Gender Treachery, or Where Are All the Trans People in “The Handmaid’s Tale”?

The Handmaid's Tale The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)

Moving on to our second objection: The idea that The Handmaid’s Tale ignores gender minorities because they can’t perform normative social roles completely overlooks medical reality. While it’s true that trans folks who take hormones largely become infertile, and while it’s true that this infertility may be permanent, many transmasculine people on HRT (who have not had reproductive organs removed) are able to bear children with proper medical guidance. AFAB* trans and nonbinary folks can and do bear children, not to mention the countless trans and nonbinary people who forgo hormone replacement or surgical transition.

Gilead as a society is ostensibly dedicated to improving the global birth rate, and it seems to have the OB/GYN resources to successfully do so. It would absolutely take advantage of any possible handmaids, including trans men who were fertile before starting HRT. Combine Gilead’s desperation for childbearing AFABs with its stringent enforcement of gender-stereotypical dress, and you have the bones of some absolutely bone-chilling gender horror. 

As a trans dude who does not want to bear children, I cannot describe to you the feeling of anathema I have around being forced to live as a woman at all, much less as a handmaid. The complete absence of any genderqueer or trans characters, then, sticks out to me as more than a simple oversight. It seems like a deliberate statement, a determination that we’re only talking about cis women here.

The overlooking of trans people isn’t a thought-out sidestep of something that wouldn’t matter in Gilead; it’s an example of a gender dystopia failing to include a population that already lives in one. The Handmaid’s Tale is gender horror, but it draws that horror from a specifically cisgender view of the world. The show doesn’t consider trans people because, quite frankly, trans people aren’t who it’s talking about. For all of its rah-rah rallying cries about girl power and the strength of women, we must not forget that it means, specifically, cis women. And if I’m being honest? It comes to the detriment of the entire show.

Dystopian societies are fickle beasts; they demand strict adherence to their own rules. Dystopian stories, therefore, are stories of rebellion, of finding and exploiting cracks in the system and free spaces outside of the fences. Think of Katniss hunting illegally in District 12’s forests. Think of Winston and Julia in the room above Charrington’s store. Gender, too, is a space, one which Gilead regiments and maintains as rigorously as Big Brother maintains Oceania. A true rebellion against Gilead demands rebellion against its gender system at the most foundational levels. The Handmaid’s Tale seems incapable of crossing that line, and therefore incapable of telling its story to the fullest extent.

Even in Gilead’s more lenient spaces, The Handmaid’s Tale is reluctant to allow even the slightest hint of impropriety, even when it might serve to reinforce normativity. In Y: The Last Man, we see a few examples of sex workers who perform transmasculinity in order to ply their trade with (presumably) straight women, as well as some women who take to transmasculinity as a way of pleasing their romantic partners. 

The overlooking of trans people isn’t a thought-out sidestep of something that wouldn’t matter in Gilead; it’s an example of a gender dystopia failing to include a population that already lives in one.

While at no point is it suggested that some “girls” might, in fact, identify as transmasculine beyond the contexts of survival or companionship, this drag-adjacent performance of manhood serves to approximate cisgender heterosexuality in a world where that has become impossible. It provides an interesting view of how a gender-segregated society adapts to its circumstances, and how queerness can play an important role in facilitating the appearance of normativity.

It’s easy to imagine how the same dynamic might play out in The Handmaid’s Tale. The handmaid Ceremony is already a way of getting around women’s inability to bear children; why don’t we see any trans Wives, protected by their husbands’ social status and allowed to live as themselves in a society of women who are all in the same boat anyway? For that matter, why not have a high-ranking trans man pull a Serena, allowing his handmaid to sleep with someone else in order to keep himself in the closet? 

Stepping back from the rich and powerful for a moment, we’ve already seen queer relationships form among Gilead’s woman-dominated working class. But even here, there’s a stunning lack of genderqueer or transmasculine expression within those relationships.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE — “Unwomen” –Episode 202 — Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead. Sylvia (Clea Duvall) and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Following the tack of Y’s sex workers, why don’t there seem to be any trans Jezebels, that brothel being the one place in Gilead where religious values are sidestepped in favor of satisfying the sexual fantasies of powerful men? Is The Handmaid’s Tale seriously trying to tell me that the Commanders can exercise their foot fetishes with impunity, but nobody is into chicks with dicks?

Of course, there are countless ways to include trans narratives without exploiting sexuality. A show already centered around cissexist hierarchy would only have its dystopian horror heightened by the presence of someone to whom any cisgender system is anathema. 

Imagine, if you will, the introduction of a transmasculine handmaid in the next season: someone whose story we could flash back to, maybe, as he determines that his gender being recognized is less important than his own survival; as he starts getting periods again and realizes what he might have to face; as he fights to retain some portion of the person he knows himself to be, even as he is forced to wear scarlet dresses and burn his facial hair away. 

There are countless ways to include trans narratives without exploiting sexuality.

Imagine June joining a household with a trans Martha, and learning through her the cracks in Gilead’s system, the allowances that the state is willing to make in exchange for a labor force of able-bodied women. Imagine this recent finale, when June promises a little girl that they can wear whatever they want outside of Gilead, if the little girl had indicated that they desperately wanted to wear the boys’ uniform.

In a time where trans people are still murdered regularly, and where trans recognition is at the forefront of human rights conversations in the United States, the dismissal of trans narratives from a show that purports to be a reflection of current politics is inexcusable. Political shows like this one act as though they’re preparing viewers for some impending real-world revolution, but we have to ask ourselves who that revolution is for. 

The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautiful show, filled to the brim with pathos and both budget and screentime enough to fill episodes with considerations of how this world affects people of all backgrounds and genders. It’s certainly capable of doing better. But it hasn’t so far, and I’m starting to wonder if the show’s writers will ever realize how much potential they’re wasting.

*AFAB = Assigned Female At Birth

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!