Teaching trans studies through fan fiction in college English classrooms

Peizhen Wu

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign County, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Trans studies has usually been taught within gender studies and women's studies programs. Yet, as trans studies has become highly interdisciplinary, trans awareness is still an issue in many fields; thus, incorporating trans discussions in courses in multiple disciplines is imperative. This study demonstrates how the firsthand teaching experience of a student-centered, literary-theory-related undergraduate course unit given by the English department incorporated trans studies through fan fiction. Particularly, we utilized the theoretical concept of nonbinary genders and its resistance to the heteronormative and heteropatriarchal system via a study of Loki's gender fluidity in the Loki miniseries, some exemplary transgender fan fiction, and the Omegaverse. Fandoms and fan fiction can be valuable course materials to create a comfortable space for students from different backgrounds to actively engage, discuss, and think critically about trans topics and trans theories. In this sense, this course unit explores the possibility of teaching trans studies beyond gender studies classrooms as well as courses focusing primarily on trans studies, encouraging more students to understand trans concepts and become trans allies.

[0.2] Keywords—College education; Gender nonbinary; Inclusive classrooms; Interdisciplinary trans studies; Social engagements

Wu, Peizhen. 2023. "Teaching Trans Studies through Fan Fiction in College English Classrooms." In "Trans Fandom," edited by Jennifer Duggan and Angie Fazekas, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 39.

1. Introduction

[1.1] As trans studies becomes more prominent in academia, it is important to further study and discuss trans topics in college classrooms. Teaching trans studies to trans students will help satisfy trans students' hope to find more representation and recognition of themselves and a better understanding of their identities (Clarkson 2017). Yet we should not ignore that teaching trans studies to cisgender students is also indispensable. Trans studies scholar Elizabeth Reis (2004) emphasizes to her students (most of whom do not identify as transgender) in her transgender course that "[i]ssues of gender identity and self-presentation affect us all, even if we believe to fit neatly into the generally accepted male or female boxes" (163). Asking both trans students and cisgender students to engage in trans studies helps build an inclusive college classroom. In this article, I argue that disciplines and courses outside of women's and gender studies should incorporate trans content into their teaching and I offer a case study of teaching important trans concepts through the discussion of fan fiction.

[1.2] Multiple existing studies explicate how to teach trans-related themes in gender studies and women's studies courses in colleges. For example, WSQ (formerly Women's Studies Quarterly) published a collaborated roundtable article that adopted the term "Transpedagogies" specially devoted to teaching trans studies as "a coalitional concept that includes…transgender, and gender/queer pedagogical perspectives" to tackle some urgent "trans-focused pedagogical issues within women's studies" (Muñoz and Garrison 2008). Broom (2019) develops a version of Transpedagogy that "emphasize[s] how transgender texts and ideas may be taught within a women's studies course to broaden students' understanding of gender expression and identity" (84). Nicholas L. Clarkson (2017) also suggests that, when teaching gender in women's and gender studies classrooms, instructors should "think of trans, feminist, and queer studies as three angles of vision on a similar set of problems of gender and sexuality," instead of "thinking of trans studies as a subset of feminist theory" (233). These studies illustrate the importance of trans-focused pedagogies and provide a theoretical foundation for the trans-teaching case study discussed later in this article. However, these studies situate themselves within women's and gender studies classrooms. There are studies on incorporating trans topics in courses in other disciplines such as film and sociology and in courses designed for students not majoring in gender studies (Walters and Rehma 2013; Wentling et al. 2008; Adair 2015; Abbott 2009). Yet those courses still view gender as their primary focus. Ultimately, although the topics of gender and sexuality are typically dealt with if a course—whether offered by women's and gender studies or other departments—is themed around gender and/or sexuality, few to no studies have explored teaching trans studies in courses that do not consider gender as their primary theme.

[1.3] Incorporating theories and discussions about trans studies in courses whose main theme is not gender can be very helpful to broaden the contexts and disciplines of trans studies by involving more students. Trans topics are currently attracting more media attention, which "comes [with] both new understanding, and sometimes backlash against trans people" (Maurer 2017). In academia, trans studies is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, as we can see trans studies intersecting with multiple disciplines such as ethnic studies, criminology, communications, and religion (Alimchandani 2016; Ratliff 2021; Norwood 2010; Cooper 2018). At the same time, there are trans individuals in fields other than gender studies, but not every field is sufficiently trans inclusive. For example, Hontas Farmer, a transgender theoretical physicist and a lecturer, in an interview conducted by Kendall Powell, Ruth Terry, and Sophia Chen (2020), shares her experiences of being trans while teaching physics to undergraduate students, stating: "Some students expect to see a transgender person teaching gender studies or social work, but not Newton's laws…If too few students sign up for your classes, the course gets canceled and you don't have a job." Therefore, to raise transgender visibility among a wider range of students, we need to further discuss and theorize how trans studies and trans theories can be integrated into courses in all disciplines in which neither trans topics nor gender is the primary focus. For example, this integration can be as simple as having a weekly unit(s) devoted to trans studies and trans theories whenever possible, making discussions on trans studies more common in various courses in college classrooms.

[1.4] To incorporate trans theories into courses not centering on gender, instructors must contend with how to create an inclusive space for all kinds of students to comfortably discuss trans topics and theories together. Fan fiction as a genre might be best suited to accomplish this task. Fan fiction, defined as speculative fiction based on mass media fandoms written by fans, is generally regarded as a space that is relatively open to queer representation due to the centrality of resisting hegemony and heteronormativity (Booth 2015; Busse and Lothian 2017; Duggan 2021). Elements such as gender swapping and cross-dressing are quite common in fan fiction, illustrating such flexibility. It opens up space for more gender-diversified demography in fan communities, and there is also a growing number of trans fans in fan fiction communities (Centrumlumina 2013; McInroy and Craig 2018). Nevertheless, we should also acknowledge the fact that, though mainstream fan communities are diversifying, cisgender female fans are still the majority of the fan communities. This cisgender-female-dominant field still holds binarized conceptions of gender and has serious stereotypes of transgender and nonbinary people (Duggan 2021, 2). Fan studies as a field needs to further explore the particularities and origins of these stereotypes, but trans fans themselves are helping to illuminate these stereotyped perceptions. These phenomena in fan fiction provide multifaceted sources for students to discuss trans topics in class with a critical approach (Booth 2015; Conrad and Hawley 2021).

[1.5] At the same time, the speculative and participatory nature of fan fiction offers students a comfortable space to discuss trans issues. Rather than starting to comment on real-life trans situations without any preparation, which may make students—particularly cisgender ones—hold back for fear of saying "wrong" things, the fantastical settings and fictional characters presented in fan fiction provide an inclusive space that is less risky for them to discuss trans representations that they may or may not be familiar with. This will help pave the way for students to further discuss trans identities in reality. Additionally, fan fiction is an ongoing creative process. With its popularity in the younger generation, its contemporary relevance, and its collaborative features (Busse and Hellekson 2014), fan fiction serves as an effective primary source for students to actively engage with issues of trans representation as critical readers without the gatekeeping from experts (Zygutis 2021).

[1.6] Though discussions of gender are ubiquitous in fan fiction, we cannot assume that students taking a fan studies course are already familiar with trans theories. As a course whose central theme is introducing fan fiction, it is ultimately impractical to include all major aspects of trans theories due to limited time. Therefore, to incorporate trans studies in an accessible manner, my course discussion focused on the central trans concept of nonbinary identities and combined it with some basic definitions of gender fluidity and transgender identities. Nonbinary, as a gender identity, has become the most common anglophone umbrella term for those who identify with—or experience themselves as—being outside the binary of man/male and woman/female (Vincent and Barker 2021). In this study, I view nonbinary as a part of the larger spectrum of trans concepts. While there are many sociological and cultural aspects of nonbinary identities discussed in different scholarships, I emphasized one aspect of nonbinary identities that critiques the heteronormative and heteropatriarchal systems prevalent in our world. Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman's (2010) influential work Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation examines how the gender binary emphasizes institutionalized heterosexism and heteronormativity and discusses how we should resist this dichotomy. Today, Bornstein identifies themselves as nonbinary, and this work draws from a diverse group of authors to talk about experiences as "gender outlaws" and how performing normative gender is privileged. In this sense, the value of the discussion on nonbinary identities extends beyond mere populations identified as nonbinary and people studying gender studies—it can be a discussion to rethink what is traditionally defined as "normative" in a hetero-patriarchal system that can influence people of all identities and disciplines.

[1.7] Trans topics and nonbinary identities are also closely related to fan fiction. Trans-related fan fiction is very popular on major fan fiction platforms and some social media. On AO3, there are around 97,000 works tagged with "trans character" ( and around 38,000 works tagged with "nonbinary character" ( The percentage of AO3 fan fiction works with trans-related tags is burgeoning, from around 0.15 percent in 2010 to around 1.25 percent in 2020 (Toastystats (destinationtoast) 2021). Some exemplary works, such as "Bloom," a Life is Strange fan fiction featuring trans Max (Mogatrat 2016), and "Peter Parker's Top Surgery Support Group" (Stardustandswimmingpools 2018), featuring trans Peter Parker, attracted discussions on various online platforms. There are also online events that are dedicated to trans-related fan creations. The Harry Potter Trans Fest, which is held yearly since 2020, is a "multi-ship, multi-era, and multi-media fest, created to celebrate all non-cis characters in the Harry Potter extended universe" (Hptransfest 2022). Also, some fan fiction works explore depictions of nonbinary genders, investing in intersexuality and even fantastical multi-gender systems, like the Omegaverse, on which I will elaborate in section five. As stated above, fan fiction as a genre is also resistant to hegemony and heteronormativity, with its relatively large proportion of female and LGBTQ+ participants. There are also studies about fan fiction that especially target trans and nonbinary concepts. Jonathan A. Rose (2020) analyzes "fan fiction stories based on the BBC series Sherlock that imagine John Watson as a trans man," and illustrates how these stories help create "a trans(ing) space within the fan community" where trans narratives are visible and viable (25, 32). Rachel Joy Seifrit (2021) also uses the Omegaverse as a case study to explore how this setting can be a place to "encourage trans and nonbinary inclusivity by defying gender norms and experimenting with the physical bodies of sexual beings" (63). In this sense, using nonbinary concepts as the entry point to teaching students about trans theories and trans discourse is a plausible way to include trans theories in this course's discussion.

[1.8] In sum, this article argues that including sessions devoted to trans theories and topics in courses in various disciplines whose themes are not explicitly about gender can be beneficial to students of different identities and from different disciplinary backgrounds. To support this argument, this article presents a case study to integrate trans studies through the discussion of popular fandoms, trans fan fiction, and the Omegaverse in a college English classroom. Fan fiction as a popular genre is open to LGBTQ+ representation, and the speculative nature of this genre offers a relatively safe space for students to engage with trans issues. Using "nonbinary" as the entry point to discuss trans theories in this course also helps students engage with this topic better in a fan fiction context.

2. Course contexts

[2.1] The course I designed and taught was a 200-level undergraduate course in the English department centering around fan fiction, in which I devoted around three weeks to talking about trans studies in particular. This course is offered at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Illinois is relatively supportive of the trans population, with certain laws and policies within the state that help drive equality for different gender identities in America (Movement Advancement Project n.d.). UIUC is also supportive of the trans population and trans studies. The Department of Gender and Women's Studies (GWS) offers undergraduate courses on queer theories and transgender theories in particular. The school also has various library sources, career services, and other resources dedicated to trans studies and the trans population. This suggests that if students become interested in trans topics after taking this course, it would be easy for them to find additional resources and support from the university.

[2.2] The students enrolled in the English course came from diverse backgrounds. There were ten students in the course, making it easy to facilitate in-depth discussions. It should be noted that this course does not fall under the Department of Gender and Women's Studies. None of the ten students involved are GWS majors (most of the students major in English or Creative Writing, and other students are STEM majors), and their familiarity with gender studies varied. This means that the course serves as an exploration to teach trans studies as interdisciplinary and contextual in popular fandoms and fan fiction for students who may or may not be familiar with gender studies. My course offers a space for both students who are familiar with trans studies and students who are not to explore trans studies together in a classroom alongside fan studies, literary analysis, and similar tools.

[2.3] The course I was teaching was a student-centered one. Because of this, a large portion of this article consists of students' responses and discussions, which I believe is the best evidence to indicate the progress and value of discussing trans studies in our course. As I mentioned before, fan fiction, as a part of fan practices, is essentially participatory. As Anna Smol (2018) points out, "Teaching fandoms implicitly involves teaching the methods that fans use when they respond to media texts as well as teaching the ways that fan scholars explore and analyze fans and fandom" (1). Several other case studies on teaching fandoms and fan fiction have also viewed students' backgrounds and opinions as one of their primary concerns (Golub and Loup 2019; Mcclantoc 2021; Romero 2021). Melanie Kohnen, in an endorsement on the back cover of Katherine Howell's (2018) book Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide, also states: "The inclusion of student respondents is a unique and important feature of this book" (cover copy), illustrating the value of student responses. In my course, I regarded students both as fans and as fan scholars, and their ideas and contributions were greatly valued.

[2.4] I also attempted to teach relatively abstract trans theories and gender theories alongside fandom and fan fiction cases that are related to trans topics. Teaching literary theory in undergraduate classrooms can be challenging. Some professors even argue that teaching literary theory requires an intellectualism and enthusiasm in students that few undergraduate courses can provide (Myers 1994) and may even disrupt students (Marshall 1994; Showalter 2002). Nevertheless, I tried to include some theoretical works on trans theories and gender theories in the reading materials, and as I will discuss in section three of this article, students voluntarily and successfully thought about these theories critically and applied them to the cases we analyzed. This indicates that gender and trans theories—although some are abstract on their own—can still be useful tools to teach trans topics in combination with specific cases in fandoms and fan fiction.

[2.5] This three-week session of trans studies is set from week seven to week nine of the fall semester, following topics such as the discussion of the history of fan fiction, author and authority in fan creation, racial identity in fan fiction, feminism and fan fiction, and reader response and narratives. The premise of these three weeks is that after the discussion of the first six weeks, students were already quite familiar with the general backgrounds and major concerns in fan fiction studies; the week on feminism had also paved the way for gender studies. Additionally, through the interactions that happened in the first few weeks, students were more familiar with each other and the style of the course and were more willing to participate in discussions.

[2.6] There were several different activities throughout the three weeks, including student presentations and student-led discussions on specific topics (queer baiting in slash literature and the Omegaverse), in-class small group and big group discussions, and asynchronous online discussion forums. Students were able to use the online discussion forums to explore ideas in the readings that they didn't get to discuss in class expansively or share their personal experiences of related topics. Also, after this three-week session, students did a "Reflection on Queer Topics" assignment, which included questions about their familiarity with queer studies and trans studies before the class and their opinions on various aspects of the relationship between trans studies, fan fiction, and related topics. I believe that through this scaffolding process of pre- and post-session discussion forums, student-centered discussions, and post-session reflections, students were given plenty of time and opportunity to learn, understand, think critically, and reflect on what they had discussed.

[2.7] The concern about informed consent needs to be addressed here. This study only uses secondary data collected for course purposes. Students were not aware throughout the class that this was going to be used for research. However, after the end of the semester, I emailed students to gain consent to use their course materials in this study. In this email, I informed students about the basic information of this study—including its content, its significance, and its potential benefits for future students and researchers—about the student materials that I wished to use—including written assignments and student contributions during in-class discussions from our three-week unit on trans studies—and about the potential risks of being involved in this study (not beyond those of usual academic participation) and methods to minimize them (all identifiers, like names, will be removed). I also informed them that participation was voluntary and that I would not use a student's materials if they did not consent. I received students' email responses with their consent for me to use their materials collected in class for this study.

[2.8] Generally, I believe that fandoms and fan fiction provide a comparatively free space for students to discuss trans issues. In the following sections, I use my course experience to demonstrate how students actively and critically engaged with trans studies through the discussion of popular fandoms and fan fiction.

3. Loki and gender-fluid representation in mass media fandoms

[3.1] Since fan fiction is heavily based on original fandoms, I started the trans studies unit with the discussion of the recent TV series Loki (2021–), set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), instead of starting with fan fiction texts. There are several reasons that I chose Loki instead of other fandoms that represent trans people. First, Loki is depicted in canon as gender fluid, making his genderqueer identity valid to the fandom. One teaser of the series shows Loki's case file, and under the category of sex, the file notes Loki is fluid instead of male or female (Romano 2021). The Loki TV series marks the first canonized gender-fluid character in the MCU's history. Second, Loki is a relatively new series, with its first episode streaming on Disney+ on June 9, 2021. Given that its premiere was so recent, this television series might be closely linked to more exigent discussions on nonbinary genders. Third, Loki is a part of the MCU, which has become one of the most popular fandoms in fan communities in recent years. In fact, Marvel has the highest number of fan fiction works produced under the category "Cartoons & Comics & Graphic Novels" on AO3 ( This fandom is also popular among the students in our course, as seven students reported that they were familiar with the MCU in a survey at the beginning of the semester. For all the reasons above, I believe that Loki as a gender-fluid character helps students start to understand the concept of gender fluidity.

[3.2] I first asked students to watch Loki and pay particular attention to parts that indicate his nonbinary gender. Combined with the original TV series, students were also required to read two online articles that discuss Loki's gender fluidity, including "Loki Is a Trans Icon, I Appreciate That" (Wheeler 2018), which describes Loki's gender fluidity in the comics, and "Loki Failed LGBTQ+ Audiences with Its Version of Genderfluidity" (Grauso 2021), which generally focuses on the representation of Loki's gender fluidity in the TV series. I also asked students to read related trans studies theories, including Susan Stryker's (2013) article "(De)Subjugated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies." These readings and new media materials give students a sense of gender fluidity and also provide a chance for them to discuss the representation of gender fluidity in popular fandoms.

[3.3] In our in-class discussions and the asynchronous discussion forums, students were actively engaging with the topic of trans representation, and the class had seen valuable reflection and arguments about Loki being gender-fluid. Generally, students agreed that Loki is not a good representation of gender fluidity in the MCU. The two online articles inspired students to think about the MCU's representation of gender fluidity in a critical way, and they moved beyond the evidence and arguments provided in the articles. For example, one student consulted the Merriam-Webster dictionary for a precise definition of gender fluidity to make his argument that Loki's female variant in a parallel world, Sylvie, is not the same as Loki being gender fluid, since, "[a]ccording to Merriam-Webster, the definition of gender fluidity is 'being a person whose gender identity is not fixed.' Sylvie, the female version of Loki, was simply another Loki from another world, a parallel world." Before this session, this student was not familiar with queer theory or trans theory. But the reading materials and discussions in our class inspired him to reflect on how gender fluidity is defined and should be represented. Several other students also compared Loki's representation in the MCU with his depiction in the comic books, arguing that there was an opportunity to represent Loki's gender fluidity through his/her shapeshifting abilities, as indicated in the comics. These reactions indicate that this session did inspire students to engage with trans-related concepts actively and critically.

[3.4] Surprisingly, students voluntarily consulted and reflected on the theoretical works on trans studies that is required in the readings. In our class discussion, I showed students a part of the YouTube video "Loki Isn't Genderfluid: Disney's Queerbaiting and Rainbow Capitalism" by Brennen Beckwith (2021), a trans male. In the video, Beckwith argues that even with the shapeshifting abilities, Loki in the MCU is not a gender-fluid character because "up till this point, Loki has never shapeshifted to express himself. He has shapeshifted to disguise himself, which is the exact opposite of self-expression." While some students agreed with this idea, other students referred to the discussion of "gender performativity" mentioned in Stryker's article and argued that the boundary between disguise and expression might not be as clear as indicated in the video, because gender can also be regarded as a social construct without the necessity of material referent. Stryker (2013) explains, "To say that gender is a performative act is to say that it does not need a material referent to be meaningful, is directed at others in an attempt to communicate, is not subject to falsification or verification, and is accomplished by 'doing' something rather than 'being' something" (10). One student used this quote to state that Loki's shapeshifting is an expression of "doing" mischief, which is a part of his identity, as he is titled the God of Mischief. This discussion reflects students' enthusiasm in engaging more deeply with trans theories and their applications in popular culture.

[3.5] Apart from this theoretical reflection, our class also discussed some real-life implications of depicting Loki as gender fluid in Loki and the comics. Particularly, students related Loki's identity as a villain to the anti-trans bathroom bills being legislated recently and reflected on the implications behind them. Nowadays, there is a wave of anti-trans bills that specifically prohibit transgender students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The supporters of these bills assume trans people are potential criminals, as "letting trans people use the bathroom or locker room for their gender identity will allow men to disguise themselves as trans women to go into women's bathrooms or locker rooms and sexually assault and harass women" (Lopez 2016). Some students argued that Loki's power to shapeshift and disguise may portray trans people as deceivers, and they also said that using Loki as the first trans icon in the MCU might impose serious stereotypes on the general audience that trans people are potential villains, which may support the claims of anti-trans supporters. But other students claimed that this situation is not the same because, as stated above, Loki's shapeshifting power is a part of his identity, and this depiction is different from the problematic "rhetoric of deception" in popular culture (Bettcher 2007, 50). One example of this rhetoric is J. K. Rowling's (2020) novel Troubled Blood (written under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith), in which the murderer Dennis Creed sometimes cross-dresses as a woman to get closer to his female victims. Students argued that, unlike Creed's action, which closely echoes the claims of anti-trans groups about bathroom use, Loki's shapeshifting is an expression of his gender-fluid identity. At least in the comics, when Loki shapeshifts into a woman, she is a woman. The two sides didn't reach an agreement in class, but this discussion was essentially fruitful, as it indicates that students moved beyond the phenomenon of gender-fluid representation on screen, intentionally analyzing and applying related theoretical works to real-life situations to think critically about gender-related concepts with the primary sources of TV fandoms.

[3.6] From the discussion on Loki's gender fluidity in our course, I argue that using popular fandoms to approach trans issues is generally a good start for students, especially when they are not familiar with related gender theories. In our course, students discussed in detail why Loki in the TV series is not a good representation of gender fluidity with the help of related online articles and YouTube videos. They also used Loki's representation in the comics to reflect on what counts as a better representation of gender fluidity. Beyond that, students could actively use related gender theories to think critically about some arguments presented in the reading materials and also apply these reflections to real-life trans situations. These experiences indicate that popular fandoms can act as a good medium for college students to discuss trans topics and nonbinary genders comfortably in class; they can also act as a bridge to get students who were not familiar with gender studies more involved in the discussion.

4. Fan fiction about trans representation: A place to fix the problem?

[4.1] In the last section, I looked at how students generally agreed that the Loki TV series does not give an accurate representation of gender fluidity. Then the question arises: do related fan fictions do a better job in using Loki as an icon for gender fluidity? In fact, fan fiction provides a space for the so-called what ifs. By using alternate universes, alternate endings, and so forth, fan fiction allows fan writers and readers to realize undeveloped expectations and fix, in a way, their disappointment. Since this course is primarily focused on fan fiction as a genre for literary analysis and social impact, we read and analyzed some fan fiction that represents trans people.

[4.2] I asked students to read three fan fiction stories on AO3 centered around or related to trans representation. The first one is "believe in second chances" (ShowMeAHero 2021a), a fan fiction based on Loki. This fan fiction talks about Thor's visit to Loki's family after Loki married Mobius, another protagonist of the TV series. The second one is "And All Shall Be Well." (Michaels 2010), a Doctor Who fan fiction. It is a second-person narrative fiction about the love between Rory Williams and Amy Pond, in which Rory Williams is a trans male. "And All Shall Be Well." explores Rory's trans male experience, including how he is misunderstood by others and how Amy, his lover, has always supported his decisions. The third one is "Once Upon a Time" (Busaikko 2010), a Harry Potter fan fiction. It is about the self-exploration of Dudley, Harry Potter's cousin, as a (potential) cross-dresser. This fan fiction expands from one scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling 1999), in which Dudley saw Aunt Marge "inflating like a monstrous balloon, her stomach bursting free of her tweed waistband, each of her fingers blowing up like a salami" (29), and after that scene, Dudley starts to explore trans identities. While reading these fan fiction texts, students were asked to focus on the trans experiences depicted in them, especially compared with Loki's representation of gender fluidity in the TV series. After the discussion, I asked questions about the students' impression of trans representation in the fan fiction pieces.

[4.3] It turned out that students believed that these three fan fiction pieces did a much better job of trans representation than Loki. In our class discussion, students performed close reading of several excerpts from the fan fiction texts. In "believe in second chances" (ShowMeAHero 2021a), there is one part that students paid special attention to. When Thor sees a little girl, Frigga, in Loki's house and is told that she is the daughter of Loki and Mobius, he responds, "See, that, I'm not surprised by…Loki always liked changing forms. He was my sister for nearly a hundred years in a row, once. Honestly, I'm surprised he didn't have any children then, since he was—" Throughout this fan fiction, Loki remains in his male form and is referred to as "he," but Thor's words that he is "not surprised" indicate that Loki was in her female form for "nearly a hundred years in a row." Also, Thor's mentioning of Loki's female form indicates that Loki gave birth to Frigga in her female form. This is different from the male pregnancy situation that many fan fiction pieces use. Students responded that, unlike Loki, which only depicts variants of different universes in different genders, this fan fiction actually indicates that Loki is switching between male and female forms. One student even read several other fan fiction works by the same author in the same series and reported that in the third short story in this fan fiction series, "find meaning and seize it" (ShowMeAHero 2021b), there is a direct depiction of Loki being a female and Loki being a male. And the author says in their notes, "Also, Loki's pronouns change in different parts, because he's gender-fluid and this is my fic and I said so!" Students believed that these pieces of evidence support a better representation of Loki's gender fluidity than is found in the TV series.

[4.4] At the same time, students also gave very positive responses to the two other fan fiction works about trans representation that we read in class. First, students appreciated that these two works give a chance for trans people to be the protagonists. One student wrote in her reflection, "Often in mainstream media, trans people are background characters. Making them the main character allows for them to be depicted in more depth which of course leads to them better-written characters." Second, students actively engaged with the fan fiction texts and the comments below the texts to explore in what ways these two fan fiction works had a realistic and respectful representation of trans people. In our class session, one student referred to a comment the author made for "Once Upon a Time" (Busaikko 2010): "Where I live (Japan), apparently an entire novel was written without using pronouns…which made me think and wonder whether that was possible in English." They then argued that it is amazing to realize that the whole fan fiction piece didn't use any gender pronouns to refer to Dudley and that readers didn't feel awkward with this. Another student referred to Rory's interaction with Amy's aunt in "And All Shall Be Well."

[4.5] Later, after Amy's been tucked back upstairs with all the blankets in the house piled up on top of her, Amy's aunt looks you in the eye and says, "I have never been so glad Amy's a lesbian."

[4.6] Your mouth drops open, but before you can protest, she pats you on the shoulder. "You're a good girl, Rory. I'm glad you're here for her" (Michaels 2010).

[4.7] The student responded that Amy's aunt mistakenly regards Amy as a lesbian, which disregards Rory's male identity, and this idea of care from her aunt is condescending. But at the same time, students appreciated the fact that this scene is included in the fan fiction, because it reflects some misunderstandings that trans people in real life might face, which is also an important part of trans representation.

[4.8] Students acknowledged the power of fan fiction in trans representation and related social impact when thinking about fan fiction as a literary genre. All the students who completed the reflection assignment agreed that from their reading experiences, fan fiction generally does a better job than major media fandoms in representing the queer population and the trans population. For example, one student argued, "It seems fan fiction doesn't shy away from not only including trans characters but giving them fleshed out personalities and storylines, as well as a happy ending." They also stated that fan fiction can and should be an active place for queer representation, which emphasized fan fiction's potential and social responsibility for supporting queer people in general.

[4.9] At the same time, students were also aware of the existing problems in fan fiction when it comes to queer representation and trans representation. In particular, quite a few students were cautious about the general supernatural settings of fan fiction, which indicates their poignant perception of the differences between trans representation in fiction and real life and their effects. Though students believed that the supernatural element in fan fiction "is a great opportunity to interact with queer topics as it opens up avenues certain authors might have trouble exploring," they also didn't fail to notice that the supernatural element in fan fiction might also indicate a sense of escapism in its representation of queer and trans people. For example, one student pointed out that "supernaturalness is currently being used as an 'easy out' for representation. If the only people that are represented as queer are supernatural, that still makes it seem as if being queer is not 'normal.'" Another student also argued, "Fan fictions use supernaturalness and fantasy to perpetuate false or inaccurate queer representations." She used Loki's superpower to illustrate her point, arguing that Loki's gender fluidity seems to be based on his/her superpower to shapeshift into male and female bodies, which is a false indication because, according to the gender performative theory, "To say that gender is a performative act is to say that it does not need a material referent to be meaningful" (Stryker 2013, 2). These valuable reflections made in the queer topics reflection assignment illustrate that through our course discussion, students not only gained knowledge and ideas about what counts as a good representation of trans people in fandoms and fan fiction but also acquired the related critical thinking to reflect the indications of these representations as well as their positive and negative effects on trans people in real life.

[4.10] This course discussion about trans representation in the three fan fiction works also inspired students to further examine trans topics in other related topics, especially in a broader social context. Though the course's final project allowed for the discussion of any topic in the class, one student chose to explore trans studies in Harry Potter fan fiction though she was not familiar with trans theories before this course. In a very well-written final essay, the student examined how the destabilization of the boundaries between common binaries, such as human versus nonhuman, male versus female, and magical versus nonmagical, in the original Harry Potter fandom inspired nonbinary gender interpretation of fan fiction through a transgender lens. She argued, "Trans fiction becomes a way for self-expression for transgender or nonbinary individuals. For cisgender people, it becomes a way to explore gender differently." She also performed a close reading on some famous transgender fan fiction titled "Magical Metamorphosis" (Eon_the_Dragon_Mage 2017) and "The Girl Who Lived (Again)" (Dirgewithoutmusic 2016), and explored how the disclaimers in authors' notes and interactions between characters in fan fictions present a realistic and meaningful picture of the self-exploration of a transgender character and the difficulties they faced. The student added that our course discussion on trans representation inspired her to combine her interests in the Harry Potter fandom with transgender studies, and the course paves the way for her further exploration of trans theory in the final project and the future. At the same time, the student's essay is a direct response to J. K. Rowling's anti-trans claims in real life. In this essay, the student explored how Harry Potter fans can "make their own in the form of fan fiction and fan art" despite Rowling's transphobic views. Fans made their refutation by reinterpreting the original series through a trans perspective and by shifting major characters to trans characters or introducing original trans characters. In this sense, fan fiction and related fan creations not only can be an escape from real life but have also become a fortress to refute Rowling's transphobic comments and a way to defend real-life trans rights and explore trans lives.

[4.11] In summary, the discussion on the three trans-related fan fiction works offered students a chance to reflect both on fan fiction as a genre and on the concept and representation of trans people in a deeper way. Through class discussion and close reading, students combined fan fiction, real-life experiences, and related trans theory to reflect on examples of good representations of trans people in fan fiction and how this can help support trans people in real life; how can certain features of fan fiction (like supernatural settings) provide positive and negative impacts on the trans community; and how the discussions in class can result in enthusiasm and further exploration on trans studies after class.

5. The Omegaverse: Against a gender binary?

[5.1] The previous two sections generally asked students to understand and analyze the representation of some basic concepts in trans studies, including gender fluidity and transgender identities. With these sections as the basis, this course paved the way for a more in-depth and open-ended critical analysis of nonbinary gender identities in the third week of the unit. Therefore, I introduced the setting of the Omegaverse into our discussion at that point. The Omegaverse, or Alpha/Beta/Omega Universe (A-B-O), is an alternate universe consisting of a "cluster of tropes involving humans with animalistic traits, inspired by the popular imagination of wolf biology and behavior; the rewriting of sex, gender, and the human reproductive system; and dynamics of dominance and submission" (Gunderson 2017, 17). Within this universe, characters are assigned one of three secondary genders—Alpha, Beta, or Omega—in addition to the primary male/female genders. Alphas are the highest ranking in this fictional universe's lupine hierarchy, and they can impregnate others, particularly Omegas. Omegas, on the other hand, are the lowest in the hierarchy and have the ability to get pregnant. They are generally subservient to Alphas because of their heat cycles, a period during which they experience an urgent sexual desire to mate with Alphas. Betas are often depicted as having "'normal' human anatomy, with none of the special attributes of Alphas or Omegas" (, and they are generally background characters in the Alpha/Omega dynamics (Gunderson 2017; Sung 2021). All Omegaverse fan fictions "interrogate gender and sexuality as well as sexual orientation and cultural assumptions" (Busse 2013, 322).

[5.2] The Omegaverse has gained tremendous popularity in the fan fiction community, with more than 120,000 works tagged as "Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics" on AO3 (*s*Beta*s*Omega%20Dynamics/works) and more than 1.4 billion views on videos tagged with "Omegaverse" on TikTok ( Despite its popularity, few academic projects have studied the Omegaverse extensively, besides Kristina Busse's (2013) article and Marianne Gunderson's (2017) and Milena Popova's (2018) dissertations. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge the potential for the Omegaverse to promote social justice, as it may question the fixated binary gender identities. I argue that the Omegaverse can act as an accessible and influential special case to discuss nonbinary gender identities in college classrooms.

[5.3] I chose Omegaverse as a case for students to analyze nonbinary genders specifically because it is seemingly controversial when it comes to its relationship with nonbinary genders. In some ways, the Omegaverse appears to share similarities with nonbinary genders. There is a combination of six genders in the Omegaverse if we incorporate primary and secondary genders, making it "particularly popular among women and trans folk because gender and sex aren't binary in this universe" (Gan 2021). This variety of genders makes various kinds of relationships possible, apart from the heterosexual and gay or lesbian relationships common in our real life. However, the connections between Omegaverse and nonbinary genders are superficial. Genders are assigned, categorical, and highly hierarchical in the Omegaverse. This is essentially different from nonbinary genders in our real world, which value "places of betweenness, bothness, and beyondness in gender" (Vincent and Barker 2021). It can even be offensive to trans people, because the animalistic and irresistible instincts of different secondary sexes pose a threat to gender identity not restricted by innate sex. Therefore, Omegaverse should not be regarded as representing nonbinary gender identities, at least not in a realistic way. That said, having a discussion using the Omegaverse might help students engage with nonbinary genders using a controversial perspective and even in a dramatic way, which may push them to think beyond the surface meaning of nonbinary gender identities and thus acquire a deeper understanding of trans concepts.

[5.4] Before the discussion, more than half of the students were unfamiliar with Omegaverse settings. Therefore I assigned an introductory article, "What the hell is the Omegaverse, and why is it all over TikTok?" (Sung 2021) for students to understand the Omegaverse. Apart from that, I also assigned two Quora discussion forums relating Omegaverse to gender issues: "How are MPREG (male pregnancy fics) and ABO (Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamic tropes) considered transphobic?" (Ashier Sanquer 2021) and "Does abo even have anything to do with gender?" (Freedom-of-fanfic 2018). Then I asked students to read an excerpt from Gunderson's (2017) thesis in gender studies, "What is an Omega? Rewriting Sex and Gender in Omegaverse Fan Fiction" so that students could explore how academia examines the Omegaverse. Before the student presentation, the presenter also asked the class to read an Omegaverse Star Wars fan fiction, "Enough" (AlaMaco801 2021). With the above readings, students could understand what the Omegaverse means and how it can be related to gender studies. This section on the Omegaverse was generally led by students, as one student did a short presentation on the Omegaverse and then led her peers for small group and big group discussions.

[5.5] Students had very mixed feelings about the Omegaverse, but generally they actively broke through the seemingly nonbinary gender themes of the Omegaverse and questioned what nonbinary gender identities really indicate beyond its definition of "genders outside of the binary paradigm of man/male and woman/female" (Vincent and Barker 2021). Students acknowledged the controversy regarding nonbinary gender representation and characterization involving transphobic, fetishizing, biological essentialist, and heteronormative stereotypes. For example, one student argued, "ABO [Omegaverse] is strange to me because it covers the whole spectrum from 'porn with no plot' to 'extensive metaphor undoing gender roles.'" Another student also said in the discussion post that "a/b/o fanfics can either be a great example of gender fluidity, or they can cause harmful stereotypes based on gender and sexuality." The students were also very perceptive in discovering the hidden heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy behind the nonbinary gender settings, with one student saying, "ABO fan fictions tend to perpetuate heteronormativity by portraying all relationships (even queer relationships) as the stereotype of one 'masculine' and dominant person, and one 'feminine' and submissive person. This stereotype is harmful especially to the queer community because it forces the ideas of cisgender and straight relationships onto queer ones." Another student also argued, "For a setting focused on breaking the mold, it ironically enforces heteronormativity through the use of alphas and omegas" and "The genetic sexual presentation as gender also poses a problem to appropriate gender representation."

[5.6] Nevertheless, students' acknowledgment of the intrinsic heteronormativity hidden behind the six genders in the Omegaverse did not render this discussion about the Omegaverse valueless. On the contrary, students found the discussion very "thought-provoking and interesting" when viewing the Omegaverse as having the potential for representing nonbinary genders and as a metaphor for contemporary issues. Several students commented that the Omegaverse has the potential to represent nonbinary people well due to its inherent intersex setting and its surprising flexibility in its settings. One student argued, "In terms of gender, I do think it [Omegaverse] can be a force for good if used correctly. If it holds discussions about gender and discrimination, then it can promote the normalization of not only the LGBT+ community but also intersex biology."

[5.7] Students also argued for the social value of the Omegaverse, as it mirrors and extravagates our reality of gender norms and other areas. In the student-led presentation, the presenter quotes from Gunderson's (2017) thesis—"By placing the stories in a/b/o alternate universes, these stories are exempted from any assumption that they represent how gender and sexuality work in existing societies, structures, and places" (101)—and asked the class to discuss whether the Omegaverse should shoulder social responsibilities in the representation of gender and sexuality and whether we are thinking about this setting too seriously. As it turned out, students found concrete social implications of the Omegaverse and were also willing to critically think about it. One student pointed out how the Omegaverse indicates our real-world problems: "Alphas seem to mirror the real world's expectations of western masculinity and betas seem to mirror western expectations of femininity." In her argument, she further combined problems of trans representation with feminist studies and the topic of western cultural domination. Another student commented on the Omegaverse, "I think it's an unfathomable mirror to the reality we already live in but pushed to the extreme." In our class discussions, students also centered the topic of male Omegas and discussed why this group is even more sexualized and degraded than female Omegas in the Omegaverse and the implications behind this phenomenon. Students appropriated the male-gaze concept in feminist studies and argued that this phenomenon can be interpreted as the result of the cis gaze, as male Omegas are othered and viewed as the fetishized subjects of cis females' sexual imagination. Students responded that this phenomenon also reflects the real world's resistance to nonbinary genders, because the terms "male" and "Omega" in the Omegaverse simultaneously represent both the aggressive masculine and the oppressive feminine, which is unacceptable in the premise of binary gender identities and heteronormativity.

[5.8] Through the course discussion and students' responses, using the Omegaverse as a special case to discuss nonbinary gender identities is successful and meaningful. It pushed students to deal with a setting that is seemingly contradictory within itself in terms of nonbinary genders and asked students to accept and reflect on such a contradiction. It also gave students a chance to reflect on what nonbinary gender identities mean and examine the heteronormativity hidden behind the veil of nonbinary genders written by cisgender authors. This in turn gave students a space to examine the Omegaverse from a serious and critical perspective and see how the Omegaverse can be used to discuss nonbinary gender issues and other interdisciplinary issues reflected in real life.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] This article presents the teaching experiences of and students' responses to a three-week session on trans studies and fan fiction in an undergraduate English course. In this session, we first looked at the representation of the gender-fluid protagonist Loki in Loki the TV series. Students discussed some basic concepts in trans studies and showed the ability to apply trans theories to explore what is and what is not a satisfactory representation of gender fluidity on screen. This outcome indicates first that popular fandoms can be a good start for students who are not familiar with trans studies to think about trans topics and second that including theoretical works can also provide students with useful critical tools to approach trans studies. We then discussed several fan fiction texts that focus on trans protagonists. Through close reading and expansive research, students further explored how to make a good representation of trans people in fictional texts and how the supernatural aspects of fan fiction as a popular genre can be both beneficial and harmful to trans communities in real life. This shows that fan fiction can act as a valuable primary source to discuss trans representation and its implications in real life, and it can also encourage curiosity and interest that could lead students to explore trans theories in their future academic studies. We also used the Omegaverse, a special multigender setting in fan fiction, to explore the connotations behind nonbinary genders. Through the discussion, students delved into the implicit heteronormative stereotypes beyond the nonbinary gender settings of the Omegaverse and also extended this discussion to its metaphoric reflection on social issues beyond trans topics. This discussion illustrates that the Omegaverse, which is generally ignored in academia, can also serve as a thought-provoking case to teach trans studies and related topics.

[6.2] This inclusive course session marks an attempt to expand the teaching of trans studies beyond gender studies and women's studies programs in college education, which I believe is exigent, as trans studies have become interdisciplinary with various areas of study. By using the contemporary and participatory fan fiction genre, which is popular with the younger generation and reflective in portraying trans people, this course unit helps students develop critical analytic skills indispensable in literary analysis and other fields and also offers students of different backgrounds a space to discuss trans topics together, which is beneficial for promoting trans education to a broader audience and creating more allies for trans communities. Of course, this course still has its limitations, particularly when the connection between fan fiction representation and real-life situations is not explored extensively enough—though students have brought up related issues collectively in class and individually in their assignments. Although this is a course about fan fiction instead of trans studies in the social sciences, adding reading materials such as timely news about current trans situations alongside fan fiction and theory-related materials might help students situate themselves better in the discussion of trans topics. This is something instructors can consider adding in future attempts to teach trans studies in English classrooms.

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