Let’s say that one day you’re at a feedback meeting with other writers, and it’s time for people to talk about your piece. There are a few comments about how you could improve your plot or your character details or the transition from one paragraph to another. And then someone speaks up and says your piece is transphobic. What do you do?
I think most people don’t know how to respond when their work is called transphobic, even some trans people who are writing about the experiences of other kinds of trans people. It can be easy to respond defensively and to not understand that the comment-giver (whether they’re a peer from a writers group, or a beta reader, a close friend, or some stranger on the internet) was probably made genuinely uncomfortable or hurt by elements of your piece. It’s important to take some solid steps to understanding what went wrong and why in order to make sure you can eliminate–or at least limit–the harm that could be instigated by your work. It’s not an easy thing to do, but apologizing and making reparations shouldn’t ever be easy. You need to regain people’s trust, and that takes time and care.
So let’s start from that moment when the word “transphobic” registers. Much like the five stages of grief, the first thing that is going to happen is an instinctual gut feeling of denial. You may even feel offended or angry, particularly since you worked hard to create this work. But these kinds of emotions should not be the foundation of your actions or words. This is true for all criticism, but doubly so for something as heavy as a criticism of a work’s transphobic content, because while poor pacing won’t necessarily hurt people, transphobia will. Take their criticism with the gravity it deserves, and don’t let yourself be overpowered by your own instinctual desire to defend your work and yourself.
It’s also important to remember that whoever made this comment has in all likelihood been genuinely hurt by something in your piece. There are a few ways this harm could come about…
For one, they may have been directly impacted by your words while reading it. This could be reading a harmful term (like the T-slur) or phrase (like “she’s a man”) or plot point (like a trans character being attacked because they’re trans).
Another possibility is that they have been indirectly impacted by your words because some cisgender readers have taken it (whether consciously or not) to strengthen their own transphobic beliefs. Authors of general fiction are in particular danger of having this happen, as the realism of the world (coupled with a lack of research or experience) may lead the reader to believe that everything is true.
A good example of this would be writing about a trans minor who decides to take medical action to transition. Few cis people know that trans minors are given hormone blockers, but rarely if ever are they given hormones. Hormone blockers have the temporary ability to stave off puberty for a few years, while hormones allow a person to go through some temporary and some permanent changes to their body to help it align with their identity or to ease dysphoria. Many regions only permit hormones to be prescribed to minors with the consent of their parents, and there are many that don’t allow it at all. As well, a doctor would not prescribe hormones to young prepubescent kids (no, people aren’t injecting babies with testosterone). These facts are often misconstrued or downright lied about by transphobic people, so without thorough research, it’s entirely possible that you wouldn’t know the truth. If you wrote a story without knowing these facts, however, you might spread misinformation that will harm trans people by proxy.
So when someone tells you that your work is transphobic, they almost certainly have a reason for saying that. If you’re in a feedback group or with a friend, ask them to elaborate if they feel comfortable, but don’t pressure them, because it’s not their job to educate you. If it’s a beta reader who explicitly read your work to give you feedback on how you represented trans people and trans experiences, it is fine to have the expectation that, in return for your payment, they will give you a detailed explanation of what is transphobic in what you wrote. If it’s a stranger on the internet, I would recommend not asking for further details, because the internet is not a good place to have this kind of a conversation.
The next step is to actually understand their reason for why your work is transphobic. Maybe it’s something simple; maybe it’s something big that unravels your whole plot. But regardless of that situation, you can’t just leave it with fixing the problem in your piece. You need to try to figure out why you wrote it that way in the first place.
Did you write in the T-slur because you thought it would be okay (maybe because you’ve seen people say it on Ru Paul’s Drag Race)? Go look into the history of violence trans people have experienced while the T-slur has been shouted at them. Alternatively, did you focus your plot on the suffering of a trans character who comes out over the course of the story? Look into struggle narratives. Or was it something more insidious, like describing a trans woman as a heavily muscled caricature with a five o’clock shadow and a deep voice? Or like matching all of your characters up in romantic relationships except for your trans character(s)? That’s going to take some deconstruction work on your part to figure out why you instinctively chose to do that with your story, and what transphobic biases you have had instilled in you through living in a transphobic society.
If, let’s say, you can’t seem to understand what their reasoning was, go ask someone for help. Either a trusted friend you know won’t just take your side to appease you, or a beta reader who you can pay for their time. In either case, if it’s a trans person that you’re asking advice from, make sure to warn them ahead of time that you’re asking them to educate you and give them an actual opportunity to back out. Compensation–whether it be in the form of direct payment in the case of a beta reader or in the form of a meal in the case of a friend–is vital to ensure that you’re not just leeching off of a trans person and making them do all of the emotional labor for you.
Now that you understand what went wrong, it’s time to apologize. But just saying “I’m sorry,” isn’t going to cut it. Make sure that this apology is detailed, and covers 1) your understanding of why it was wrong, 2) your recognition of the pain your creation has caused, and 3) your plans to make reparations (I’ll get into this shortly). Don’t do any of that “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” business. Own up to the fact that you caused harm.
Also, don’t go into your apology with the expectation that they’ll forgive you. No one you have harmed with your writing owes you forgiveness just to ease your conscience. Like I said before, you’ve lost their trust; now you have to earn it back. That will take time.
Earning trust will also take action. Giving an apology without taking action to limit the harm caused and to improve is a perfect example of the phrase “empty words”. This is where reparations come in.
Sometimes this means taking your piece back to the workshop table, even if you had already planned to send it out to agents or to publish it on Amazon. This may even mean talking to your publisher and asking to delay publication if the criticism came from someone who read an ARC. In the case that the very premise of your work is transphobic, I would like to believe that your beta readers and your agent and your editor(s) would have called you on it by now, but I also know that transphobic books are published every year. In that situation, you should pull it from publication and take some time to work on your own transphobic biases while trying to see what you can salvage from this piece for a new project.
But perhaps you’re in a worst-case scenario where the decision is fully out of your hands. Maybe it’s already been published and pulling it from the shelves is impossible, or maybe it’s a short story and you’ve already sold the rights away to a magazine or anthology.
If you can’t change the piece, you need to cover two areas of concern: First, the people who have already been hurt by reading it. And second, the people who will be hurt in the future while this book remains available to readers.
To make reparations for the people who have already been hurt, the best thing you can do is make donations to trans-led organizations or trans individuals with the money you earned from this book. It’s also important that you uplift trans writers and creators (and even bloggers and readers) to make sure that you’re not only using the wealth you gained from this work to make amends, but also the fame and/or platform. To be completely honest, you should already be uplifting trans creators regardless of whether or not your work has been criticized, but I digress.
As for the people who will be hurt in the future, ongoing donations from your earnings for this work are still a good start. I would also recommend, though, that you keep a post pinned on your social media accounts or on your blog that explains why what you wrote was harmful. This will mitigate a little bit of the indirect harm of misinformation that I wrote about earlier, while also showing your trans readers that you are committed to improving. You can also go a step further in uplifting trans creators by inviting them to write guest posts on your blog.
Now’s the time where you might want me to say that everything will be okay and that you should be forgiven if you follow all of these steps. But the thing is, in this hypothetical you created something (intentionally or unintentionally) that harmed people. And not only that, your hypothetical work harmed a vulnerable group of people who are to this day endangered by violence and society-encouraged suicide. When harmful things are put into the world, forgiveness isn’t always possible, and it certainly shouldn’t be expected. All you can do is to seriously engage with the experiences of trans people and work hard to ensure that you harm as few people as possible.
My therapist back when I lived in Chicago once said that it’s impossible to live life without harming someone. I’d love to live in a world where that wasn’t true, but while we live in this world, beyond a shadow of a doubt, each and every one of us will hurt at least one person in our lives.
Keeping that in mind, the fact that you could end up harming a group of people does not mean that you should create fictional worlds where they don’t exist or otherwise ignore them. Purposefully ignoring a demographic is in and of itself a form of harm, particularly when we live in a world where trans authors are published at dramatically lower rates than cis authors. I’m not suggesting that every one of your characters be transgender–I’m not even suggesting that your protagonist be transgender. But I’m also not going to say that there is a point at which the number of trans characters you write will be “enough” and at that point you can say you’re a trans ally. Take some time, learn about trans experiences, and figure out how to move forward.
And if you, as you read this, came to feel defensive or insulted by what I have said, I strongly urge that you ask yourself why.
A brief note:
I got the idea for writing this blog post from Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. It’s a great book that deconstructs race and racism for white people who aren’t sure where to start in improving themselves. If this blog post happened to help you approach writing in a new way, I highly recommend you read it. Or, alternatively, if you think I’ve done a terrible job getting my point across, her book is incredibly well written and you will undoubtedly find her more persuasive, so you should give it a try.
What is this “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop” thing?
I’m glad you asked! I’m a part of this author blog hop where a group of 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!