How Not To Write A Trans Character

You may remember that a while back I got very angry about the portrayal of a trans woman in a book. I promised you a review to explain. Well it has taken me a long time, but I have finally got it done. First of all, of course, I needed to calm down a bit. I also wanted to spend time talking with Brit Mandelo who wrote a rave review of the book for and encouraged me to read it in the first place. When you see friends and allies extolling the virtues of a book that seems deeply transphobic to you, it is important to understand why. Brit and I have exchanged many emails about the book, and I’m very grateful to her for the conversation.

In addition, while writing the review, I was stopped short by comments about Neil Gaiman’s A Game of You from Matt Cheney, someone else I generally think of as a trans ally. So the review expanded to include my reactions to that too. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Matt about it, but I know his heart is in the right place and I’m pretty sure I know where he’s coming from on this.

So, my comments on The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum, with a diversion on The Game of You by Neil Gaiman, can be found here. The essay is inevitably full of spoilers, so don’t click through if you have a dislike of such things.

I’ll note again here that the problem with this book is not that it portrays one sort of trans person rather than another, but that it starts out encouraging us to think of one sort of trans person, and then goes on to show that this person is “really” something very different, thereby invalidating the original identity. That is, it makes a political argument about the “real” nature of some trans people, which is very much opposed to the way they think about themselves.

Writing this piece has caused me to think about the issue of writers who are “beyond the pale” in some way. I have seen discussion recently of Orson Scott Card and Eric James Stone, with people saying that they refuse to read their works because of their homophobia, which I quite understand. But if I were to give up reading books by people who write transphobic material I’d have to give up on Joanna Russ, Mary Gentle and Amanda Downum, and that I’m not willing to do as they have many fine things to say in other areas. It is a complicated issue, with no easy answers.

I guess some people are wondering why I keep going on about this stuff. Can’t I just shut up, already? Well in this morning’s Twitter feed was a link to this blog post by the excellent Paris Lees, documenting an horrific case of transphobic bullying on Facebook. This happens. Indeed it has been done to me (online, but not on Facebook). Also this morning I stopped following two people on Twitter because they were making transphobic “jokes”. Books that portray trans people as freaks and/or deluded only encourage this sort of behavior.

5 thoughts on “How Not To Write A Trans Character

  1. Thanks for this, Cheryl!

    As I am reading and using as a material from Nisis “Writing the other” this comes also in practical use.



  2. I was sickened by that piece on the transphobic bullying, but glad to know that people rallied around to help her.

    Thanks for your clear analysis of The Bone Palace too.

  3. Very good post. Ok to quote? I have a paper to give next week on the relationship between politics, aesthetics and world building.

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