Welcome to ‘Work in Progress Wednesday.’ What’s the work in progress? Safety and security. Fact is, it’s dangerous to be under the transgender umbrella. And respect, safety and the ability to be ourselves can hard to find, even within the writing community. The writer of the below did not want to be identified, but we are hugely grateful to them for sharing their experiences.
This post is anonymous, and that’s a pretty good metaphor for my real life. When you’re anonymous, you don’t have an identity—that’s sort of the whole point. But I do have an identity, a queer identity, but it’s not one I am safe to live openly. Here are some of my experiences as a queer author, writing about my own community.
I’m a nonbinary person who identifies as genderqueer. Specifically, my sexuality is best described as queer (androsexual is close, but not inclusive enough), and my gender identity is bigender (I feel that I have both a male and female gender identity, individually and simultaneously, all of the time.) My identities are not things that you can see; I live my life in anonymity. There are obvious, and not so obvious, emotional consequences to that.
I am a part of a writing review group that is made up of cis-het people that are significantly older than me. I’ve learned a lot from the group about the style and the craft of writing. Since they have no stake or interest in reading my queer lit (in fact, some of them have quite openly told me they don’t enjoy reading it) I feel their feedback from an objective viewpoint is valuable.
This viewpoint comes with emotional consequences, however.
Recently, I was writing a story about an agender (a person without gender) character that used the gender neutral pronouns they/them. I had anticipated some confusion, and had made a comprehensive author’s note in the beginning of the piece explaining the character’s identity and gender neutral pronouns. I thought I might have to field a few questions during the group meeting. I didn’t think I’d have to defend the existence of people like my character, of gender nonconforming people all together—of people like me.
“My question to you would be, how important is it to have him use this ‘they’ thing? It really was jarring for me to read.”
“I don’t think it’s even necessary. It’s just confusing.”
“Here, I printed out a list of other gender neutral pronouns that you could use instead. Did you know about these?”
“I have an honest question: Do people like this really exist?”
I don’t think I have to detail how each one of these comments was a soul-sucking void of disheartening mire. My review partners weren’t trying to be insensitive, I understand that. In my everyday life, even when I wear men’s clothing, I still present unquestionably female. They don’t know I’m bigender, or even what being bigender is. I get it.
It still deeply hurts to patiently explain that gender nonconforming people exist in “the real world”, and that yes, I sure do know some. It still hurts when I have to defend the use of the singular “they” with basic arguments that should be common sense (‘…but, you already use it in your everyday language?’)
The degree of stubbornness held by my review partners was eye-opening. They seemed to truly feel that their inconvenience of reading the pronoun “they” took precedence over my writing and its purpose of validating a real type of person.
One thing that wore on me greatly was their insistence in gendering my agender character, and gendering them male. At first, this sort of tickled me because my character had actually been assigned female at birth. But after a few sessions of me pointedly using the correct pronoun after each of their gendered comments, I just felt dismissed and disrespected—personally.
I finally asked the whole group, point-blank: “Why is it that you are gendering my character male when you all know that this is an agender character with they/them pronouns? We have been working with this character for months now, and at this point, I feel like it is a lack of respect for me as an author.”
They all looked surprised—bewildered, even. Finally, one spoke up. “I don’t think it has to do with respect. I guess it’s just hard. We aren’t used to it.”
“Okay. But if you met someone, and you mistakenly thought there name was ‘Jack’ and you learned their name was actually ‘Zack’, would you keep calling them ‘Jack’, without even an attempt to correct yourself?” I really wasn’t feelin’ my review partners’ woes at this point; I maintain it had everything to do with respect. “Don’t you think it’s hard to be consistently called by the wrong name and have someone not even try to learn your correct one?”
Indistinct muttering, and a call to put the group “back on task.”
It later seemed my group’s solution was to just start calling my character by their first name, rather than adopt the they/them pronoun. When a pronoun slips in, it’s still a male one, although, after a scene involving a binder, I now have had the treat of an errant female one. On one occasion, a review partner corrected another, saying, “Don’t you mean ‘they’?” I smiled and said, “Yes! That’s right! Thank you!” But when I turned and looked in his eyes I could see he was just teasing me. He didn’t care. He just thought it was funny, a joke. Ha ha.
It’s difficult to not become bitter. And when you are anonymous, you have no voice to stand up for yourself and say, “Hey, knock it the fuck off, this hurts ME!” You have to sit there and listen to people tell you how your identity is hard and inconvenient for them, how people like you can’t possibly exist in the real world.
So, what is the moral of my story? Nothing new, I suppose: You never know who you are talking to, who they are inside. There are a lot of queer people in this world, and the transgender umbrella extends over a huge number of them. I don’t look transgender. I don’t look queer. I don’t look bigender. I don’t look genderqueer. But I am all of those things, and I love those parts of myself, even though I cannot do so openly. When you learn about a new-to-you identity, no matter who you are, don’t discount you could be invalidating that same person, saying who they are is too inconvenient for you to care. That who they are shouldn’t exist.