People are gateways. We humanize the political and embody the abstract. By listening to others’ experiences of suffering, self-doubt, discrimination and fear, we open our hearts to radical new understandings. We become points of contact for each other. We learn empathy.
When it comes to dealing with the discourse surrounding the trans* community, I am attempting to straddle two separate worlds. Sadly, to many of my cisgender friends, trans* people are “weird” or “odd.” Many say they support trans* people and do not want them to be mistreated, but when the discussion turns to legislation that would allow a trans* person to use their preferred public restroom, my cis friends shift uncomfortably in their seats. What if a man abused such legislation to spy on women? I understand their anxiety because I once shared it. Raised in homogenised, heteronormative communities, we didn’t know any trans* people and thus never had to confront our basic assumptions about gender and sex. We had no way of knowing a trans woman is more likely to be bullied for using her “assigned” public restroom than a lecherous hump is to use that restroom for spying on women while they have a wee.
The only difference between these friends and myself is that I met Abby, a trans woman, and I saw the anxiety in her eyes when she asked me why natal women go to the bathroom in groups.
“Oh,” I stammered. “It’s a social thing, I think.”
“So it’s not for protection?” she asked.
My heart broke. What could I say? Why do we live in a society where a person is afraid to use a public restroom? What could I do to make it better?
I think that’s why I love queer webcomics. For those who don’t have a friend like Abby, these digital strips are that gateway into the trans* experience. Through the artists’ manipulation of line and color and form, we, the readers, are able to see the world from their point of view. These comics foster a community where other trans* people can connect and help each other navigate the difficulties of transitioning and where cis people can understand the process almost first-hand without asking awkward, invasive questions. The entire experience is amazing.
Having said that, the world of queer comics can also be an overwhelming tumble down the rabbit hole and it’s hard to know where to start. My recommendation? Sam Orchard’s Rooster Tails, a webcomic diary he started in January 2010, discussing his experiences as a trans man living in New Zealand. Rooster Tails was my gateway to trans* webcomics, and I think it is extraordinary for a host of reasons. First and foremost, Orchard makes an effort to be open and accepting to everyone, especially himself. As he states in a recent comic, he was not born in the wrong body, he was simply born in a trans one, a fact of which he is clearly proud. Rather than shunning his dead identity entirely, Orchard embraces his former self. He is proud that he was named after his grandmother even as he lets that name go and hestruggled with loosing the “woman webcomic artist” label as he transitioned.
This is not to say Orchard comes by this self-acceptance easily. Rooster Tails illustrates the numerous obstacles he faced in transitioning, fromcoming out to his parents to misgendering to the simple fact that New Zealand’s society and government still cannot cope with non-heternormative relationships. To say that I enjoy these glimpses into Orchard’s life would be disingenuous because I hate to watch him struggle. Rather, I appreciate his honesty because up until I read Rooster Tails, I had no idea that a trans man might worry about telling a doctor his reasons for starting testosterone or how arbitrary the counselling process is for a trans man or that an endocrinologist might use a man’s weight to keep him from starting testosterone.
When I was younger, I firmly believed in supporting same-sex marriage, as if that single issue would cure all social ills pertaining to the LGBT+ community. However, Orchard points out that this is not the case, at least in New Zealand where same-sex marriage is a pretty option that invites the LGBT+ community to assimilate into a damaging heteronormative patriarchy rather than creating a society that caters to their needs. Yes, same-sex marriage is a good first step toward society accepting those outside the gender binary, but Orchard raises an excellent point: a good first step toward what, exactly?
Personally, my favorite aspect of Rooster Tails is that it teaches people about the more “academic” aspects of trans* identities. In exploring his identity as a trans man, we gain a much more visceral understanding of how fluid the gender and sexuality spectrums are. Throughout the comic, Orchard brings up some excellent points: how does one discuss their sexuality when both parties live outside the gender binary? How useful are gender labels when said labels do not allow one to grow and shift and change? Why do people still insist on using medical markers to define how masculine or feminine a trans* person is, and what alternatives do trans* people use? How do we define masculinity and femininity anyway? What does it look like when a person lives outside of those definitions? I love Orchard’s Genderqueer Superhero/ine, a character he created to help smash the heteronormative patriarchy and who is also willing to listen to Orchard’s concerns about his capabilities to truly be a “good man.” I’m hoping to see more of GQ in future strips.
I also think his miniseries, Is My Binary Showing, should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in understanding the shades of the rainbow of gender and sexuality beyond the black and white of heterosexual, cisgender love. More than a teaching tool, this miniseries is an unadulterated celebration of those within the trans* community that allows the reader to, hopefully, share Orchard’s adoration. Further mandatory reading would include Orchard’s Queer 101 comic which he created for New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission to explain the gender and sexuality spectrums.
While I adore the entire body of Orchard’s work for its exuberance and accessible gender analysis, I would argue Queer 101 is his most important comic. Somehow Orchard has managed to condense an entire textbook’s worth of material on gender identity, sex and sexuality into one of the most in-depth visual discussions I have ever found. If, in the future, any of my friends need help understanding the intersections of gender and sexuality, or need a quick crash-course on what it means to be intersex, I will be more than happy to direct them to this strip.
At this point, I’m fairly sure I’ve made this clear: I adore Rooster Tails. Even when Orchard discusses heavier subjects, like transgender gatekeeping, he still finds ways to inject his story with pure brilliance. If anyone reading this article has ever thought they needed to better understand trans* issues and experiences but never knew how to go about the task, Rooster Tails is a great place to start. So why are you still here? Get going!
Lauren Maier is a super-heroine who moonlights as an average mortal to make ends meet. When she’s not saving graphic novels in distress from eternal loneliness in bookstores, she works on her PhD in Hull and bones up on her mastery of all things geek. She was probably a jack rabbit in her past life.
This post originally appeared on The Human Experience and has been re-posted with permissions.