Publishing a ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ comic helped me realize I’m trans

· Updated on June 21, 2024

It’s scary out there for trans people right now. You don’t need me to tell you that. Conservative attacks against us and our rights are all over the news.

As an author, I am particularly troubled by the wave of LGBTQ+ book bans sweeping the nation. Conservatives seem to think that reading about trans people will somehow turn kids trans, an idea as absurd as it is dangerous. Writers can’t turn kids trans.

In fact, the exact opposite thing happened to me. I wrote a book, and my readers turned me trans. Okay, I know that sounds pretty wild. So, let me explain. 

Photo provided by S.H. Cotugno

No one told me about trans people when I was growing up in the ‘90s. I barely knew they existed. When a few prominent trans women started to gain visibility during my young adulthood, they tended to tell the same, soundbite-friendly story of their lives: They always knew they were trans, even as a child and before they had the words to express it. 

But I didn’t always know I was trans. I never told my parents I was a boy or refused to wear girls’ clothes. Puberty was an annoying but meaningless inconvenience. I truly have no emotions attached to getting my first period, wearing my first bra, or even getting hit on for the first time. They were just things that happened to me, like weather or geometry class. 

was drawn to a very particular brand of masculinity–lanky anime bishounen, consumptive Victorian poets, romantic heroes in Jane Austen adaptations sporting sky-high collars and neckerchiefs for miles. Androgynous, elegant, and pretty. But I didn’t think it was possible to be like them.

Photo provided by S.H. Cotugno

The one or two trans men I heard about didn’t want to be pretty. They liked plain white T-shirts and close-cropped haircuts. They wanted to be “one of the guys.” I didn’t want to be one of the guys, which meant I couldn’t be trans. I was just a silly girl dreaming about silly fantasy boys.

But in fiction, I could indulge in fantasy. I could design the body I didn’t allow myself to want. Not that I realized I was doing that at the time. I thought I was just excited to write about my favorite character.

I had been obsessed with the novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde since I was a teenager. Its story of a man torn between two worlds resonated with my experiences as a mixed-race, bisexual person. As the story took up more and more space in my brain, I felt compelled to delve deeper into its themes of identity and self-acceptance, which eventually led me to write my graphic novel series The Glass Scientists, a colorful and queer reimaging of Dr. Jekyll and many other icons of classic gothic horror set in a world of bubbling potions and misunderstood monsters.

Photo provided by S.H. Cotugno

Classic stories can be powerful sources of comfort and reassurance for young people, allowing us to recognize our own messy emotions in people who lived centuries ago. They tell us that we are not alone. But those centuries of separation can also make them dense and difficult for modern audiences to relate to.

In other words, they could use an update. One of the ways I updated The Glass Scientists was to make Jekyll, well, pretty. It’s easier to dive into a new story if the main character is a cutie. And because it was my story and I got to decide what it looked like, I modeled him after that same peculiar masculinity I had always been drawn to: sad, but gorgeous, impeccably dressed, overflowing with repressed queerness.

I expected it to attract the sort of readers who wanted to be with Jekyll. What I didn’t expect was that it would attract the sort of readers who wanted to be Jekyll.

In trans spaces, you’ll often hear about gender envy, a yearning to embody another person’s identity or aesthetic. I didn’t design Jekyll to be gender envy bait, but looking back, that yearning is present in every brush stroke, every pixel, and it attracted people who shared that yearning.

The Glass Scientists began its life as a webcomic, and as I posted weekly updates on my website, transmasculine and nonbinary readers began to see themselves in Jekyll. Some even chose names inspired by him. They created fanart, fanfiction, cosplays, and TikToks interpreting the story to reflect their own lives.

One particular piece of fan work stands out in my mind: a short story depicting Jekyll as a trans man attending a high society ball. The descriptions of his body, his makeshift binder, the strategies and mental gymnastics required to pass for cisgender–it all felt so grounded and tactile, clearly drawing from a well of personal experience. It took something that was once so distant and theoretical, like “How do I know I’m trans? I just know,” and made it real, practical, and achievable. 

Discovering these readers was a revelation to me. They weren’t like the trans people I’d heard about on TV. They were nerdy, bookish, and often neurodivergent. They sounded a lot like me. And gradually, they expanded my idea of what a trans life could look like. 

To be clear, my readers did not literally turn me trans. They just opened up a door I didn’t know was there. We need to see our identities reflected back to us to fully understand them. That’s what these book bans are robbing children of: the freedom to discover themselves, to experiment, and to explore.

I hope you get to explore, too. I hope you read far and wide. I hope you get to try on a million different identities and change your mind a thousand times.

It’s okay if you didn’t know who you were when you were a child. It’s okay if you didn’t know ten minutes ago. It’s your gender. It’s your life. What do you want to be? ♦

The Glass Scientist is out now.

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