To the Cis Artist Who Wants to Tell a Trans Story
An open letter from an exhausted trans person.
So you’re working on some art about what it’s like to be transgender. And you’re not transgender. But you think it’s so important that trans stories get told. You think it’s so vital for cis people to understand what being trans is like. You care about trans people, and you want to show that you care by telling trans stories.
You must think it’s a good thing, what you’re doing. You’re trying so hard. You care so much. And you want to get it right! And so now you’re asking me, a trans person, for some free work on your project. You made an attempt at a draft, and you’re sure it’s not perfect. Now you’d like me to look over it and help you clean up the mess your ignorance created.
It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to help cis people tell trans stories, and it definitely won’t be the last. I’ve been asked to read TV pilots, podcast scripts, and chapbooks. I’ve read short-stories, fan fiction, and poems. I’ve commented on web comics and smut and plays. All hand-wringingly, imperfectly crafted by cis people, each a vague stab at explaining what it’s like to be a trans person.
I’m not reading that shit anymore. I’m not giving feedback on it. It’s a waste of my time. I’m not fixing cis people’s tired, tropey trans stories anymore. I’m not enabling that kind of arrogance. I’m telling stories of my own.
But since you asked me for feedback, cis artist, I will give you some. Not about individual details of your work. Oh no. Hell no. I’m not going to even read your work. I’m sure it’s full of cute little moments and strange, misplaced details that only a trans person would realize ring false — I’m not here to fix that. That’s your problem.
The feedback I’m going to give is more about the act of creation, and frankly, the arrogance of it.
I want you to ask yourself, “Why do I think I, a cis person, should be the person to tell this story?”
I want you to really sit with that question, cis artist. Really let yourself experience any feelings of discomfort or fragility that might arise. Let your brain claw frustratedly against it. Let all your excuses and justifications pour out. You are such a talented writer. You have so many trans friends. You care so much about trans issues. You mean so well.
None of that is expertise. None of that is experience. None of it will actually make you better suited to tell this story. It’s all a derailment. It explains why you want to tell the story, why you want to feel good about yourself for telling the story, perhaps, but not why you actually ought to be the person to tell the story.
I want you to consider just how many talented trans and nonbinary writers there are in this world, and how often people like us are passed over for work.
You do know that happens all the fucking time, don’t you? I hope you do. If you’re going to tell a story about what it’s like to be trans, you better know that’s an exceedingly common thing.
Publications frequently choose cis journalists to write about trans topics, mistaking their relative ignorance on trans issues as a sign of objectivity. In more literary spaces, essays about being the partner or the parent of a trans person get far more play than essays by trans people about our own lives. On screen and on stage, we are an afterthought, seldom included in conversations about how trans characters ought to be written and cast. Usually we are voiced and embodied by cis people, who have only the faintest, most stereotypic ghost of an image of us in their minds.
Do you really think you can do a more skillful, more competent, more authentic job of telling a trans story than any actual trans person can?
Because that, cis artist, is the bar you’d have to clear, if you want your project to make any kind of ethical sense. There are countless talented trans creatives in this world, and most of us are dismissed as annoying freaks much of the time. We often require cis people to fight for us, if we want to have a place at the table, in the writer’s room, on the stage. If you, as a cis person, choose instead to give that place to yourself, you are implicitly claiming to have more of a right to be there than any of us do. Are you really comfortable with that?
Do you know enough about what it’s like to be trans?
How many trans people do you know, cis artist? How deeply do they trust you with the stories of their lives? Do you think the details they’ve given you are the whole reality, or are they just breadcrumbs they hope will placate you and get you to treat them with a modicum of respect? Do you think they’ll enjoy your art about the trans experience? Do you think it will make them feel seen, or will it make them feel dirty, exploited, and objectified?
Do you respect neopronouns, cis artist? Do you know which changes occur on which hormones, in which order? Do you know which ones are permanent and which ones are not? Do you know what a gaff is? Do you know what a pack-n-play is? Do you know that I’ve been out for three years and I’m still terrified to use the correct bathroom? Do you know how many times I’ve held my tongue when you, cis artist, called me by the wrong name or the wrong pronoun?
Cis artist, could you articulate for me exactly why “gender critical” people are a threat to trans safety? Do you think there is such a thing as “male socialization” and “female socialization”? Do you know why talk about “butch genocide” is a TERF dog whistle? Do you know why many trans people, myself included, hate “women and nonbinary only” events? Do you know why we don’t use the terms “mtf” and “ftm” much anymore?
What percentage of the words I’m saying are even familiar to you?
There are a lot of ways to get a trans narrative wrong, from factual errors to outmoded language to implicit transmisogyny and worse. I’ve never seen a cis person successfully avoid all these pitfalls. Do you know how to avoid them, cis artist? Do you trust that you can avoid them better than the average trans person can? Do you even care?
Are you hoping a trans person will do all the hard work for you?
Cis people have an easy time telling trans stories. Other cis people encourage them and reward them for doing so. Often, the only time a trans person has a voice in the matter is as an uncredited, unpaid consultant of some kind. We get brought in after the work has been done, to plug the holes and correct the errors and make the cis person look smarter and more sensitive than they actually are.
These are some examples I’ve seen play out multiple times each: A cis reporter gets asked by their editor to write a piece on the “trans perspective” of a political issue. The cis reporter interviews trans people, and quotes them at length. Thanks to the trans people who served as unpaid sources, the cis reporter creates a halfway decent piece. The cis reporter gets all the credit, the money, and the accolades. The trans people, at best, get nothing — maybe they even get misgendered in the article (that’s happened to me before).
A cis photographer does a series on trans bodies. She says she is ‘fascinated’ by the changes we undergo. She posts in a local queer exchange group on Facebook, asking for volunteer models. A few trans folks, often very young and vulnerable ones who are desperate for cis approval, sign up. The cis photographer takes intimate, nude photographs of trans bodies, and sells the images for personal profit without giving her models a cent.
A cis TV writer creates a pilot for a show about being trans. No trans people are in the writer’s room at first. Long after the bulk of the work has been done, the cis TV writer asks for trans people’s feedback on her pilot. It turns out that the script has a lot of unintentionally transphobic content, which her trans readers warn her about. The cis TV writer fixes her pilot, then gets the show greenlit. She is paid handsomely and is considered the ally of the year. The trans people who helped her gets nothing at all, and never hear from her again.
Do you see echoes of yourself in any of these scenarios, cis artist? Are you exploiting trans people for personal gain?
Did you think that you could tell a trans story better than literally any trans person in existence?
Did you think that more people would take your story seriously, because you are a cis person?
Did you underestimate how complex, diverse, and nuanced trans experiences are?
Did you expect that trans people would gladly give you feedback on your work for free?
Did you imagine trans people would be thankful that you asked them?
Did you create your art with a primarily cisgender audience in mind?
What about the trans experience fascinates you?
What about the trans experience disgusts or confuses you?
Are you angry with me for asking you these questions?
Are you ready to rethink what you’ve done?
Cis artist, I hope you can actually contemplate these questions, uncomfortable as they are. They are the only feedback I have for you. They are the only feedback I have for any cisgender person creating stories about trans lives. I will never help a cis person earn compensation and glory by telling stories they ought not to be telling ever again.
If you really care about us, you have to step back and consider that you have screwed up. That someone else should be writing the script, or the novel, or the article you are currently working on. And you should know that even if you have screwed up, you can still set it right.
You can support trans people and trans stories without forcing yourself into them. You can hire trans people, share trans narratives, promote trans writers, suggest trans editors, get us into the room, and get us paid. You can undo the harm your cis arrogance has caused. You can work to make things better rather than worse.