The Risks Of Telling Our Authentic Trans Stories

flickr/Thomas Hawk
Our detractors shape how we get to publicly tell our truths. This is a problem.

A s a transgender writer working in the age of the personal essay, some of what I write ends up being about my life.

Occasionally, I have an opportunity to work on pieces that are deeply meaningful to me, like when I told the story of my marriage to another transgender person who I had transitioned with for a radio podcast last year. It was a happy relationship until it wasn’t, when it began to show hallmarks of abuse. My ex-wife isolated me from all my friends who didn’t approve of her; made me believe I was personally responsible for her happiness and for fixing every problem and fulfilling her every whim; took paid jobs giving speeches on feminism and had me write them for her, then took all the money and the credit as a learned leftist; went into tantrums and broke my favorite things; and had a complete lack of respect for others’ boundaries whether they be interpersonal or sexual.

None of this made it into the final piece. I am shaking just writing these things now. Because I know, as a trans person, as someone writing about trans people, as an ally to trans women, that I am never ever supposed to publicly suggest something that could make any trans person look bad. I am never supposed to write that I was abused by a trans woman, because this is exactly what the people who want to see all trans people disappear off the face of the earth want everyone else to think is true of all trans women. I am never to suggest that a vulnerable population (which I am part of) could be anything less than perfect.

For the record, the idea that a relationship with one abusive trans woman validates all the horrible things trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) and others say about trans women is absurd. Were a cis person, male or female, to be abusive in a relationship, no one would ever take that to mean all cis people are abusive.

My ex-wife is one person out of the large community of trans people I know and love. The wonderful people I know among this community, most of them transgender women, have taken me into their homes when I was homeless, supported me mentally and emotionally when I was at my worst, helped me find jobs, and fed me when I was hungry and broke. They are people I turn to when I am unsure about my own often imperfect politics, or the many issues I myself have as a person. And yet the fear instilled by TERFs is so real that many trans writers, when telling their stories, feel we are not supposed to talk about anything that questions any trans person beyond the confines of our own community. Certainly not in venues for public or cis consumption.

And of course, despite my efforts to sanitize my work and make it more for public consumption, TERFs found my final piece on my ex-wife anyway, posting it on the “Gender Critical” subreddit and tearing it apart in the least compassionate way. In the instances I still see my often problematic ex-wife as someone who was struggling with transmisogyny, they saw me as making excuses for her “male” behavior. They saw me as brainwashed, and read away my own agency in transitioning, assuming I had done it because of her. Though it was a small, vocal population, I was so deeply shaken that I couldn’t even tell a version of my story that I found fair and balanced, including my own shortcomings, without it being run through the mill by people who felt that my very existence was questionable.

I couldn’t even tell a version of my story that I found fair and balanced.

Basil Vaughn Soper, a trans writer and the creator of the Transilient project, in which trans people tell their own stories, also feels that the limitation of trans narratives is a problem:

“I regularly hold back on what I want to say in my work so as not to offend other trans people or cis people. Cis editors have had a tendency to change my language in the past to make it more ‘clear’ when what they really mean is cis people won’t understand what you’re saying and cis people are the majority and what make us money. There’s a constant ask of us to dull our experiences so that cis people can ‘get it.’ This cycle isn’t helping anything though — it’s harming trans people and cis people because we aren’t teaching cis people about ourselves authentically. What they ‘get’ is a diluted-made-for-TV movie when what we all deserve is to be seen as powerful, smart humans by cis people.”

Though author April Daniels works in the medium of speculative fiction, she found in writing her first novel, Dreadnought, that there was a pressure to create trans characters who read only positively:

“There was a constant back and forth about how real was too real, how fluffy was too fluffy. And not just in the characterization of trans people, but their experiences, too. I didn’t want to whitewash the realities of being trans, but I didn’t want to fetishize the misery, either, and when you’re creating a media perception of a reality — which by its nature can only ever be a simulation, or an image — that’s a fine line to walk.”

Of course we all have detractors whenever we do anything public, but the limitations set on us to present our community in only positive ways is a problem. It’s a problem that our detractors shape how we get to publicly tell our truths. It’s a problem that we all have to be as beautiful and perfect as Laverne Cox, as politically accurate as Janet Mock, that our representation contains an air of respectability politics, and that the nuance of our lives is thereby erased. It’s a problem that we can’t be messy, imperfect, flawed. It’s a problem that we can never address the ways our lives previous to transition color our present lives, for fear of being told that we’re “always going to be a woman or man because of our socialization.” It’s a problem that we are forced to conform to outdated ideas of male and female behavior, rather than embracing who we feel we are. It’s a problem when detractors take one instance and make it a universal. TERFs end up doing all this — just about the opposite of my definition of feminism.

The limitations set on us to present our community in only positive ways is a problem.

In so many ways, trans stories are for cis consumption. Cis people outnumber us, they are the ones reading, and we have to tell our stories in ways they can relate to and understand. This leaves no room to tell our complete and nuanced truths.

The other prevalent idea, that we only tell stories for each other, doesn’t open up many more options for how we represent ourselves. If our trans stories are just for other trans people, we put forth the idea that there is such a thing as “the trans experience,” which we’re all destined to follow along with. While cis white male writers get to call themselves simply “writers,” we pigeonhole ourselves as “trans writers,” “women writers,” or “black writers.” And we miss out on the most noble pursuit of writing, which is making the personal vast and human for all of us.

As a writer, I want to tell about the breadth and depth of human experience, through my admittedly trans lens. As a trans person, I feel trapped between putting forth respectable versions of my stories, or not telling them at all.

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