect.

Because of this, people should not be self-administering HRT without the guidance of a medical professional, and should not be procuring their hormones from anywhere other than a pharmacy, unless their situation is truly desperate. HRT is a medical procedure and should not be undergone lightly. If you are writing for a younger audience, do not advocate the merits of self-medicating HRT, as this can be especially harmful to developing bodies.

Conclusion

Now, these are all very real things that trans folx do. Trans men bind more tightly than is recommended, trans women tuck despite discomfort, and trans folx in general find ways to self-administer HRT without the guidance of a doctor, all to alleviate extremely intense dysphoria. This is not a condemnation of these very real people who need our support.

However, these dangerous transition tropes shouldn’t be portrayed as valiant or universal, especially to young people. It’s possible to show someone struggling with this, but not cool to play it off as the only correct way to be trans, which many so-called trans narratives bouncing around right now do.

In the end, just be mindful of what you’re writing, how you’re writing it, and who you’re writing for. People will learn things from your writing — make sure they’re picking up healthy and helpful messages!

That’s it for this week! Until next time stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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