Honestly, the headline is really I should have to say, and I’m sure many LGBTQ+ people reading this might already—if only innately and subconsciously—understand what I mean by this. But, to be clear, I mean it literally. Let me back up.
A very close friend of mine teaches at a school (as teachers are wont to do, don’t @ me) and is always trying to find LGBTQ+ children’s books for her class in order to broaden the empathy of the students. You know me, I’m all for empathy, so I always try to send her books I come across (good ones, not the Tomefoolery ones) whenever I do.
Flash forward to the other week when I was playing Untitled Goose Game after my support group (that’s right, I’m in a support group, don’t @ me) and it suddenly hit me: The perfect LGBTQ+ story is already being taught to children and has been for almost 200 years. The Ugly Duckling… is trans.
To be clear, the story of The Ugly Duckling can really be about almost any identity in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, but it is definitely an inherently trans story. Don’t believe me? Allow the synopsis of the original story (by the incredibly queer writer Hans Christian Andersen) to do a fair amount of the heavy lifting for me:
“The story tells of a homely little bird born in a barnyard who suffers abuse from the others around him until, much to his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a beautiful swan, the most beautiful bird of all.”
I mean… even the next line on the Wikipedia is:
“The story is beloved around the world as a tale about personal transformation for the better.”
[Tatar, Maria (2008). The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen. W.. Norton & Company. pp. 99–118.] (this is the last citation you’ll get because I’m out of practice and tired, don’t @ me)
Y’all. Y’all. Y’all! (I seriously considered just finishing this out by saying “y’all” over and over again—feel free to @ me on this one, I would’ve defended it—but, I’ll elaborate).
The Ugly Duckling is, literally (and literarily) a story about a young child born into a duck household and community who is considered awkward and ugly and is ridiculed for not fitting into the community and manners he is supposed to. He wanders aimlessly, unable to find his community. As he wanders, in the distance, he sees a flock of swans. He wants to join them SO BADLY, but alas, he is not one of them and even though he desperately wants to be, he is a duck.
He grows up, becomes suicidal, and in his darkest moment is recognized—for the first time in his life—as the swan he is. He is seen.
I don’t know how much more trans you can get, y’all. Like, that’s pretty textual.
(side note: if you stumbled across this essay and have a thought that you could use this to prove trans-anything-other-than-gender, there are many reasons you’re wrong, but I will not be getting into them, but just know that you’re wrong and this is here to remind you).
A lot of LGBTQ+ culture these days is spent in the fight between educating cishet (for clarity: cisgender, heterosexual) people and mental and physical self-protection. Well-meaning and not-well-meaning people often say “I just don’t understand” but here’s the thing: they’ve been learning it all along. The Ugly Duckling isn’t the only story, either, it’s just the most readily available. Sometimes (oftentimes as I’ve learned myself) people just… don’t understand subtext. That doesn’t mean it’s the job of LGBTQ+ people to teach them (Google and library cards are free), it just means that if they want to, there’s a lexicon of language in folk tales already available (as if these aren’t new ideas or something… WILD!) to point to.
“I just don’t understand what it’s like for someone to be trans.”
“Have you heard of The Ugly Duckling?”
What we really need is a sequel to The Ugly Duckling about how difficult and taxing it is for The Beautiful Swan to reconcile the new sense of self and beauty and wholeness they now feel with the treacherous and exhausting balance of navigating a brand new community they’ve never interacted with along with their old community relentlessly and aggressively refusing to acknowledge or support that they are NOT an Ugly Duckling no matter how beautiful and wondrous a swan they clearly are.
Maybe that would finally make the message clear enough. Actually, I just checked Twitter. Probably not.
“The lilacs dipped their clusters into the stream before him, and the sun shone so warm and so heartening. He rustled his feathers and held his slender neck high, as he cried out with full heart: ‘I never dreamed there could be so much happiness, when I was the ugly duckling.’”