Illustrator and comic creator Julian Gray certainly knows a thing or two about depicting trans and non-binary characters in illustration.
As well as being transgender himself, Julian’s worked with LGBTQIA+ organisations including Switchboard LGBT and the LGBT Foundation on illustrating invaluable guides on topics like safe binding and trans sexual health.
He also creates comics with queer protagonists where their queer identities are incidental to the main storyline.
As he puts it, he is “passionate about filling the world with stories featuring marginalised characters where their struggles are not the centrepiece. Knights who happen to be trans, cold war spies who happen to be queer.”
We’re very fortunate to have Julian Gray teaching our upcoming Online Masterclass: How to Draw Trans and Non-Binary Characters.
To mark the beginning of LGBT History Month, we sat down with Julian to run through some of our burning questions on drawing trans and non-binary characters.
Why is it important to distinguish cisgender and transgender characters in illustration?
It can sometimes sound a bit strange to talk about distinguishing cis and trans characters in illustration; after all, we often hear the message that it’s best to treat everyone equally. Wouldn’t drawing trans characters differently mean marking them out as unusual?
It is absolutely true that there is no one way to “look trans”, but it is also true that seeing trans-coded characters can be an affirming and representative experience for many trans people.
What do I mean by trans-coded? A trans-coded character has characteristics that lead a viewer to read them as trans. In the trans community, there is a (somewhat controversial) concept called “passing”: if you “pass”, you are read as your true gender in public. Usually, it also means cis people cannot tell you are trans.
Many trans people experience gender dysphoria, that is, some of their physical characteristics cause them discomfort and upset, because it feels like those characteristics do not fit with their true gender. A trans man who doesn’t “pass” may dwell on what he thinks “gives it away”. ‘Is it my wide hips?’ he will wonder, ‘or maybe it’s because I’m short?’ He begins to hate these aspects of himself, but he cannot change them.
Then one day he sees a character who has those characteristics. A man who is short, with wide hips, but is depicted as happy, confident, handsome. The trans man immediately identifies with that character, and seeing how good-looking that character is, he begins to feel better about those parts of himself as well.
Trans people with these characteristics hardly ever see characters who look like them. This is why it’s important to me to draw trans-coded characters, something I’ll go into more depth in during my class.
How do you feel about cisgender artists illustrating trans and non-binary characters?
This is a question that commonly comes up, for understandable reasons.
Just like with any marginalised population in society, we have historically been depicted in unfavourable ways in mainstream media. Trans people have often been drawn by cis artists in transphobic ways, showing us as unflattering, unhappy outcasts. It’s understandable that cis artists who want to be respectful are wary of contributing to that history.
I personally believe that cisgender artists who avoid drawing trans characters because they are afraid of getting it wrong are making the wrong decision for the right reason. Trans people are a minority; there are much fewer of us, and we also have access to fewer opportunities. If only trans artists draw trans characters, there will be hardly any trans characters out there, and those characters are less likely to have an audience. Imagine the impact a famous cis artist could have by drawing a trans character in a respectful manner.
Of course, this comes with a huge caveat, and that is that cis artists need to do their research and listen to trans people on how to do things respectfully. I also believe it is morally right for cis artists to uplift trans artists, especially on projects where the trans part is the focus.
In short, if the project is about trans people, you should find a trans artist to work on it. If the project just happens to include a trans character, then of course you should illustrate them, making sure you’re doing it in a respectful manner.
What is your top tip for illustrating trans and non-binary characters in a respectful way?
Use references! Look at trans and non-binary celebrities, and observe the commonalities between them without focusing on any one person. For my class I have put together resources showing the characteristics that depict a character as trans-coded, but if you do not have access to this then people who are already in the public spotlight are a great reference.
What’s the main thing you’d advise illustrators to avoid in their depictions of trans and non-binary characters?
I believe that it’s very much about the intention behind the depiction, rather than any specific aspect of it. However, there are certain things which I would say require a more delicate approach, and can be an easy stumbling block if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Stories about trans characters have historically focused on the grim parts of our lives. I would encourage illustrators to think hard before depicting a trans character in an unhappy or depressing state, especially around themes like suicide, murder, or self-harm.
I would also encourage them to take extra care around depicting gender non-conforming trans characters, such as trans women who choose to keep their facial hair. This could potentially be a great character but it can also easily turn into a transphobic caricature if you’re not careful. For the same reason, I would do additional research before depicting non-binary characters who mix up stereotypical gender markers in their appearance like facial hair, body hair, dresses, and make-up.
Are you inspired by any other illustrators who are depicting trans and non-binary characters effectively in their work?
I am a big fan of non-binary artist Noelle Stevenson, who created the graphic novel Nimona and was showrunner on the Netflix show She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which depicted many trans and non-binary characters. I use some of their work as a case study in my class. I also love Fyodor Pavlov’s work; he is a trans man whose illustrations are erotically sensual and depict both cis and trans bodies. Alex "Nooska” Dingley is a trans man with a soft, open style with characters you instantly connect with. Finally, Marlowe Lune is a non-binary artist with a gorgeous vintage-inspired style showcasing fantasy scenes featuring trans and cis characters alike.
I’m sure there are more that I’ll remember tomorrow and go “how could I forget them?!”
Want to learn more from Julian? Book a place on our upcoming Online Masterclass: How to Draw Trans and Non-Binary Characters.