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A Chat With Lilah Sturges

By Brin Bixby
Transgender people had a pretty good 2016, at least as far as comic books are concerned. Magdalene Visaggio published “Kim & Kim” at Black Mask Studios. Paul Jenkins launched “Alters,” featuring a trans woman superheroine as the feature character, though it certainly had its flaws. Characters in “Lumberjanes,” “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” and “Jem and the Holograms” were either revealed or alluded to being trans, with the latter being co-written by Sophie Campbell, herself a trans woman.

And, just three days before the end of the year, a writer with more than a decade of professional experience publicly came out as transgender.

Wednesday, December 28, in the early morning hours of the last New Comics Day of the year, Facebook and Twitter followers may have noticed a new name in their feeds as Lilah Sturges changed her profiles’ names and came out to the world as a transgender woman.

Lilah wrote under the name Matt Sturges from the beginning of her career in the mid-2000s, on such titles as “Fables,” “Jack of Fables,” and “House of Mystery” for Vertigo (the last being drawn by a then-closeted Sophie Campbell as well), and “JLA: Salvation Run,” “Final Crisis Aftermath: RUN!,” “Blue Beetle,” “JSA,” and “Power Girl” for DC Comics. She is currently writing “EVERAFTER: FROM THE PAGES OF FABLES” for Vertigo.

I sat down with Lilah to discuss coming out, overcoming fear.

Brin Bixby: OK, so you punched back at 2016 by coming out publicly on twitter and Facebook. Did you reach out to any of the comics folks you work with beforehand to give them a heads up or was that the first anyone outside of your family and trans friends heard about you?

Lilah Sturges: That was the first time anyone heard about it other than people close to me, yes. I sent an email to my editors at various places letting them know around the same time, but it was the middle of the night, so nobody was around.
I have some friends who work in comics who are also close enough friends that they knew, but it was only a handful of folks.

BB: Well, congratulations on coming out. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re not a public figure.

LS: Thanks. I’m only a mildly public figure, but public enough to where a website ran an article about it, and that was strange to read.

BB: I saw the really wonderful comment thread on your Facebook post, including from a lot of comics pros wishing you well, but other than there, what kind of reception and response have you gotten?

LS: It’s been almost uniformly positive, to be honest. I feel bad saying that because I know there are trans people who have difficult coming out stories. I wrestle with that tension; the desire to tell people, “I came out and it was great!” and “If you come out, be careful!”
But I can only speak for myself, and it worked out pretty well for me.
Obviously there have been bumps.
And, you know, it’s not like you stop being trans when you come out and everything stops being hard. You just have a new set of weird problems to deal with. But I was telling someone a little while ago, “I’m tired of these problems. I want NEW problems!” And my wish was granted.

BB: Life has a funny way of granting wishes…

LS: When I go out in public it can be a bit bracing because I don’t pass as a cisgender woman, so there’s some awkwardness.
But even in the real world mostly all I get is the odd double-take. A lot of people in Austin are NICER to you if you’re visibly trans because they want to be accepting.

BB: Oh, yeah, passing is a minefield because we have zero control over whether someone reads us correctly or not.

LS: I do what I can to push it, and I’m kind of girly anyway so it’s fun. I like wearing lipstick and jewelry and stuff, and I carry this big purse so at least it’s pretty obvious what I’m going for.

BB: Yeah, I hear that. And you’re always kind of hoping that people will see that and just get it and go with it instead of like being contrary and just intentionally misgendering you and stuff.

LS: I know people know I’m trans and that’s fine.

BB: Like, “You see what I’m doing here right? Is this hard for you? Cuz it’s no cakewalk for me, ok? Can you just be cool please?”

LS: And I know people slip up. I’m sitting in a hotel lobby right this second and the woman behind the counter referred to me as “this gentleman… I mean, this PERSON.” She’s doing her best.

BB: And good for her. Cis people that try, even when they stumble, are valuable. Our society doesn’t have a good track record in making any kind of information about transness and about interacting with trans people easily accessible.

LS: Right. And I always want to tell people, PLEASE PLEASE engage with me and don’t be afraid of offending me. The alternative is that you don’t engage with me and I definitely don’t want that.

BB: That’s an excellent point. There can be this weird isolation that happens after coming out, coming from the best of intentions, because people get so concerned that they might hurt you out of ignorance that they don’t see how their sudden aloofness is more hurtful

LS: Yes! It’s a bit like what happens when someone gets an illness and people avoid them because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. The avoiding is so much more “wrong” than any dumb thing you say with good intentions.
It means a lot to me that people try, because when you come out as trans to people, you’re asking them to change how they think of you, how they name you, how they gender you. Our society doesn’t really have a template for that. There’s no ritual for it. Maybe there should be.

BB: The closest I can come there is the tradition of women taking a new last name when they get married, and, oddly enough, gendering animals and babies. In the first case, people don’t, like, distance themselves from new brides because they might get their name wrong, and they have tools to retrain themselves to call her Katie X instead of Katie Y. In the latter case, people will walk up to babies and dogs and be like “What’s his name?” And you say, well, actually, HER name is Sarah, or whatever and they immediately make that change.

LS: Right. And nobody freaks out about the baby except maybe some very intense parents. But they can put that little pink thing on their head if the baby is a girl to keep the baby from being misgendered. Maybe I should get one of those.

BB: So like, people generally already KNOW how to do those things, but the different context obscures that ability when the person is trans and coming out.

LS: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that.
People in my family have the hardest time with the new name because they have to talk to me all the time. I tell them that I don’t care if they mess up sometimes, but people who care about you want to get things right.

BB: My own family still struggles. Most of them are really cool, and I have and had some really vocal allies who had my back when I wasn’t there and that made all the difference.

LS: We live in a society that has a lot of weird stuff baked into it still. And there are a lot of people who get irrationally angry at you when you try to bake it out. That’s a bad metaphor because you can’t bake something out of something else. Baking is a one-way process.

BB: Some writer, geez.

LS: I should have said mixed in and sifted out. Oh, well. My life is a messy life. Messy is okay. There are worse things.

BB: While you’re not the first trans woman to write for a major publisher, to my knowledge, you have the longest history with the big publishers pre-transition. Did that have any impact your decision to come out publicly and when?

LS: Of course! I knew having had some success as a writer that my coming out would ripple out past my own friends and family. I wasn’t sure what would happen or what it would mean when it did.

BB: How did you go about confronting that fear?

LS: I kind of had this hope that maybe by coming out, my visibility might help someone else in some way. You know, some trans kid reading a comic I wrote, thinking, “Well, this is someone I admire for her work. And if she can come out, maybe that means it’s okay for me to come out.”
I don’t know if that actually happens, but it helped me face that larger fear of, “Oh, hell, there is comics fandom and I am coming out into the face of it.” I mean, it’s not like I’m Geoff Johns or something; the world didn’t end, but it was certainly unsettling to see people I don’t know respond to it.
But that “maybe I can help someone” is also a weird thing for your ego. It’s maybe not really a good reason to do something. And at some level, fear is fear.

BB: Listen, friend. It’s an excellent reason to do a thing. Trust me on this. A certain amount of egotism is involved in (and a necessary component of) anything we do, I think.

LS: You know, you face enough fear and it starts to become just background noise or something.

BB: That’s true enough. There’s something incredibly liberating about facing your greatest and longest-held fear and surviving it.

LS: My relationship with fear is one of the biggest changes that coming out has made.
When I saw other trans people doing things out in the real world I just couldn’t believe how they had the courage to do it all! And then what I realized after doing it myself is that the things stay scary, it’s just your attitude toward fear that changes. Or, at least, that’s what it’s like for me.
Like, fear sucks and all, but I’m not going to let it stop me from doing stuff.
Because I have to do stuff.

BB: Life doesn’t wait.

LS: Right.

BB: Did you reach out to any of the other trans women in comics beforehand for advice?

LS: I did! I had a really nice talk with Mags Visaggio, after a lovely friend of mine introduced us. That was incredibly helpful. There are other folks in comics that I’d still like to get to know, like Tamra Bonvillain who colors Alters.
People in comics are very tolerant and supportive as a group. A lot of fans and creators really went out of their way to make me feel accepted, and it was such a relief after the terror I’d felt about coming out.
Some people have really gone far, far above and beyond what I expected. I won’t name them because I don’t want to embarrass them. They know who they are.
I’m just incredibly grateful to be involved in such an amazing industry.

BB: That’s wonderful. There are some really loud conservative voices in comics too, so I think it’s, maybe, really easy to forget that comics has such a progressive history. And that that comes from real people and their commonality in the industry.

LS: I think one of the things that unites a lot of comics people, both as creators and fans, is that a lot of us know what it likes to feel excluded, misunderstood, scared of the world.
So, while comics people can argue tooth and nail and get real worked up about all kinds of things–even inclusivity and diversity within the medium’s content–the people who live and breathe that medium tend to be pretty tolerant of differences. And that is a beautiful thing. Tolerant of differences in real life, I mean.

BB: True. I mean, I think that’s one of the draws of the Superhero/Secret Identity aspect of the power fantasy. That Peter Parker can be harassed and bullied at school, but can also be this heroic figure. And honestly, that double-life, secret life, is part of what really drew me to superhero comics. Like, the whole world sees Superman, but he’s as much artifice and intentional misdirection as my male face – it allowed me to do what I needed to do in the world while I lived my life as the person I actually am in my own private life.

LS: Right? That feeling of power that comes from imagining that what you see is not the real me. The real me is more powerful than you can imagine. And that turns out to be true for me. Once you remove the artifice I’d been carrying around all my life, there turns out to be a pretty scrappy broad underneath.

BB: I think a lot of nerds can see that in themselves too, which makes the resistance to representation and diversity in the medium baffling to me. Scrappiness helps, you know?

LS: Yeah, I don’t get it either. I think some people fear that their safe space is being turned against them, that comics are going to stop representing them because some of the people look different, and some of them are feminists or whatever. We know that’s not true, but to people who don’t get why it’s so important to us, it feels like a needless invasion, I think.

BB: Meanwhile, ignoring the fact that we’ve always been involved in comics, queer people, people of color, and women. We’ve always been here.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time, and have written a lot of different characters. It’s sort of a trans person pastime to look back with 20/20 x-ray hindsight and isolate incidents and instances that we now feel should have been a clue. I don’t know if that’s particularly fair to us, but we all seem to do it anyway. Looking back, are there any characters or stories that now feel like your subconscious screaming at you to realize that you’re a woman? This, of course, assumes that some of that time was pre-realization for you, too.

LS: Okay, so Fig, the main character of House of Mystery, is basically just me.
Like, writing that character was a big part of me processing my gender. She has a lot of my verbal tics and vocal mannerisms, she shares a LOT of my personal history.

BB: Was that apparent to you at the time, or apparent to anyone else?

LS: I’m not sure. Like a lot of trans people, my personal history is very slippery.

BB: I hear that.

LS: I remember the time before being aware of being trans with a certain amount of trepidation. Because I knew, but I didn’t want to know, but I kind of knew, and sometimes it slipped out without me realizing it.

BB: Denial is a hell of a drug, Peter.

LS: There’s this whole bit about The Longing in issue 4 of House of Mystery that’s basically me yearning desperately and not letting myself. It goes like this:

It’s the Longing that ultimately undoes you. When it finds you, it gnaws at your bones and tugs at your chest. It fills you up inside like rot and makes you dream dreams and it drowns you. The Longing keeps you in bed, clutching at your sheets while the world goes on outside. It smells like old leaves and cigarette smoke, mixed with the scent of far-off places you will hear of, but never see. It’s the gloss on a lover’s lips the moment you realize you will never kiss those lips again. It is the bittersweet, unrequited love of creation and it will break your heart again and again and again. If you know the Longing the way I do, then these words are redundant. We understand each other perfectly, you and I.

That’s my love letter to that part of myself that I couldn’t face.

BB: Holy Shit
That …. hits home.

LS: Of course, buried in there is the grief of believing that I can never be myself.
That the longing is all I will ever know.
I’m so glad that turned out not to be true.

BB: Wow. It takes so much work to fight against that longing. Like, cis people never understand how long and how hard so many of us work to deny that we might possibly be trans. Like … they’re so caught up in not wanting to hear that someone’s “suddenly” trans that they can’t see how long we’ve been trying not to be.

LS: Right, of course.

BB: I’m glad for you too. And for me. And for all those trans folks, who are able to see themselves.

LS: Me too! For so many of us it takes years, decades, to undo the messages that were bred into us.

BB: Especially the trans kids who are not having to grow up in denial now.

LS: I’m so thrilled that we live in a world now where people don’t have to deny themselves the way we did, feeling the shame and confusion and self-loathing we felt.

BB: That is the Great Unlearning. And it’s a right pain in the ass

LS: And there is absolutely no way I will let this world fall back into that old world of hatred and fear.

BB: I just hope we don’t lose all of the gains we made in the last decades because of … certain governments

LS: Part of my coming out was my small way of saying, “You think that you can stop me by making afraid, but I’m not stopping.”
That sounds melodramatic, but sometimes life is melodramatic. And this is comics, so who cares.

BB: Indeed! We need heroes. And heroines.

EVERAFTER #5 is currently at your local comic book shop and EVERAFTER #6 releases February 1, 2017 and, according to Lilah: “is a really neat little standalone story drawn by Steve Rolston, with a little something in it for the genderfluid.”

Read Brin’s interviews with Magdalene Visaggio and Aneesh Sheth.

July 13, 2019
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