How Trans And Nonbinary Actors Are Revolutionizing Audiobooks

With a small but growing number of YA titles featuring transgender and nonbinary characters, the demand for voice actors that reflect those identities is increasing.

When Avi Roque auditioned for their first audiobook in November 2019, the Latinx, trans, and nonbinary actor used their phone to record a few sample pages from Cemetery Boys. The paranormal young adult romance by trans author Aiden Thomas follows a Latinx and trans teenage boy who accidentally summons a ghost he can’t get rid of. “I immediately fell in love with the story,” Roque said over Zoom from their home in Los Angeles. A few days later, while working their side hustle as a café attendant at an athletic club, Roque booked the project. They didn’t expect that Cemetery Boys would debut at No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list — a first for a novel about a trans character by a trans author. Audible would eventually name it one of the top 10 audiobooks of 2020.

With a small but growing number of YA titles from trans and nonbinary authors, or featuring trans and nonbinary major characters, the demand for voice actors who reflect those identities is increasing. In 2021, readers and listeners have more than two dozen books to look forward to — from fantasy, like H.E. Edgmon's The Witch King, to romantic comedies, like Emery Lee's Meet Cute Diary. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) compiles diversity data, including the gender identities of primary characters, authors, and illustrators of children’s literature. CCBC librarian Madeline Tyner said they counted only seven books with trans and nonbinary primary characters in 2018. That number jumped to 20 books in 2019 and then 25 in 2020.

Research data for trans fiction outside of children’s publishing is harder to come by. Bloggers, like Anna and Charlotte of Reads Rainbow, are resources for finding trans and nonbinary stories for both teens and adults. Since 2018, they’ve researched and published LGBTQ reading lists, including new releases with trans and nonbinary protagonists. “We mostly just couldn't find anything else like that on the internet before,” Anna said. “Since I came out as nonbinary this year, the post was as much for others as it was for me.” Their 2021 list, which they update throughout the year, so far features 80 titles — more than half are books for teens and tweens.

So why are YA publishers embracing trans stories now?

“There’s a lot more general awareness of non-cisgender identities," Tyner said. "There's more talk about transgender people, transgender rights, and experiences. And I think social media plays a big part of it.” Tyner credits We Need Diverse Books, a Twitter movement turned nonprofit, as having a “huge effect on diversity and children's lit.”

Monica Carter, the manager of Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program, said YA tends to reflect what’s going on in the world. “I think that [YA is] kind of a bellwether for how future generations are, what they want to see, and the books that they read, the characters that they want to see represented,” she said. “And so they're always a little bit ahead of the curve, because they're determining what adult literature will eventually become.”

Felix Ever After author Kacen Callender is one example of a bestselling trans and nonbinary author who started in children’s publishing but now also writes books for adults, giving their young audience something to read when they get older. This, along with the success of diversity initiatives and books like Cemetery Boys, opens the door for trans and nonbinary stories to enter the mainstream — and in the realm of audiobooks, producers want to meet this new demand for authentic voices.

Finding trans voice actors requires reaching out beyond the established pool of narrators. Macmillan Audio producer Matie Argiropoulos discovered Roque on “The T List,” a community-supported Google spreadsheet shared among producers and others in the entertainment industry that lists creative talent from the transgender and nonbinary communities.

“Producers and publishers are turning to various constituents and people that they know in these communities and asking for help to find people that represent that voice and who have that experience,” said Michele Cobb, the executive director of the Audio Publishers Association (APA), a volunteer-led nonprofit trade organization for the audiobook industry. Diversity outreach programs like the APA, along with referrals from other narrators, are essential for identifying and hiring more trans and nonbinary voices. Networking is key, at virtual events and workshops where new narrators can self-identify.

At HarperCollins, producer Almeda Beynon noted the recent influx of trans and nonbinary middle grade and YA novels. For the first trans audiobook she produced, she emailed a trans narrator to request an audition. “The narrator got back to me and said, ‘I would love to audition. Also, if you want more variety in your auditioning pool, here are 10 other people who are all trans narrators, and they're really great,’” she said. “And it was amazing, because all of a sudden, my casting pool kind of went from a couple of people to now I have 10 people to audition and work with.”

Beynon recently cast Shaan Dasani in All Kinds of Other, a dual-perspective novel from James Sie about a romance between a gay teen and a closeted trans boy. About five years ago, Dasani met Sie, who is gay and cisgender, through a mutual friend. He helped Sie from a consulting standpoint with the character Jack, who, like Dasani, is trans and South Asian. Dasani shares narrating duties with Sie and trans actor Rain Valdez, whom he recommended after working on her digital series, Razor Tongue.

“To have this experience of professionally reading an audiobook for the first time — I know it's a tough industry to break into,” Dasani said. “But I think once someone gets their foot in, it's a little bit easier, hopefully.”

For Aiden Thomas, bringing more opportunities to the trans community was paramount. “The publishing and media industry is already designed to keep minority folks out of the system,” he said. Despite the spike in trans titles over the last couple of years, only 3% of the publishing industry’s workforce identifies as trans or nonbinary, according to a 2019 survey. This lack of representation in the industry places more pressure on the few trans and nonbinary people like Thomas to make up for that absence. “With Cemetery Boys, it was really crucial to me that I bring in as many folks from the community as I could to be working on this project.” The book’s cover artist, Mars Lauderbaugh, is trans and nonbinary, and Thomas knew that he wanted a Latinx trans voice to tell protagonist Yadriel’s story.

“When I announced that Avi would actually be doing the audiobook, that meant something to a lot of people,” Thomas said. “Even for me, when I heard that very first audio clip, like hearing that voice reading my words, saying my characters’ names, it was huge. It's life-changing.”

[Read more: YA Author Aiden Thomas Discusses How Their Identity Shaped Bestselling Cemetery Boys]

When 20-year-old @Reading_With_Pride Instagrammer Grayson Cooper was a teenager and figuring out that he is trans, he did not see himself in any mainstream novels. “If I had a book like [Cemetery Boys], then it would have helped me so, so much because back then I was dealing with a lot of self-hatred, a lot of internalized transphobia, trying to change who I was,” he said. “Hearing that a story from a trans author and knowing that the trans person behind the story was successful, who got on the New York Times bestseller list without hiding who he is, that would have blown my mind at age 15.”

For trans readers like Cooper, seeing trans people find success is as much as part of the story as the books themselves. While publishers and producers opened the door by casting with diversity in mind, trans community members are kicking the door open. “To have this opportunity to reach a wider audience, it's very important to me that instead of paving the way, I see it as more of me shoving my shoulder into the door and sneaking as many people in with me as I can,” Thomas said.

Thomas teamed up with Roque again for his sophomore novel, Lost in the Never Woods, which was released in March. The contemporary YA novel, inspired by Peter Pan, places Wendy Darling, a young cisgender woman, at the center of its mystery. Casting a trans, nonbinary actor to play Wendy is a big deal. “Oftentimes, I'm still getting pigeonholed,” Roque said. “When people can expand and open opportunities, where I am being looked at for other roles — for instance, if it is a cis male role — that's cool.”

Cemetery Boys launched a career in audiobooks for Roque, who has since landed voice work for Highlights magazine, May the Best Man Win by ZR Ellor, and other titles from Macmillan, Hachette, and Dreamscape Media. As a result, Cemetery Boys will always hold a special place in Roque’s heart. “I didn't have anything like this growing up. I didn't have a book to read like this, and it goes along the lines of this kind of representation that doesn't exist, you know?” they said. “To be the person that has an experience like that, and then getting to read it and share this with everybody else, it just moves me.”

It’s also moving a lot of other people now to make room for the stories that readers not only need but also clearly embrace. Trans and nonbinary narrators are starting to be heard, and it’s up to publishers and producers to ramp up efforts to amplify those voices. ●

Gabrielle Bondi is a writer covering books, culture, and entertainment. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Young Folks, a digital outlet that publishes pop culture and entertainment criticism. Follow her @gabriellebondi on Twitter.

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