Tokenism, cardboard, accidentally writing the other, and the pursuit of happiness.
(Or, How Harriet Is My Poster Child for Unintentional Diversity.)
I keep coming back to Harriet when these things come up, because she's transgendered and I wrote her, and she's simultaneously a fully realized character, and a background character; the story is not about her, but she's there and she's real and she's not just a one-note part. When I put her in, she was a he and he was an antagonist, and I expected that he would provide some real annoyance, some cheap laughs, and ultimately suffer a crushing set-down at the hands of my callous little protagonists.
I should have known better.
The book is halfway through a second draft, so things are still evolving and changing; I don't imagine that Harriet's character is going to be set in stone for those drafts; I'm still getting to know her and all the other characters. She's still not the protagonist of this story. She has her own story. This narrative that I'm telling is not hers, although she's a part of it.
I meant Harry to be the most irritating little son of a bitch you've ever met, but entirely innocently so. I drew on a number of fine, time-honored tropes: the social misfit, the funny-looking kid, the kid who smells of wet bed, the kid with the annoying voice, the kid with the imaginary friends, the kid who Completely Does Not Get social norms, and I packed them all into this one character who was designed to drive both of my protagonists up the wall, and then completely out of their tree.
And he did! He took on a life of his own. He was very effective at it, and the more I reached into his character to pull out new and more refined depths of obnoxiousness, the better I got to know him, and the more I got to like him, and the more I knew I could throw him at my protagonists, because they were developing a slow and simmering loathing for the little creep. It wasn't enough that he was a little wacky, no; he had to have developed a disconnect from actual reality, one that nothing and nobody could get through. It wasn't enough that one of my protagonists was unavoidably faced with him on a daily basis; no, I had to involve him in the life of the other, too, and interfere with both of them at the dance. I saw the opportunity to get both Ben and Beatrice in one blow: that meant some calculated monkey-wrenching, and some abuse of poor Beatrice's favorite outfit, and some assault on poor Ben's heterosexuality. I asked myself how Harry would feel about all this, and he told me loud and clear. By the time his parents had to be called, I was nearly rolling on the floor in hysterics, because I did not expect him to take it that far.
I worked out his family dynamics. I didn't expect to learn about his mother's issues when I wanted to know what the hell was up with the flagpole incident, but I did, and I learned that his mother believed in letting him express himself to the fullest extent, which was why no-one had ever told him that it was actually socially unacceptable to do the things that he did: his mother never corrected him on these issues, and in fact took offense if anyone else dared to. No wonder he grew up completely obnoxious! It was at that point that I gained sympathy for him.
Despite the cross-dressing, though, he was still a boy. It was only when Beatrice's younger sister decided that she would make him popular, and that to make him popular she would have him become a girl, that I realized where his character was going. Even then, I wasn't sure. Was she just cross-dressing, or was she transgendered? He didn't identify as a girl, yet. He was used to being a boy, but much to my complete surprise, he was willing to give the idea of becoming a girl a chance. I found out that he was actually incredibly desperate for social acceptance by more than just a small circle of people, and he would literally do anything to be popular, even though he didn't think he'd actually be popular; he just hoped that he wouldn't be hated.
It sort of says something awful when someone thinks that a transition from male to female is going to be more socially acceptable than their previous self. But Beatrice's little sister pointed it all out so logically: he just didn't have the right mannerisms to be male, and she would have to completely re-train him in order to make it work, and in any case, he seemed to be perfectly fine with who he was, it was just everybody else who wasn't fine with it, but to make them fine with it, he would have to become a girl.
I didn't write Harriet intending for her to be a girl. It just sort of happened. I didn't write Harriet looking for her to become some sort of icon of the ideal transgendered person, oh god no. You saw her evolution. She was meant to be a very scary and obnoxious little nerd-boy. (And I, the writer, *like* geekboys, so I was stretching for the worst I could think of.) She just evolved, and I was powerless to stop her. If anyone tries to find in her any sort of ideal, I will be very baffled. Yes, she's sweet and she means well, and she and Sally are a lovely couple, but she is hardly Every Transwoman. That makes me a little giddy and gleeful. I want her to be herself first (even though I keep pulling her out as a success story for An Accidental Other).
And she *is* an Other. I'm generally cisgendered, with a touch of genderqueer every now and then. I'm bisexual, but that hardly qualifies me to write transgendered people. I have never owned a penis. I have only rarely wanted to have one. I have almost never felt as if I ought to fit a gender role and not fit it; if anything, gender roles were sorry that they didn't fit me better. I know people, but "my transgendered friend says" is worth about the pixels it's written on and not much more, unless you happen to know that particular transgendered friend too.
I'm more worried about getting Harriet right for Harriet, really, than making sure that Harriet hits the whole transgendered checklist. If there's a checklist, that's going to be very helpful in throwing more shit her way and making things hella awkward for her friends. And yes, the protagonists who started out loathing her have gotten to know her, and have wound up liking her and defending her and considering her a friend. I really don't know if Ben ever accepts her as a girl, but Beatrice does, or at least Beatrice is trying pretty hard to, to the point where I can't tell if Beatrice is harboring a secret "but Harriet is really Harry down deep" feeling, and if I'm writing her and I can't tell that, I think she's done pretty well at that. Harriet isn't even sure if Harriet is really a girl and not just Harry in a dress, but at least she's happy in a dress and happy acting like a girl, so who cares if she's really a girl or not? She can be one if she wants to be.
I hope Harriet gets accepted by the transgendered community (once she's published). I would love it. I would be sort of pathetically grateful and probably cry a lot. But Harriet is never going to have started out to be a transwoman, and she never started out to be sympathetic. She evolved. I'm glad she evolved. I'm glad for myself that I was able to evolve her, but I'm even gladder for her that she figured out her own path to happiness.