A Question For Women of Trans Experience

A.T. Steel

Can Cisgender Men Write Convincing Transgender Female Characters?

The answer is obvious to me:


Let me explain.

I’ve gotten some resistance from transgender women and trans-allies on this. I will discuss them here — give my opinions, review some of the responses that I’ve received, and open a dialogue.

I think that it’s okay for cisgender males to write transgender female characters as long as it comes from places of respect and empathy. Telling stories from a persecuted minority community that you are not explicitly a member of is always a risk. It becomes more of a risk when that community is typically misrepresented and misunderstood. In order for a cisgender male to write a convincing transgender female character, there has to be extensive and preferably firsthand experience with and around trans women. If a transgender character exists in a work of fiction just to tick off the "diversity" and "inclusivity" boxes or, worse, for sexual fetishization, then that Yes becomes an unconditional No. But if a transgender character is properly fleshed out and taken away from the realm of gimmicky caricature and into one of flawed complexity and blistering humanity, then that Yes is resounding - even if the cisgender male artist has no personal trans-experience.

The first time that my ability to write a transgender character with empathy and grace was questioned, I responded with something that I keep referring back to because it encapsulates and abridges my thoughts on the matter pretty well:

I can understand why you would be concerned. For instance, despite what I believe, I would be concerned about a white woman writing a story from the POV of a black man — but only because it’s in my purview. I would like people to know that I was careful, empathetic, and passionate in creating and fleshing out these characters, and many of her (Alma’s) experiences and memories of identity struggles are plucked from my own life. I did not have the opportunity like so many others to explore my gender dysphoria in a way that would have been healthy or fair. These options were not available to me and have left a void inside of me that I can never fill. This cathartic experience gave me the opportunity to explore, deify, and raise up that part of me that was beaten and shamed away.
The artist in me is deeply offended, because I don’t want to live in a world where black people can only explore black characters, trans people can only explore trans characters, women can only explore female characters, and men can only explore male characters. I think that cheapens our empathic and artistic abilities as a species. But we are only human, and I can understand your trepidation with me stepping into a world that you view as your own.
I’m not transgender, but I have intimate trans friends and have spent a long time in an ethnic trans and queer community in my home city of New York. I think that I was able to paint this world with tact and grace. But, someone else has to be the judge of that! Maybe you!

That statement abbreviates the offense to the artist in me, the insult to the woman in me, and my thoughts on the convincing translation of lateral experiences. I even put it on the About Me page of my blog so that I don’t have to keep dredging it up.

This is my personal response to such scrutiny, but another cis male artist would have their own.

I’ve gotten some interesting, compelling, and bizarre responses in these discussions before but there was one that really bothered me:

“How can you write about the struggles of a minority group that you’re not a part of?”

Was English playwright William Shakespeare a Scottish military general turned king? Or the lovesick son of a wealthy Italian noble? Are Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, or Steven Canals (creators and primary writers of FX series Pose) transgender women? No.

Am I Shakespeare? Not even close. But, like him (and them), I am a human being with every right to explore the full spectrum of the human experience.

Of the more peculiar responses that I’ve received, this one stood out:

“You say you have experience(d) gender dysphoria, but that just makes me more concerned considering certain narratives about trans women, and the often transphobic culture around de-transitioning (I’m not saying anyone who de-transition(s) is transphobic, but it’s fairly common to hold some resentment there seemingly)

This is a bit of an overreach. I wasn’t even sure what to say in response to it other than that, in my case, my struggles with gender dysphoria helped me to humanize my protagonist and add to the complexity of her pathos. I think that it made me more capable of compounding her pathological layers and intensifying her relatability as a character.

Of course, these are all my personal opinions on the subject, highly influenced by my experiences as a queer, black, cisgender male.

What is really important in this conversation are the thoughts and opinions of transgender women.

Trans Women: Do you think that cisgender males can write convincing transgender females?

Sound off in the comments 💯

To see how I handled my transgender protagonist, you can read the full 15k-word prologue of my novel here: ⤵

The Life Of Alma | 15k-Word Excerpt

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You can also check out my personal blog, Metallically Black where I talk about life, LGBTQ issues 🏳️‍⚧️🏳️‍🌈, writing, dying, and what have you.

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