When "The Truth of Names" was published nearly two years ago, revealing Tarkir legend Alesha, Who Smiles at Death as a transgender woman, it made headlines. Big headlines. Headlines like the one appearing on Kotaku:
"Meet Magic The Gathering's First Trans Character" the title proclaims, following up with an excited coverage of Alesha's coming out as a trans badass. Believe me, as a transgender individual myself, I greeted Alesha's reveal with similar excitement!
I couldn't help but think, however, that these articles were missing something very important: Alesha arguably isn't the first trans character in Magic. Some folks might be thinking now of Ashiok, the faceless, pronounless nightmare Planeswalker who appeared in Theros, and rest assured that I want to come back to Ashiok in the future, but no, I want to dig back a little further than that.
In fact, I want to go back to one of the earliest books published in-house at Wizards for Magic the Gathering, Lynn Abbey's Planeswalker, and its protagonist, the Phyrexian sleeper agent Xantcha.
Xantcha might seem like an odd choice for trans representation. After all, she's a vat-bred artificial human, created as an undifferentiated, sexless entity designed to infiltrate human society. She turns on her former overlords and joins with Urza Planeswalker in his quest to protect Dominaria from the Phyrexians (or perhaps to seek vengeance for the death of his brother). Much of the book involves Xantcha's attempts to keep Urza from getting distracted by his own trauma and the weird effects of the mysterious powerstones making up his eyes, and at the end of the book she sacrifices herself to save Urza from the Phyrexian Demon Gix.
You can probably see from this brief description why Alli Medwin, consultant on the story, Magic's digital editor, and fellow trans woman, stated that Xantcha's "experience with sex and gender are all pretty radically different from real-world trans people."
I don't want to contest Medwin's reading of Xantcha, or undercut the importance of Alesha's narrative and all the work that went into it. But nevertheless, I think there's much in Xantcha's narrative that can be meaningful to readers in our world, even as it asks us to step outside the boundaries of the familiar.
Xantcha is a being raised from her unnatural birth with the understanding that she is a pariah within any society that might have her. To her fellow Phyrexians, she and the other newts of her generation are perpetually to be Incompleat — never to shed the itchy wet skin of life and ascend to mechanized perfection. The first attempts to use newts in the wild, however, are disastrous: unable to "pass," the newts are driven violently from human society on other planes. This leaves the newts bereft, utterly without a place in the world.
The only fitting word for the experience of the newts is "dysphoria." They experience intense psychological pain due to their inability to make their bodies fit in to either human or Phyrexian society. I read Planeswalker as a teenager, long before I had a name for my own discontentment with my body, but scenes such as the one where a newt in desperation slices off their own arm and replaces it with a shovel, bleeding to death in an attempt to become Compleat, shook me and burrowed their way into my mind. The dysphoria these created beings experienced was at once alien and yet familiar.
It is in this context that Xantcha comes to determine her own identity.
This part of the narrative is a little complex to address in terms of representation. There's two major formative moments in the narrative that are linked together, and are . . . well, problematic, in the sense that they raise complex problems and questions for us as readers who might identify with Xantcha.
See, Xantcha is not, it turns out, the only Xantcha. She eventually is shuffled into a work detail with another Xantcha.
This is a really fascinating crisis moment in the book. If I was a little more versed in Lacanian psychoanalysis I could probably say something here about the mirror stage, but that's not really my theory area, so instead I'll just note what an amazing literary turn this is:
Xantcha's real blossoming of individuality comes in the moment when she is confronted with her double.
Faced with the prospect of their being two Xantchas, the newts respond in a way that is both rigorously practical in Phyrexian terms, while also being radically disruptive: they alter their appearance in order to differentiate themselves from each other. Rather than self-destructing, like the unfortunate newt who dismembers themself, they push forward into new identities.
This is great stuff, and it's got a fascinating literary edge, but unfortunately Gix isn't as into literary analysis as I am, and he shows up to put a stop to this sign of unwelcome disobedience.
Gix murders one Xantcha, and essentially assaults the other. Gix invades her mind, leaving her alive but traumatized by the brutal invasion. He leaves her, too, with the conviction that if what she felt of Gix's poisonous mind is "Male" then she is going to move as far away from that as she can.
Xantcha's identity is thus born out of trauma, and while she is capable later in the novel of passing as male, apparently comfortably, her conception of herself is driven by a need to be not-Gix. This is, as noted, somewhat problematic. The idea of queerness born of trauma is an old cliche used to pathologize identities and behaviors that fall outside of heterosexual norms. I can absolutely 100% understand those who see Alesha's affirmative narrative, "aspirational" as it is, as much more positive than Xantcha's.
And yet, for some of us, queerness and trauma are intertwined in complex ways. For some of us, it is only a moment of crisis in which we realize that our identity is psychologically unsustainable that allows us to see ourselves clearly. From this perspective, Xantcha's narrative is, in a sense, aspirational. Xantcha frees herself from Phyrexia, constantly asserts her humanity, needs, and ability to determine her identity for herself, stands up to one of the most powerful Planeswalkers in the history of the multiverse, finds love with the character Ratepe, figures out how to get sex to work despite having a very different body (not an insubstantial worry for those of us transitioning!), and ultimately is critical to the defeat of Gix, even if she and Ratepe must sacrifice themselves in the process.
It's very easy, I think, to get caught up in absolute pronouncements on whether or not something is Good Representation, much as Urza draws rigid, absolute lines between what are acceptable and abominable uses of Artifice (Xantcha constantly frustrating him by straddling the line between the two). My purpose as a critic, though, and a lover of literature is less to proclaim Xancha as Good Representation who all fans of Magic, trans or otherwise, should recognize as such. Rather it's to dig into the issues surrounding Xantcha's narrative and explain, as best I can, why this character is so meaningful to me.
Well that, and to urge the fandom not to forget characters like Xantcha. Magic has done much lately to improve diversity, but we shouldn't discount characters like Xantcha, and the other settings and stories from earlier periods of Magic's history, when we talk about diversity in Magic. Magic has had some notable stumbles, but it's also in many ways been ahead of the curve, and while I commonly see newer fans now passing around the truism that the old books were mostly bad, and no one read them, there's some real literary merit to things like the complex process of self-actualization Xantcha goes through.
Xantcha's narrative has only become more and more personally meaningful as I've struggled to come to terms with my own complicated and still unresolved identity, and I've only come to respect more the complexity of Abbey's work here. It certainly is different from my experiences, and yet in many ways I think that it cuts to the heart of what transitioning means for me: finding a way to reforge one's identity in defiance of the controlling forces in your life. And if that should come from an obscure licensed fantasy novel, well, I can think of no higher honor to Xantcha than to salvage her story as worthy of consideration. In her own words: "Waste not, want not."