Lately, I keep having the same conversation with other trans artists and activists who were around in the early 2000s. I always tell them that their work inspired me and helped me to see trans life in all its complexity and weirdness—and often, they reply that they feel like their stuff has aged badly, or the terms of the debate have changed, or trans culture has moved on. The art they were making back then feels dated, or actually wrong or harmful, when you look at it now.
Our framework for thinking about trans identity has changed, and trans discourse has moved on in the past two decades, and that’s a very good thing. In many ways, we were ignorant back then and we hope we’ve learned better. And we’re so grateful for younger people who have been redefining what it means to be trans, non-binary, genderqueer and/or gender-nonconforming.
I feel this more keenly than most. I wrote tons and tons of trans fiction and personal essays and political essays, throughout most of George W. Bush’s presidency. I won a Lambda Literary Award for transgender writing, even.
But… I was clueless, and careless. Some of the stuff I wrote back then has just “aged badly,” in the sense that I was using the same vocabulary that everyone else—and some of those terms are now considered problematic, because again, we’ve moved on. But some of the stuff I wrote back then was always kind of shitty, and I should have known better at the time. I didn’t always listen to people who tried to help me improve—especially in my first few years as an out trans person.
I was trying to be “edgy” and push limits, which is often a worthwhile impulse—except when you’re writing to, and about, a vulnerable population.
I wrote a bunch of essays and short stories in those early years, which were published in tiny venues that I’m grateful nobody will ever find now. But I also published a non-fiction book called The Lazy Crossdresser, which blessedly is out of print and getting harder to find. I wrote that book in just over a month, and it definitely shows. (It was published under my deadname, but still appears on my Wikipedia entry and some other bibliographies.)
One reason I’m embarrassed by that book now is because I haven’t called myself a crossdresser since sometime in 2001—and in retrospect, I was just trying to find a label that made sense. I also identified as gender-fluid, but I didn’t know anybody else who used or really understood that identity. (My writing from that period is full of statements like, “People ask me if I’m a boy or a girl. I always reply, ‘I take requests.’”) I compared myself to Eddie Izzard a lot—and now at last, Eddie has followed me into using she/her pronouns.
I wrote The Lazy Crossdresser because I was finding that if you were assigned male at birth but presented as femme, you would be subjected to a lot of weird pressure. People both within and outside the trans community were obsessed with the imperative of “passing,” and with setting up hierarchies based on how many treatments you’d had—from hormones and electrolysis to surgeries. There were a lot of unrealistic beauty standards, and I lost count of how many people insisted that I needed to wear a girdle, a corset, foundation garments, breast forms and hip-padding every time I left the house—not because wearing those things would make me happy, but because to do otherwise was simply unacceptable.
People were being encouraged to hate themselves and their own bodies. I remember one time, I was hanging out with a group of other self-defined crossdressers, and one of them told me, “Well, you might be able to pass as an ugly woman.”
So I wrote a book that said, in part, that the concept of “passing” is toxic bullshit. And that your gender presentation should make you feel good about yourself, rather than aiming to make anyone else accept you or feel comfortable. The “lazy” in the book’s title was my way of saying that we don’t have to work so hard to feel pretty, because we’re already beautiful. I tried to suggest that we could form alliances with feminists and fat activists, along with anyone else who was questioning what kinds of bodies could be considered attractive.
The basic message of that book is something I still believe in. But nevertheless, it’s full of problems. Among other things, because I wrote the book so quickly, some of the beauty advice is pretty unhelpful or actually garbled.
I was trying way too hard to be funny and “edgy,” including a section on tucking that uses lots of, basically, dick jokes that seemed cute to me at the time. I threw around some offensive slang terms that really had no place in a beauty guide/manifesto. Also, looking at the book now, it has the aura of protesting too much. I keep insisting that I’m not planning on transitioning from male to female, never gonna happen, nope nope nope—whereas in fact, by the time the book was published, I was already starting my transition.
Then there’s the section on love and dating, in which I kind of willfully misunderstand the discourse, then and now, around chasers and the like. I was trying to find ways to talk positively about desire and sexuality for gender-nonconforming peeps, but I had not done my homework. Looking at that section now, I clearly tried to acknowledge the dangers and creepiness that come with fulfilling a porny fantasy held by lots of straight men, but I also downplayed the issues that come with embodying someone else’s fetish. Part of this is my attempt to stick to a breezy, friendly tone, but a lot of it is cluelessness. In a recent episode of Our Opinions Are Correct, Annalee and I talked to Meg Elison, who spoke eloquently about the relationship between fetishism and phobia—something I didn’t fully appreciate back then.
Worst of all, though, my attempts to be both funny and reassuring spilled over into downplaying the peril and discrimination that some people might face. A lot of the book’s advice about presenting femme in public boils down to, “Act like you own the place.” Which is perhaps okay advice for a White, upper-middle-class person, but wouldn’t work so well for a lot of other folks. Even though I did get harassed on the street all the time back then, the section on dealing with street harassment now feels naive, like it comes from a place of whiteness and class privilege. It took me a long time to understand just how ignorant I was.
I hope I’ve gotten better at talking about trans issues since then. I have definitely made a conscious effort to talk less and listen more, and to try and boost the voices of QTPOC people. After I had published a ton of stuff and helped organize a nationwide tour of trans authors, I took some time off from writing about trans topics, in part because I wanted to educate myself and do better.
These days, when I write a story about a trans protagonist, I’ll show it to a bunch of my trans friends, and even hire a sensitivity reader, just to make sure I’m being careful. A while back, I came up with a counter-argument to TERF rhetoric, which I’d never seen anyone make before, so I pitched it to a major newspaper as an op-ed. The newspaper was interested in publishing it, but then I talked to some friends who were steeped in trans activism, and they explained to my why my argument was flawed and might do more harm than good—so I backed out of writing that piece.
With so many bad-faith arguments and so much fearmongering about trans people, it’s twice as important to do no harm. So nowadays, I never assume I know how to write about trans stuff, just because I’m trans myself.
If you do stumble on something shitty that I wrote back in the day, I’m very sorry. I’m working hard on doing better—and part of that is owning my past mistakes.
Something I love this week:
In my continuing effort to distract myself from the state of the world with fluffy cuteness and silliness, I stumbled upon the movie, Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans, which is the best superhero crossover and the best multiverse story I’ve seen in ages. Seriously, it kicks the pants off of Batman v. Superman and Crisis on Infinite Earths, and everyone who’s developing a multiverse story should stop and pay attention to this lovely film.
Basically, there have been two separate animated Teen Titans shows: a somewhat serious, gritty version (Teen Titans) that started in 2003, and a silly, self-mocking, cartoony version that started in 2013 (Teen Titans Go!). And both shows have the same voice cast, playing the same characters. So in this 2019 movie, the two versions of the Teen Titans meet up, and fight—and eventually team up, as seen in this sweet musical number:
It’s just delightful, and I had to follow it up by watching Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, which I’d never seen before and which is also delightful. I’m now watching all the episodes, of which there are many.
I did a panel last week for a “pre-game” session at the American Library Association’s Midwinter meeting, organized by Macmillan and featuring Bethany C. Morrow, Melissa Albert and Romina Garber. It was a really lovely conversation about young-adult books, and you can watch it here.
And we’re going to be launching a pre-order campaign for my young-adult debut, Victories Greater Than Death soon. We’ll also be revealing the cover of my short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes. So please keep an eye on my Twitter!