Alex Myers: As a trans writer, I discovered after the publication of my debut novel that I got two general kinds of reader response. The first (and preferred kind) went: Thank you so much for your beautiful book. When I read in the author notes that you are transgender, it put the story into a whole new light. My ______ (a term for friend or relative) recently came out to me as ______ (a label somewhere on the LGBT spectrum), and seeing that you are trans helped me understand my ______ a little bit more.
The second kind of response went: I read your book and enjoyed it, but I wish you hadn’t shared the fact that you are trans. That’s the sort of thing that you should keep to yourself. I bet more people would read your book if they didn’t know you were trans.
These letters seem to me to sum up an impossible dichotomy that the reading public, and the public in general, asks of transgender people: to be hyper-visible and invisible all at once.
Lisa Bunker: We trans folk navigate the puzzle of that dichotomy every day. From the inside I experience it as a constant low-level hum of uncertainty and risk. I’m just here to buy parts to fix my sink, or to change my clothes for yoga, or whatever. That person just gave me a second look. Are they reading me as trans? If so, do they have a problem with that? Is there about to be an issue? I’m always braced for sudden random ickiness.
And then there’s the recurring question, in each new situation, of whether and how to mention one’s transness. I ended up not putting it in the bio blurb for Felix Yz, because, upon reflection, it didn’t feel quite right in that setting. I decided to include it on my author website, though, because it is one important aspect among many of who I am as a writer.
AM: When I was writing the bio blurb for Revolutionary, I felt the push and pull of the identity question too. On the one hand, the marketing/publicity folks said my transness was a cool fact, something that distinguishes the novel. But they also said it could make the novel too niche or even make readers not pick it up.
And, always, there’s the concern about becoming an identity author. Admittedly, many of my pieces have to do with being transgender. That’s what I know, that’s what informs my world, that’s what interests me. But I can write outside of my identity as well.
What is the middle ground here? Who gets to be “just” an author? Right now, I think that turf still belongs to straight white men. Do you feel otherwise? Do you feel able to not be a trans author? Do you want to be “just” another author?
LB: The other work identity besides “author” I claim for myself is “activist,” and partly that’s things like showing up at hearings and writing emails to my representatives and such, but it’s also just being out. I know you know that part of being trans is, routinely, being the first trans person someone has ever met. We are activists just by living our lives openly.
That said, I don’t always want to lead with it. It’s partly a pride-in-craft thing. I want my book to earn whatever success it achieves based on how good it is, not because of the bump or asterisk or whatever—you know, “It’s the best book we’ve seen in this genre...from a trans writer.” So, in the bio-blurb case, I suppose I did actually angle for “just” another author status. But I can’t avoid being a trans author. I’m out forever more, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
AM: A large part of why I write is to get the world inside of me out onto the page, where it has some chance of making sense.
When I work with students on personal writing, including their college essays, they typically want to write about some “high drama” moment, and I always tell them: no, no, write about how you organize your sock drawer. Pick something small and intensely you, that only you know about yourself, and that you’re not exactly sure why it is important to you, or what it means about you.
I hold true to this principle in my own writing as well. I’m always trying to find the small, deeply internal pieces and turn them inside out. Gender is one of those for me. A big one.
LB: I agree, but I might rephrase slightly, because gender for me is not just one internal piece—it’s ten thousand. I see gender as the sum of our responses as complex mixy multi-faceted humans to an imposed binary. It’s in how we present, how we act, how we respond to other people, and how we respond to the larger entities of nation, humanity, art, the infinite.
I think when it comes to identity in art, in some ways each “other” identity is unique, but also, in some respects, the experience of being “other” is universal. So writing while trans gives me hope both of helping the world understand trans people better, and also of adding something useful to the ever-growing body of work addressing the universal themes of sameness vs. difference, belonging vs. exclusion, black-and-white clarity vs. rainbow variety...all viewed through this particular curious lens life has given us.