The Stories We Don’t Tell

Most of you will be familiar with the furore surrounding the “Attack Helicopter” story in Clarkesworld. I don’t discuss that story here. Both Neil Clarke and the author, Isabel Fall, know that they stepped into a minefield there, and I am sure they have learned lessons, but I do want to talk about the minefield.

One of the reasons that this issue blew up is that well-meaning people, both cis and trans, wanted to be able to tell interesting and edgy stories about the trans experience. Writing interesting and edgy stories is what good writers want to do, and what good editors want to publish. However, there are things that I, as a trans woman, would not want to write about, either in fiction or nor fiction, because doing so would cause way too much trouble for me, and for others. I want to explain what some of those things are, and why they are so problematic.

I should start by saying that there are no hard and fast rules here. What you can get away with in writing for a trans-themed anthology from a small press is very different to what you can do in a high-profile venue such as Clarkesworld. There are plenty of great stories in the Transcendent anthologies, many of which came from small presses. Who you are also matters. I continue to be amazed that Charlie Jane Anders got away with writing “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue”. Personally, I would not have had the mental fortitude, let along the literary talent, to write that story. But it also touched on some of the issues I will mention here. I presume that one of the reasons there was no great backlash against it is that Charlie Jane was already a hugely respected writer, and openly trans, when it was published.

That said, few of us have the stature of Charlie Jane. We have to be careful, and there are a variety of reasons for that.

One issue that trans people face these days is that we are the focus of a great deal of interest from the media and right-wing political activists. It is far worse in the UK than anywhere else, but the international nature of social media means that no one is safe. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that everything that I write online is scrutinised by anti-trans extremists looking for excuses to initiate a social media pile on, to have me banned from platforms, or to pass to their friends in the media as the basis for another “trans outrage” article. I note that the right-wing media are already using the Clarkesworld affair as an excuse to portray trans people as aggressive and intolerant.

In view of the fact that we are so often portrayed as monsters in the popular imagination, one thing I would be reluctant to do is write a story with a trans person as a villain. To start with there’s really no need. There are plenty of such stories out there, all of them intended to incite hatred against us, or simply using our alleged status as outsiders, as “freaks”, and as mentally ill. If you need an explanation as to why someone might be a serial killer, making that person trans is still an acceptable and common tactic in many circles.

That said, having a trans person as a villain is probably preferable to yet another transition story. Yes, I know that the one thing that is endlessly fascinating to cis people is the story of a man becoming a woman. (Much less so the other way around. Ask yourselves why that might be so.) But transition stories have been done to death, mostly badly, and frankly they aren’t that interesting to us unless we are currently embarking on that journey. Transition is a relatively short part of any trans person’s life. It is also a deeply traumatic one. That obviously makes for good fiction, but see below for why we shouldn’t go there.

What I want out of fiction is not stories about the transition process, but stories about trans people living their lives. After all, the whole point of transition is to move away from the trauma of being forced to live a lie and get on with being you. The standard trans narrative, as peddled by the media, is that life post-transition is no happier, and probably much worse, than it was before, because no one will ever accept you. The reality is very different. Trans people have all sorts of interesting and successful lives. And even if they are just dull and boring, that’s far better than the media would have you believe. We need more stories where some of the characters just happen to be trans.

However, the main topic that I would avoid as a trans writer is anything to do with the nature of transness itself. We are curious monkeys, we like to have explanations of things. Faced with the reality of trans people, it is entirely natural to ask, “why?” Cis people are not alone in this. Every trans person I have discussed this issue with would love to know why we are the way we are. The inconvenient truth is that no one knows. And the smart folks among us know that we shouldn’t be asking.

When I do trans awareness courses for clients I have to talk about this. There are all sorts of theories as to why people are trans. Some are biological in nature, and some psychological. None of them has any basis in experimental results. The only thing that we know for certain is that no one seems able to cure anyone of being trans. (Charlie Jane’s story was all about someone discovering the means to do so.)

The point I make to my classes is that there might not be a simple answer. In fact there almost certainly isn’t. The processes that make someone assigned male at birth a trans woman might be very different from the processes that make someone assigned female at birth a trans man; and both might be different from why anyone is non-binary, in any of the many ways that people can be non-binary. So picking any single, simple explanation pretty much guarantees that you will be wrong as far as large parts of the trans community is concerned. Speculation about simple explanations therefore does no one any good. And long term, if an explanation is found, Charlie Jane’s story eloquently details the awful consequences that will result for trans people.

Nevertheless, cis people continue to obsess over why people might be trans. The anti-trans brigade, for whom it is an article on faith that trans people cannot “really” exist, are forever on the lookout for an excuse to have us labelled insane once again. Any fiction that purports to explain transness therefor becomes fodder for their speculation.

As for the trans community, many of us would rather not be trans. Life would be so much easier if we were not. Young trans people can spend years agonising over the transition decision (I know I did). Everyone tells you what an awful mistake it will be. Your family, in particular, will probably be desperate for you not to do it. And yet eventually you will reach a point where life is no longer liveable if you don’t transition.

The inevitable result of all this is that trans people are also obsessed with the question of why they are trans. No one can ever know for certain, but many of us will find an explanation that works for us. That explanation may become a core part of our identity. It is something that you can cling to as justification for everything you are doing, in particular the pain that you are told you have caused your nearest and dearest.

But of course there is no explanation. There are lots of theories, but none of them work for everyone, and many of them are contradictory. Everyone’s experience of being trans is different, and consequently any story that discusses the nature of the trans experience will speak directly and personally to some trans people; and will painfully invalidate the experiences of others.

This would not be such a serious problem if trans people were not so much under siege. However, that is where we are. Pretty much the whole of the trans community is feeling very vulnerable right now. Therefore anything that appears to be attacking the validity of people’s experiences is going to cause a huge fuss. That is what appears to have happened in the case of the Clarkesworld story.

There are ways around this. It is safer to experiment in less high-profile venues. It is safer to experiment if you already have a reputation for writing good stories about trans people. If you have plenty of space in a story, you can have a variety of trans characters who have different experiences. But it is all still very risky and the temptation to self-censor is very strong.