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Gay-Washing & Trans* Erasure

May 27, 2013

This post might tick off a few people, but I feel it’s important, so I’m making it. I do apologize if this hits on topics where we disagree with one another. It’s certainly written without an intent to offend, but I’m admittedly very upset about what I see going on.

I’ve been seeing trans* fiction pop up a bit more frequently these days. This? Oh, yeah. This makes me do the happy dance. I’ve been wanting to see more trans* fiction out there for ages, and I’m still formulating my own contributions as one who identifies somewhere along the trans* spectrum. I know it doesn’t really impact how well I write or what genre/sub-genre I choose to write in, but I’m coming from the point of view of someone who presents female, identifies closer to male than female, and expresses myself as generally queer (since there isn’t a better label for it). There isn’t really a label that describes me, even in the broader canopy of trans* terminology. I don’t mind too much, though it makes things weird to explain when I feel compelled to explain to someone.

The problem I have is that the majority of the trans* fiction out there is basically getting gay-washed. I hate using that term, but it’s the only thing that comes to mind. Like when people complain about their ‘non-white’ characters being white-washed, I feel like a huge percentage of trans* fiction out there is being gay-washed in an attempt to appeal solely to the M/M fiction community.

I’m the Marketing Director of a press, so I get that you want your fiction to appeal to the broader audience, and there’s definitely an audience in the M/M community. I totally get that, and I’m not afraid to say as much, but there’s also a conflict there, in my mind. The authors and the publishers behind this fiction are, for the most part, setting it up and marketing it as M/M fiction. By labeling it that way and having authors go about preaching that trans* is somehow just another part of M/M fiction that everyone should love and accept is doing a disservice to trans* fiction, trans* people, and the identity of trans* itself.

By selling ONLY the trans* fiction that can appeal to the M/M fiction (gay fiction) community, you’re basically sending the message that there is only one acceptable kind of trans* identification, expression, and orientation: the one that makes you look, sound, feel, emote, and express yourself as a gay man.

Saying “Yay! This character is a trans-man in a M/M romance!” is problematic on certain levels. Can’t people see that? You just erased that trans* quality in favor of keeping it within the M/M genre. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive by any means, this sort of stance of it just being an extension of M/M as a genre is so very infuriating to me! (For the record, a trans man can certainly identify as a gay man; being trans* doesn’t make him any less of a gay man, but the labels and the expectation behind the use of the simple gay or M/M label in this community isn’t often kind to trans men. It’s a sad reality, and while I hate that the label has to come with that expectation, it’s what drives the genre and has to be considered at this point in time.)

And to top it all off, people are acting like trans* fiction hasn’t been around at all, or that these pieces are the first ones worth picking up in the genre. Storm Moon Press, the press I started with my co-author and friend, S.L. Armstrong, started acquiring trans* fiction three years ago. We were the first in this genre to actively seek trans* fiction… and now everyone is doing it like they’re the innovators. But… not, because they’re only looking for the trans* that can be marketed easily to the M/M romance community. I can’t help but shake my head because it’s frustrating to see all the other flavors of trans* continue to be erased. It’s not that the other publishers shouldn’t be producing trans* fiction or that the trans* fiction shouldn’t be out there. I’m SO thrilled that there is more trans* fiction out there and that trans* is getting a little more time in the spotlight. But when a publisher or author boils trans* down to only being worth their time if it’s cock/male-centric… This is just unacceptable to me.

I also find it problematic when anyone claims they wrote something for the betterment of the minority they wrote a character identifying within. “I did this for the trans* community!” is just like saying “I did it for the gay community!” or “I did it for the Latino community!” While this isn’t always untrue, I do admit to finding it annoying when an author of any background (whether they’re part of that minority themselves or not) claims to speak for any community that happens to be featured in their work. I write a lot of gay and bisexual fiction. I also love to write BDSM. While I do try to do justice to the material I write about and the communities in which my characters identify, I never make any statements about it being “for the ___ community”.

An example within my own work would be Catalyst. The book is dedicated: to anyone who ever felt like a pervert for wanting what they need. My co-author, S.L. Armstrong, and I were trying to write a story that might connect with those who struggle to accept their own needs and desires. The story might have centered around a lot of BDSM practices (and questionable ones on the part of troubled characters), but we never once claim to have been writing it “for the BDSM community” or to give voice to the BDSM community, as if our novel were a beacon of reality that would teach everyone about all those people who practice BDSM. No matter who inspired or encouraged the making of that novel, it wasn’t meant to speak for the community, and I feel like any author who makes that kind of claim is taking on way too much responsibility. No one can speak for a whole community of people; we’re all too different to be encapsulated within the confines of any one story. Some will be able to identify with your characters in that community (hopefully) while others won’t connect with them at all, and that’s part of writing and publishing fiction. Your story can’t speak for everyone, or it would be universally praised, y’know? (And as awesome as that would be… yeah. Not happening. XD)

Besides all that, if an author is speaking for a community they don’t identify within while simultaneously making a dime off of them, that’s plain old appropriation. If any author were truly writing it for the trans* community, then they wouldn’t be making money off of it for themselves at all. Instead, they’d be donating all proceeds to a trans*-centric cause. I have very little problem with people making money or money being a large reason behind fiction being written. Just be honest about it.

I just feel like telling a lot of M/M authors who write a single trans* story (and the publishers who are only marketing said trans* fiction as M/M fiction) that they haven’t done anything special. They haven’t pushed the boundaries of the genre. They haven’t done anything new. Slapping the trans* label on something that is then marketed to the M/M fiction community, not to the trans* community, doesn’t—for the most part—expand any readers’ minds or hearts on the issue of trans-phobia. There might be the rare M/M fiction reader who feels that they’ve found a new respect for trans* characters through reading a book, but that’s exactly what they are: rare.

I wish there were more readers who have those amazing moments while reading a book and expand their definitions as to what is acceptable and what is beautiful in the way of gender and sexual identity, expression, and orientation. I wish that so very much! But, coming from a marketing perspective, I know that a lot of M/M fiction readers are going to be pissed off about a trans* story being marketed simply as M/M. If that trans* character is a trans-man who hasn’t undergone reassignment surgery and, therefore, has female genitalia, I guarantee you there will be a good number of readers caught off guard and angry that they weren’t warned it was trans* instead of what they would normally define as “normal M/M”. Like I said, it’s a sad state, and I hate it to the point of rageface >:O and angry dancing, but that’s how a lot of readers are. The labels are there for a reason in fiction. We may not like those reasons—I certainly don’t—but they serve their purposes in so much as finding the best audience possible for that book. I hope more readers pick up trans* fiction and find that they love it, but I want people who read it to know up front that it’s trans*, even if it looks, feels, sounds, and even tastes and smells like M/M fiction.

For those looking for trans* fiction, I can definitely steer you toward several titles, and I’m really proud to say that no matter how the characters identify across the QUILTBAG spectrum, their fiction has always had a place at Storm Moon Press. We are and always will be an all-inclusive press, and we hope many authors join us in our mutual love for the QUILTBAG community.

Trans* Titles to Check Out:

Pearl – by Kelly Rand
This short story surrounds a cis-gendered woman and a trans-man as they strike up a romance in 1920s Canada. It’s a delightful little period piece and the first trans* title SMP put out. 🙂 What I loved most about it happens when the characters run off for a night away from prying eyes, and the main character sees gender fluid individuals for the first time.
Milk & Cookies & Handcuffs – “The Gift of Self” – by Kathleen Tudor
This anthology contains GLBT+Het stories with a common theme of holiday BDSM fun. Kathleen Tudor’s story in particular follows a trans-woman through her self-discovery and her search for acceptance with her partner and Domme. I just finished re-reading this, and I can’t recommend it enough. The character development for Jeff/Jessie is wonderfully complex while also hitting the hot erotic notes that BDSM lovers will enjoy.
Legal Briefs – Charity Anthology
Three of the six short stories in this anthology are trans*, and all the proceeds go to Lambda Legal. “Honest Lawyers” by Kelly Rand features a post-transitioned trans-woman working as a court reporter. “His Best Defense” by Blaine D. Arden is a lovely story where the trans* dynamic is more subtle (the trans* identification is a non-issue for the MCs). And there’s “Double-Cross” by Salome Wilde, a hard-boiled detective story complete with a queer femme fatale. All three trans* stories take different approaches to trans* and show diversity in the label. Trans-men, trans-women, and all things queer right alongside gay and lesbian fiction.
Sinews of the Heart — by Cody Stanford
While this book isn’t out yet, it’s going to be a fantastic trans* young adult novel that incorporates trans* anthropomorphic characters in a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story. The release is slated for late July at the moment and will be through our Budding Moon (QUILTBAG YA Fiction) imprint. Something to keep an eye out for, if you want trans* YA fiction!
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18 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2013 3:05 pm

    Great post!

    • May 27, 2013 3:35 pm

      Thanks, Melanie! It’s a topic that’s just been grating at me lately.

  2. Kat Merikan permalink
    May 27, 2013 3:13 pm

    I read it, thought it through and I must admit I’m not sure what kind of trans* fiction you would like to see that isn’t out there? I get most of the points and agree with them, but then again a lot of fiction isn’t written to teach and instruct (mine certainly isn’t, unless really subtly 🙂 )but to entertain. That’s why I think the most trans* fiction falls under m/m. Because people write about what they like and what excites them.

    • Roger Armstrong permalink
      May 27, 2013 3:53 pm

      I’m not crazy about the implication you make here that only transmen who identify as gay are “exciting”. No one is talking about fiction that is meant to “teach and instruct” with a blunt instrument, but when 99% of trans* fiction involves a main character who presents masculine and is into other guys, it sends a subtle signal that this is the only acceptable way to be trans*. The simple fact is, the majority of the so-called “trans* M/M” stories that I’ve read are indistinguishable from cis M/M stories if you take out the sex scenes. By and large, the trans* nature of the character is at best a minor speedbump, if it’s a concern at all. And while there are certainly stories of that nature to be told, there is an amazingly vast landscape of stories that are being ignored in favor of this single form of narrative.

      Where are all the transwomen? Where are the straight trans* romances? Where are the characters who struggle with their trans* identity, or who come up against opposition and discrimination over their identity? These stories can be just as entertaining and exciting. You asked what kind of trans* fiction we want to see that isn’t out there. This is what we want. Variety. Diversity. Stories that challenge preconceptions and turn narrative tropes on their head. Queer fiction that celebrates being queer.

      • May 27, 2013 3:59 pm

        Roger totally replied before I was finished typing my own response, and I find it kind of awesome that we basically said the same thing in different ways: More variety. Less use of the tropes that make “M/M trans*” look like the only acceptable trans* out there. 🙂

      • Kat Merikan permalink
        May 27, 2013 4:06 pm

        Hi Roger 🙂 I means ‘exciting’ for ME to write, since I like to write about gay relationships. In real life, it would be the straight trans* men that are more ‘exciting/attractive’, since I could actually have a shot with them.

        “Where are all the transwomen? Where are the straight trans* romances?”
        I was chatting to my co-writer about it today and I think what it comes down to is not the trans* character, but the type of story I want to tell. So because I’m not into writing lesbian/straight romances, I wouldn’t create a trans* character who fits into that kind of setting (Unless as a background character).
        I keep musing that on one hand there are so many people who want to read it and on the other, there doesn’t seem to be enough people who want to write it. Or is there a whole market out there in more trans* oriented communities that I don’t know of, I’m not sure.
        Maybe it’s the fact that the stories coming from writers who are primarily m/m authors, will have the gay man trans* and a writer of lesbian fiction would be more inclined to have a female trans* character.

        🙂

    • May 27, 2013 3:55 pm

      I’d love to see more trans* fiction out there that isn’t completely focused on the presence or absence of a cock on the trans* person. I feel like there is a lot more hype about books that end up marketed as M/M Romance than there are books that simply identify as trans* fiction and let the reader enjoy whatever form that trans* might take. Part of it is the trope of the Big Reveal, which places a huge amount of importance in the M/M marketed pieces on the moment of “OMG! There isn’t a cock between your legs, but I thought you were male, and OH NOES!” Of course, this trope does have it’s place and can be used to good effect, but when it’s done systematically, over and over, it makes me feel like all anyone cares about is the ultimate genitalia that a character has. I just want to see characters reacting in a more varied way. 😉 (Which is one reason why I loved Kelly Rand’s “Honest Lawyers”. The trans-woman in there was the one all worried about the Big Reveal, but her cis-man partner only took half a second to be like, “Okay. So what?” XD)

      I totally get that not all fiction is written with the intent to do anything more than entertain. That brings us to the age-old argument of how much responsibility we as authors can claim as to the effects of our fiction on the public. Blah blah blah. Such a recurring argument! From a marketing perspective, it’s good to just consider the likely response to the fiction you write. Not all characters have to be written completely PC, but it’s good to go into it knowing that your characters aren’t PC so if anyone complains, you at least put forethought into it and went ahead with your character like that knowingly. Again, playing into tropes can be great. I just get twitchy when one gets overused and then praised as if it’s an accurate portrayal of the entire community of the character it involves. Ultimately, what I want to see is more variety in the trans* identities and expressions of characters and for ALL of that fiction to be marketed as trans* fiction so people basically understand that one kind of trans* person isn’t the only acceptable kind of trans* person. Does that make sense? XD

      • Kat Merikan permalink
        May 27, 2013 4:12 pm

        Yes! 🙂 Sorry if my answer is so laconic here. I wrote a bit more in reply to Roger. But what you wrote clears up what kind of variety you’re after.

  3. May 27, 2013 8:15 pm

    I think that most writers have good intentions. They’re trying very hard to be more inclusive by introducing characters that are trans* into their usual genres (which usually turns out to be M/M romance). That has to be better than some of the hateful trans*phobia I’ve heard from people who think that having a dick is the epitome of the male experience. Yes, I would like to see more variety, but there are plenty of M/M authors who won’t write for any other genre. I think I’d rather see trans* characters happen in their worlds than have them simply not exist.

    At least M/M writers are trying to understand trans*. Yes, they’re doing it though their own limited lenses of what they want to see, but it’s got to be better than nothing. We’re often awkward in implementation when we first encounter an idea that is new to us and I think some of this will pass as writers gain a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be trans*.

    I’ve wanted to dabble in trans* fiction for a while, but I’ve been told I lack subtlety. I don’t want to hit everyone over the head with a big trans* hammer simply because I mean well, because preachiness can be annoying too. I think perhaps it’s better to wait and simply write a character that one day I realize is trans* than specifically create a character for that purpose. Because that can be offensive too. Trans* people are people like any other people, and I look forward to the day when I wake up and say “Cool, [character name] is trans*. Thanks for confiding in me, character” and then write that story.

    • May 28, 2013 6:57 am

      I definitely understand that there are growing pains when you’re first working with new material and new concepts that challenge you in the way of understanding a whole different kind of people. I went through those growing pains when I first began writing polyamorous fiction. I think the difference is that I did that growth and practiced writing it OUTSIDE published fiction. I don’t think people do that these days. If a published M/M author suddenly decides to star a trans* character in their next book, they don’t take the time to experiment and perfect the characters first; they just jump into the deep end and assume that whatever they write is worth publishing. Most people in the M/M genre will put out fiction with trans* characters that only go with popular tropes and won’t realize that they’re doing anything wrong. And if no one calls them out on it, they’ll just keep doing what they do because it’s “not their usual genre” or they’re “just branching out a little”.

      It’s especially problematic when even their publishers don’t realize that what they’re putting out is problematic. Of course, from a marketing perspective (if I divorce myself from the morality of doing justice to the trans* identity), if the crappy, trope-ridden stories that can be marketed as M/M romance are what sells (and they are what sells), then there’s no reason to care. If the bottom line is better suited to that marketing scheme, then a lot of places won’t care that it’s fiction that is reinforcing damaging stereotypes and emphasizing the wrong things.

      I guess we just have to agree to disagree that something is better than nothing. It’s never that simple to me. 😉 I think I just have high expectations. I don’t want people to dally with trans* just because they want to cash in on it. I also don’t want people to write for it when it’s not something they have the vaguest interest in. It’s part of why I love having Storm Moon Press. I get to be choosy with the trans* titles we acquire and promote, and we do our utmost to make sure each author we contract with for a trans* piece will treat the characters and the subject matter with respect and a lot of thought. That’s what a publisher is there for, in my opinion. It’s not just about the money but about putting out amazing fiction. Not every business person in publishing thinks that way, of course, but it’s the way I think of things.

      Thank you for your comment! Even though I disagree with you on some points, I love having interaction here on my blog. ^_^

      • May 28, 2013 8:39 am

        “I guess we just have to agree to disagree that something is better than nothing. It’s never that simple to me.”

        Hear hear.

      • May 28, 2013 6:30 pm

        *Nods* I definitely understand your point. Some stereotypes are damaging. I especially understand about authors just jumping in, too – I recently read on Facebook about an author who wrote in a trans* character and used all the wrong gender pronouns mistakenly. She was very apologetic and fixed the book, but yes, without the proper research, good intentions have the potential to be offensive and hurtful even if the author meant well.

  4. May 28, 2013 10:24 am

    I have a lot of thoughts on this subject and this post. While I am originating them into a coherent form let me say that I would love, love to see a wider spectrum of trans* characters in literature in general. I love to see more queer transwomen, people who identify as genderqueer, gender-neutral, androgynous, or where femme is a gender identity and many other ways. I would love to see stories where characters struggle with their gender and stories which characters don’t, where character’s experience of being trans* is what defines them and characters where that’s a not the most important part of who they are.

    I also think that m/m romance too often only represents one way of being queer which isn’t even the experience of most gay man and that drives me crazy. I know this is in some ways a carry over from traditional heterosexual romance which doesn’t actually express the experience of being heterosexual either but quite frankly we can and should do better.

    • May 28, 2013 12:50 pm

      I guess I’m cautious about having a separate category for trans* literature or romance though. the categories we have now predominantly m/m romance, lesbian romance, heterosexual romance, bisexual romance, and poly romance are based on sexuality. While the distinction between gender and sexuality is fuzzy and porous, most people do see a distinction. Which means, as I’m sure you well know, that a gay transman and a gay cisgender man are going to have different experiences but they are still both gay men. Ditto for lesbian transwomen or pansexual genderqueer people. I do not think we should only write about people who’s gender identities slot nicely into what most people identify as gay or lesbian or heterosexual. I just worry about the implications putting books about characters who are transgender or gender variant together in their own category as separate from other categories based on sexuality. Especially given the society we live in where it is too often assumed that if you’re say a transwoman or female leaning gender variant and also claim to be lesbian than you are somehow lying or cheating. I don’t know how many articles I’ve read or cituations I’ve been in where a gay transman does something awesome and some asshole cisgender gay man goes off on a rant about how he shouldn’t even be in gay male space since he isn’t a “real” gay man. Not that I think that is what you think or what you are suggesting or even a possible out come of what you are suggesting I’m just at this point really cautious when it comes to separating trans* people out of GLB space.

      I also feel like readers trans*phobic reactions are not a good reason to make a distinction between books with cisgender or transgender characters. I don’t expect my books to magically change anyone’s mind but I’m not going to make it easier for them to continue to hold these kinds of bigoted views either.

      Ultimately I would like to see categories open up and broaden to include more different kinds of experiences, narratives and characters rather then specializing down further and further. Already we have people who read m/m romance on one side of the track and people who read lesbian romance on the other and God forbid the two ever meet. I would hate to see the same thing happen even further.

      anyway those are my rambling thoughts on the subject.

      • May 28, 2013 6:18 pm

        Definitely well thought out response there, and dude, I agree with you on so many levels. It really is strange that so many readers get SO up in arms about a gay transman being included in M/M romance (or any other variation of gender identity/expression daring to be part of a group based on orientation). It’s a totally bigoted thing; I’m in complete agreement with you there. I’d love to see the current categories ALL broaden to include trans* identities and expressions. I just kind of pessimistic, thinking it’s not going to happen soon. I bounce back and forth between wanting the labels to absorb trans* identities and wanting those identities to have their own label because completely eliminating the trans* label feels like erasure. It’s a tough situation, for sure.

        Ultimately, what I think would be AWESOME would be to have a more varied labeling system. I just know the genre wouldn’t take it (or at least isn’t ready to at this point in time). When I think about it, it comes to me in slightly mathematical terms, so excuse the jargon as I take you back to graphs. XD In a three-dimensional space, math usually plots that in terms of an x-axis (going left to right), a y-axis (going top to bottom), and a z-axis (going front to back). In my happy place, those three dimensions would equate to a graduated scale of identity, expression, and orientation. I know, I know. Too complex for most readers. (I wish it weren’t!) But then you could easily categorize where your characters fall, the labels would be more accurate, and we’d be able to do justice by the characters in identifying them more accurately while also letting readers know what they’re getting themselves into.

        *shrugs* It’s a dream, I suppose. Our labeling system is just so very limited. With it being mostly orientation-based, I see your point about trans* not necessarily being a sexual orientation, so it doesn’t fit nicely into the existing boxes. I just wish there were more boxes! It’s like… From a marketing perspective I want there to be labels that readers can easily understand, but as a genderqueer individual I want a place where fiction about people like me can shine without being forced down into one of the existing broad labels.

        Thank you so much for your comments, E.E! Very exciting to have you weigh in. 🙂

      • May 28, 2013 9:17 pm

        “I’d love to see the current categories ALL broaden to include trans* identities and expressions. ”

        Well it definitely won’t happen unless authors in the already existing genres start writing trans* characters within those genres.

        In your answer to another comment you talk about using a seperate trans* labels to showcase all that trans* fiction can be and that makes more sense to me I think.

        Otherwise I don’t see including trans characters into already existing romance categories like gay, lesbian, pansexual fiction as erasing trans* characters as much as including them in categories which should have always included them to begin with.

        I myself fall somewhere on the genderqueer-transmasculine spectrum, I present in a non-normative way, I am also gay/queer. My non-cisgender identity does not negate the fact that I am gay any more then the fact that I am gay negates my gender identity. To me one does not erase the other so I struggle to see how if that is true for me it wouldn’t also be true for my characters.

        I also can’t emphasis enough how much I hate the idea of allowing the backlash against trans* characters in m/m romance to stop of us from writing trans* characters in m/m romance. Lots of m/m romance readings don’t like female characters in their m/m romance but I don’t think the correct way of dealing with that is to stop writing female characters in m/m romance.

        I don’t think the correct way of dealing with trans*phobic sentiment within any genre is to try and make trans* characters more palatable by smoothing over the things which makes them trans*. I equally don’t think the correct solution is to separate out trans* fiction, so that trans*phobic readers can continue to live in a cis-dick only fantasy world if they so choose.

        On the other hand, like I said. I find the idea of using a trans* category to show case trans* romance much more palatable rather then saying that people who are trans* are totally different from people who are gay. Or because the average m/m romance reading is going to react in a bigoted way when confronted by someone with a non-normative gender or who is transgender we should give them the choice never to have to confront that.

  5. May 28, 2013 6:38 pm

    I’m kind of puzzled by the idea of marketing trans* fiction solely or primarily to an M/M audience, for all the reasons you mention. Probably the biggest is the expectations of the audience, though. You guys know all about people not reading the categories/labels on a story and then complaining about the content!

    • May 28, 2013 7:01 pm

      I’m just as puzzled as you! There is certainly a market for trans* fiction. It’s currently smaller (or hasn’t quite found its base yet) than gay fiction, but OMG, you’re messing with audience expectation when simply labeling it M/M. Now, like I’ve said before, in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be such a close-minded expectation on the part of the genre. But, at the same time, by trying to force all trans* fiction into the existing labels that are based more on orientation, you’re still erasing the trans* element from the categorization of the piece. And I feel like that’s doing an injustice to the trans* community. Gay and lesbian content has gained prevalence in media because of the exposure of it and the unabashed labeling of it as gay and lesbian. I feel like trans* content, while not exactly the same thing, deserves the same treatment, being spotlighted to increase exposure and, hopefully over time, increasing acceptance and understanding. ^_^

      Thanks for commenting, Shae!

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