Ace Tropes: Cis-ace & Trans-allo Duo

This is part of a series on tropes in fiction with ace characters. To link or follow this series, please use the “ace tropes” tag on this blog.

Cisclaimer: this post was written by a cis person.

[Note: Co-Co and the narrator are in the same poly triad] Co-Co blew us both kisses. “Lovelies, hello. I’m Co-Co. Technically I graduated and am now getting my master’s degree. But my boys said I should come, and so here I am.” They crossed one leg over the other and bounced their ankle a bit. “I’m gender fluid, gay, poly, and I’m twenty-two. You have questions on any of that, you just let me know.”

If I thought people looked confused by me being asexual, they were really lost after Co-Co finished talking.

Crush by Caitlin Ricci, Chapter 16

This trope is basically putting a cis ace and a trans allo together in some kind of close relationship. In the strictest definition of this trope, the cis ace and the trans allo are ‘shipped’ with each other into some kind of pairing. In the looser definition of this trope, the cis ace and the trans allo may join the same polycule, or they may have a parent-child relationship, or simply have a lot of interaction with each other in the story. In the example list, I distinguish between stories which meet the strict definition and stories which meet the loose definition.

However, not every story with both a cis ace character and a trans allo character is an example of this trope. For example, even though the novel Hopeless Romantic has an ace character (who is presumably cis) and an trans allo character, they basically do not interact with each other, therefore that story does not contain this trope.

This trope does have some overlap with the Queer Ensemble trope in that some stories which have the cis-ace/trans-allo duo also have queer ensembles. However, the cis-ace and trans-allo are often depicted as having an especially close relationship with each other compared with other queer characters.

It’s not just in the stories themselves, it’s also in the marketing. For example, Harmony Ink Press basically combines all ace fiction and all nonbinary fiction into the category ‘Queer-Spectrum’ whereas all L, G, B, and T stories are listed separately in their own categories (apparently Harmony Ink Press does not put nonbinary fiction in the ‘T’ category). When Riptide Publishing had their Pride Month sale this year, they dedicated one week to each letter in LGBT – the first week was Lesbian, the second was Gay, the third was Bisexual, and the fourth week was Trans, Asexual & Aromantic.

Many (though not all) of the stories which use the cis-ace/trans-allo trope contain problematic ace representation and/or problematic trans representation. For example. For example, most of the cis-aces are presented as being completely flawless in how they handle trans issues, and the trans allos are usually presented as being just as flawless in handling asexuality. As a cis ace, I find this implausible. I think I know more about trans issues than the typical cis person, but compared to the typical trans person, I am clueless. I think that most cis aces, even with the best intentions, are going to make some mistakes with regards to transness if they are in a close relationship with a trans person. However, the only example of this trope I know of which depicts a cis ace and a trans allo working out misconceptions they have about each other is the webcomic Shades of A.

In particular, the trans character will often allo savior the ace character and/or the ace character will cis savior the trans character (if you know of a good overview of the cis savior trope, please drop a comment). Sometimes the trans character even reads like a Magical Queer.

Also, the ace character will often have no contact with other aces, and the trans character will often have no contact with other trans people. The ace character not having contact with other aces can often be justified, but trans readers tend to find it implausible that a trans character would not know other trans people.

I have not read The Last American Hero by Nicole Field, but Matt, who is a trans ace, says this about the novel:

Leo does all the ace talking, but Bruce is the ace character. Bruce makes all the trans calls, but Leo is the trans character. Neither ever take a stance on what they know is best for them, and probably because they don’t seem to actually know their own backstories. And neither seem to have ever even heard of their own communities. Asexuality is depicted flat-out wrong (“obviously” no kissing, my left nut) and you have to be a very, very new baby trans man to not know what top surgery is. Honestly? Despite all the page time telling me they’re trans and ace, I didn’t feel it. I don’t believe it.

Matt has also reviewed Finding Your Feet by Cass Lennox, another story which has a cis-ace/trans-allo duo.

And it can get worse. In some (though not all) examples of this trope, it can seem like the cis ace is paired with the trans allo so that the trans character can get a cis love interest – because trans people need cis people to love them (see #4 on the list) – and an ace will not be put off by the trans character’s body because aces don’t want sex. Oh, and trans people are also good partners for aces because they are ‘neutered’. For example, in the story “Wings of Destruction” the ace character hates sex but has to keep on finding ‘mates’ anyway, so the solution is to pair him with an angel who does not have genitalia. And that’s not the end of the problems with ace and trans representation in that story – you can get more details read this review by a demi-bisexual bigender writer. (Trans characters are also often paired with cis pansexual/bisexual characters so there can be a Cis Love Interest without having to ‘challenge’ a cis character’s monosexuality, but that’s not an ace trope.)

There is some justification for associating trans and ace identities. According to the 2015 Asexual Census, about 12% of the online ace community identifies as trans, and 31% don’t identify with a binary gender. This indicates that a large portion of the online ace community is trans. These numbers are similar among the allo respondents to the census, suggesting that trans allos are more likely than cis allos to have close contact with the ace community. (Source: private correspondence with Siggy.)

However, if the overlap between ace and trans communities were the main reason ace and trans characters were appearing in the same stories, then one would expect to see a lot of TRANS ACE characters. Instead, trans ace characters are rare. If the Asexual Census accurately measure what proportion of the ace community is also trans, then trans aces are severely under-represented in ace fiction. I can tell you that a lot less than 10% of the ace characters currently found in fictional media (especially the more widely known fictional ace characters) are trans. Furthermore, if the overlap between the ace and trans communities was the basis for this trope, then why are the aces and trans characters in cis-ace/trans-allo duos so often disconnected from other aces and/or trans people?

Speaking as a cis ace, I think it is strange that this trope (cis-ace/trans-allo duo) is far more common than trans ace characters. Most of the contact I’ve had with trans people in the past few years has been through the ace community, which means most of the contact I’ve had with trans people has been with trans aces, not trans allos. Admittedly, the statistics from the Asexual Census imply that I might be an outlier. Or maybe the trans allos who have close contact with the ace community mostly have contact with trans aces, I honestly do not know.

I do not think there is anything intrinsically wrong about a cis-ace/trans-allo pairing, but I cannot help but wonder why is the cis-ace/trans-ace pairing so rare, and why have I yet to find any stories with trans-ace/trans-ace or trans-ace/trans-allo pairings?

I’m not the first person to notice the disparity between the number of stories with cis-ace/trans-allo duos and the number of stories with trans-ace characters – embodiedinlanguage has said:

Currently my greatest ace fiction desire is to find ace characters who are also trans/nonbinary. As of now I know of exactly one character who fits that description, and although I get excited when a new book goes up on Riptide or Less Than Three Press that has both those tags, thus far it has always turned out to be “Character A is ace and Character B is trans.” Still holding out hope for my…I guess extremely niche representation?

However, as I said above, Asexual Census statistics suggest that this type of representation should not be extremely niche within ace fiction. Which raises some questions…

Examples:

[strict definition]
“Wings of Destruction” by Victoria Zagar
Finding Your Feet by Cass Lennox
Alonso Munich is Now Dead by S. Gates
The Last American Hero by Nicole Field
“Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire
“The Goose Girl” by Robin Gallica
Kimchi Cuddles (webcomic)
Shades of A (webcomic)
Blood Borne by Archer Kay Leah
Ace of Hearts by Caitlin Ricci
A Fine Bromance by Christopher Hawthorne Moss

[loose definition]
Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver (I know that there are some Word of Ace trans aces in this story, but based on what’s shown on page, the only explicit ace character is not trans, and the most prominent trans character is definitely not ace)
Crush by Caitlin Ricci
“Labyrinth” by Alex Beecroft
“Mr. March Names the Stars” by Rivka Aaron-Hughes [sibling relationship, the romantic relationship is trans-ace/cis-ace]
Dragonborn by Maeghan Friday
“Wandering Star” by K.M. Penemue
Winterbourne’s Daughter by Stephanie Rabig
Eth’s Skin (webcomic)

Questions:

1) How do you feel about the cis-ace/trans-allo duo trope?
2) Why is the cis-ace/trans-allo duo much more common than trans ace characters?
3) How can this trope be used well (i.e. what are good reasons to put a cis-ace and trans-allo character together)?

About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
This entry was posted in Articles, Intersectionality, LGBT, Media and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Ace Tropes: Cis-ace & Trans-allo Duo

  1. DasTenna says:

    I only know one example of a cis-ace/gender-queer-ace: Carmilla DeWinter´s “Albenzauber” (published 2017 in Germany). I´ve not read much English novels so far, so I don´t know about any trans-ace.

    • Sara K. says:

      I didn’t know that Albenzauber has a genderqueer ace – cool (I cannot read German). The examples I know of in English which I know are on-page (and not Word of Ace) are “Mr. March Names the Stars” by Rivka Aaron-Hughes and Assassins: Nemesis by Erica Cameron.

  2. Rachel says:

    1. I have no problem with cis-ace & trans allo in of itself. I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t happen in fiction if it happens in real life My issues tend to be with its framing (see below).

    2. As you have pointed out already, the cis-ace is used to desexualize the trans character, which is all sorts of iffy. I also find it questionable that asexuality is… exploited, basically, in order to make a “safe” love-interest to dodge any questions of sex involving trans people.

    Please allow me to indulge in some cynicism: I think that’s why cis-ace/trans-ace, trans-ace/trans-ace, and trans-ace/trans-allo pairings seem so comparatively rare: it doesn’t make for easy, simple tokenization. Having more than one ace character, or more than one trans character? Perish the thought!. The whole perfect-trans-ally cis-ace and perfect ace-ally trans-allo thing doesn’t help with the tokenism vibes either.

    3. I can see this trope working out if more specifics are given to deepen and humanize the dynamic. Like: maybe the trans allo wants or prefers a nonsexual relationship? Maybe the ace is sex-favorable? Maybe show both members working on, or even struggling with, accepting and integrating their partner’s identity? Tokenism is very as much about the shallowness of a portrayal, not just the numbers.

    • Carmilla DeWinter says:

      Seconded. I’ve also met a relative of this trope once, which is ace/sexually abused allo, because the reasoning behind pairing those characters up is the same. Read: “their deficits match, which is why they belong together and shall be happy ever after!”
      While “each love interest has something the other is missing” is a standard romance practice that I’ve applied many times, it feels iffy to exploit someone’s minority status or marginalization that way. If you do it, you better make sure it’s not the only “deficit match” and you make sure you did your research and are writing a person, not a token.

    • Sara K. says:

      To be fair, only the worst examples of this trope desexualize the trans character (for example, when the trope overlaps with poly relationships the trans character is usually not desexualized) but even though it is rarely as overt as ‘hey, nobody wants to have sex with this trans person, so let’s pair them with an ace’ I think writers are not always sufficiently careful to avoid that implication.

      I share your thoughts about tokenization. Even bringing in a trans ace character, even if they are the only ace and only trans person in the story, requires a deeper level of thought than just ‘hey, I’m going to put in an ace character and a trans character to represent those queer identities which are not nearly as popular as gay cis-male, cis-lesbian, and bisexuals-shoved-into-common-M/M-or-F/F-formulas to represent all the queer people!’ I think the impulse to show more diversity is good, but it needs to go beyond tokenism.

      The most charitable interpretation I can make of the perfect-ally thing is that they want a story which does not depict discrimination (or at least not discrimination by the love interest). However, if one wants to write an escapist fantasy where nobody mishandles aceness or transness, it’s best to make all the major characters ace and/or trans rather than trying to make characters into perfect allies of people with different identities.

      • Rachel says:

        On the “perfect allies to each other” trope, I will concede that some stories may not benefit from or be meant to explore the relationship dynamics in depth. By perfect allies, do we mean “actively shown to be perfectly clued in on all the issues” or “simply not shown as having these issues due to a lack of exploration?” The first definitely reeks of immature writing and tokenism, but the second can be the result of the story simply not being the time or place to discuss it. Not everything a story presents can or should be elaborated on to the umpteenth degree, and that’s okay.

        • Sara K. says:

          Oh, I agree that not every story needs to (or should) explore the issue of how one character relates to the other’s aceness or transness. I was referring to “actively shown to be perfectly clued in on all the issues” (or something approaching that) situations.

          It’s especially irksome when a cis (or allo) character is shown to be perfectly clued in while the *writer* has some significant misunderstandings about what it means to be trans (or ace). An example of this (with regards to messing up trans representation, the ace representation is actually very good) is the novel Finding Your Feet, and you can read the review I linked in this post.

  3. Sara K. says:

    To answer my own questions:

    1. I’m tired of it because I’ve seen it so many times (especially since it’s not always done in a skillful way). In addition to the other good reasons to put trans aces in fiction, it would be *different* and feel fresher to me.

    2. As I said above, I suspect this trope is so common because writers think ‘I want ace representation and trans representation’ without putting in the thought required to represent aces and trans folk in a nuanced way. Another suspicion I have is that being ace and being trans both cost weirdness points (I learned about this concept from Siggy), and writers feel that a character who is trans AND ace may be too weird for fiction.

    3. As I mentioned in the post, Shades of A handles this trope better than most stories because it shows the characters making mistakes and misunderstanding each other. In addition to being more realistic, it also humanizes the characters – they are fallible people rather than Perfect Representations. Another story which handles this trope better than most is “Mr. March Names the Stars”. First of all, it has a trans ace characters, which means that there are two ace characters (the cis-ace and the trans-ace) and two trans characters (the trans-ace and the trans-allo). Since the cis-ace lives with his trans-allo sibling, it actually makes sense that he is very well-informed about trans issues (by cis people standards) and is a good ally to trans folk, rather than just having him be magically good at handling transness well.

    • OH yes the “weirdness points” thing! I feel like that has a lot of influence on what intersections get represented. Not super fun when you’re the one who’s too weird and complex to represent… and, I mean, I get that it’s hard. I struggle to articulate my own feelings about being trans & ace! But it would be nice if more people would try.

  4. 1. In theory, I don’t have a problem with cis ace/trans allo stories existing, but in practice I am extremely irritated by their prominence. For one thing, it definitely says something about the way people think about trans folks and ace folks–often the way the two identities are played off each other makes for some pretty problematic representation. And, as I’ve mentioned before (including in the comment quoted above!), it totally clogs up the tags for those of us looking for trans ace rep!
    2. I suspect that authors may be afraid of writing characters who are multiply marginalized in general? Whether that’s for noble reasons (not wanting to mess up complex intersections) or cynical marketing stuff (trans aces?? Too weird, not relatable!). But holy heck do I wish for more stories with trans aces!
    3. It can be really interesting to see characters working through their very different perspectives–authors just need to be aware that they risk basing the entire relationship dynamic off stereotypes if they’re not careful.

  5. Ettina says:

    In one story I’m working on, I have four MCs – a straight cis allo, a homoromantic cis ace, and pansexual cis allo and a nonbinary aroace. So if I ever get around to finishing it, that book should give some trans ace rep.

  6. Pingback: Some October Readings – The dancing trans

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