This cartoon is a collaboration with Becky Hawkins.
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Some cartoons come about because I hear a friend complain about something I’d never thought about, and then I see another person online complaining about the same thing, and then another. It’s a sign of privilege, of course; I don’t notice these things because I don’t have to. But once it’s pointed out to me it turns out it’s all over the place.
And then I think, “is there a cartoon in this”?
In this case, what I hadn’t known about was the heavy and often unnecessary bureaucracy involved in being trans. For trans people who need or want to update official papers and records, the paperwork and hurdles are daunting, and often pointless. And it’s not just the government; some of my friends have found they have to slog through bureaucracy again and again, with their bank, with their school (or their children’s school), with their mortgage company, and on and on. It can feel endless, and endlessly frustrating.
I first wrote this cartoon years ago, but I couldn’t solve the problem of the first panel.
The first panel, you see, needs to explain the situation to readers who (like me) were unaware of the issue. My first draft had the protagonist say something like “I need to change my sex” to the city clerk (I’ve lost the exact wording), but a trans friend I showed the cartoon to said that was an incredibly unlikely way for a trans character to put it, and suggested “switch my gender marker” as a more realistic alternative.
The problem with that, however, is that most cis readers won’t know what “switch my gender marker” means. (I didn’t know until my friend told me). I tried putting in a caption to explain the terminology, but that seemed clumsy, and anyway a lot of readers would skim or skip the caption, unless it was at the top of the panel. But putting it at the top would mean putting the explanation before the dialog it’s explaining, and that seemed odd.
So, without a first panel I was happy with, it went into the “unfinished cartoon” file and stayed there a few years. Every once in a while I’d take it out and fiddle with it, but I didn’t feel I’d solved the problem.
Then I showed it to Becky, and she was interested in drawing it. After Becky and I kicked around some ideas for fixing the first panel (with a lot of help from Becky’s very awesome girlfriend Naomi – hi Naomi!), I thought of using the clerk’s dialog to get the necessary exposition across in panel one, hence “Oh, so you’re trans.” With that line, I finally felt that cis readers would be able to understand the cartoon (or at least understand it enough), no caption necessary.
Admittedly, it’s a clumsy and tactless thing for the clerk to say – but cis people often are clumsy and tactless, so I could live with that. (Some readers may disagree, of course.)
In any case, it’s the best I could do. Cartoon writing is often like this; it’s a series of little puzzles that have to be solved. “How can I do X in just one panel and less than 20 words?” Probably there’s a better solution than the one I used, that I just wasn’t clever enough to come up with.
(Why no more than 20 words? Because somewhere around 20-30 words, readers start to skim. That’s fine for panels 2 and 3 of this cartoon – as long as the readers get a sense of the complexity and extent of the bureaucracy, it won’t hurt the cartoon if they skim the details – but if people skim panel 1, they might not get the cartoon at all).
Look at the architecture in panel 1! It just screams “city clerk’s window in town hall building.” That’s one of the things I love about collaborating with Becky – her ability to get across specific environments so well. I also love the perspective of that line of people waiting for help.
TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
There are four panels, plus an additional small “kicker” panel under the cartoon.
Inside a mustard-yellow government building – an old one with arched ceilings – people wait on line to talk to a woman in one of those windows embedded in an internal wall, for government workers to talk to people without being in the same room as them.
What are those windows called? I have no idea.
Next to the window, a sign on the wall says “Office of the City Clerk.”
On the public side of the window, a young man wearing a blue shirt, and carrying a brown document bag slung over a shoulder, is talking to a blonde woman on the other side of the window. The woman has short hair with spiky bangs, pink cats eye glasses, and is wearing a purple shirt with sleeves that end about halfway down her forearm. We’ll call him “BLUE” and her “CLERK.”
BLUE: Hi! I need to change my name and switch my gender marker to “M.”
CLERK: Oh, so you’re trans? Okay!
A closer shot of the two of them. She’s handing a document to him as she talks cheerfully. His back is to us, so we can’t see his face.
CLERK: First, you’ll need to pay to have your name change announced in a newspaper. You’ll need an appointment for a court hearing… That can take months. Meanwhile, hire a notary to watch someone you know sign this affidavit.
The “camera” has moved to a position from which we can see both characters’ faces. She is handing him a HUGE stack of papers. His eyes are wide and he looks shocked as he eyes the stack.
CLERK: When you go to court, bring money for court fees and a letter from your therapist. And that’s just for your driver’s license. There’s lots more for your social security and birth certificate. Here are some of the forms you’ll need.
Blue has left, and now a young woman with long brown hair is standing at the window, showing the Clerk a piece of paper. The clerk is smiling and making a thumbs up gesture.
WOMAN: Hi! I’m a bride, and I need to change my name. Here’s my marriage license.
CLERK: Done! Have a nice day.
SMALL KICKER PANEL UNDER THE BOTTOM OF THE CARTOON
Barry the cartoonist is talking to the clerk.
BARRY: Is this the state rewarding people for being gender normative?
CLERK: I can tell you for a fee.