In a global culture that clings rigidly to the gender binary, there’s something undeniably magical about trans identity. Embracing a trans identity is—yes, I’m sorry about the pun—transformative. Regardless of whether or not someone pursues a medical or even social transition, the act of identifying as trans brings to mind ideas of change and fluidity, a disruption of what’s expected or taken for granted. It’s no wonder, then, that magic and magical narratives have a special place in the hearts of trans readers of all ages. And more than ever, we’re seeing ourselves reflected back. From witches to fae, paranormal romance to high fantasy, picture books to academic journals, trans characters are beginning to appear at the center of magical stories.
Classic fantasy and sci-fi stories have always been queerer than people think. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, one of the founding novels of the sci-fi genre, features genderfluid characters, though the term isn’t used in the text. More recently, young adult and children’s lit has seen a veritable boom of magical trans stories. Aiden Thomas’ 2020 debut Cemetery Boys became the first New York Times bestseller to feature a trans main character written by a trans author. The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag launched a middle-grade graphic novel series challenging gender and magical expectations simultaneously.
And this representation is critical. Trans kids and young adults are at a significantly higher risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations than their cis peers. Therefore, the ability to see positive trans stories from a young age can be literally life-saving.
Magic-driven stories with trans affirming narratives have become even more important in the last few years since one of queer fandom’s favorite sanctuaries turned suddenly unsafe. J.K. Rowling’s swing towards transphobic rhetoric, not just on social media but in major publications, led many queer and trans lovers of magical fiction to flinch away from the Harry Potter universe. But many trans readers still crave stories grounded in magic, specifically witchcraft.
There’s a reason for that. Magic, both in practice and in story, appeals because it gives us something we need, not just as individuals but as members of communities. Magic has the power to be transgressive and transformative, to protect and defend. Magical stories and rituals, like genders that fall outside and beyond the binary, are both ancient and enduring.
Practices and ceremonies that blur the bounds of binary gender stretch back thousands of years. In these rituals, combining “masculine and feminine” spirits and energies within single bodies, moving between the two, or undergoing physical transformations are prominent ideas. For example, the Galli, priests of the goddess Cybele, castrated themselves upon initiation into the priesthood and afterward dressed only in traditionally female clothing. These types of transformations had associations with divinity, with the thinning of barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds, and with power.
In more recent centuries, and in part due to the rise of institutionalized Christianity and Western conceptions of the inherent danger involved in female power, the practice of magic became a more threatening concept to societal structures of power. The term “witch hunt” tends to bring to mind almost exclusively images and narratives of women (usually white ones). They are persecuted for daring to think, speak, or act outside the bounds of heteronormative Christian performance, particularly regarding sex and expressions of sexuality. For this reason, witch stories tend to resonate strongly with cis queer audiences as well, particularly queer cis women.
Modern voices, especially in the past few decades, are reclaiming these witches and their stories. “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn,” paraphrased from Tish Thawer’s The Witches of BlackBrook, has become a rallying cry in some feminist circles.
Just like all magic, though, this reclaiming has a shadow side. Gender essentialism and transphobia have voices in witch stories and communities of practitioners. In 2018, the US government granted tax-exempt status on religious grounds to The Pussy Church of Modern Witchcraft (which is a real thing I had to both research and type!), an explicitly anti-trans collective. The group defines itself as “a congregation of adherents to our female born, lesbian-feminist-based religions beliefs and traditions (sic).”
These voices, too, have consequences. 2021 has been a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation, with one US lawmaker literally quoting Rowling on the floor of his testimony in favor of one such bill. The Trevor Project condemned these bills and explicitly cited anti-trans politics as risk factors for increases in suicidality among trans youth. Over 90% of surveyed LGBTQ youth stated that recent politics negatively influenced their mental health or well-being.
No wonder trans readers look for stories and trans writers look to create them. It is a space where they have power. “In my world, there is a profound inversion of where one would find magic,” said writer Ryka Aoki at a 2016 conference. “I need magic not in deliverance from an enemy or acquiring divine artifacts or trips to outer space… I need magic for simply being allowed to be me.”
Raven Kaldera, a practitioner featured by Them in a piece on queer and trans witches, echoed this, saying trans people “bring about change in our bodies and identities… so perhaps we are already expert practitioners at magic because magic has been part of our survival for a long time.“
A good magical story—a good witchcraft story—requires curiosity, a willingness to ask what if there was more to the world than what I’ve been taught so far? Than what I was told to expect? Than what I can see? In this way, all trans stories are inherently magical. Just like a story about magic, trans stories invite us to open ourselves to new possibilities. To question the stories we’ve been told about the world and about ourselves. To experience transformation, in all its magical, wondrous forms, one story at a time.