Talking to Sabrina Symington, author of First Year Out – the first graphic novel to explore transition for trans women

Sabrina Symington is an illustrator, graphic novelist and blogger from Vancouver, working to normalise transgender issues. First Year Out is based on her own personal experiences and those of her friends. The graphic novel follows Lily, a trans woman, as she navigates the ups and downs of transition. From laser hair removal to dating and gender reassignment surgery, the comic tackles difficult issues with honesty and intimacy. We talked to Sabrina about her reasons for creating First Year Out. 

What made you decide to explore the process of transition in graphic novel form?

I initially started drawing autobiographical webcomics as a way of working through the rollercoaster of emotions I had in the early days of my transition. But as I progressed in my transition, I realized how much misinformation there is out there about trans people. Since I believe in the power of narrative to change people’s views on controversial subjects, I felt what was needed was a humanizing trans story – most importantly one written by a transgender author, as opposed to a cis author translating their view of trans experiences through their own lens. I wanted to not only present accurate information about trans people’s lives and experiences, but also to present trans people as real people, rather than the stereotypes that we are usually portrayed as. One thing I will say is that I changed and grew immensely over the course of writing First Year Out. Transition is an ongoing process. It doesn’t “end” when you get a surgery. It goes much deeper than that and can last a lifetime. And while much of the story reflects my views and experiences during my own first year out as a trans woman, if I were to write “Second Year Out”, the story and Lily’s character would be *very* different. For I, too, am a completely different woman now.

How did you first get into drawing comics?

I’ve been drawing comics since I was seven years old, but I only started to take it seriously when I turned 18. And I think I only *really* started to understand what I was doing maybe in the past year or two. Comics is an extremely complex art form, and, like transition, mastering it is an ongoing process that can last a lifetime.

The graphic novel is inspired by your own personal experiences and those of your friends, too. You don’t shy away from the difficult aspects of transition – for example, the physical changes Lily undergoes, and her navigation of sexual relationships. How important was it for you to tackle these more intimate experiences head on?

There are far too many misconceptions about trans people’s lives and bodies floating around in public perception. This not only affects cis people’s view of us, but it can also be harmful to the way trans people and people questioning their gender view themselves, and can often delay people from transitioning when they know they need to. I wanted to show both the difficulties that not everybody might be aware of, as well as the successes. When I first started transition, I was resigned to potentially never dating, never being loved ever again. And while I faced many harrowing experiences in my attempts to date as a trans woman, I also have found love. So I wanted people to know that it is not all doom and gloom, and that one can, in fact, find happiness in transition. And, indeed, if you need to transition, then you will *only* find happiness through transitioning.

Do you find that drawing on your personal experiences, as you do in First Year Out and your other graphic novels, and expressing them through art is a cathartic process? I imagine that it could be quite emotionally wearing to revisit experiences that may have been difficult for you?

Writing much of this book was quite difficult. It forced me to revisit some very painful and vulnerable moments in my life. But revisiting those moments, and then realizing how much I’d grown beyond them, to the point where I was now publishing them into a book, was extremely empowering. When we’re depressed, it often feels like our sadness will last forever. So it is so important to realize that is not the case, and that one day we will move beyond those feelings and become stronger than we ever thought possible *because* we endured going through them.

The graphic novel is intended for both trans and cis readers. Would you have any words of advice for trans readers who, like Lily, are at the beginning of their transition?

Get connected to your trans community. Make trans friends. Support each other, build each other up. First Year Out shows Lily meeting new, inspiring trans and non-binary friends. But, truthfully, in my own first year out, I did not do that enough, and as a result I was quite lonely and isolated, and it also caused me to retain my own internalized transphobia that had been drummed into me by society. For as long as I can remember I never felt like I really belonged anywhere. But when I found my place within the trans community, I finally found that sense of community and belonging that I had been missing my entire life. It filled a hole in my heart I didn’t know needed filling.

And any advice for cis readers who want to understand how best they can be trans allies?

Listen. Trans people will tell you what we need. What we don’t need is cis people talking over us and dictating to us what they think is best for us – something which has defined much of the public’s (largely inaccurate and unsympathetic) view of trans people throughout the last century. After that, use your voice to amplify trans voices so that our needs can be heard by the wider public. Push back against transphobia within your social circle – sadly, cis people have more credibility in society. So if you, as a cis person, call out transphobia amongst your peers, they are far more likely to listen to you than to some random trans activist.

For more information and to buy a copy of the book, follow this link.

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