Today I stumbled across a blog post by a friend of mine you all probably know, Dahlia Adler. I saw it RTed by another Twitter acquaintance--A fellow author that, much like myself, does not identify as female. Apparently, I’ve yet again missed the boat in terms of ‘things going on in the Twitter book sphere,’ and this particular challenge is one I wish would have completely fallen off my radar for a lot of reasons.
When I started writing DAYBREAK RISING, the words ‘identity crisis’ don’t even begin to cover what I was going through. In late 2014, just as I was finishing the first draft of my novel--I ended up experiencing a harmful exchange from fellow authors along the lines of that--since I identified as a trans man, I ‘wasn't/shouldn't be allowed,’ to write a novel with a lesbian romance as its main pairing.
Yeah, you’re calling bullshit right about now, I’m sure.
I don’t know why I couldn’t, either. Maybe it was the fallout of losing someone in that argument I had truly thought of as a friend. Maybe it was my own fears. I can’t answer that, even now. Nevermind the 12 years I spent identifying as a lesbian, once I applied my trans sticker to my laptop and sprayed it with Axe, I was out of the club. No F/F romance for me. Can’t do it, shouldn’t do it, according to more than one person on book!Twitter. I was a fraud. Unworthy. I clearly didn’t deserve to tell a story that for a large chunk of my life, reflected it in some ways. All because I was a trans guy, rather than a cisgender lesbian or a genderqueer lesbian or who the hell knows? I was, in the eyes of what felt like everyone ever, a traitor.
I didn’t fit what people thought was ‘worthy,’ to write my own story, so I very nearly didn’t write it at all. That’s the real bullshit here.
Said throwaway comment caused me to go back into the closet, pushing myself into hyper-femininity for the first time in the 30 years I have walked this planet. I spent the first 5 months of 2015 so deep in the closet [again] I could have seen Narnia. I felt as though I had to ‘earn it,’ to continue writing DAYBREAK RISING. That if I was going to write a story with lesbians in it, I was somehow wrong for doing so while identifying as a trans man. I was, in my mind [a destructive thought process that continued for months as a result of said comment,] no better than the many cisgender women that fetishize gay men in NA and YA, talking over gay men regarding their own experiences. If I was to write a novel with a lesbian main pairing, I felt as though I now had to accept my assigned gender, or I was a fraud. I was gaslit, blacklisted, blocked by people I didn’t even know for the whole mess.
That comment nearly cost me not only DAYBREAK RISING, but my life.
[Note: I’ve since reconciled with the people that said that particular phrase to me. It took me 18 months to send the email. We still have one another blocked on Twitter and probably will forever.]
After the fallout from that instance, I avoided book Twitter for months. I pushed myself into growing out my hair, wearing makeup, applying to ‘lesbian literature by lesbians,’ sort of blogs and authoring guest posts to that tune from roughly January until June. I basically tried everything I could think of to ‘earn’ the right to write my own novel. ‘Read women,’ presents a similar situation, thinly veiling harmful effects to many people that were not considered when the challenge was created.
I spent a lot of early-mid 2015 at my apartment, miserable in my skin as I tried to put on lipstick without looking like I had decided to eat the tube or paint my teeth with it, while eyeing myself in clothes that accentuated everything I hated about myself. Go big or go home, right? If I was going to 'earn,' the right to write about lesbian characters, I'd better look like the most gorgeous lesbian I could, right? Yeahhhh. That was my thought process, and it was basically terrible. Bad plan. 0/10 would not attempt again.
It was ridiculous on top of being soul-crushingly depressing. I was beyond unhappy. I didn’t touch DAYBREAK RISING for months, not until I was finally beginning my physical transition.
I know this will surprise some of you, but my ability to write well-rounded lesbian characters and queer women didn’t vanish when I got my first binder 15 years ago, nor did disappear it when I gave myself my first shot of testosterone in September of 2015. Shocking, I know!
Real talk: I know for a fact there are a lot of people that added DAYBREAK RISING to their TBR on GoodReads because I hailed it as a novel written by a lesbian, for a lesbian audience, prior to coming out/in the aftermath of said argument. I still feel as though some of those people will feel hurt or betrayed when they realize I identify as a trans man. I have a sinking fear it will impact sales of the book, exposure, or who will blog about its release as a result of this.
I know there are people that support trans men, GQ, and NB people writing female characters, queer romance between women, etc. [Most of my Twitter followers, actually.] I hope that people who wanted to read DAYBREAK RISING for the ‘read women’ challenge, quite frankly--won’t. I’m not a woman.
If you feel I misrepresented myself or my novel because I identify as a trans man, that says a lot more about you than it does about me.
For those who are genderqueer, bigender, nonbinary, or trans men--the ‘read women,’ challenge not only excludes or erases them as Dahlia had mentioned, but presents a painful reminder that some of us will now feel forced to come out to readers who may have originally thought we identified as women who are in relationships with other women. Some of us, like myself, may have even gone so far as to bill our own novels as such to others in discussions about them before we came out--or even chose not to disclose our gender identity to strangers.
What an amazing concept, personal privacy! Who knew?
‘Read women’ puts NB, GQ, and trans male authors between a rock and a hard place [or under a microscope] if they do not disclose their identity, or have come out as trans men while writing their books. It’s that simple.
That being said, I completely understand the need for F/F of any particular pairing written by women. [As long as it’s not TERF dogma. That’s not literature. It belongs in the compost bin.] That being said, ‘read women,’ has people like myself in a very awkward and uncomfortable position. I’ve made the ‘sorry for being a trans man,’ argument about seven times in this post now, when it’s not something I should have had to apologize for in the first place. ‘Reading challenges’ like this will undoubtedly force people to do this to varying degrees, even if that wasn’t the original idea. I’ve no doubt intent of the challenge was rooted in all things good, it’s just...Rather short-sighted.
I have spent much of my life living in a body society deemed ‘female’. If you ignore DAYBREAK RISING for ‘read women’ as a result of my gender identity, as Dahlia had mentioned--you’d then ignore my lived experiences. Tough call, catch 22 there. Really, it depends on which author you ask as to if they want their novel included in it. Again, speaking only for myself--I’d really prefer if you didn’t read DAYBREAK RISING if you’re going to throw it on some, “2016 Books by Lesbians for Lesbians” list, or “2016 SFF Debuts by Queer Women” as much as I love you, potential reader, do not do that to me. Please.
I would much rather be on a list of “2016 SFF Debuts by QUILTBAG Authors” or “2016 Novels by Trans Men” or….you know, anything but a list that a hashtag/challenge such as ‘read women’ would undoubtedly stick me and my novel on. I don’t want to discourage people from reading books by women that identify as women, not at all. That’s awesome. Do that. Just...don’t erase, misgender, or otherwise force people to disclose their identity as a result of this challenge.
I also want to stress that if you’re not making reading novels by trans women [particularly trans women of color] a part of your ‘read women,’ challenge, you’re failing at the most basic part of it: Reading novels by women.
On that note, I hope some of you consider what I’ve said here. Thanks for reading.
Kiran Oliver is a 31 year old writer and author residing in New Zealand with his wife and their cat, Ember.