Talking to Sabrina Symington, author of First Year Out – the first graphic novel to explore transition for trans women

Sabrina Symington is an illustrator, graphic novelist and blogger from Vancouver, working to normalise transgender issues. First Year Out is based on her own personal experiences and those of her friends. The graphic novel follows Lily, a trans woman, as she navigates the ups and downs of transition. From laser hair removal to dating and gender reassignment surgery, the comic tackles difficult issues with honesty and intimacy. We talked to Sabrina about her reasons for creating First Year Out. 

What made you decide to explore the process of transition in graphic novel form?

I initially started drawing autobiographical webcomics as a way of working through the rollercoaster of emotions I had in the early days of my transition. But as I progressed in my transition, I realized how much misinformation there is out there about trans people. Since I believe in the power of narrative to change people’s views on controversial subjects, I felt what was needed was a humanizing trans story – most importantly one written by a transgender author, as opposed to a cis author translating their view of trans experiences through their own lens. I wanted to not only present accurate information about trans people’s lives and experiences, but also to present trans people as real people, rather than the stereotypes that we are usually portrayed as. One thing I will say is that I changed and grew immensely over the course of writing First Year Out. Transition is an ongoing process. It doesn’t “end” when you get a surgery. It goes much deeper than that and can last a lifetime. And while much of the story reflects my views and experiences during my own first year out as a trans woman, if I were to write “Second Year Out”, the story and Lily’s character would be *very* different. For I, too, am a completely different woman now.

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Can I Tell You About…The Internet?

CJ Atkinson, author of ‘Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity?’, shares their thoughts on a series of important topics in the trans world. In this instalment, CJ explains why the internet is just like the pub for trans people.

My grandfather was 95 when he died and a product of his era. Born and raised in the working class north of England, he left school at 14 and worked in the mills until he retired. Not to appeal too much to Monty Python, but you could have subbed him into the Four Yorkshiremen sketch and not noticed the difference. As he got older, he got closer to understanding that things in other places were different. He started to realise that the microcosm of where he’d lived and grown up wasn’t, in fact, representative of the world and a curious thing happened. Instead of being resistant to it, he started to accept everything at face value. After all, he knew who he was, and was comfortable accepting everybody else for knowing who they were too.

Over the near-century he was alive the world had changed so much that it started to feel like perhaps he didn’t know much about anything. Which isn’t to say he lost himself – he was the most him he’d ever been, he just knew that things were different than they used to be, and that seemed to be alright. In spite of all of my differences, he was one of my best friends, and always my greatest supporter.

In the exact same way, I am, fundamentally, a product of my age. I’m part of the Myspace Generation, the first influx of Facebook users, and I absolutely have a tumblr. So it’s interesting to realise that in looking for things to “blame” for “The Transgenders” (which will be my Pretenders tribute karaoke band name), it always comes down to one main culprit: The Internet.

What we need to do is to synthesise what this means. Rather than assuming the internet spreads “propaganda” and “brainwashing”, consider it being a resource that shares “information” and “knowledge”. Not just about gender issues, but about the things that affect people who aren’t you. After all, I have no idea what it’s like to live in your body. As you read this, I have no conception of the world as you face it. The same can be said in return.

For some people, the internet is a resource through which you ask a question to get an answer. That’s not always how it works, though. Exposure (the dreaded “propaganda”) works to give an academic – if not a personal – understanding of issues. Thanks to the internet I’m a smarter person, more aware of life around me and the things I can do to accept and help other people around me. Fundamentally though, it operates in the same way that the pub used to. People talk about themselves, and you find those common threads. I never needed any help to explore my gender, I’ve been myself for as long as I could remember, but what I’ve always lacked are the words. Until I started to learn, I didn’t have the ability to express myself, and the internet – instead of telling me who I was – gave me a language that I could use to articulate myself.

It’s true; people didn’t used to talk about these things. In exactly the same way that rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual people changed to reflect an understanding of love that has existed in perpetuity, so have conversations about gender. This is what progress does. There are so many things that the world didn’t talk about, and the countless bodies of people who never survived these times. Not because they didn’t exist but because they couldn’t acknowledge their existence.

How long have trans people been around? Well, historically we know that early Paleolithic cave drawings seem to depict different genders, and the gender binary as we know it is a particularly “Western” concept. Almost every indigenous culture around the world recognises an otherness of gender, and typically values and appreciates these people. If anything, it’s taken the internet and the advances of technology to drag the West into an understanding that the world is more complicated than simply a case of ‘this’ or ‘that’. The internet is a resource, like any other. In its purest form it’s a case of chaotic neutral, where you can find what you want to find. For as long as we have young people looking for answers, and elders who refuse to acknowledge their identities, is it any wonder that the internet is the only space we call home?

CJ tweets at @cjandmiles.

To read other blog posts from CJ, please follow this link.

For more information on the book, please follow this link.

Can I Tell You About…Pronouns?

CJ Atkinson, author of ‘Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity?’, shares their thoughts on a series of important topics in the trans world. Here, they explain why using the correct pronouns for a trans person is so vital. 

In my life, I know a staggering number of people called Dave. Two of my immediate neighbours are called Dave. My barber’s called Dave. My friend’s boyfriend is a Dave, and two of my best friends, yep, they’re Daves too. In fact, there are so many Daves in my life that it would make everything so much easier if everyone was called Dave. I’d never have to struggle for a name, and I’d always be right. No more awkward “Hello…. You”s while I try to recall a name. It’d be so easy. Hi Dave!

Now imagine if I met you, and called you Dave. You gently correct me because Dave isn’t your name, but it’s funny when someone’s so certain about something that’s deeply wrong. Oh yes, I say, acknowledging it. A little while later, I call you Dave again. Now you’re confused, right? Maybe I didn’t hear you the first time. You remind me again that your name most emphatically isn’t Dave. “Don’t worry about it, Dave”, I say, confident in your Daveness. “You just… seem so much like a Dave.” Now it’s harder. Your name still isn’t Dave, and I’m still calling you Dave. This time when you tell me, it’s not funny anymore. I sigh, and tell you how difficult it is because everyone I know is Dave, and it would be so much easier if you were Dave, and have you even tried being Dave? You never know, you might like it. You don’t have to be difficult. Dave is fine. I’ll keep calling you Dave.

Pronouns – those things that go before words to refer to a person — are causing a bit of a stir at the moment, as the English language has to bend itself a little to make sure it can express human experience. That’s the way it’s meant to go, after all — language works for us, not the other way around. While those of you comfortable with he or she should absolutely feel comfortable referring to yourself thus, there are those of us who slot somewhere in between the binary. What about the singular they, which divides language lovers as surely as marmite? What about zie, or xie? What should you be expected to know? What’s right to assume?

My pronouns are the singular they/their/them, and I could write you an academic thesis on why that feels right to me — it’s comfortable, it encompasses how I see and feel about myself, and it’s an accepted grammatical convention. Not that I expect you to care about any of those reasons. In the same way that I’d like if you used my name, and didn’t just call me Dave, the same goes for my pronouns. You don’t need to worry about it – I’m going to tell you what they are, and once I’ve told you, we can move on. The same would be true if I tell you my pronouns are xe, zie, or any other that I’ve chosen to express myself with. In the same way that my name identifies me, so does a pronoun. When you ignore the possibility that I might not be a he or she, you’re confirming a lot of things I already know about the world:  that it isn’t meant for me, that it’s not safe to express myself, and that no matter how I feel, you just don’t care. When you ignore what I’ve explicitly told you, you’re saying something far worse. Now you’re dismissing who I am as a person — just like if I repeatedly Daved you.

Is it easy? No. I asked my friends and it’s taken an adjustment while they get their heads around it — many of whom have known me for longer than I’ve been transitioning, and who have been nothing but supportive as I navigate the complicated route from she to they. Do they always get it right? No, of course not. But here’s a secret you probably don’t know: I don’t always get it right either. Sometimes I slip and misgender myself, particularly when talking about my younger self. It happens, but that’s the thing about language — it’s a habit. Just like you can get used to the change in someone’s surname if they decided to change it once they’ve gotten married, you can learn a different pronoun. It shows that you care about the person you’re speaking to, and that their comfort is important to you. In a world that is increasingly hostile towards people who express their gender differently, that’s something that really matters. I’m also very very lucky – I’m in a supportive environment with the security of experience behind me. For young people who are experimenting with their pronouns and self-expression, it can be a vital way of affirming that you care about them, not about some societal code.

My pronouns aren’t a game, or a treat. An example: I was recently having an email exchange with a person, talking about gender issues. She wanted me to do something, and I wasn’t quite so sure about it. From the onset I’d established my name and pronouns, which is a habit I’ve gotten into as of late, and she’d acknowledged both. When I realised that I couldn’t do what she wanted, she snapped into mispronouning me, and when I reminded her of my pronouns, there was a suggestion that I hadn’t earned them. The message was very clear: for as long as I was willing to do what she wanted, my pronouns were to be respected. The minute I stepped out of line, however, and it was game over. Then my pronouns were going to be ignored. Unsurprisingly I didn’t do what the person wanted, and won’t work with them again.

Yes, it can be hard to get it always right, and maybe you’ll slip, but it’s time to start having conversations about this. If you get it wrong, in exactly the same way as if you forgot somebody’s name, just apologise and move on. Try, and keep trying, because the world won’t end if you do and you might find that you make a really positive difference in the life of someone who really needs it. And if you’re ever not sure, if you’re ever confused, just ask — the difference that makes, over assuming, can make somebody’s day.

CJ tweets at @cjandmiles.

For more information on the book, please follow this link.