by John Jacobson
Writing about yourself is hard. Writing about something, or someone, that you understand is hard. Writing about something or someone that is oppressed, stereotyped, and dehumanized by society is hard – especially when you don’t understand that struggle on a personal level.
Trans narratives are vital to the young adult book community. Trans teenagers often seek resources that can be found online, in libraries, and through other relatively quiet methods. Our voices as people outside of the gender binary are quiet when we’re young because we’re often met with varying degrees of unsafe environments. The dramatic amount of trans women, mostly of color, murdered this year alone proves how important these resources are to us.
Many writers want to help. Teenage narratives are rife with opportunities to explore what makes us human; they are narratives encapsulated with veiled simplifications of universal struggles, wrapped up in a few hundred pages and through a few important characters. Many writers in turn have continued to branch out in the characters they write, trans and other non-binary characters included, in order to make a sense of the growing world we are collectively aware of.
The question has become: can someone who doesn’t know us write about us? And, more importantly, if someone can, how do they do it well?
It’s a question that I think many of us still don’t know the answer to, at least when it comes to nuance, or circumstance. We obviously don’t live by a particular code of conduct as writers, or even as readers or editors, when it comes to addressing our direct experiences. Books involve imagination and they involve looking at the lives of people we never would have known before. Whether that involves the writing or the reading process, you’re bound to want to explore past the boundaries that you know.
What I struggle with as a non-binary writer and reader is how I want it to be addressed. I don’t want writers to avoid writing characters like me – because obviously I almost never see myself in fiction. I want to be able to read books and feel like a facet of my identity is represented.
Then again, sometimes I read about myself and the research/characterization/awareness of what it means to be non-binary is such shit that I almost wish it had never been written at all.
I want there to be more of an emphasis on research and vetting. If you’re an author that is writing about a trans or nonbinary character, you need to be aware that whatever you’re constructing about them may not be accurate. You as the writer have the power to construct a story – this is true – but that’s no guarantee that the story you’re telling is one of a trans or nonbinary person, regardless of how you label them. Stories need to be researched whether they’re fictional or not. There needs to be a sense while reading and writing that, yes, someone has been consulted and varying life narratives have been considered. This was more than just a single thesis paper or a few articles from the internet – this was work.
Too often, trans and non-binary people are not given the humanity to be considered important. This is one way to change that. If you want to write a story about us, about someone in our community of identity that is rich and complex and individualized, then you need to give us agency and humanity in the process of writing.
The character cannot merely be a puppet – they need to feel human, and they need to read as humanized to the people that identify with the character the most. It’s very easy for you to think a character is three-dimensional if all you have to go on is a set of stereotypes; it’s much more difficult when you live that experience, and understand exactly how hard it really is.
It’s difficult. It’s not something the writing and reading community can agree on readily. But I think, for the sake of trans liberation and for the sake of better books and writers, we need to campaign for a better understanding of how to write the trans and non-binary communities. We need to have higher standards. That doesn’t mean barring anyone from telling our stories, but that means having our stories told based on our realities, our pain, and our individual truths. To do that, trans people need to be more than labels for characters or plot devices – we need to be present in the process, and we need to be considered more so than the cisgender audience that will most likely be consuming our stories as well.
John is an aspiring writer of queer fiction. When they’re not hammering out undergrad papers at Ithaca College, John is co-editing for Spencer Hill Press, freelancing for Heroes and Heartbreakers, and reading gloriously sexy books about empowered people finding love (and other things, too). They’re also obsessed with coffee and gender/sexuality studies (read: nerd alert). You can find them on Twitter @dreamingreviews saying opinions about things and discussing their dating woes.