A week ago, a writer friend reached out to me for some help. They were writing a trans protagonist, and they wanted to make sure they weren’t screwing anything up. Could I check the manuscript, please? And would my fiancee be willing to do the same?
For context: I’m cisgender, but some of my nearest and dearest are transgender, including my fiancee Danielle and my frequent collaborator Caelyn. I was confident that I could critique a trans protagonist, and Danielle felt the same way.
We agreed to take a look. We both read the manuscript, and then we discussed it at Panera over soup and paninis, preparatory to sending our feedback.
I missed some really important things.
Most of my observations were good. But some of the things I called out were side thoughts for Danielle, and some of the things I didn’t see were glaring. When she pointed them out, I said, “Oh, of course – ” but they were obvious to her, and they had gone straight past me.
Neither of us had expected that to happen.
The big things that stood out to me were things that I learned as an ally. As an ally, I know people’s perception of gender goes far beyond simple visuals and into things like word choice, handwriting, and public restroom etiquette. I know it’s extraordinarily hard for a trans person who doesn’t want to publicly disclose their trans status (aka in stealth) to trust someone with that information, and it’s flatly terrifying when someone untrusted obtains that information. And I know that deliberately deadnaming someone is a scorched-earth, never-be-friends-again tactic.
What big things did I miss? I didn’t realize that the protagonist (a newly transitioned woman living in stealth) wasn’t sufficiently concerned about whether or not she would be misgendered. Essentially, the protagonist was never concerned that someone would treat her as male, and Danielle pointed out that she should always be concerned. (This was a fantasy piece, so the protagonist was using illusion to reinforce her gender expression – but, as noted above, gender expression goes far beyond visuals.)
I also didn’t realize that it was a mistake for the protagonist to be uncomfortable around mirrors. For many trans people, mirrors can be comforting rather than frightening, if they reassure people that they are successfully expressing their correct gender. Since the protagonist was under a convincingly effective illusion, looking in a mirror and seeing “yes, this is what I am supposed to look like” would have been comforting instead of disconcerting, unless some other factor was involved.
When my friends are misgendered, I know that it’s hurtful and upsetting, and even dangerous or threatening – but I never understood how the possibility of misgendering can inspire constant, low-level fear. I’ve seen trans friends posting flattering selfies – but it never occurred to me that there was a specific reason why they do it.
To Danielle, these things were so obvious that they weren’t worth mentioning. So she didn’t mention them. And so I never knew.
What else is too large for her to mention, and too hidden for me to see? I don’t know. She doesn’t either. But now we understand viscerally that there are built-in limits to what I can learn through observation.
It’s the difference between being a minority and being an ally. It’s the difference between living and observing. And it’s a difference that can only be seen from the inside.
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