Let’s talk about coming out narratives. People who aren’t LGBTQIA+ generally envision a singular, emotional instance of coming out. The truth is, coming out is a whole lot more complex than just one singular event, and often more mundane. And yet, time and again stories show a trans woman who comes out in a dress passing poorly and inciting turmoil in her family. This portrayal of what it’s like to come out is not only incredibly limiting, it’s also detrimental to trans people who may be considering coming out. They often center the voices of everyone else in the story aside from the person coming out, making the trans character (or another member of the LGBTQIA+ community) just a tool for the emotional growth of their cisgender friends and family. So, how do we avoid that?
First of all, for almost everyone who identifies as LGBTQIA+, there’s not just one time that we come out. I can’t even count how many times I had to disclose the fact that I’m transgender. Even telling just my family took about three or four different times. I don’t know many people who just gather all of their family and friends together and go, “Guess what, I’m trans!” (Although I do wish the world we lived in were so good with transgender folks that such a party could be possible.) I come out every time I go to the doctor, every time I become friends with someone new, every time someone looks at my profile on tinder. I’m open about it, so for most people that I interact with, one of the first things I bring up is the fact that I’m transgender.
There are still times where I hide it, of course, like when I was walking home late at night and a campus security officer asked me if I was “one of those people who thinks men can be women”. I was scared, then; I couldn’t afford to tell him.
On many occasions, coming out has been frightening–or at the very least anxiety-inducing–but it’s also often just… plain. When I make new friends, if they don’t know me through social media, I’ll casually drop it in conversation. When someone asks me what I do for fun, I can mention that I write books and run a blog about transgender representation. And then there are times where I’ll have hung out with someone for a few months and assumed they knew, but then they’re surprised when I mention it off-handedly. Usually it’s just a “Oh, I had no idea…” and then we carry on with conversation.
The bad representation (which inevitably pops up in media whenever there’s a trans character) is both not always accurate and incredibly harmful. Do you wanna know what actually happened when I told my dad that I’m transgender? He just said, “Oh, okay… are you sure?” and when I said yes, he went with it. It’s not always theatrical and emotionally-wrought, though that doesn’t discount the fact that abusive and violent reactions are something trans people have to consider before coming out. The dangers of these kinds of melodramatic narratives is that a cis person may see it or read it and be affirmed in their own conflicting feelings about someone’s gender identity. The terrible coming out narrative centers the voices of cisgender people related to the trans person, and treats the person who comes out as a vessel for trauma porn. It lets a cis person think that their opinions or feelings on a person’s gender matter at all.
If you’re a cisgender person, what I just said might shock you, but it’s true. Someone’s gender is a fact of their identity, it’s well out of our control and yours. What we choose to do after acknowledging that fact–whether it be staying closeted, transitioning in some capacity, or something else–is our decision to make, not something that any external person has a right to comment on. It’s about bodily autonomy.
Now that I’ve gone on at length to explain why these narratives are bad, what can you do as a writer to treat coming out respectfully?
Different POVs will make your job easier or harder when it comes to centering the person who is coming out, but it’s possible for any perspective. The easiest way to use point of view to your advantage is by having the narrator be the trans person who is coming out. For a trans writer, like with the nonbinary character Ben in Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best, this is a great option. However, writing something that personal from the eyes of a trans person if you’re a cisgender writer is inadviseable. At the very least, you would need a large number of trans bias readers to consult with after doing extensive research. The worst thing you can do is show the coming out scene from the perspective of a cisgender person, because then the reader only sees the emotions of the external, irrelevant person. Third person perspective is going to be your friend. With an omniscient third person narrator, a cis writer can convey what the trans person is experiencing without getting too deep into something they haven’t actually experienced. If you’re a cis writer and are stuck on the idea of having a first person perspective, you can always just avoid writing the coming out scene and have it be something that the narrator hears about from other people.
Often where depictions of coming out goes wrong is with the reactions of those around them and what happens to those cis people. Not everyone has to have a bad reaction. Trans readers already see enough of that in real life (both from news about other trans people and from first-hand experience) to want to see it in fiction. Negative responses to someone coming out almost always shift into trauma porn, so generally speaking you should stay away from it. There are good reasons for negative responses occasionally, and it’s actually a fairly common theme in some trans writing. April Daniels’ Dreadnought deals with this, actually. The thing that’s important is that you don’t portray those characters as deserving empathy from your readers. The story should be about the trans character and how they flourish in spite of that hatred. The cis characters who react poorly should get what they deserve in the end as a kind of cathartic release for your trans readers. Let trans writers be the ones to hand out empathy to transphobic cis people.
In the end, the best thing you can do as someone who is writing a coming out story is to ask yourself these questions: Is this the only time this trans character comes out? Is the trans character’s entire arc about them coming out? Are the cis characters in the story the ones your readers will understand the most? Do cis characters who react poorly get off without any repercussions or end up reconnected with the trans character with no work on their part? Does the trans character only experience negative emotions about being transgender? If you answered yes to any of those questions, step back and reevaluate what you’re writing.
Wait, why did the formatting change? What is this “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing?
I’m glad you asked! I got invited to this author blog hop where a group of us bloggers write about the same theme (in this case, resources & advice for writers). There are some requirements so other participants can know which posts are for the blog hop and which are not. If you want to learn more, you can check out the details and the list of other participants here!