You tell me if this makes sense:
I know nothing about this topic, but I’m just going to wing it.
I think I have a vague idea what this word means? So I’ll just make up my own definition.
Lots of people are going to read this, but I’m not going to check this for accuracy.
It seems like no writer should ever utter those statements. In theory. And yet the number of cisgender writers taking this approach when they talk about trans people is truly astonishing.
Today was just one of those days. You could say I’m fed up. In this last week alone, I’ve come across countless articles that ranged from offensive to downright violent when discussing transgender people.
And here’s what I don’t get: Why aren’t cisgender writers doing their homework?
A quick Google search will reveal a Transgender 101 Guide that I personally wrote if you need to start at square one, and there are countless other resources, including media guides like the one from the folks at GLAAD and another from Trans Media Watch, that exist solely with the purpose of educating folks like yourself.
But let me be clear: A transgender person should not have to spell out where these resources are, because as a writer, being able to use the internet to get information is kind of in your job description. I am fairly sure if you don’t have a working knowledge of Google, you’re in deep shit.
Cis writers, it’s not often that I try to speak for all trans people. But I’ll take the liberty this once. On behalf of transgender people everywhere, if you can’t be bothered to put in a real effort to respect our community when you write about us, maybe you shouldn’t be writing about us at all.
I’m a writer and an editor for a living. I often talk about the struggles of marginalized people, either directly or indirectly. And with these roles, I understand the immense responsibility that I have as someone with access to a platform. I understand that it’s my responsibility to be truthful and accurate, and to not harm the communities that I write about.
If I do not have expertise on a topic, I ask myself two questions: Is this my story to tell? And if so, how can I do it respectfully?
Cis writers, I want to push back first on your impulse to cover stories on transgender people. Why is it your place? Is this article better told from the perspective of a transgender person? Hint: In many cases, you’re swerving out of your lane and you need to get a grip on your steering wheel.
But sometimes we are in a position where we feel we can take it on ethically (hopefully you’ve got a compelling reason, because I’m already suspicious), or we are trying to be trans inclusive on a piece within our usual beat (i.e. how can I make sure I’m being intersectional), and this requires us to talk about transgender people – sometimes for just a paragraph, other times throughout the piece.
More questions for you, then: Have you done enough reading to make sure you aren’t harming trans people with what you’ve said? Have you consulted a transgender person (or even multiple trans people) to review the piece? Are you compensating them for their time?
Yes, even for that paragraph you’re using to cover your ass so you don’t seem trans erasive (which, when it’s done right, I totally appreciate). If you’re talking about trans people, even for a sentence, you need to be diligent and responsible.
Learning By Example: We Need You to Do Better Than This
The article that broke my damn back wasn’t even explicitly about transgender people. It was a single paragraph in an article about something else:
This was written by @GigiEngle – I won’t link it here – and unfortunately, a well-intentioned attempt to acknowledge trans people turned into a total nightmare. This writer fell down a totally different rabbit hole that many cisgender writers fall down. It’s what happens when you don’t educate yourself about trans issues, and start using whatever language seems right without checking it for competence and accuracy.
I’m going to break this down, so other cis writers (and yes, editors too) can get an idea of what exactly I’m talking about when I emphasize the importance of research. Because these mistakes are easy to make when you aren’t putting in a genuine effort to responsibly write about trans folks – yes, even for a single paragraph.
Let’s look at this paragraph for a bit.
If you are talking about cisgender men, talk about cisgender men. Using the word “men” to exclude transgender men is a shitty way of revealing that you don’t actually see transgender men as men – they’re secondary to you, not inherently a part of the word “men” but instead a detachable part.
That’s garbage. And this is easily avoidable if you just say what you mean: Cis men.
Or at the very least, if your editor is resistant to modifying the word “men” every time you use it, at the beginning of your work you should explicitly state that you’re focusing on cisgender men – and state why you’re doing this, instead of starting an irrelevant, sideways conversation about genitals.
Because really, penises had nothing to do with it. Cis men are not “biological men” because the category of man (and men) have nothing to do with biology. “Anatomical male” does not mean cis man either, because the biology of cis and trans men exists on a spectrum, and there’s nothing inherently male (or female) about it.
If you’d done your research, you’d know that phrases like these are not only unnecessary to your point, but have been used to oppress trans men (and trans people as a whole).
Cis folks, I want you to sit down and look at the terms you’re using, and really ask yourself what you mean when you’re saying it. Spell it out. And you’ll likely find that underneath those words are some really icky and problematic ideas about transgender people.
(And if you’re still confused, read this.)
You had it at “cisgender men” in this paragraph but lost it when you fell into essentialist rhetoric that harms transgender men and is downright inaccurate. And all of this has been written about – again, and again, and again. If you want to be inclusive, there are better ways to do it. Read up.
The really puzzling part about this article as a whole (which again, I won’t link, not interested in driving traffic there) is that it’s an article about toxic masculinity in relationships, particularly the trope of the “fuckboy.” And believe me, I love bashing manchildren and fuckboys and all the other bullshit ways that patriarchy encourages men to behave.
But notice how I said men, not cis men. Somehow transgender men are deemed exempt in that paragraph, as if they don’t perpetuate these behaviors? It suggests that you really, really don’t see transgender men as men at all, like they are a special breed that is untouched by misogyny and privilege.
If you’re a cisgender writer writing about gender and gendered norms especially, you really should be asking yourself: Am I being inclusive of transgender people? If so, have I done my homework? If not, what are my reasons for not including trans people? Have I stated that clearly, correctly, and responsibly at the beginning of my writing?
And as always, whenever possible, if it’s writing that impacts transgender people, involving a trans person or two to review the piece (for compensation) is critically important.
I’m going to need cisgender writers to do a hell of a lot better than this – and I know that they can.
You Aren’t Just Offending Us – You’re Harming Us
I get asked all the damn time why I’m so angry when I encounter writing that doesn’t get the whole ~transgender thing~ right. I’m told about how the writer is trying, or they meant well, or that no one is perfect.
I mentioned this on Facebook, too, but it bears repeating: Why is every fucked up article about transgender people deemed a teachable moment for cis people, rather than violence towards trans people?
Why are transgender people thrown under the bus and spoken about in ways that harm us, uphold our struggles, and outright oppress us, and cisgender people aren’t held accountable because “no one is perfect”?
To me, that sounds like a really awesome (read: shitty) way to dismiss any responsibility we have as writers for what we put out into the world, and the impact our words really have.
As a writer, I know that when you have access to a platform that people read, what you say on that platform has the potential to uplift people. But it just as easily has the ability to disempower people – we can fall into narratives and stereotypes that make people’s lives a whole lot harder.
And in the case of transgender people, who are already so often victimized and brutalized in our society, when we speak about trans people in ways that are dehumanizing, we literally encourage people to view us and treat us as less than – which far too often leads to violence.
Cis writers, you should care about how you talk about trans people. Your words are the microaggressions that make us feel like the “other.” Your words are the hostility that shatters our psyche and self-esteem. Your words are the battle cry for those waiting for an opportunity to bully us, assault us, or even end our lives.
If you’re a writer, you don’t need me to tell you how powerful words are. You already know that. And you wouldn’t be a writer if you didn’t believe that.
What trans people are asking of you isn’t hard. We’re asking you to think deeply about your choices as a writer. We’re asking you to be critical, to stay sharp, to be responsible. But more than anything, we’re asking you to view us as human beings worthy of dignity, respect, and truthful representation.
And frankly, we don’t deserve anything less.