March 7, 2019 § 5 Comments
Trans Like Me, my first book, was published nearly two years ago, at the end of May 2017. 2018 brought the international tour, audiobook recording, and North American/Canadian release. Today marks the publication of the mass market paperback edition from Virago Press – cheaper, brighter, and easier to stuff in a pocket.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things that have changed during this time. When TLM was first released I made a post about what I’d learned during the process of levelling up from a blogger to a published author, as advice to anyone hoping to make the same leap, and as a way of clarifying my own experiences. Looking back now, it feels like I’ve learned just as much during these two years of ongoing book work – speaking, lecturing, recording, marketing – as I did in that initial upgrade process.
It helped me to take the time to figure it out and wrestle it in words. Here’s hoping it helps you too.
Lesson One: Your career is your career, and your demons are your demons…
…and the former cannot fix the latter.
For a great many of us, myself included, writing (and art in general) can function as a form of therapy. It’s where we go to explore the hardest, most challenging parts of life. But more than that – it can also be a place where we go to pin our hopes of being validated, of proving ourselves worthy, of finally feeling ‘enough’. And I’m sorry to say this, but that just doesn’t work.
That feeling ‘am I good enough?’? You will never be enough, because nothing can ever be enough to placate that feeling. That’s simply not how that feeling works – it isn’t logical, and it can’t be solved by logical means.
The more reasonable, compassionate part of me is deeply soothed by the way my career has grown over the last two years. More than that: delighted, humbled, scared, and excited. It has made a signifiant material difference to be recognised for my work, to be paid for my work, to be given additional chances to work, and for those chances to be challenging and provide ongoing development.
But I still have those ravenous demons: feed me, feed me, feed me. The ones who can’t acknowledge a good review, or a great audience, or an amazing opportunity, because for some reason it ‘doesn’t count’, ‘it’s not enough’, ‘it doesn’t matter’. They are never satisfied. It isn’t a question of trying harder, because they will undermine every last exhausting effort. They are always chasing after some unknowable, unachievable, imaginary success that will make everything right. You cannot win the game on their terms.
I’m sorry (not sorry) to say that the only thing I’ve found that genuinely helps with those demons is therapy. And writing, while frequently therapeutic, is no substitute for the real thing.
Lesson Two: Your life will change, but only by degrees
Obviously, discard this point if you’re JK Rowling. Also, if you’re JK Rowling…no, I don’t have the energy to go there.
Anyway – for the majority of published authors what you’re doing pre-publication is going to be very similar to what you’re doing post-publication. For me that was public speaking, broadcast and print media, lectures, and arts events. I’m still doing all of those things – what’s changed is not the kind of work I’m doing, but the scale of it, and the fact that I’m no longer (always) going it alone. Those changes have built on the foundation I had in place before I even had an agent. And, even with the help of my publishers, I wouldn’t be doing half of what I do now if I’d allowed myself to become complacent.
It is not an easy world out there for most writers. There’s a myth that once you have a publisher you can just sit back and wait for the money to roll in. But the truth is that you have to make the most of every opportunity: make your own events, tap every network, apply for jobs/residencies/placements, sell tickets to shows, promote the hell out of your book. It may not seem fair – it may not match the image of ‘the writer’ that many of us carry around in our heads – but it’s the reality of the industry.
Being published isn’t a Cinderella story – it’s more like slowly building a house from the foundations up.
Lesson Three: A great many people who review your book will not, in fact, be reviewing your book
They will, however, be using it as a hook to write about whatever else it is they want to say. Sadly, this applies to professional journalists just as much as to GoodReads reviewers.
It is immediately, and painfully, apparent which reviewers have read the book, and which ones have just read the press release and then skimmed the first and last chapter. These reviewers are happy to ascribe their own views to you, and then go off in whatever direction they please. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about this – and the best advice I can give is to learn how to shrug it off, because it will happen more frequently than it should.
When it comes to reviews, I know that some authors recommend avoiding them altogether. I prefer to take the opposite viewpoint, and look for trends. When it’s clear that the reviewer hasn’t actually read it, then feel free to discard. Of the rest, look for the common denominators, the points that come up again and again, and see how those insights can improve your rights. But don’t let someone take up space in your head when they haven’t even done you the decency of letting you into theirs.
Lesson Four: It is impossible to please everyone
Here are some of the things people have said about my Trans Like Me: that it is far too complicated and academic, and that it’s too simple and straightforward. That it placates cis people, and that it’s too angry for cis people to want to read. That only trans people will want to read it, and that trans people have nothing to gain by reading it. That I’m both too didactic and too vague, too extreme and too conservative.
More than any other experience, writing a book has taught me the truth of the fact that the reader is the co-creator of the work. And, in a few select cases, the sole creator.
It’s difficult when the most negative people (and the ones most likely to make up their own version of events) are the loudest, whether that’s through negative articles in the press or bullying on social media. But what really helps me is to remember my original aims with my work, and who it was I actually wrote the book for.
At the end of the day, why would I want to be praised by people I don’t respect? A trans positive book, from a trans feminist perspective, was never going to be popular with the right wing press or online trolls – whether of the TERF or the MRA variety. If it had been popular with them, then something would have gone horribly wrong. Thank god they hated it – it proved I was on the right track.
We – myself, my agent, my editors, my publishers – set out to create an accurate, compassionate book which would break out of the two most popular genres of trans literature to date – the memoir and the academic tome. I wanted to write something which was impeccably researched, and still easy enough to read on the bus or the train. I wanted to write it for the teenager I was – someone desperate to find their place in the world – and for the adults I know now, who want a genuine, open-minded and open-ended discussion about who we are and where we’re going. On every measure we set for ourselves, we have succeeded. What bigots want to say about that is irrelevant.
Lesson Five: The work goes on
You will never say all that you want to say in one book. Even that one book will never quite be over – there’s always more to add, always another edit it could have had and, sadly, always another typo to find.
But beyond that book – the work goes on to other books. Other projects. Other ways of engaging. And it’s okay for that to take a while to come into focus. It’s okay for one project – particularly a debut – to be all consuming while it’s happening. It’s normal not to be able to see beyond it, particularly when it hits the stage of writing where it feels like your brain has forgotten that it ever knew any language at all, and your fingers refuse to type.
But that stage does come to a close, and while that is a process of loss and ending as well as celebration and success, it also propels you to the next step.
I don’t know all of what that is for me. I have another book I’m aiming to finish this year. I can’t say yet whether it will be good enough to show anyone, although I’m hoping it will be. What I will say is that publishing a book has allowed me to live its full life cycle in a way that writing books without publication (as I have done before) has not – and that is a tremendous gift.
I hope it’s one you get to experience for yourself.
Recommended by The New York Times, Times Literary Supplement, and Publishers Weekly, Trans Like Me is available worldwide in all good bookshops and online, in paperback, audiobook, and e-book.
July 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
I’ve been touring with Trans Like Me for about a month and a half now, and we always run over time in the Q&A sessions. So, it made sense to do an online Q&A – a video for people who like vlogging, and a transcript for those who don’t.
Any questions about trans activism, history, feminisms, futures? About taking a book from inspiration to publication? Leave a comment, and I’ll do my best.
March 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
For LGBT History Month this year, I was honoured to be invited to speak at Oxford University – and determined to demonstrate the ways in which trans history is very far from a niche concern.
If you’re a trans person, you’re probably aware that ‘trans issues’ described by the mainstream media very rarely match up with our lived truths. What is often erased, smoothed over? The fact that this has been going on for a very long time – that things have been different, and can be different again – and that our history is necessary for our future survival.
Video and audio podcast below. I hope you enjoy.
How the Japan mass murder relates to parental murders, abortion and assisted suicide (and why the world’s been silent about it)
August 4, 2016 § Leave a comment
An absolute must-read on what the Sagamihara mass murder tells us about the dismissal of disabled people’s lives
September 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
An amazing post from a dear friend – READ!
So one of the reasons I’ve been really quiet on here in the last few months is that I’ve been being a dating columnist for SheWired, a queer women’s website based in LA. A lot of it was pretty interesting stuff despite the clickbaity format, and I liked the job, We eventually fell out over gender-neutral pronouns (I liked them, the site didn’t) and then this article for Bi Visibility Day. They were generally very nice to me despite the ideological differences, so no vigilanteism please, but here is the article that proved the final straw.
10 things bi girls wish lesbians knew about
In honour of bi visibility week, here are some things this bi girl really wishes lesbians knew about being bi and attracted to women. You could probably condense it into ‘We exist! We’re not making up our attraction to you! Please be nice to us!’…
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August 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
Taking a regularly scheduled break to reblog some vital thoughts from a dear friend – UK people, please listen.
I don’t necessarily consider myself completely certain that ballot box communism will never work (although not in the near future certainly) but I believe that the far more important work is that which we do in our communities to fight austerity, not the work we do in convincing people to vote for a political party. The promises often made to those who are the most vulnerable in society, that consistently get broken. I believe building community activism, working to develop a political theory based in praxis, and fighting to improve conditions for people abandoned by the political parties is more important, and generally has more of an immediate effect, than focusing on party politics. I do think we should do both, to a limited extent, but I believe that amount of work we do outside the ballot box and in our communities should exceed the amount of work we do…
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February 17, 2015 § 9 Comments
You can learn a lot about masculinity when you’re consistently told that your own is invalid.
Mainstream media shows no sign of stopping its love affair with the ‘masculinity in crisis’ storyline. It’s the apparent reason behind Gamergate, and rape culture, and the abuse of women online, and the baffling appeal of Christian Grey. In a world that’s become too feminist (if only), the easiest way for men and boys to prove their masculinity is to lash out at everything perceived as feminine or womanly. That’s the hypothesis, anyway. The usual solution offered is a return to ‘traditional values’ – and a limiting of feminist options.
I might not be a man – but I would put myself under the broader banner of trans masculine. More than that, I’ve learnt so much about masculinity and maleness – what they mean in practice, the questions around them, the nebulous idea of social categorisation* – from the trans men in my life, and from the trans people who would sometimes, always or occasionally inhabit a space broadly recognisable as ‘masculine’.
I think the idea that ‘too much feminism’ is causing a crisis in masculinity is bullshit.
But – something you do realise, when you have to fight the world for the right to be seen as yourself – is that this space of ‘masculinity’ is surrounded by barriers and tests meant to force you into proving yourself a ‘real man’. Mainstream societal masculinity puts itself in a crisis state: to protect itself, to reject calls for gender reform and justice, to make itself seem valuable and desirable. It creates a narrative of being under attack, and asks to be defended. It paints itself as being rare – and asks that its challenges be met before entry to the club can be granted.
And then it does something else – something seductive, and so easy to fall into. It gives you cheats codes. Society doesn’t just provide them – it pressures you into using them, to show that you’re ‘just one of the guys’. The temptation can be overwhelming, when you’re being undermined at every turn – I’ve certainly succumbed in the past – but what I’ve learnt from the trans people I admire most is that there’s another way.
You don’t have to be trans to have learnt that. Not every trans person will, or will want to – because it keeps them safer, or makes life easier, or because those stereotypes and cheat codes match the way they think of the world and themselves. Trans men/trans masculine people are not a magical subset of people graced with an innate superiority to cis men. Some of them are just as misogynistic, just as oppressive, as any cis guy. But when you have to fight to be heard, to be believed – when the world around you has treated you like a girl and/or a woman as its default setting** – then I think it gives you the opportunity to broaden your mind, and think about what it really means to be a man, to be masculine.***
I wish more cis men – and mainstream society in general – could learn just three things:
1. It’s not about your body
As a response to: It’s ALL about your body. And particularly about your cock.
Cheat codes: mocking guys who are fatter/thinner/different from you, using the size/type/presence of someone’s cock as an insult/weapon, policing and abusing women and other feminine people’s bodies to make you feel better
So, the world at large still believes that man=penis, woman=absence of penis – phallocentric, transmisogynistic, transphobic – and incredibly limiting. That’s not an area I’m enormously dysphoric about, and, still, I’ve felt a huge amount of pressure to ‘make up’ for the fact that I don’t have a cisnormative cock – by being more muscular, more typically attractive, more typically masculine. I feel weird about admitting this now, because I’m worried that some people will judge me as less trans, and less masculine. In a broader bodily sense, I used to worry about transitioning – in part because I was worried that I would never live up to a standard of masculine attractiveness. It felt like it would be better to be perceived as an attractive woman, rather than ‘fail’ at being masculine in the eyes of the world.
One of the things I found incredible, transformative, when I started exploring the trans community, are the people (of all genders) who allow their bodies to be reflections of who they are – not the other way around. Most pertinent here are the men, trans masculine people, who follow their own internal dictates as to how their bodies should be. That what kind of cock you have, and whether you have one at all, should be for you to decide – not the government, not the media. That you get to decide how your body and your gender entwine. That dysphoria varies from person to person – and we all need to find a personal solution to what makes us feel most like us.
What would the world look like, if we didn’t automatically assume that genitals indicated gender, that a penis is somehow better than anything else (on a man), and that a cisnormative penis is the only one worth having? How much kinder would it be, if self-worth wasn’t predicated on how many inches you have in your pants, whether those inches can conform to an incredibly narrow standard of appearance and performance? How much safer would the world be, if we didn’t suppose that one kind of body is ‘strong’ and another ‘weak’ – and that to prove that the strong kind is really worthy it must be hardened as much as possible? With no care, no tenderness, no regard for health – and no regard for the care, health and safety of others?
2. Male privilege is real
And making it worse to prove yourself is a shit move
As a response to: Actually, men are the most oppressed now
Cheat codes: Capitalising on your privilege to make yourself feel bigger, stronger, safer, better – objectification, catcalling, belittling – sexist shit towards people of other genders
One incredible aspect of trans experience that has yet to be fully mined is the knowledge gleaned from experiencing different treatment at the hands of those around us, based on the gender they perceive or assume.
If anyone is still wondering if male privilege is actually a thing (I hope you’re not), then the experiences of neurobiologist Ben Barres provide essential reading. Remaining in the same line of work, post-transition, he’s noticed an incredible difference in the way he’s treated by fellow scientists – his work is considered better, more legitimate, his views more respected. It’s an experience I’ve heard anecdotally from so many of the people I know. Being read as male doesn’t negate the other ways in which people face discrimination – this piece from Kai M. Green on the intersection of racial profiling and oppression with gendered ideas of being in the world is essential – but, for many people, in different ways, it confers an advantage.
And if you’re being forced to prove which ‘side’ you’re on? To prove that you’re not really a girl? That you’re deserving of the privilege of being male? Even five-year-olds know how this one goes: you make the girls cry to earn your place in the boys’ treehouse. Maybe it’s not as bad as deliberately making them cry – maybe it’s making a show of ogling a woman in front of your friends, or talking crap about them while in all male company. Maybe they’ve serve the dual function of proving you belong in an gay all male environment – insulting bodies read as female or feminine. What that does – turning women and feminine people into props and accessories used to reinforce masculinity, regardless of their feelings, or how much it hurts them – is unacceptable. I’m not going to repeat the ‘real men don’t’ line – it’s not a question of being a ‘real man’ – it’s being a decent human being. There are millions of men in the world who don’t place harmful notions of proving themselves over the foundational aspect of being basically decent.
And if trans men, trans masculine people, who are forced to prove themselves over and over again, with the threat of prejudice, abuse and violence hanging over their heads – if they, if we can do that without resorting to sexism, then cis men can do it too.
3. Life’s too precious to let cultural expectations hold you back from your own truth
As a response to: That’s just how men are, and how they’ve always been
Cheat codes: Denigrating anyone who tries to be themselves, or challenge an aspect of the world around them, hiding in cynicism and apathy because it’s easier, becoming numb to world around you because it’s too hard to challenge
Again – it’s not like trans masculine people, trans men, have the monopoly here. But the struggles we face, just to be ourselves – it really brings it home. If we’re able, we can learn so much about who we are, who we can be, the price of that, and also the value.
There are plenty of cis guys who know this already – and plenty who have to play by some of the rules, at least, to be safe.
But for the cis men who are safe, who’ve never had to fight for it, who go along with a status quo and don’t ask themselves why they do it, or how it came to be: why?
Why bow down to a legacy not of your making, rather than remaking yourself as you might be?
So, what if the traditional model of masculinity is in crisis? What if it has been destroyed by a greater awareness of gendered inequality and oppression, a shift towards gendered justice? If a category that encompassed all kinds of harmful behaviour is being stretched, twisted, subverted, remodelled?
We’re still here.
So why don’t we get our hands dirty, and build something better?
* Yes, I’m still genderqueer – also very fond of questions
** Just to be very clear that being a girl/woman is not a bad thing – and that trans masculine people/trans men do not transition in order to ‘escape womanhood’ for something ‘better’.
*** I get that this is an ‘all about teh menz’ post. But I think one of the best things guys could do for feminism is to interrogate the way men, masculine people, are supposed to be, to behave, and find better ways of being in the world.