Writing while trans
I have been starting and stopping in my attempt to write about the paradoxical nature of writing authentically about trans experience for cis people for several months now. The reason for my stop-and-go approach is best explained by it being interrupted by the publication of two pieces, both by trans writers, which have proven inescapable in social media circles.
The first is the video essay “The Aesthetic” by Natalie Wynn, aka ContraPoints. It is presented as a fictionalised and exaggerated dialogue about whether trans womanhood can exist at all outside the high standards of “passing” femininity. The second, more recent splash was made when Andrea Long Chu’s op-ed “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy (And It Shouldn’t Have To)” popped up on the New York Times website and, inevitably, the social media feeds of near every English speaking trans person around. This is about both the frustration of having to prove the efficacy of medical transition to access it and also about Chu’s own insistence that most people do not, in fact, gain any real sense of happiness from transitioning.
Both are examples of work made by trans women with some semblance of a mainstream platform; Wynn as a fairly popular YouTuber and Chu as someone who gets op-eds into the New York Times. In the interest of full disclosure I had very different responses to each of these, with my feelings about Wynn’s piece being more nuanced and sympathetic while my feelings about Chu’s piece are basically a garbage fire. Your mileage may or may not vary. I’m not here to write about those two pieces in and of themselves. The short version is that in different ways, both pieces take a distinct perspective on what it means to be transgender and to transition, and they attempt to call into question intra-community ideas of positive narratives around our lives and experiences of identity. They also both exist in the context of transfemininity being both hypervisible and extremely stigmatised in the media.
Criticisms have been levelled at both of these pieces by trans audiences. Many are material ones centered around topics like factual inaccuracy, a tendency for a small segment of trans experience to be universalized, and deep-seated disagreements about what it means to be trans in both the philosophical and practical senses. But one particular note of distress comes from the very real fear of what the elevation of pieces like these meant for our optics as a community relentlessly scrutinised by the cisgender gaze- whether they will be weaponised against us.
This is not an unfounded fear.
To write about being trans for a mainstream audience is to explain to cis people what we are. That’s inescapable. One has to assume that we are speaking to outsiders. The most often cited statistic of trans populations in English-speaking circles hovers around one percent. This percentage encompasses both a large number of individuals and a tiny fraction of any society; millions of people and a very, very small minority. Add to that how long we have been functionally exiled from mainstream visibility and understanding this intense pressure to explain becomes even easier. You simply cannot assume that the vast majority of your audience even knows what you are under such circumstances.
I am very familiar with that particular hurdle. As someone who wants to write fiction, I have struggled enormously with how, exactly, I can write transgender characters, despite being a bona fide trans person. You see, if I write them in a way that feels authentic to me then I become incomprehensible to most cisgender audiences. This is not down to bigotry on any particular reader’s part as much as it results from the circumstances of our society, a society which has spent so long trying to pretend gender variance does not exist on a structural level that it has managed to engineer ignorance in most of its citizens.
What this means in day-to-day terms here in the real world is that we maintain a distinction as trans communities between how we speak amongst ourselves and how we speak in mixed company. We have to as a matter of self defense. We are engaged as a whole in a sort of extended first impression, where we constantly reintroduce ourselves in the midst of a distant terror that we’re about to fuck it all up the moment we say hello. Best keep our dirty laundry tucked away where nobody can see it, given that mindset.
Still, that’s alright. We do still have those intra-community connections, and there’s plenty of quiet corners both online and off where trans people find time to talk amongst ourselves in a language that we often come to understand intuitively. When I talk to trans people, I share a vocabulary with those people. They know what I mean when I talk about backpassing and deadnaming. They do not need me to explain what I mean when I talk about top surgery. They do not require an explanation of my pronouns before we start idly chatting about the weather.
If I wrote a novel about a couple of transgender friends, people like me and my trans friends and our very real lives, I would not know how the hell to go about explaining anything those characters were saying without it sounding like an after-school special.
It doesn’t make any sense to me. How can I simultaneously show the sort of off-the-cuff, irreverant, often self-deprecating conversations we have about our confusing lives and shared experiences, and not sound like someone speaking in tongues to my hypothetical cis audience? How can I put in explanations without sounding like a lecture to my hypothetical trans audience? Do I have to choose? I resent that idea but I cannot find a way around it; I cannot bridge the gap in either direction. The whole thing is maddening.
It’s more than just terminology, this circular reasoning. It also comes right back round to optics. Because there are discussions we have with ourselves we do not have with cisgender people. Painful, awkward, messy conversations. There are bouts of self-loathing and tremendous insecurities and worse, much worse. And often these conversations are full of trans folk being, well, wrong. Wrong about their own self worth. Wrong because they’re insecure and trying to cover it up by judging their trans siblings instead. Wrong because we do not, in fact, come out the womb with a dictionary perfect knowledge of gender theory, contrary to what some people seem to think.
The process of transitioning is often one that leans heavily on unlearning our assumptions about both ourselves and others. This is not always pretty. And in stark contrast, we always strive to make sure our millionth “first” impressions are good, when we go public in newspapers and on blogs and through interviews with whoever wants to write a fluff piece. So there is a sharp divide between what we say to each other and what we say to the rest of them. This becomes a necessary divide, one imposed externally by a cisnormative society that has just barely taken the first step towards its own unlearning.
Wynn and Chu’s pieces, and any other piece that is controversial amongst us despite it being authored by a trans person- they become so divisive because we cannot afford to be heard being anything less than perfect. We cannot afford to have any of those messy, incompetent or downright nasty discussions be heard outside of our private places. A cis person can be a person, and so a cis person can be a wrong person. They are still a person. A trans person in this media climate has to be the trans community, and so cannot be a person for the duration of whatever they are publishing. This is both unavoidable and incredibly cruel.
This is not a slam of those who have criticised such pieces. As I so subtly suggested above, I have heavily criticised Chu’s own piece as flat out full of bullshit. Frankly, I think she’s an edgelord who needs to chill and stop projecting her own issues onto others. Being a grown-ass adult means having some basic self awareness of one’s responsibility to not use public platforms as a replacement for some therapy and difficult discussions with friends, and I do not consider it “unfair” that people have come down so strongly on her. I do not mean to suggest we are being too harsh on the comparatively privileged few who have been given disproporationately large platforms. And this goes for Wynn to, whose work I frequently enjoy- I do not oppose critics of hers when they come from a place of good faith, as most of the criticisms I have seen from trans folk of The Aesthetic did. This is not about justifying nonsense with a cry for everyone to just let trans folk be “messy” in peace as such.
But these examples are not easily taken out of the media context in which they exist, one where the impact of a single daft op-ed is potentially, disproportionately catastrophic and where trans creatives are forced to make an impossible choice between audiences. Do we speak as we feel, however much we risk being wrong, and tell the truth about the vast mess that is the transgender experience? Or do we practice our first impressions and elide entire decades worth of discussion had between trans people, coming across to our peers like we’re reading from the autocue with an eye on audience reaction?
I don’t know. I still haven’t really written a piece about the paradox of how the hell we can write authentically in mainstream spaces, even after all these words. I still haven’t gotten anywhere writing fiction featuring trans people. I don’t know if the problem can be resolved until we fix the problem of why, exactly, we have spent decades trying to make our first impression over and over again, as though that makes any sense at all.