Defining Genre and Defining Gender:
The Emergence of the Modern Transgender Romance Novel
By Brock Foreman (2021)
In reading and studying romance novels for this course, I have been constantly aware of the heteronormative nature of the genre, both historically and in the present day. Genre romances that feature queer protagonists have become more numerous, but those characters are often presented in ways that conform to, rather than complicate, heteronormative expectations. Perhaps for this reason, transgender characters—who, by their nature, necessarily complicate the norms of genre romance—can be hard to find. Where trans characters do exist, they do not always align with how present-day transgender people would like to see themselves represented. In the course of my research, I found that genre romance novels which readers identified as “trans romance” only began to emerge in the twenty-first century and have evolved significantly since then. This evolution led to what I identify as two distinct subgenres of romance novels which feature transgender characters: the modern trans romance novel (MTRN) and the early trans romance novel (ETRN). The distinction between these genres is primarily defined by their different implicit understandings of what it means to be trans, and while this can be difficult to determine directly, this understanding is reflected in language, making it possible to identify a novel as falling into one category or the other by examining the language it uses to describe its trans characters. My goal is to define these two categories and examine their historical context, with particular focus on how each emerged—apparently suddenly—from the period which preceded it.
Before going further, a brief note about the novels I have chosen to use as illustrative examples. I have tried to select exclusively from the Goodreads list that I cite elsewhere, in the interest of only mentioning novels that have received some degree of readership. I have further winnowed my choices to include only full-length novels within the romance genre (often forcing me to exclude examples that might be better known, for instance David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel The Danish Girl, which would be an excellent example of an ETRN except for the fact that it is not a genre romance). From within that narrowed list, I have chosen to use examples from novels with the highest number of reviews, so that I am selecting novels which are more likely to be genuinely impactful within their genre. On one or two occasions I have selected novels with apparently limited readership because they serve as such clear illustrations; these will be noted as such when they are mentioned.
The Early Trans Romance Novel
Before describing the early trans romance novel, it’s necessary to first understand what preceded it. While characters disguising themselves as another gender is a common plot device with an illustrious history in romance stories, in twentieth century American fiction, characters who actively and explicitly question the applicability of the gender they were assigned at birth were less common. Some notable examples do exist, including Ann Bannon’s iconic lesbian (and potentially transmasculine) character Beebo Brinker (1962) and Carl Corley’s genderbending siblings Hanna and Rasha in The Scarlet Lantern (1966), but these are rare and difficult to place. It is virtually impossible to define characters which originated before a certain period as transgender because, since the present-day sense of the word did not yet exist and characters were written to fit categories that the author understood, there was no way to write a character who would be definitively, unequivocally identifiable as trans to a present-day reader.
This changed in the twenty-first century, when more and more genre romance novels were written with characters who were explicitly identified as trans and the early trans romance novel emerged. A reader-created book list on Goodreads.com called “Romance Featuring Trans Characters,” which included 177 titles submitted by 129 readers at the time of writing, listed eleven books published in 2010 and earlier. These are books in which one or more of the leading characters are described by the author as trans, and they exemplify the early trans romance novel. The genre did not end at the turn of the decade, however, and to investigate further it will first be necessary to explore a more thorough definition.
As I indicated above, the distinction between an ETRN and a MTRN is drawn based on the novel’s implicit understanding of what it means to be trans, as seen through the language used in the novel to describe trans characters. In an ETRN, there are two ways a trans character can be understood: as a member of one gender who dresses as another gender, or as someone who has undergone medical procedures that render them ‘actually’ trans. Characters in the first category are described as “crossdressers” and are typically seen—by the narrator as well as the other characters—as the gender they were assigned at birth. One good example is the 2014 novel A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes—a late and little-read addition to the ranks of the ETRN—where a man named Greg has wanted to wear women’s clothing since he was young, and although his friends help him to pursue that goal, Greg is never referred to as female—at least, not until he undergoes surgery. On the other hand, characters in the second category are described as “transsexuals” and use the language associated with their ‘new’ gender, as demonstrated by the character Kit in Hawk’s Landing(2011), whose transsexual status is so important that her breast augmentation surgery is mentioned in the book’s summary. In this way, the language used to describe the trans characters in these novels derives from the author’s understanding of what it means to be trans. All of these books have been grouped retroactively by Goodreads readers as stories about trans people, but the ETRNs maintain a clear divide beneath that umbrella.
The hallmarks of the ETRN are characteristic of the way trans people were portrayed and discussed in broader American society in the early twenty-first century. There wasn’t yet a strong trans rights movement, and trans visibility was limited to largely the “cross-dressing” vs. “transsexual” archetypes in media. It’s important to note, though, that similar distinctions were also being made within the trans community. For instance, the influential trans historian Susan Stryker, in her 2007 book “Transgender History,” uses the terms “cross-dresser” and “transsexual” and gives specific, historically-rooted definitions for each, noting that in her experience “transgender” was a broader term which encompassed “the widest imaginable range of gender-variant practices and identities.” Her key distinction is that “transsexual” referred to someone who chose to live their life fully as a member of the opposite sex (with or without any medical intervention), while “cross-dressing” referred to someone who presented as the other sex only in specific contexts (for any variety of reasons). This dichotomy maps cleanly onto the use of these terms in ETRNs. Stryker did not necessarily speak for all trans people who may have had opinions on this distinction in vocabulary in 2007, but she did speak for the zeitgeist: every contemporary review I could find of her book offered no critique of her definitions,and it’s only in the reviews of the revised 2017 edition that a reviewer considered some of her terms “a bit dated.”Clearly, Stryker’s definitions were uncontroversial among trans-friendly academics at the time of publication, and to a significant degree those definitions can be considered standard for that time. As this was the same period in which the ETRN emerged, it can be presumed that this defined dichotomy was a close parallel to how ETRN authors thought about transness.
The Modern Trans Romance Novel
The modern trans romance novel, on the other hand, is far less interested in drawing such a clear explanation of what it means to be trans. The language in MTRNs is concerned with etiquette rather than categorization, taking steps to treat trans characters with dignity and take their identity at their word. An excellent example is E. E. Ottoman’s Documenting Light (2016), a book that was highly recommended on nearly every review blog I visited in the course of my research. Documenting Light centers on a romance between two trans characters with a narrator that consistently affirms their identities through the use of their chosen names and pronouns, even when acknowledging that they don’t perfectly ‘pass.’ This shift in language is markedly distinct from ETRNs, and can be traced back to an equally distinct conception of what it means to be a trans person. In a MTRN, a trans character is always taken at their word: if a character says she’s a woman, the narrator refers to her as a woman. Other characters aren’t necessarily accepting, but the narration validates the character’s gender identity. And ultimately, as part of their happily ever after, the trans protagonist’s romantic interest is always someone who accepts and validates their identity.
It’s difficult to pin down when exactly the modern trans romance novel emerged, but my analysis suggests the mid-2010s, sometime between 2013 and 2015. The list of transgender romance novels provided by Goodreads.com includes only six books published in 2012, but jumps up to sixteen from 2013, and jumps again to twenty-eight from 2015, suggesting an increase in both readership and publication of trans-centric romance novels. I have been unable to reliably pick out a single book as the earliest example of a MTRN, but by drawing upon this list I have found a large number published in 2014 and a few in 2013, all of which meet the criteria to belong to this genre. I have not been able to find any published in 2012 or earlier, though as noted previously this does not necessarily mean the examples I have found are the earliest.
By 2016, it’s clear that the genre had fully found its legs. Two separate book blogs, when recommending a list of trans-led romance novels in 2019 (all of which align with the MTRN definition), named more books from 2016 than from any other year. Evidently, 2016 was a good year for trans romance, even to bloggers with several years’ worth of new content to look back on. (The Goodreads.com list shows a similar spike, with only a handful of trans romance novels published after 2017. It is impossible to tell whether this is a true reflection of a trend or merely an artifact of the individual peculiarities of the readers who contributed to the list, though the fact that this spike is reflected in two wholly unrelated blog posts may indicate a genuine decline in the publication of trans romance novels.)
The emergence of the modern trans romance novel was part of a broad cultural shift in the United States as the visibility of trans people and trans issues increased. While trans people had become more visible in the political sphere in the 2000s, in the 2010s visibility rose most sharply in the world of entertainment and popular culture. Between 2012 and 2016, several high-profile celebrities came out as trans (most notably the Wachowski sisters and Caitlyn Jenner), and Laverne Cox became the first openly trans person on the cover of Time magazine as well as the first openly trans actor to be nominated for an Emmy award. In 2013, the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also called the DSM-5) was released, becoming the first edition of the DSM to diagnose gender dysphoria (discomfort in the gendered aspects of one’s body). The DSM-5 notes that “The current term is more descriptive than the previous DSM-IV term gender identity disorder and focuses on dysphoria as the clinical problem, not identity per se,” and its language largely aligns with both the language primarily favored by trans people today and the language used in MTRNs. Between the greater visibility of trans people in popular media and the shift to a new, affirming standard in trans medical care, it’s clear that the mid-2010s were a time of great change for trans representation, and that change is reflected in romance novels.
It should be noted that there is limited documentation on the topic of transgender characters in genre romance novels, and therefore it is necessary to weigh the potential effects of that limitation on my research. For instance, the Goodreads.com book list from which I garnered a rough overview of the history of trans characters in genre romance was user-created, and there is neither a standard rubric for which books qualify to be added nor a comprehensive survey of all books that might be a good fit; it includes a few books that are not genre romance, as well as a few that do not in fact have trans protagonists. In the absence of a more thorough catalogue of the trans romance genre, I have done what research I can, and I mention this deficit of useful resources only so that a future researcher may see the need and help to fill in the void. I hope the genres I have defined here will be useful in that work.
Of course, as with any definition of genre, the supposition of a stark dividing line is an oversimplification. There are certain to be romance novels that feature trans characters and yet don’t quite belong to either of the categories I’ve described. There is no incontrovertible boundary in time, either; I found novels that I would categorize as ETRNs published in 2014 and later, despite the fact that the MTRN had already emerged by then. (I suspect that the 2014 ETRN I mentioned earlier, A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, had limited readership in part because the MTRN was thoroughly usurping the ETRN’s popularity by that time.) Most importantly, there cannot be an indisputable definition of a modern trans anything, because what it means to be a modern trans person is a constant matter of debate. The trans community is far from a monolith, and the term “transgender” has always been an umbrella under which a great diversity of bodies and opinions are grouped. As the debates continue and the place of trans people in American society continues to change, what we accept as “modern” transness will continue to change as well. And really, how can a genre defined by the presence of trans characters ever stay concrete? “Trans,” as a word, implies a crossing of boundaries, a defiance of definitions, and the boundaries of genre can be broken as easily as the boundaries of gender.
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