Writing about what you don’t know…and how not to mess it up by J S Frankel
As writers, we are always told to write what we know. Write something familiar, something close to us. For the most part, that holds. However, as someone who wishes to stretch and grow as a writer, I decided to write about something I didn’t know, specifically, a transgender character. I should mention that I am not transgender. I’m your average white, cisgender male, and straight. To some people in the LGBTQI community, that might automatically disqualify me. “How dare he,” they might say with indignation. “He isn’t writing what he knows. How dare he write about us?”
To be honest, if I were a member of the LGBTQI community, I might feel the same way. However, as mentioned above, in order to improve, sometimes writers have to tackle a subject they don’t know. So…how to go about it? More important, how not to mess things up? This is by no means an exhaustive summary on what to do. It’s more like a primer, and it’s something I’ve learned over the past couple of years. I’m still learning, and I rely on my LGBTQI friends to set me straight on some things–no pun intended.
The following is what transwomen and gay/lesbian people have told me, something that Ms. Janet Mock told me, and something that my own common sense told me: do the necessary research. That means perusing any and all available material pertaining to the subject. If you’re writing about trans characters, and if they are central to the story, it may mean including and exploring and showing gender dysphoria, talking about society’s perception of transpeople, the discrimination and harassment they face, the ignorance, and yes, sometimes the violence. Of course, it all depends on what kind of story the writer wants to tell, but I do think the writer must try to understand the feelings of the LGBTQI set, their feelings of who and what they are from their POV. Granted, that is something only they can know, but I do think if one is empathetic then success can be achieved.
Second, it means asking for feedback. When I wrote Picture (Im)perfect, I sent a rough draft to a few gay and trans people I knew online and asked them for their opinions. All of them responded in a most positive manner, gave me pointers on how to phrase things and what they might say in that situation, and I incorporated many of their suggestions. The key here, I feel, is not to write something and say to yourself, “This rocks!” when it may inadvertently offend/trigger someone else.
In terms of writing sci-fi or fantasy or romance, a writer can get away with fudging facts and employing false science in some cases. However, when dealing with gender and orientation issues, the writer–especially if they are not part of that community–has to be doubly careful. What they may feel is a throwaway line or description may cause distress or outright anger on the part of someone in the LGBTQI community. Therefore, common sense dictates that one ask first and change things if necessary.
Finally, it means doing away with stereotypes of gay/lesbian/trans people that are so prevalent. To me, they are people, first and foremost. Their lives should not be sensationalized, trivialized or mocked. People are people, and regardless of orientation or gender, they put their pants and skirts on one leg at a time, go to school or work, eat, drink, want to have friends and perhaps get married–all of those things. Just like everyone else. This is probably THE most important thing to stress when writing about someone gay or transgender.
These are just my thoughts on the whole process. It is by no means a definitive treatise on how to write a gay/transgender character, but if the writer makes them real and not cardboard cutouts, then there is a good chance that character or characters will be perceived in a sympathetic and positive light.