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Living in Someone Else’s Skin Means Living in Your Own Skin, Too

We’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately. How empathy happens, how love happens, how attention to others happens.

Right now the Iowa Statehouse, and many other statehouses around the country, seem like they’re full of a lot of elected people who need to practice more empathy. As of last night, despite well attended protests for LGBTQ+ rights, two toxic bills targeting trans minors have passed both of Iowa’s legislative chambers and await Governor Kim Reynolds’ signature. Though we should hold out hope she has an epiphany of empathy, it seems very likely that soon there will be a lot of Iowa children unable to access medical care essential for their mental health — and sometimes essential just for keeping them alive. Not to mention kids forced to use the bathroom for genders they don’t identify with. These bills could not feel more personal to us. Not only is Lilith an out trans woman, but Erica is a school God Is Non-binary board member whose district will be bound by these laws. But we want to talk about something bigger than our two individual perspectives.

The approach of Trans Day of Visibility is bittersweet and a bit ironic this year, as it seems that trans folks increasingly have targets on their backs. In some sense, most trans people just want to blend into the background — fit in, “pass” (a complex word that contains assumptions we don’t like), and just be allowed to live their lives in quiet peace. 

Yet at this moment, all of us need to see trans people. Not just see, but live in their skin, see the world through their eyes. It’s almost a cliche that literature and film should show marginalized voices and identities — yet it feels so utterly vital when it comes to trans folks. Despite the fact that one of us is trans and that we both know and care about many trans and genderqueer people, much of what we grasp most deeply about trans lives comes from what we read and watch. 

We’re in the middle of the second season of Sense8, from the amazing transfem duo the Wachowski sisters and J. Michael Straczynski (it’s Lilith’s third time through, actually). Sense8 is the story of a group of eight (absurdly hot) people spread across the globe who discover their brains have evolved in a way that enables them to share each other’s senses, thoughts, and abilities, and to visit each other out-of-body. One of the series’ most lovable characters is the trans hacktivist Nomi Marks, whose coming out and struggles with her family feature prominently in the first season. 

But Sense8’s implications for trans empathy go far beyond Nomi. The entire series is a sustained meditation on empathy, love, attention, and the grand diversity of human brains and circumstances. The eight main characters, of course, share an extraordinary form of empathy in which they literally live in each other’s skin. Yet in coming to know and love each other, in paying attention to each other’s stories, in becoming a family, the characters also come to live more fully in their own skins. They become more richly themselves, and to understand their own personal identities and relationships in new ways

This resonates. We are, of course, a coauthor duo who joke about sharing a brain, and who’ve each learned a heck of a lot about our own selves through this sharing. We’re also each coming to recognize our own ADHD — which, for us, involves not so much a deficit in attention, as a weird ability to sustain attention on other people’s stories, while sometimes forgetting our immediate surroundings.

So this brings us around to the heart of the matter: stories. 

One of the best things the two of us have done in the past year is participate in the Women from Other Worlds book club at our favorite bookstore. We’ve gotten to know a lot of trans and genderqueer characters through it: a homeless teenage violin virtuoso; an ancient magical being perceived as two; a prince whose family thinks he’s a princess; a non-binary meso-American assassin; a diplomat who partially integrates the mind of her male predecessor into herself; a homeless Brazilian computer whiz; a transfem Achilles; a new mother who brokers peace with a mother-revering alien species. Each character lets us, at least for a moment, inhabit their skin, share their thoughts, and feel their emotions.

We both love how speculative fiction pushes us to think about the limits of the possible, about how social rules and circumstances shape who we are and could become, about what it means to be human. This is eminently true of trans characters — the genre helps us reflect on the nature of gender and sex and identity and changes in all of these. But there’s something even bigger and more important we’ve gotten from all this reading: it’s given us intuitions for the wide range of trans desires and loves and lives. You should look up a book, or two or three or seven, from the many we’ve linked above.

Over the next weeks and months and probably years, we’re going to keep talking about trans and other LGBTQ+ characters in our stories and in the ones other people tell. While we don’t have much hope any of them will yield that much needed epiphany of empathy at the Iowa Statehouse, we look forward to sharing them with you, and hope that over time all these stories can help the world find a bit more empathy. And in the process, living in other people’s skins may mean living more fully in all of our own skins, too.