Trans-Writing: Transphobia, Harassment, and Trauma Porn

Not that long ago, there was some discussion online (mainly on Twitter) about whether or not transgender narratives require transphobia and suffering. It is my opinion (alongside many others’) that it is not necessary, but that it can be both cathartic for trans readers and educational for cis readers. In essence, it’s all about intent, research, and consideration–a common theme for my posts on writing transgender characters. Saying that is simple enough, but there are different types of transphobia that people experience, and each one requires its own approach (some, even, I warn you away from immediately). Think of this as a guide for how to go into writing about transphobia respectfully.

So why should a person include transphobic experiences in a trans narrative? And why not? For one, transphobia is something that exists in our world today, so it makes logical sense for it to exist in fictional works set in our current world. In speculative fiction, on the other hand, transphobia can be used to define the fictional world as a mirror to our own. This can give the author the ability to navigate through nuanced issues trans people face (e.g. “What does it mean to be a good ally to trans people?”). Beyond this, transphobia in a written work can be used to show cis people what sort of things trans people face in the world and can direct those readers where to focus their support and activism. This is why I argue that showing transgender suffering is not a requirement: not every trans narrative has to be about the character’s transness, and trans writers do not bear the responsibility of educating cis people. There is also an emotional element to writing about suffering: the act of a trans author approaching transgender suffering is often cathartic for both the writer, themself, and for the trans reader. A cis author writing about the same thing, however, shifts into fetishization. It’s very easy for a cis author–who has no direct emotional connection to the suffering trans people face–to end up using that suffering for impact or even as a joke. It may not always be intentional, but it is often done without proper thought put into the different types of transphobia we face.

Systemic transphobia, for one, appears in a number of ways and can be one of the most useful tools for going to educational route, though it can still end poorly if ill-considered. Some examples of systemic transphobia are things like complex ID legalities, lack of protections for job rights, and the inaccessibility of the healthcare system for trans people. When a cisgender person reads about a trans character and sees that character go through systemic transphobia, they might come to learn more about the problems we face. That can lead to cis readers advocating to improve those issues. In that regard, writing about systemic transphobia can be incredibly impactful. However, these are complicated dynamics that have decades (one could even argue centuries) worth of history. If a cis person should go into writing about a systemic issue of transphobia without researching that history, it will feel shallow and end up with the opposite result: the incorrect belief that these things we face are not terrible. And if a trans person reads that piece, it is incredibly invalidating to see very personal and very painful experiences not treated seriously. In this case, I would say that systemic transphobia is fine to write about so long as the proper research and consultation with trans people has been done, and so long as the character’s entire arc is not made up of these transphobic experiences.

Transphobia can be on a much more personal level; while the narrative of transphobic family or friends is an iconic one–partially because of how realistic it is–it often takes the spotlight away from the trans victim and places it onto the cisgender family, making the readers empathize with their transphobic comments or actions. This is particularly true when the story is told from the perspective of a cisgender person who learns how to be an ally from a trans person. The focal character uses the pain of the trans character to become a better person–inherently fetishistic. Because cisgender people cannot understand the true pain of transphobia coming from family and friends (not just direct and hateful comments or actions, but the lingering inability to correctly gender someone as well), I would urge people to steer clear of writing these sorts of encounters. As an alternative, in Dreadnought, April Daniels handled such a scene with targeted, blatant transphobia from a “friend” of the main character, Danielle. Instead of writing out the scene as it happened, Danielle spoke about it after the fact, leaving less of a visceral impact that could harm trans readers. It got across the very real harassment trans people can experience from those close to them without making a show of it.

Beyond of family/friend matters, targeted verbal or online harassment steps further into trauma porn, because the whole purpose of scenes like that are about the suffering of the trans character. A writer cannot claim that this sort of transphobia is used to educate readers: if someone is reading about a trans person, they already know that we get harassed. A trans author can, of course, write about targeted transphobia cathartically, but (as I said before), a cisgender person cannot fully understand the extent of it. In that case, why write this kind of harassment? From what I have seen, it’s used most often for impact, lip service, or white-knightship. Use of transphobia for impact will always be trauma porn, and lip service is by its very nature not beneficial to its subjects. The white-knightship, though, is something I want to dig into a bit more. Making someone a “hero” who steps in to protect a trans person ends up making the suffering all about the white-knight. While such a story would be tone deaf if the white-knight is a cis person, I would like to see more transgender people standing up for their peers. It not only keeps white-knightship from being fetishistic by using trans pain to make the cis hero look good, it’s also more realistic. I cannot tell you how big the difference is between trans people I know and cis people I know when I’m being misgendered. We stand up for our own because, in many cases, no one else will. So, for this one, think about why you’re writing it and how you’re implementing it–does a cisgender character look better to your readers because of a scene involving a trans person’s suffering? If so, don’t write it.

Onto the final one–violence. Transphobic violence is 99.99% of the time trauma porn and, thus, not something to write. There’s not much else to say about this–just that if you’re a cis writer considering putting a trans character through an attack of any kind, you need to rethink your plot. Maybe you’re writing something gritty–that’s great, I wish you all the best with that. At the end of the day, though, you still don’t need to show a trans character getting beaten, raped, killed, etc. There are plenty of other violent scenarios you can play out that do not include harming the fictional representations of an already at-risk community. Just don’t write these scenes; I’d even be wary of having it be in a character’s backstory or in the background. Trans people are already living in fear of suffering like this in the real world, we don’t need it in your fictional universes.

So there you have it–a run-through of the different kinds of transphobia, the issues they pose in narrative form, and some advice on how/if you should write it. I hope this has been helpful to you. Remember: if you ever have any questions or thoughts on my posts, feel free to leave a comment or contact me through social media! Also, if you have any topics you want me to cover, send me your ideas!

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