Writing Trans

Lettie Zeste   (2017)

I would like to muse a bit about the problems of writing trans fiction.

The first issue that I see is that society, broad and local in family and friends plays a disproportionate role in gender paths. There was a major theme in the 19th century where, typically male writers took on ‘the woman problem’; the constricted roles for middle-class women and the terrifying consequences of violations of those norms (Anna Karinina). A similar story line drives trans fiction with the added twist that trans women and men escape censure to the extent that they escape detection as being trans. So there tend to be two stories; the public and private, creating a lurking anxiety, and an ephemeral hope. This seems distracting to me. Though there are, or have been, societies that tolerate or accept an open ‘third sex’, that idea seems utopian, the stuff of fantasy fiction, in Western society. Western society has never had tolerance or place for gender nonconformity in any form. 

In our society, the singular role of ‘Sexologists’ appears to be solely to critique any person whose sexuality is not vanilla hetero (or homo) sexual or whose gender can not be surgically corrected to such. (On the other hand, I hear that ‘Insectologists’ are positively ecstatic about the diversity of beetles, and do not cast snide moral aspersions at their intriguingly peculiar ways of living.) Culturally, having a sex is imperative. We need to face and describe the pain of being a pariah in our own society. Perhaps that is changing, but I do not see it yet. In my novel ‘Almost‘ (Amazon),which is my ‘lively romantic-comic coming-of-age story’, I try to smooth over the difficulties of being trans (I am a romance writer, after all!). But denying the awkwardness of this way of life is, well, denial. Fiction, nonetheless, is especially helpful for people who live in the shadows, and are surrounded by, if they are lucky, ambivalence. Acceptance is not a 65 year-old on the cover of Vogue. Acceptance is getting married in a church, at 20, in public, with both families. (Sorry, I’m a romance writer.)

A significant issue in gender fiction  is the role of gender technologies. Surgeries of all types, hormones, the body side of the mind-body problem dominates discussion today. These issues confuse and dissociate from the emotional issues that might seem to be the proper province of trans fiction. On one hand, the story of being transgender is passing vs not passing. But there is no surgery to remove shame (or to change sex, for that matter, though I am pleased that I was permitted to attempt it!). There is a small literature of gender non-conformity from before the gender technologies appeared in the 1960’s and before even a superficial social tolerance existed. Characters like ‘Divine’ in ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ or ‘Miss Destiny’ in ‘City of Night’ reveal the heart of gender nonconformity in the days before the flesh and bone that drapes the soul was malleable.

Much ‘transgender fiction’ out in the marketplace is ‘forced feminization’ erotica. Some observers in fact use the terms interchangeably; transgender fiction is forced feminization. I find that sad on two counts. First, it seems to me that trans lives deserve (and are beginning to get) a rich literary treatment that extends beyond simple arousal. I probably am not the person to comment on this topic, since forced feminization does nothing for me (though I get that it really does for others). To be perfectly honest, my critique is a purely selfish issue for me. When I type ‘Transsexual Fiction ‘ into Amazon, I want my books to pop up.  Instead, one day, I got as the number one Amazon hit for ‘Transsexual Fiction’, a story of hapless boys being ‘sissified’ by a woman in a catwoman outfit with four inch heels and bright red lipstick, carrying a phallic short whip. So my feud, mild as it is, is personal.

This sort of treatment seems like a poor description of what a transgender  life is like. No one, in real life, is forced to transition. Rather, one puts energy into choosing this path. Secondly, the entire forced-feminization genre leaves me uneasy because it seems trauma-based. So much of it seems to be reducible to a masculine boy being forced to choose. The choice is between gaining the love, approval and protection of a female caregiver by acting feminine, a stance that involves rejecting an internal male identity.  Or being themselves, being male, and being unlovable, alone and unsafe in the world. It is not surprising that a child would choose love. But this is child abuse! I feel like holding these children and assuring them that masculinity is a fine thing. I want to tell these boys to go out and bloody the nose of some younger boy; shoot at birds with their BB gun; break a window in an empty house. The attack on masculinity is childhood trauma, or at least imprinting. That this is abusive behavior becomes clearer in the small fraction of the forced feminization literature in which femininity is enforced by a male caregiver rather than a female one. In this literature, the child, even if naturally feminine is clearly a victim of pedophilic sexual abuse. Love can be at least as abusive as sex. It is disturbing to read child abuse from the perspective of the (adoring) abused child.

I have no interest in condemning anyone’s sexuality (we are all stuck with what we have), but I am saddened. That is just my reaction. And the reverse story; a boy who feels feminine being forced to act masculine is just as abusive and traumatic and identity-disrupting. You can see some of the results in the gay male community… boys in muscle-drag and leather jacket-drag heading out to catch a Broadway show, and watching porn about a feminine boy captured by a motorcycle gang and forced to become a real man, which, oddly, seems to involve a lot of rough man-on-man sex in leather. (Well, at least it isn’t one of those forced-feminization books that ends with a sorority pillow fight in pink, transparent negligee’s). Oh sigh, I’m turning into a snide sexologist, aren’t I? Do any of us escape childhood trauma-re-enactment?

Psychotherapy is useless for identity issues, but a little self–awareness never hurts and real-life trans fiction can provide a bit of that.  ‘Turning passive into active’ is a classic response to childhood abuse, but not necessarily the healthiest response. Change ‘you did unto me’ to ‘I do unto myself’, but this time I am in control. From a writing perspective, assigning a character a backstory of ‘passive into active’ can make the seemingly inexplicable behavior of some adult trans characters more explicable (why does someone, apparently satisfied with a male role, suddenly change? How do you motivate that?)

For these characters, you need to understand that the alternative to transition is being abandoned in the woods to starve or be eaten by wild animals. As emotionally hungry children they had no bread crumbs to find their way home, no way to avoid the sweet attraction of the horrid gingerbread house. Now, as adults, they recreate their trauma , like Civil War enthusiasts recreating the horror of  Gettysburg (‘You stand here, then you fall.’) Re-enactment can be serious. This time they are in control. Their doctor prescribes estrogens. They nibble on the gingerbread house of womanhood. They are hungry. You cannot fault them. That is how you create a plausible transgender character that the reader feels sympathy for.

For people like me, the story is also simple. You cannot be in between, so you either ‘butch up’ and be more male than you really are, or ‘femme up’ and become more feminine. The gay male community has an apparent acceptance of feminine men. But that tolerance is superficial. There are probably a million homosexual men living in America  who are failures at being gay, in the modern sense.

They live alone, age, have a pet, listen to opera, and die alone, and never have a chance at love. They just can’t fake masculinity well enough to find a partner in the ‘egalitarian gay culture’. They are not closet drag queens. They are closet nice girls. They just wish that society had a place for nice men attracted to straight men. Because our society has no ‘third sex’ the only other option is to become female.

Personally, I like being a woman, but I can see that the low status might chafe for men raised to own the world. The choices are not easy and there is no true path. For these characters, and I am trying to be objective, you need to be aware of the compromise that life demands in our real world.

Each path has rewards and costs. The backstory for these characters is the sadness that their natural self was not acceptable to the world into which they were born. Even as they smile, there is that knowledge that they are not acceptable: either as a man or a woman. Of course, having a lover would help with that, but, most often, it does not come to pass… because the longing is for the same man, the same kind of straight man, that your nice, female neighbor is married to? Maybe we can settle for a chocolate-brown toy poodle instead of a man? Maybe we can settle for dying alone? This is how to make the choice to be male or female a sympathetic issue. Does anyone like to be told to give up hope when they are only 20 years old? Transition  might hold that only hope to marry the man next door.

Invisibility is a difficult problem in trans writing. If a trans woman actually lives and feels as a natal woman might, is she trans? The remaining issues, perhaps shame (or proud shame), are not all that different from those of Hester Pryne. The scarlet ‘T’ becomes the story. In a broader sense, do trans women or men have a story other than transition? ‘Trans’ means movement ‘across’.

What happens when a trans person stops changing, and just is what he or she is? It seems to me that much trans fiction needs to emphasize gender conflict in order to claim trans identity. But most trans people, unless they like sitting on the fence, spend only a few years changing and most of their life stably living one way or another. I am 40 years post-op. I’ve lived two thirds of my life as a woman. My life isn’t about change, but about bland accommodation. Bland accommodations are the basic stuff of most literary fiction, but somehow seem inauthentic when presented as a trans story.

Is transition the only valid trans story? In truth, the ‘change’ part of trans-ness, may be a distraction, that draws attention from the underlying discomfort with life that many trans people feel. Though it is sad that many people feel discomfort with life, that certainly is not limited to trans people at all. Again, these are the issues that drive much literary fiction and deserve more attention perhaps in the transgender world as well (by a better writer than I, though).

Love is difficult for trans people and difficult to portray. Our society in general suggests that love should involve no compromise: the Bachelorette should screen 20 handsome, eligible men and choose the absolute perfect lover (and divorce quietly 6 months later). Being trans is a personal decision. Being chosen by another, that you find attractive, requires another person who wants to reciprocate. I, as is obvious in my writing, like a man who is attracted at least in part to who I am; that is a trans woman. I just don’t like being with someone who might hate me if he knew all of me. I have a fear of rejection.

I don’t like the idea of a man as a prop to prove that I am female, I want a lover, not a symbol. That is personal and I can see why other trans women might like perfectly and utterly straight men (though I think that choosing a partner just to support your gender identity is a mistake). I can also see how other trans people might like gay or lesbian or trans-trans relationships or find the idea of love irrelevant. But often in trans non-fiction, these choices are concealed or elided.

Fiction should be a place where relationships are not conducted in a fog, concealing all details. Some trans relationships may be deeply different from heterosexual and gay relationships., involving melding, becoming, merger.  Though I do not claim to understand these relationships, I refuse to carp at any way that people find to be together or what they  choose to call togetherness.

Trans people have longings for love, but seem to deny those in the face of the difficulty of finding ideal partners. Longing and not finding is not a trans issue. It can be a connection to the wider world to admit that your life, like so many others, has had optimism that was tempered, and not entirely fulfilled. Trans people are human, but so often are portrayed in a haze of vagueness that obscures humanity in a welter of sterile theories. Wanting to share life with another person (however) is normal, whatever the details might be. A truthful telling of those details would fascinate and make trans people human again.

I am currently writing a genre romance novel. Romances are mostly what I write. Though I conceived this novel as being about a trans woman, I am now uncertain about releasing it as such. I will probably just modify it a bit and make it a natal woman-man romance (my default mode). It will sell better, and probably make a few people smile. [Update: I did in fact release it, under a different pseudonym as a non-trans, non-gay romance.] The problem is that it is not ‘trans enough’. It is about love, not transition. The conflicts that the characters have to work through are human issues.

Of course trans women are human, but sometimes it is hard to believe that, given the current  narrative. I suppose that other trans women, like I, ‘queer’ conventional titles like ‘Lord of Scoundrels’. Sigh…. I do like to be with a wicked Lord, with a penchant for stylish women of dubious provenance, now and then. I even queer Nathanial Hawthorne and Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, come to think of it. So maybe the trans fiction that our community really needs, the fiction of a people of passion, is already out there. Ready to be revealed.