A couple months back, I got a question from T. D. Storm asking about how to approach the self-acceptance from a transgender lens. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot since then, and this post is the result of that. So, what’s my answer? Ultimately, when it comes to “self-acceptance” as a story line, it’s best to leave that for an #ownvoices writer, but there are ways of writing it as an outsider.
The reason why I warn against the self-acceptance plot is because it’s a kind of struggle narrative. It may seem like it’s a positive story–a trans character goes from not being able to accept their identity to fully (or even partially) being positive about their transness. The problem is that most of the book would be about the character’s lack of self-acceptance. Even though the story has a positive ending, the entire plot revolves around the character’s literal struggle to get there. It really goes along with what I wrote previously in my piece on the need for a balance between dysphoria and euphoria. It’s fine for there to be stories about trans self-acceptance, but what we really need are other stories to balance out all of those negative struggle narratives.
I also just want to say right here: there’s this assumption that, when it comes to trans identities, it must be so hard to accept the fact that we’re transgender. While that is sometimes the case, it’s definitely not universal. I talked about this in an earlier post, but when I figured out that I’m trans, I literally read this article about what “transgender” means, sat with those thoughts for twenty minutes, and then told my dad that I’m trans when he got home from work. For me–and for many other trans folks–there wasn’t a long, drawn-out progression from not accepting myself to reaching acceptance and coming out.
Another aspect of this is why I specifically suggest saving the self-acceptance plot for an #ownvoices writer–It would be incredibly difficult for a cisgender person to properly write about accepting one’s own trans gender identity. There are certain levels of nuance that would make it nigh-impossible for a cis writer to make this narrative believable to a trans reader. I’ll say this bluntly from a personal standpoint: I would not pick up a book about trans self-acceptance written by a cis author, because I would not trust that author to do a good job representing what being transgender is actually like.
However, if someone did go about writing this sort of a story (whether cis or trans), this is how I would suggest going about it:
First of all, if you’re a cis writer, you need to consult trans people at every stage of creating this piece, from outlining to editing, and even into the publishing process. Like I said earlier, there are nuances and little details that a cis person just does not have the cultural competency to portray correctly. I would even go so far as to warn you away from writing from the trans character’s perspective if you’re a cisgender writer. Writing from that character’s point of view would be a very personal endeavor that would be much better served if it was done by a trans author.
As for trans writers, I still suggest that you get other trans people to look over it, because not all trans narratives are the same. My primary concern for a trans writer, though, is that this sort of story might be emotionally exhausting, so make sure to take some time to take care of yourself!
One thing that I would recommend for all writers is to make sure that the world positively responds to the character’s journey towards self-acceptance. I’m not saying that every character needs to respond positively, but maybe send some good luck their way as they reach various milestones. Let them find a twenty dollar bill when they wear the clothing they feel right in for the first time. Let the sun shine brightly when they start experimenting with a new name. The environment is a good tool to show that this is a character progression that should be supported, not pitied.
Alternatively, I could envision a plot that follows a character who doesn’t know they’re transgender yet, which wouldn’t be a struggle narrative; it would be more of a self-exploration narrative, which I could get behind. (The same rules from above still apply, though!) This seems like something straight out of Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, though, so maybe go read that first.
I would like to leave y’all with a couple of questions: If the idea of a transgender self-acceptance plot speaks to you, why do you think it does? What emotions do you think you’d feel for that kind of a character? Is there any part of you–no matter how small–that feels pity for them? What about feelings of doubt in their identity? Finally, if a young trans kid reads this book, would they feel more comfortable by the end of it? Or would they feel like maybe they should be questioning their gender identity more? Considering all of what you’ve read from this post and your own feelings from these questions, do you still think you should write this kind of story?