by Suzanne Van Rooyen
Authors need a thick skin. Putting a book out there for others to read takes enormous amounts of courage. Not only does it feel like you’re exposing yourself – if not laying your soul bare for strangers’ eyes – but you’re also opening yourself up to the possibility of criticism, and not just the constructive kind.
All of this I had experienced before with my previous novels, so I knew what was coming when my YA trans novel, The Other Me, made its way into the world. But I wasn’t entirely prepared for the kind of criticism my novel received.
The Other Me is an intensely personal story based on my experiences in high school as well as my own evolving gender identity. I wrote this novel from the heart. How my character feels and sees the world is almost exactly how I felt and experienced things at their age. I didn’t do any research for this novel – aside from the few trans novels I had already read and my own interactions with LGBT+ friends – because it was always a personal story first, a novel second, even when the characters took over and it became more about them than me. At the core of this story is my journey to understanding and accepting who I am.
While my book was mostly received positively, there was inevitably some criticism and I tried my best to learn from it. One reviewer – who identifies as trans – found the novel to have some cliché aspects and cliché expressions in it, such as the idea of being born in the wrong body. When I heard that, I was actually rather delighted because up until writing this novel I didn’t really believe that other people felt the same way I did or had been through what I was still grappling with. So, in hindsight, there are absolutely clichés in The Other Me simply because that was what went on inside my head and how I knew best to express myself at the time.
One of the most interesting and troubling criticisms I received comes from a highly respected trans reader who said they thought certain things in my book just didn’t ring true. This comment gave me a lot of food for thought, especially when it was echoed by other readers, trans and non-trans alike.
…We’re getting into spoiler territory so look away now if you wish…
In The Other Me, my character is struggling with their gender identity, eventually realizing that they want to be a boy, that they ‘are’ a boy albeit still anatomically female. My character doesn’t stop shaving or take up ball sports to compete with boys, they don’t have a particular interest in cars or topless women like the clichéd straight teenage boy; they still have long hair, paint their nails, sing in choir (are those specifically girly things?) and for some readers, this seemed to be a problem. My character wasn’t presenting as male enough to pass for trans.
This made me angry, sad, and concerned. Everyone’s gender identity and journey to that authentic self is going to be different. No one – straight or otherwise, cis or not – has the right to police another person’s identity, to set certain criteria defining an authentic trans experience. Not only is this mode of thinking awfully binary, it undermines the very freedom of identity expression so many in the LGBT+ community have been fighting for. To suggest that an FTM boy isn’t ‘male’ enough because he isn’t into typical ‘boy’ things and doesn’t present the way society has been conditioned to think males should present is extremely unfair and simply perpetuates the cycle of gender stereotyping and misgendering some of us are working so hard to leave in the past where it belongs.
Trans and non-binary teens – and many trans/non-binary adults too – have a hard enough time as it is feeling safe enough to be their authentic selves without facing additional prejudice from those within the LGBT+ community. I don’t believe we should have certain expectations about which experiences are more valid or genuine than others. Should a person who identifies as male never be allowed to wear a skirt again? Does a person who has shaves their head, grows their armpit hair, and never wears lipstick be denied the right to female pronouns? The idea that we within the LGBT+ community are starting to police others is despicable. We should be the last to judge, and yet we are often quick in passing sentence on those who are different from us, or who aren’t different enough from the supposed norm to join our acronymed ranks.
Is The Other Me a perfect book? Of course not, and I don’t expect everyone to like it. There are absolutely things I could’ve done better and I’m so glad I’ve had this opportunity to learn and grow from people in the LGBT+ community through discussion about my book. I was terrified of having The Other Me published, but I’m so glad that I did because of the questions it has raised and the awareness it has created, specifically the awareness it’s created for me as a genderqueer author.