For many transgender people, stories about transgender people written by cisgender authors are a source of anxiety. The same holds true when people with disabilities read the works of authors who don’t have disabilities but choose to write about specific disabilities. All too often it becomes clear from the writing that the authors and their editors did not do much research. The writers take the easy way out and fall into standard tropes and storylines. Or, the authors use language that ranges from mildly offensive and ignorant to blatantly hateful.
When problems in the storyline are brought to their attention, the response is often similar to, “I talked to my transgender friend and he’s okay with me using tr*nny, so I did the research.” The one person they talked to about the transgender or disability experience said it was okay, so it must be okay. Pardon me while I go scream into a pillow.
The problem with stories that include transgender characters is that certain tropes are not only overused, but they can also be harmful, usually pertaining to transgender women. Some of the most common ones are:
- Deadnaming the transgender person when it is not necessary. (Using the name given to them as a baby, which a transgender person does not to go by any longer.)
- Assuming that the person keeps old photos of themselves around.
- “Trapped in the wrong body.”
- “I always knew.” (Meaning, the person knew from childhood that their gender didn’t match the one they were assigned at birth.)
- The character is portrayed as just a “man in a dress.”
- Presented as a “tomboy,” when the transgender character was assigned female at birth.
- The “tragic” transgender person.
- Transgender women as “traps” for straight men to make them gay.
- Transgender women wanting men, only men, and can’t wait to give fellatio (this one particularly blows).
I’m not saying that some of these don’t have a place, particularly in fiction. The question is, does the trope fit the story? Is it necessary for the plot to move forward? This is particularly important when the author is not transgender. What is an author, editor, or publisher to do then?
First, do the research. Lots of research. Take the time to read blogs, academic writing, fiction, and other stories by transgender people. These stories are as diverse as the transgender people themselves. Each has their own perspective and story. For some, their marriage ended as a result of transition, others are still married and their relationship is stronger for it. The same holds true if they have or had children. Some are happy not having children, for others it is a loss.
Second, when your story is finished, hire a sensitivity editor, or even two. To be clear, a sensitivity editor who reads your story does not merely provide a shield and stamp of approval indicating there are no problems—the sensitivity editor does a thorough analysis of the story.
My own practice is to read the story a minimum of two times. The first time, I make notes about what jumps out, and for the second and subsequent readings, I go into more depth. The resulting feedback is returned to the author. Some are comments in the manuscript itself, with suggested changes and highlighting what works well. While not looking specifically for typos and other mistakes, I do mark the ones I notice. Other comments are included in a feedback document that talks about the story as a whole and its plotlines, as they relate to transgender characters and issues. Once this feedback is completed and returned to the author, what is done with it is up to them.
With this feedback in hand, what is the author to do? Most importantly, read all the feedback. If there is a reaction to the feedback, what is the reaction? Is the first thought defensive? This is more likely if there is a lot of feedback that shows weaknesses and problems.
Most people don’t like to receive what they see as negative feedback, particularly when a lot of work has been done. When there are problems with plotlines, tropes, and other aspects of the writing, take the time to think about the feedback rather than just reacting. I don’t just tell an author, “This is wrong, FIX IT!” I take the time to make some suggestions on how the scene or plot might be improved. If necessary, read the feedback, put it away for a day or two, then return to it.
Once the feedback has been processed, act on it. Make the edits. The edits may lead to additional writing or contribute to the story. If you choose not to accept an edit, be clear as to why. Make sure there is good logic behind your decision and not just a knee-jerk reaction. This is particularly important when something core to the plot is pointed out as potentially problematic.
Lastly, once the story is edited, ask for some beta readers. As I mentioned before, a sensitivity editor does not ensure that all problems are caught. Much like editing for typos, some might make it through to the final version. The more people reading the story, the less likely this is as long as each person provides good feedback. Good feedback in this case means not just saying, “I like it,” but pointing out where there are still problems and what works well.
Talia Johnson is a multi-faceted woman who is transgender, autistic, Jewish, queer, and more than the sum of her parts. She lives in Toronto, Ontario. Her work centres on bridging faith and queer communities, facilitating workshops, educating, speaking, writing, and one-on-one coaching, counselling, and mentoring.
She is an academic, poet, and short story writer.