How to Write About Trans Women

Begin with the title. Never forget that you must include the word ‘transgender’ or ‘transsexual’ in each headline, preferably in quotation marks. No exceptions. How else could your audience process the story to come? Acceptable subheadings, subtitles, or extensions for titles are as legion as hacktivists or biblical demons cast forth from pigs: make sure it includes ‘surgery,’ ‘sex work,’ ‘gay agenda,’ or ‘is not a woman.’ The latter holds the distinction of being both catchy and classy. It is critical that you separate trans women from real women as early as you can; if you do not, your audience might assume you actually respect transwomen as women, and that might lead your readers to assume you are gay or bisexual if you are a cis male writer, or not conservative enough if you are a cis female writer. Be careful. You are at stake as much as your subject matter.

The photo on your cover or hanging above your article comes next. Go for broke here. Images of hairy legs in high heels or emerging from tutus are classics you can’t go wrong with, like Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz or light summery pastas with basil and garlic. The goal is to suggest that trans women must look like comical parodies of womanhood, like clueless men. Avoid women of colour at all costs, as well as, or including, women wearing a hijab, al-amira, a faded t-shirt and jeans, pareo, or anything that suggests that transfemininity might exist across cultures and continents, might be mundane rather than marvellous, the latter in the surreal sense Alejo Carpentier used it in.

Illustration by Yao Xiao

Illustration by Yao Xiao

On the other hand, you may select a photo of a trans woman who looks very much like a cis woman, usually one who would be beautiful by the standards of the society you are writing in. All the better if she is posed suggestively, wearing noticeable and flawless makeup, and has long, shiny hair, the bigger and longer the better. Make no mistake: this is not to show her beauty or to talk about standards of the gaze or how female bodies in this society are portrayed. No, dear writer. This is a setup to take her appearance apart in a special way unique to trans women.

If she has committed the mortal sin of wearing bold makeup in particular, like red lipstick, this is far worse than if a cis woman followed those legion demons in like manner, since trans women who wear makeup and have manicured hair are obviously parodies of stereotypes of women, individuals who have never passed through the magic door marked Socialisation that would have cured her forever of wanting to highlight aspects of her appearance she wishes to. Real women do not wear makeup or take care of their hair or wear form-flattering clothing of any kind. And it is impossible for trans women to be aware of their choice to appear as they do; they cannot have personal agency to look the way they wish to, cannot be embracing a freedom to wear or not to wear that is itself aware of the social politics of such embraces of freedom, cannot be anything but stereotypes of the heterosexual male’s gaze, the sole gaze one should talk about.

Do not even approach the example of a Muslim trans woman who covers her hair but wears makeup; this is not only un-Islamic by all definitions of the word, obviously, but is something no Muslim cis woman would do. Do not bring up, either, a Jamaican trans woman who might decide to adorn herself and dance and shake like a cisgender dancehall artist; the cis artist and her fans, you see, are just doing something common in the culture or buying into the male gaze, but the trans woman is projecting the gaze onto their own body because their eyes are still not a non-lesbian woman’s. Avoid the subject of androgyny, especially the idea that androgyny can even sometimes be associated with strength, as in some anime and manga. Trans women who do not wear makeup must be manly; trans women who do wear noticeable makeup must look manly, or have manly gazes. Clever, you may think to yourself. This was a trap they could never have evaded, inescapable as Dream’s sister, Death.

Pronouns are your choice. Do not read work by other writers on transgender issues, especially not work by trans women themselves. You don’t want to be influenced, like any good artist. You may gender your subject the way you think is obviously correct, male, like those leading lights of empathy and scholarship Daniel Thwaites in the Jamaica Gleaner or Gavin McInnes in Thought Catalog. This is especially effective when discussing the dangers of trans women using the women’s restroom. It helps portray the loo as a kind of wartime trench for women, who have been forced to accommodate the presence of urinals.

However, you may choose to gender your subject with female pronouns if you preface this by saying that you respect people’s wishes to be called whatever they want but that you know they will always be what they really are. You may also bring up references to people who identify as vampires, elves, and Sonic the Hedgehog, or, alternatively, those people who believe they were literally Cleopatra or Marilyn Monroe, or both, in other lives. You may mention Rachel Dolezal and racial reassignment surgery. This saves you, makes you look both generous and, in your mind, liberal in that wonderful way conservativism can sometimes be liberal. After all, you’re being polite to lunatics, the kind of people who probably couldn’t string two meaningful sentences together. If you bring up people who identify as non-humans, never mind the real science of binary transgenderism or the false equivalence of the comparison, since these other things do not exist; the point is to show that trans people, broadly, are out of it, man, their sanity abducted by aliens strategically released from Area 51 on a lonely strip of rural American highway. As for Rachel, never mind that she is a human being who, despite needing to be called out for her lies, has been through a lot; no, you need to show that if she can identify as something, anyone can, absurd as ‘transraciality’ is outside of the context of interracial adoption. Screw context and screw her — but not the trans woman, just to clarify quickly, because that would be, well, no homo, as you, if you are a certain kind of cis male author, may say to a fellow male when praising something about him. Be careful. Remember that someone’s reputation is at stake here.

Now that you have begun writing, dissect us like the surgeons you may have referenced in your subtitle, or the way you imagine they do, an image of an American classroom in which frogs are being taken apart for science lessons. When giving statistics, if you are an American writer, be sure to use only American stats even when you are talking about transgender persons across the globe. After all, Americentrism is manifestly the destiny of the world. There are no trans women from Dominica, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Brazil, Australia, India, or Uganda, indeed anywhere throughout ancient history, as trans women are solely the products of phytoestrogens in soymilk and things the American government has slipped into the water. They also, like homosexuals, did not exist before the word ‘transgender’ or ‘homosexual’ was coined, as they are entirely socially, not in any way biologically, constructed. By the way, remember that the word ‘transgender’ is most commonly used as a noun, preferably the plural form of ‘transgenders,’ and ‘transgendered,’ indicating the affliction that was put upon one of us, is the preferred, if not the most chic, adjectival form.

Be sure to reference Paul McHugh on gender reassignment surgery. He is the god of transsexuality, and the rest of us, trans women especially, are simply heathens for thinking we know what might be best for ourselves. Be sure to also reference a website about sex change regret. Do not look into actual statistics about the lack of regret after sex change. Especially do not look into the biography of the person who created the site, or you may learn that he was not even transgender to begin with; aim for quick, selective snippets of information, not research.

Be sure to show, preferably in unretouched photos, the person engaged in activities that, though not inescapably ‘male,’ retain connotations of male gendering, like lifting weights, shaving the face with a beard full of cream, or even playing videogames, especially first-person shooters. For the latter category, latch onto if they play a female character, like Maya from Borderlands 2 or Princess Peach in Mario Kart; this is further evidence, peer-reviewed by your instincts, that this person merely wants to be a woman in a fantasy world, fed the laughable illusions of a brain in a vat. If possible, show your subject either prior to transition or in ‘male mode’ if they are not yet full-time. Show that this person is simply a one-stop shop for male privilege. Do not talk about their fear of coming out or of dangers they may face if they do, if these are available as facts. Eschew the possibility that your subject’s presentation may, in fact, be due to them identifying as gender-fluid, bi-gender, or genderqueer in any way. Remember: select.

Always use their birth name, especially if it is not unisex or does not seem androgynous to your mind. If you obtained this name from the work or school email you used to correspond with this person, as they have not yet legally changed their name, disregard their name preferences. Clearly, this person has no need to fear being outed if they trusted you with the story. Be strong.

You may grin at this point as you write and paste. You’re about to reveal a lost gospel to the pagans — not the Neo-Pagans, you don’t know who they are — and you are excited, if not a bit smug. You will destroy the lies of the transgender agenda. You will probably be shared in memes on social media, on websites about government conspiracies, and on YouTube clips. If of a special prophetic inclination, you will especially look forward to being shared in countries where LGBTQIA legal rights are scarce or non-existent, as this will teach the ignorant people over there what to correctly think about transgender people, as well as, possibly, anyone who is queer. You want to stop this before it spreads. If you are actually living in such a country, write even more quickly. The moral fate of your nation retaining its discriminatory laws may be influenced by you or, if you are the prophetic type mentioned earlier, it will rest entirely on you.

Never mind how much pain you cause. Never mind how many nights of terror and deep-sea loneliness you contribute to. Never mind how you have already begun to put us on display in your mind and in the minds of potential readers like humans on display in cages, things to be laughed or pointed at like specimens. Never mind the way you fill the halls of a mind with ghosts that should not be there. Never mind that you may contribute to why one of us flees from a small island, from a country, a too-fast continental drift of bodies, may be what relocates home to the place of old dreams, where shipwrecks slumber, not because we are all that fragile but because enough of most things will lead to erosion. Never mind that your piece may be what pushes one of us into the death lights of a train or truck or into the vampire’s embrace of poison flooding our system. Out, out, brief candles; we are candles, queer objects, not serious people you would think of seriously. And if your words did contribute to such a cutting of a life’s string, you must simply shake your head, for you knew it would happen; our suicide rate is high, and you cannot imagine you are part of the explanation, for you have already determined through reason and logic that we kill ourselves because of those foreign hormones we may take or because the few of us who have had gender reassignment surgery clearly went madder than Conrad’s Kurtz after it. The horror, the horror is not the loss of life or empathy; it is that we were allowed to transition in the first place, not fixed by a good therapist or, if you are so inclined, a religious minister. (The two are often mixed, with religiously motivated conversion therapists the most highly recommended by those who really know.) You are allowed to sigh, if you have thought of any of this.

Finally, smile with genuine satisfaction and press Send. You’ve done it. You’ve revealed the truth about ‘trans women.’ It will be breaking news, like bones and glass. It will help stop the spread of a disease. You are a gentle, well-meaning Morpheus. Congratulate yourself on showing what ‘the media’ will not.

Look away. Look away. Look away. Do not think of the woman you’ve written about. After all. What’s another piece about those people, really? It won’t matter.

Gabrielle Bellot grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica. She has contributed work to or has work forthcoming in Slate, The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, VIDA, Lambda Literary, The Toast, The Normal School, Harlot, and other places, and she was featured on The Butter's 'This Writer's On Fire' column. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University and is working on her first novel.

Gabrielle has written 5 articles for us.

51 Comments

  1. this is so brilliant. so magically written, fantastic references, hammers the point home in every individual paragraph. needs to be passed around newsmagazines or included in style guides or, at the very, least posted in many Facebook comments sections.

  2. Unthinkably, Gabrielle, some of the straw men you satirically describe as satire ammo, actually exist, and some of us are ‘also’ trans.

    And incidentally, not all of us want to be Sonic the Hedgehog, anyway. Some of us would ‘actually’ prefer to be his ‘bird’, Sally Acorn:

    http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/archiesonic/images/a/a2/Sally_Acorn_Profile.jpg/revision/latest/scale-to-width-down/255?cb=20121212081306

    Now I’m not saying that’s me ‘explicitly’, but I ‘am’ saying I think it would be hot to be ‘like’ her in appearance, and I’m also saying ‘bite my furry trans ass’. Kay.

    • Oh yeah. And some of those androgynous (bishounen) characters, portrayed so positively in ‘manga and anime’? Non-humans like Tenko Kuugen, Shuichi Minamino, and Fish Eye–who all happen to also be non-human people. So don’t single out that kind of reverence as a bad example, just because the characters have fur. That would be rather anthropocentric of you, since you’re already picking fictional characters for your role models.

    • I don’t believe that accepting the reality and validity of trans people as what they say they are requires accepting the reality and validity of otherkin, and other people who believe they’re animals or cartoon characters or are “trans-racial.” To conflate them as the same thing promotes and reinforces the idea that trans people are delusional and are living a fantasy, and trivializes the real-world challenges that trans people face.

      • I think it’s important to make explicit that being trans is different from being otherkin, but I don’t think we need to make fun of otherkin in the process. (Being so-called ‘transracial’ is different because it’s actually insulting, instead of harmless).

        I think we need to drive home the point that being treated and addressed the way you wish, even in a way that seems strange to some, is a basic inalienable right, and that no one, especially a stranger, can go around judging whether people are delusional or not.

        The cycle of trying to ‘weed out the fakes’ to gain legitimacy has never given great results – it’s the reason we have truscum, actually.

        • I would concur that respecting ‘the will of people’ is more important to fair treatment, than procuring validations for what a person is or ‘desires’ to be.

          “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” as it were.

        • There’s no need to make fun of otherkin, but I strongly disagree that they’re harmless. They’re just as insulting and appropriative as people who claim to be “trans-racial,” and so is bringing them up in a discussion of trans women.

          I’m not sure what “truscum” (what a revolting word!) are, but I don’t think invidious distinctions among trans people, like those made by HBSers and “true transsexuals” and so on, are remotely analogous to distinguishing between trans people and “otherkin.”

          And yes, I do have a right to say that I don’t accept the reality and/or validity of the identity of someone who actually thinks they’re another species or a cartoon character. Men and women aren’t different species. When someone can grow whiskers and a tail and live as a cat and be accepted by other cats as one of them, then I’ll buy that they’re in any way comparable to trans people, or that it’s justifiable to bring them up in a discussion of trans people.

          • Pardon my callousness, Donna, but I’m both otherkin and trans. I ‘exist’, and unthinkably, I share the same stakes in being recognized for my existence, as you do. Only difference is, you’ve gotten past the point where you’re treated as ‘not existing’. You have a bandwagon you can comfortably hop on and complain I’m somehow misrepresenting. Me, my friends? Not so much so. Folks like yourself want to toss us off.

            What I hear you saying is not that much different than what cis society worries about. That trans folks are messing things up for ‘real x/y/z’. That trans folks are harmful to the interests of society as a whole. And like what they’re saying, your message is purely a knee-jerk one, intended to prevent some imaginary catastrophe.

            Just as easily as you invalidate my identity, on basis of what I ‘can’ or ‘can’t’ be, I can invalidate your ‘gender’ preference by claiming ‘you weren’t born that way’, that ‘your genes say different than the image you project’, bla-bla-bla. I can be like Ben Shapiro with Zoey Tur, and go “Why are we entertaining this delusion?” There is no gene therapy to turn you into the gender you ‘pose’ as, right?

            But that would be totally ‘dick’. The ‘exact’ same kind of dismissive position you’re assuming.

            Guess what, Donna. I want to have fox fur. I want to have a tail. I feel at peace with seeing myself as a pastiche between two species–humans and foxes. And guess what else–I too, identify as a different gender from the one I was assigned at birth. Don’t like it? Think I’m painting a bad representation? Too ‘goddamn’ bad. I ‘exist’.

            Let me ask you: what is “trans”, really, except a state of mind–the choice of who you are? Because you can’t exactly take a Delorean and ‘retcon’ what you were spat out of the womb as, any more than I can. Otherkin are no crazier than trans individuals, in that sense. We’re both defying predestination.

      • “I” don’t believe that ‘recognizing your validity’ is “necessary” for the world to persist, Donna. That being said, it’s a polite courtesy I extend to you, which I wish you’d extend to others.

        The matter here is ‘will’ and ‘choice of identity’, not ‘justifications’. Frankly, you can tell me you have a ‘condition’, or are part of a ‘community’, until you’re blue in the face, and I won’t respect you for that alone, no matter how much fact and scientific evidence you throw at me to evidence your hardship. Tell me you ‘choose’ to be something that people scorn you for, however, and I consider you a sane person, regardless of the desire–be it a man, a woman, something somewhere in between or outside that spectrum–or yes, indeed, a ‘non-human person’.

        If you want representation, my friend, I propose you step up to bat, rather than trying to suppress others for their free will. People don’t live simply within your limited pablum.

  3. Above all be certain your writing is classed as non-fiction or an academic work to ensure the reader is certain you are nobodies fool.

    Gabrielle, I think you have just very handily summarized just about everything I have read about trans women written by people who are not, and maybe even some of what some trans women have written about other trans women. Thank you for sharing it.

    I don’t know why so many feel they are qualified to write about the conscious experiences and the inspirations for the will of other people, when they can’t, no one can. We’re similar but none of us share exactly the same experience as another and never will. Now there is a sea of loneliness for you! Excuse me I think I have to go and cry now.

    • Either:
      1 You aren’t impressed
      2 You are impressed

      Which is it?

      Did you think that the author isn’t trying to impress anybody, this is the exact way she has chosen to bitterly blast cis male authors who write about trans women? Don’t let the “how” get in the way of the crucial “what” of this piece. Note that the author is getting her PhD in fiction writing. She is obviously extremely well read, has done her research on the history of trans health care, and has a solid background in the humanities. I had to Google a few references myself (I’ve got 5 tabs open on “otherkin”). Try it, you might also learn something new. You’re absolutely right that this isn’t the kind of content AS usually posts. It’s so…literary, and would fit nicely onto the likes of other websites like the The Toast. With that said, thanks AS for posting and diversify your content.

  4. Cutesy Angel’s in Flesh that cleveth …. where does one begin to translate the permission to speak freely on the subject? If only we had this small sweet spot to teach about. Today we adventure a new battle, not the one where our patients runs thin, but the ultimate battle of integrity on white power. Nothing nice to say or nothing a all should be our strength. Teaching ones self to set a good example, and encourage the integrity that you know deep down inside is the right path. Not letting the blurrs from the inside voice go unmentioned or noticed, as my Aunt would have said, I’ aint having it … or your no different. She would bring that inside voice right out, the old saying the thought counts. She would expose you. Oh what fun! BUSTED! I learnthned that first and the rest flowed through me like a free spring of correct. one correct thought lead to another, and the permission to speak freely melded into the works of our country. Our forfathers fought the misconscrupution back than as we will continue it today. Begin the seperation from the nuisance, but not from your self. Grab that smart mouth by the back of the neck and make it happen. Unless the Almighty tells you different! I do not want to cause any pain, to those of you that are up against the perversion of the word. Tranquility is on your side, you thought Mircosoft was going to be difficult at first, but you nailed it. This may seem difficult now, work it … get those scriptures, [I wish I knew off the top of my head right now] working correctly and we might snip the white power thing in the butt? Hugs all around XOXOX

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