Trans memoir is so well established a genre that it barely even needs defining at this point. The base expectation is that when discussing a book about The Trans Experience TM, one is referring to a memoir, to such an extent that an exception can feel like a novelty. Outside of independent publishing and academia, trans-authored texts which exist outside memoir remain scarce.
I’ve read a lot of trans memoir in my life. Even outside the written word, I’ve consumed vast amounts of memoir-adjacent material, from documentaries to vlogging to tell-all talkshow specials. It’s a ubiquitous part of trans life in the current media landscape, and one I have a kind of intense ambivalence about, the feeling one gets when their contradictory strong emotions collide and explode into a non-descript mass that can’t be easily sorted out into “bad” and “good”.
Part of this feeling is the pressure I have felt to indulge in it myself, even as someone who is barely into my mid-twenties, generally considered the single worst age to be writing any kind of tell-all. There is sometimes a sense in this current climate that telling one’s trans story is not so much a choice, let alone a creative expression, as it much as an obligation. The pressure to take the narrative regarding trans life back from an overwhelmingly transphobic media which increasingly seeks to systematize and perfect its exploitation of transphobia is powerful. Both in that it is alluring and in that it feels as though not doing so will, sooner or later, have consequences.
Daniel Ortberg recently released an excerpt from his upcoming book in which he sums that urge up perfectly:
“The fight against writing Son of a Preacher Man: Becoming Daniel Mallory Ortberg, My Journey Trekking Through the Transformative Expedition of Emergence, Voyaging Shiftward Into Form — An Odyssey in Two Sexes: Pilgrimage to Ladhood must be renewed every day.”
The entire excerpt, which takes us step by step through a hypothetical trans memoir that is immediately recognisable to anyone who has read themselves a transmasculine coming-of-ladhood story, is a sharp treasure. What strikes me about it most is how early on we start to feel this pressure; Ortberg hasn’t been out all that long in objective terms, though I guess it can sometimes feel a bit like trans time works differently. (Ask anyone who has had to wait for me to get ready.) Again, this is not only in the context of published literature but in a broader sense, the way people who have come out within the last few months-to-years often feel like they “ought” to be “telling their story”, whether that’s an interview with the local newspaper or a confessional vlog.
Early transition is a hell of a time. Emotionally speaking, it’s got this peculiar mix of novelty, panic, joy, impatience, and exhaustion. Besides the ever-present threat of internal turmoil, it’s also a very “busy” time. For many of us, this is the period where “being trans” is very much a verb. It’s the time to explain things (likely ad nauseum) to people in our lives, to start making endless doctor’s appointments, to replace our wardrobe and ultimately to do the hard work of deciding just how we want to go about the business of living. It’s a all just a fucking lot, frankly. Many trans people absolutely go through a period in which being trans is overwhelmingly the dominant part of their life and identity.
In this kind of mindset, and especially when surrounded on all sides by a miasma of toxic bigotry, the urge to explain ourselves feels very present. Overwhelmingly urgent, even. If one is already a person using platforms on social media which encourage the sharing and over-sharing of personal details for the skinner-box pleasure of likes, that approach can become a kind of base approach to being heard.
And in that context I do feel it’s important to understand both the cis influences that help drive this and the potential for harm this immediate, insistent urge can threaten when exploited by bad actors. Not because I want to essentialize about trans memoir being some sort of inherent evil. We need first person and individualized accounts of our different experiences. We especially need them when so much of the glut of trans sensationalism is predicated on explicitly othering and dehumanizing us into some threatening, undifferentiated cultural force. Despite that, I can’t help but feel uneasy at the way mainstream media has so perfectly streamlined the process of selling our stories as soon as we make ourselves known.
It isn’t an unease with my trans siblings but with the motives of industries where those making decisions remain near-universally cisgender; and besides that, the ability to turn vulnerability into mass-market profit puts me on edge by default. I find myself wondering what duty of care, if any, all those movers and shakers feel towards those making them profit. When a cis documentary maker decides to take a just-barely-out teen and put them on TV as they take their first steps into a reorientation of their life, what is owed afterwards if there are unintended consequences to the spotlight? And if we feel obligated to take on such opportunities because we are overwhelmed at the time and want so much to make a difference, what happens if we later look back, with the advantage of a little more time, and wish we’d taken a while to be ourselves in private?
A great many trans narratives, both fictional and real, focus on a carefully constructed idea of transition as a life event, a full story in itself that presents well-worn narrative beats. For their cis audiences, they often give a sense of transgression, a peek into some other, rather titillating world. Cis fascination with the process of transitioning, and especially with the medical side, is so ubiquitous as to have essentially become a running gag. Volumes have been written about the way trans body modification and reconstruction draws the cis gaze. Not only the glamour and gore of our surgeries, or the compelling metamorphosis of HRT — but also the way we as trans people come to that ultimate decision to undergo what is perceived to be a radical and frightening change.
The unsympathetic cis audience member might be attracted to what they see as the spectacle of a car crash, absorbed by the promise of both the entertainment of a freak show and a sense of moral and bodily superiority. The more sympathetic cis audience might instead find themselves drawn by the promise of understanding not only the “other”, but an other so alien to their own perceptions and so dramatic in how that difference is brought into being that it grants them a kind of moral superiority as well. Expressing sympathy and even empathy for people who do something which without a sense of the internal motivation might seem bizarre to the point of reflexive horror lends a kind of feel-good vibe to the whole scenario.
Even outside those more uncharitable readings, in the realm of the sincere cis ally, transition-as-narrative provides a way to adapt our experiences to fit more smoothly into pre-existing story structures. When trans memoir often exists to specifically tell the story of “being trans”, being able to identify easily conceptualised beginning and end points, with a middle that follows a progression along recognisable roads can be comforting. This is as true for many trans people as it is for a broader cis public. Prior to undertaking my transition I watched dozens of transition timeline YouTube videos. There are uncountable videos like this, where everyday trans folks alongside more well known trans influencers and vloggers share their “journey”, often right from very early childhood to the present day. My experience is far from uncommon in this regard. Staying up late to watch them on loop is a millenial rite of passage. Particularly prior to the last decade or so of more mainstream coverage, these videos have helpd people struggling to find a framework in which to conceptualize transition for themselves to establish a reference point for what it can look like.
This was immensely helpful for me and I am deeply grateful for all the people who put themselves out there to help those of us who needed that resource. And I’m likewise grateful for all the other ways people have shared their experiences of transition, opening up my ideas of what transition can look like. As a nonbinary person who began with what felt like a void in my future as to what might come next, that collective sharing of experiences gave me a way to move forward and make informed decisions.
At the same time over the past decade it has become harder and harder for me to ignore the ways that we feel incentivized by wider society to not only limit ourselves to this single strand of storytelling, but to jump in without worry for the potential consequences, all because a desire for that hashtag content seems unending. It’s very easy to make a decision about putting the vulnerable details of your private life out there for all to see in 2019. The internet’s ability to lower barriers of entry can also make it harder to establish clear boundaries. This is especially important when we consider the role that clickbait and content aggregation can play in the endless churn of content; many sites will run “articles” on a hot topic which ultimately amount to embedding tweets they found, often without alerting the authors, which they can squeeze into whatever topic they’ve been told to “write” about today. What someone says aloud in public to their fifty followers can abruptly turn into virality in a way that can be technically excused but which quickly turns the spotlight onto people who never had any reason to expect it.
As a trans person who is not and never intends to be stealth, I am perfectly happy to put my experiences out there. Even so, I’m glad I took the better part of the last decade to decide this before I made the jump into a more deliberately declarative approach. Having the space to work through not only the overwhelming and complex feelings most experience in those early days but also the risks and consequences of being any kind of spokesperson, on even the fringes of the public eye. In 2019, where transphobia has reached a fever pitch, I can’t help but worry about the way an insatiable demand for us to lay ourselves bare in the hopes of inspiring change might be further exploited in the hopes of making a quick buck.
Likewise, I worry that the constant cycle of “here’s a transition story, and then we’ll start over with another” makes it weirdly harder for us to imagine longer futures as trans people. When the transition memoir becomes interested in having a beginning, middle and end then those being the primary resource begins to shade into a world where we are stuck in limbo, reaching for something and then, goal “acheived”, fading out of sight as the mundane reality of our lives and the developing richness of our experience becomes less novel.
Looking forward, it’s not that I want to see “less” people talking about their transition. In the moment, even. We need everything people are willing to give where they are able to give it, and no world is made better by limiting the perspectives deemed to still be worth telling. But I hope that trans people are both able to make that decision on our own terms and with the support of people able to check in with us about what the decision might look like a year, two years, ten years later. And I especially hope that we are able to tell these stories in ways more varied than which are so often expected of us by outsiders.
I do see us doing this work already. This year, I watched the YouTube piece “A Video About Transitioning” by Sarah Zedig, a trans woman and fulltime YouTuber and podcaster. It’s a piece that spoke to me about just what transition does more than anything else has. It uses the same medium that has helped codify so many “transition tropes” to break down how difficult it is to really use those tropes to connect with one another, and in engaging with both its trans audience and the social media it sits on, it recontextualized how I thought about transition as a narrative in many ways. It felt like an evolution of how we might talk about this topic amongst ourselves in public. By both acknowledging these constraints and then interrogating them, it made me feel like we could, one day, be free of them. Trans people are nothing if not adaptable. I hope we get the chance to prove it more often.