DC Comics has set another record on behalf of LGBT representation: as of Batgirl #19, the company has mainstream American comics’ first transgender character.
Alysia Yeoh isn’t a superhero, although as it turns out she lives with one. She’s currently the roommate of Barbara Gordon, who has once again taken up Batgirl’s cape and cowl. First introduced in Batgirl #1, the only thing Alysia does by night is bartend, but she’s no shrinking violet.
Like Barbara, Alysia wants to make a change in Gotham, but she does it through activism—and even after going through all the trouble that comes with sharing living quarters with a superhero, she has no intention of running away.
There have been gender-fluid characters in mainstream comics before, such as Marvel’s Cloud. But while they might fit the description in a literal sense, a character who can change gender more easily than most people change their clothes has almost nothing in common with an actual transgender person. In addition, many such characters capable of taking on either a male or female form aren’t human; this has some unfortunate implications.
So far, Alysia has revealed little about herself. It’s unknown if her transition has been more than social, but she presents unmistakably as a girl, and has definite curves. Though she and Barbara moved in together before she decided to mention that she isn’t biologically female, way back in Batgirl #4 she said, “If we’re sharing big time secrets, I have one.” Despite her decision to disclose, she didn’t get the chance until #19, the most recent issue. Barbara’s response was a hug.
Whatever controversy springs up around a DC Comics character who happens to be MTF, it won’t be the only one around Batgirl; following a spinal injury that left her in a wheelchair after a 1988 comic, Barbara Gordon transformed herself into Oracle, an information broker to law enforcement and superheroes alike, making her the first mainstream paraplegic superhero.
When the current continuity was rebooted in 2011, through it was through science and hard work rather than magic, Barbara learned to walk again (within the story, only three years after she was shot), and resumed her identity as Batgirl.
Fans of Oracle objected to losing one of the very few icons the disabled community has, but so far the portrayal has been respectful, and still shapes how Barbara looks at the world. After her own experience of having a body that didn’t match up to her own self-image for a time, perhaps that contributed to seeing a friend’s transgender identity as no issue at all.