This month I learned I was a “cis writer.”
Yes, I’m a latecomer to the party. That’s why I thought it pretty cool for the DC Center for LGBT Community to host a workshop on writing transgender characters as part of the OutWrite LGBT Book Fair August 1-3.
Before I go into my notes from the noon-time session, I thought it best to kick off with a little break down for slow “cis learners” like myself:
“So why do we say ‘cisgender’ instead of ‘non-transgender’? Because, referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal. Many people have said ‘transgender people’ and ‘normal people’, but when we say ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ neither is implied as more normal than the other.”
Source: “Trans 101: Cisgender”, Basic Rights Oregon
The guest speakers were published authors who are transgender. I put it in that order because they all say they don’t spend every waking hour thinking about their trans identity or oppression. And make a note: no one could survive popping 9 hormone pills a day. “Is this Valley of the Dolls?” writer Everett Maroon joked.
The workshop was more panel discussion than a hands-on exercise; and a great introduction to writers and new work featuring transgender characters from young adult fiction on up, contemporary and historical fiction. Alex Myers has made historical fiction his signature genre and describes his relationship to writing as akin to “working out.”
These writers are creating from page-to-page vs. page to stage/screen with the exception of Dane Edidi who is also an actress and performance artist. Dane also provided a show-stopping quote about finding a context for characters via research: “If you can find yourself in history, you can find yourself now.” Moderator Joanna Maria Cifredo asked the audience to add a hashtag to that quote.
Trans characters seen recently in television and film are for the most part coming from the creative minds of cis writers and portrayed by cis actors. Jared Leto is probably the most notorious of the cis actors for his Academy Award-winning portrayal of Rayon in the true-to-formula role of a drug-addicted trans prostitute in “Dallas Buyers Club.” The review from this panel (and in other reviews from the trans community )was not favorable. Rayon’s performance was said to be “consistently misgendered,” i.e. leaning on trans stereotypes.
I’d be interested in the group’s thoughts on what might be considered a “spot on” moment for trans characters and actors. Here are a few that come to mind for me:
Harmony Santana, a newcomer, made her debut in “Gun Hill Road” (2011), an independent production by Rashaad Ernesto Green, starring Esai Morales and Judy Reyes
Candis Cane played Billy Baldwin’s transgender love interest in the ABC drama series “Dirty Sexy Money” from 2007-2009.
Laverne Cox is currently popular, and got a Time magazine cover story (“The Transgender Tipping Point”), for her portrayal in the hit Netflix online series “Orange Is the New Black.” But, the panel noted the character doesn’t step too far outside “type.” She’s in prison after all.
Whether the writers for these stories honestly understand “the personal stake” the trans character is fighting for, may go without saying for the panel that a trans writer isn’t forced to validate the character’s humanity. There’s no need for “othering.” Elliott Deline who’s written two novels uses his own story for character development. But he’s ever mindful of his parent’s concern about his writing – “Will it make money?”
Dane advises even if the story is going to fall back on the drug-addicted “trans hooker,” ask “How did she get there?” Write a human story. That’s all there is to it.
“Talk to someone” is the panel’s advice. And to start that conversation, I’m more than willing to admit, I know nada.
Links to information and books by workshop speakers:
Joanna Cifredo – Fire breathing T-Girl site
Elliott DeLine – author site http://elliottdeline.com/Books
Dane Edidi – http://www.ladydanefe.com
Everett Maroon – blog Trans/plant/portation
Alex Myers – author site http://alexmyerswriting.com