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Visual Representation: Trans Characters In Comics

Visual Representation is a new three-part series that will examine some of the trans characters that have appeared in comic books, manga, and webcomics. In this first entry, Tash Wolfe examines trans women’s representation in The Sandman and Batgirl

Keeping secrets

Two decades after A Game of You, DC Comics was able to redeem themselves with The New 52. This revamp of all of DC’s monthly titles put Barbara Gordon back under the Batgirl cowl. Having regained her mobility after being shot by The Joker, Barbara is processing through post-traumatic stress disorder, and needs a new place to live. Enter Alysia Yeoh!

Even before she wrote the now-infamous conversation that took place in issue #19, Gail Simone provided us with a gift. Alysia is a queer woman of color. She is a painter and an activist. She works as a bartender in the evenings and aspires to be a chef. As Barbara’s new roommate, she provides Barbara a support network that is both loving and strong. This is a detour from the typical comic book stories, which tend to center around white cisgender heterosexual men.

Alysia and Barbara’s friendship went through its first twist when Alysia began spending time with Barbara’s brother, James Gordon Jr., and developed feelings for him. During the The Death of the Family storyline, the topic of “secrets” enters Alysia and Barbara’s friendship. When Barbara is attacked in their apartment, she manages to knock out her assailants; Alysia, however, is surprised to find Barbara holding a gun. After her initial shock, they hug. Barbara tells her she is sorry that she kept secrets and that she wasn’t a better friend. As Barbara flees, she tells Alysia that she wants her to forget that she ever knew her. Later, after the Joker kidnaps Barbara, Alysia contacts James for help to find Barbara. Alysia is last seen outside of the church where the fight was happening, telling herself that she should never have let James pick her up.

batg1Alysia disappeared from the pages of Batgirl as Gail Simone disappeared as the writer. Simone was informed by email that she would no longer be the writer for Batgirl. This was a shocking decision by DC, as Batgirl was a top-selling title. It has even appeared on the New York Times hardcover graphic books bestseller list. Fans were infuriated and concerned. Simone, who had been public about writing a trans character, posted on her Tumblr: “I am not giving up on the idea of a major trans character in an ongoing mainstream title without a fight. I want a clear, unambiguous trans character in a prominent, unambiguous, and unapologetic role THIS YEAR.” Many readers speculated these promises were the reason that Gail was fired. Two weeks later, though, she returned as Batgirl’s writer, and the internet was again excited about the introduction of a new trans character. No one expected it to happen as soon as the next issue that Gail wrote, however.

In issue #19, Barbara returns to her apartment and to ask Alysia if she can come back home. Understandably, Alysia is upset about the three criminals that Barbara left handcuffed on their living room floor, but Barbara has something else to tell her. As she tries to piece together the words to let Alysia know that she is Batgirl, Alysia tells Barbara, “There’s something I’ve been trying to tell you for a while. I’m transgender, Barbara.”


Barbara’s reaction is perfect. “Babs,” she tells Alysia. “The people I love call me Babs.” (Thank you, Gail!)

Alysia’s storyline continued in a manner that is quite different than Wanda’s. We’d see her in pyjamas asking Barbara to watch a scary movie with her, or eating Barbara’s homemade snicker-doodles together while Barbara processes feelings about her family. When Barbara goes on dates, Alysia waits up to hear the details of the night. Alysia checks in with Barbara when she returns home covered in bruises. Notably, when clothes-shopping together, the “man in a dress” trope is missing.

batg3For close to a year, Alysia fell into a supporting character role and her trans-identity was not explored. Young trans readers ached to see themselves reflected on the pages. Others worried that DC has reigned in the character’s development out of fear that sales might drop.

In issue #31, we were given hope that Alysia would again become part of the story (I remember cheering quite loudly from my bed!). With a group of activists, she tried to set off a stink bomb in the headquarters of a bio-research corporation with plans to pollute Gotham. As she tries to escape with another activist, Jo, they are trapped by the villain Ragdoll. Before heading in separate directions to increase their chances of eluding capture, Jo kisses Alysia. Batgirl is able to stop Ragdoll and save Alysia and Jo, at which point Alysia tells Barbara that she and Jo are “kind of dating.”

batg4Before this story had the chance to unfold, Gail Simone left Batgirl. The new writers decided to pursue a storyline focused on Barbara making changes in her life, which included moving her out of Alysia’s apartment. Although readers have been promised that Alysia will remain as a character, and she was shown helping Barbara move, it is unclear how much we will we see of her.

Still, many readers would love to learn more about Alysia’s experiences as a trans woman, especially as a trans woman of color. It could be interesting to read about her relationship with Jo (if Jo is still around, as she seemed to be absent from Barbara’s moving party.) Could DC display a healthy and realistic storyline about a trans woman negotiating the struggles of dating while trans? Would we be able to learn more about Alysia without those familiar tropes being revisited?

Although we haven’t lost Alysia as a character, I feel that we have lost Gail’s dream of what Alysia could have become. In the post that she had written on her Tumblr when she was fired at the end of 2012, Gail wrote, “I have a proposal in right now where not just a cast member but the LEAD character is trans. Trans readers deserve representation and this is something that I am determined to see happen. This year, period. That is not negotiable.” Would we have seen Alysia wear the Batgirl cowl as many other characters have in the past?

Tash Wolfe is a femme zinester who writes about grunge kids growing up queer in the 1990s. Her writing on trauma is featured in university courses on sexuality and social justice in literature. She spends her time re-reading Sailor Moon manga and knitting lace scarves for friends. You can find her on Twitter and Ravelry @jewellerytears.

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