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Continuing the theme of LGBT representation in literature, this essay’s focus is on a transgender girl’s experience in the short story “Other Women” in the short story collection: A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett. The story follows a trans girl named Sophie and her struggles with others respecting her gender identity, name, and pronouns, along with gender dysphoria and her sexuality in relation to her gender identity.
The story picks up with Sophie reuniting with her mother after an extended period of having moved away from home. She remarks that her mother “didn’t say anything about gender the whole day, which was nice of her.” It was Sophie’s first time home in Winnipeg since she asked everyone to call her by her chosen name. Her Mom has been trying to call her Sophie, but it’s hard for her.
Sophie’s friend Megan is one of the few people in the story who respect her gender identity, and is fiercely protective of her. Megan introduces Sophie to her cisgender male friend Mark, and Sophie makes “a note to pay attention to whether men and women shook hands with each other. All these new social cues are confusing.” Later on in the day Sophie gets misgendered in passing by a stranger and she thinks to herself: “I don’t know why I can’t just say for myself: Actually, I’m not a guy. I get this awful image of being like a little kid saying ‘look, no I’m really a girl. I promise. I super promise.” I wanted someone else to step up and say you’re wrong buddy-o, that there is a chick, she’s no man and you should get your eyes checked.”
Sophie is mostly attracted to women, and therefore identifies as lesbian, but questions her identity when she meets Mark. She finds herself wanting to know if he is straight, and wants him to be into women. She says that he burnt a hole through her gaydar and made her feel pretty, something that sounds trivial but as a trans girl, tends to mean quite a lot. However, her dysphoria kicks in when she accidentally rubs her phone against her five o’clock shadow, and she stops feeling pretty.
Plett also addresses violence against trans people in this story. Sophie tells her mom that Oregon is nice and she does not feel unsafe, but she knows that “it’s not true that everything’s always friendly. She was at a bar a few weeks back and some guys threatened to throw a knife in her face. Someone yelled ‘fuckin faggot’ when she was walking home the other day. She moved to Portland partly on word that it was a queer-dripping liberal dream, but she wishes she had researched geographic specifics before she signed a lease on 104th and Powell.” She muses, “I just feel lucky no one’s tried to punch me yet. Or stab me. But Mom didn’t need to hear any of that.”
Sophie faces both casual transphobia and violence from people she knows as well as random transphobic strangers. She meets up with old people from high school, and is out to them. She makes a remark about her gender, and one of the cisgender boys says, “Don’t be gross. Look, I’m cool with you. Doing whatever, like, I don’t get it, I mean, if this turns you on, whatever. But there are people here tonight who wanted to kick your ass, okay? I talked to them, they’re cool, but just like, relax, be normal, it’ll be fine. Okay?” She tells the reader that she worries a lot about her safety, but she did not think she would have to expect it here.
Sophie tells the reader about her experience coming out as trans to her mom, and how her mother took it pretty hard. It was not too bad when she came out to her a couple years ago, admitted she wore dresses, and told her she was thinking about transitioning. She had listened and frowned and said, “okay, well. I think you make a fantastic son, and I certainly hope you can learn to love yourself as a male.” But when Sophie told her she was going on hormones, she said “‘oh lord” really softly and kept excusing herself to go to the bathroom…It was hard after that. She stopped signing her emails “Love, Mom.” Stopped going out in public with me. Those were rough months.” However, they got closer again after Sophie moved, and started respecting her pronouns.
She mentions that the one time her mother had “gotten audibly squirrely about gender stuff in the last few months was when she mentioned to her that she had gone to this march in Portland for trans rights. [Her mother] made this exasperated noise and started giving her this big talk about brainwashing and cults and stuff like that.” Sophie got a little annoyed and told her that just because a group of people gets together to make the world better doesn’t automatically make them a religion, but her mother said to not ever be too sure of that.
During prayer before dinner, her grandfather says, “We are especially thankful you saw fit to guide up from America our grandson Leon-” She corrects him, saying, “No, Sophie,” despite the fact that she knows you are not supposed to interrupt prayer because she couldn’t help it. Her grandmother took in a sharp breath and her mother said “hey now” in a quiet, angry voice. Sophie apologizes, and her grandfather pauses, as if he were deciding whether to address her or not, then moved on to pray for someone else.
Sophie remarks that she has a visceral reaction every time she hears her birth name, due to too many bad memories, not of anything specific, just general unhappiness due to gender dysphoria. One of the younger children in her family tells her, “I think part of my head will always think of you as Leon though” and she feels an urge to throw her mug out through the window. She notices how sad the kid’s tone was, and that he looked worried. She wonders what his parents might have told him. She explains that she has always been Sophie on the inside, so actually she was never Leon all along, it just looked that way.
Casey Plett, a trans author, conveys many aspects of transgender experience, from violence and transphobia and pronoun struggles to dysphoria and the strain it tends to put on family and relationships.
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