Trans-Writing: Coming Out Stories #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

A photoshopped image of a wooden toolbox which has a notepad, five books, an iphone, a mac keyboard, and three black pens inside of it. On the front of the toolbox is written "#AuthorToolboxBlogHop"

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!

19 thoughts on “Trans-Writing: Coming Out Stories #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”

  1. I’ve bookmarked your page of definitions, so thanks for that! Okay, so I’m sad to admit that this is the first time I’ve considered the multitude of times a person comes out. This should be no great shock to me, since I’ve been through some changes, and, yes, it is like I’m constantly repeating the thing that’s changed about me, be it where I live, my career, or things that happened in my 20s, like my radical change in political outlook, or like when I was 10 and had to tell my Catholic parents I didn’t believe in a higher power anymore. I’m surprised I haven’t once thought about the coming out process as ongoing thing, and that’s something I need to reflect on. P.S. I tried to see if you had a Facebook author page, and I don’t think you do, but in case I’m wrong and you do, would you mind emailing to me? I like to tag people when I post their stuff on fb. 🙂 Thanks and really great post.

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    1. Thank you for the comment and the kind words! It’s completely understandable to mistakenly think about coming out as a one-time thing because a lot of media portrays it that way. What’s important is that you’ve done the work to rethink your view on it.
      PS Response: I don’t have a FB author page yet, because I don’t think I’m quite there with my career. I’ll definitely reconsider though!

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  2. This is a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing. Coming out stories can be so powerful for us–I know for me, changing the way I told myself about my coming out had a lot to do with my gradual self-acceptance. And the way we tell those stories undoubtedly affects how others perceive LGBTQ+ folks. When non-trans writers include trans characters (or when any of us include a character whose identity we don’t share), there’s that real risk of essentializing an experience even when we have good intentions. Thank you for raising your voice.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Mistaken views of what it means to come out are really quite common, but that’s why it’s important to create more media that treats it properly!

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    1. Little things are often the most impactful. I’m sure that those kids will look back fondly on the help you provided. School days are often tough for LGBTQIA+ folks, so having even one ally there is an amazing thing. The important thing to remember for allyship is that we always have room to grow!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is an excellent overview, thank you. A lot of these points were ones I hadn’t considered, which is definitely my cis privilege rearing its head. The questions at the end should be printed out and referred to by any cis author before they even consider hitting “publish” on a story with a trans protagonist, I think.

    Glad you’ve joined in the Author Toolbox hop. Welcome!

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    1. Thank you for the compliment and the warm welcome! I do think that when writers create trans characters, they often do so from a place of ignorance, not hatred, which is part of the reason for this blog’s existence. One of the biggest problems with combatting ignorance is the difficulties that come with the dissemination of knowledge/information/resources. If even one person reconsiders their approach to writing trans characters, then I will have done my job!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have family members who identify as bi and gay as well as many friends and colleagues. I would never try to tell their story because I would be afraid to get it wrong, but I’m more than happy to listen to their stories. I have a beautiful book of poetry written by my daughter’s girl friend. I cry every time I reread some of it, but I’m so proud of her for sharing herself.
    Susan Says

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    1. I’m glad that you are accepting of the LGBTQIA+ people in your community. Just the fact that you listen to their stories is an amazing thing, because there are many people who would respond with hatred.

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  5. Great post: My best friend is trans and was so nervous about coming out. Her parents were lovely, but even though her employers are supportive customers still mis-gender her, and she has to deal with the hurt that causes and correct them or suffer in silence: Most of the time she’s too anxious to correct them for fear of how they’ll react 😦
    You’re right, every new person is a new person to come out to, and in some cases I’ve had to explain enby/demisexual a couple of times to the same people before they really get it.

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    1. Yes!! When someone misgenders me, even though I’m basically completely open about my transness, I still get terrified of correcting people. Especially when people don’t understand the first time–then it feels like: is it worth the emotional effort I’m putting into this if you’re just going to get it wrong again in three days?

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  6. Thanks for this. It makes a lot of sense. If the trans character’s entire arc is about them coming out, the writer risks turning repeated subsidiary story events into the main event. The coming out would be more normalized if we were to see it continually rather than in a one-time emotional climax, right? What about stories in which an LGBTQIA+ individual struggles with embracing their own identity–essentially a coming-out-to-self narrative? Do you feel it would be inauthentic to create a climax out of self-acceptance? That’s obviously a question that extends beyond LGBTQIA+ identities, but I’d love to hear your perspective.

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    1. That’s definitely something I’ll have to think about in more detail–maybe I’ll make a post about it! My first thought is that it would be a narrative best served from an #ownvoices perspective, because self-acceptance when it comes to being LGBTQIA+ can be very complicated. I think I would be very reluctant to read a story about a trans person coming to accept themself if it was written by a cisgender author. That said, I do think that having the progression of a plot moving toward self-acceptance is a good idea. The thing that worries me is the early stages when they lacked that self-acceptance. I think you touched on the possible end result yourself when you mentioned “struggles”–that being the “struggle narrative” which would not be good representation.

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      1. Is it inauthentic to show a *struggle* for self-acceptance? Why would the struggle narrative not be good representation? Because it essentially sides with dominant culture’s marginalizing of LGBTQIA+ as abnormal?

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      2. It’s not so much inauthentic as it is a deeply personal narrative. The struggle narrative as a trope is one that is rooted in an assumption that being trans (or being of any marginalized identity, really) is a bad thing. While trans people in reality do often struggle to reach self-acceptance, it’s not always the case. The big problem with this sort of a story line is that it’s all too common: most stories about trans people are about how they suffer and harbor a lot of self-hatred. When that’s the only thing we have as representation, it can directly harm the community. I have heard people who say that the trans struggle narrative which is so prevalent in our media kept them from transitioning sooner.
        It’s also important to remember that stories about a trans character’s transness often make the trans character’s entire identity as a human being and all of their growth as a person about being transgender. These narratives are often derivative and remove all personality from the trans character, focusing instead on the suffering or struggles they face. As a trans person, I would much rather read a book about a trans character that barely references their transness than read one that centers trans pain. We already deal with enough of that in the real world.
        If you want to read more about some of this, I’ve talked some about centering negativity and dysphoria here: https://bit.ly/2GeFFmJ
        If you’d like to learn more about what other trans people in the community think about it, I’d suggest you start here: https://bit.ly/2UjIp7T

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