#36: Excavating Internalized Biases

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a trans, gay boy and often write about trans and gay topics, but I often find that a lot of internalized transphobia and homophobia makes its way into my writing. I write poems and essays, and when writing them I always find these present, yet don’t know how to restructure my writing in a way that eliminates them.

Additionally, I am trying to come out to someone in a letter. While I realize that this website is not specifically about trans issues, I was wondering if you could help me figure out how to work up the courage to write a piece like this and how to make sure I do actually get to writing it.

Thank you!

—R.W. (he/him)

Dear R.W.,

It’s awesome that you’re tackling these things. I’ve had the same struggles with internalized transphobia in my own writing; being trans doesn’t protect us from breathing in transphobia along with the cultural air. Fortunately, there are some tactics we can use to filter out biases before they pollute our writing.

I’m going to get pretty general here, because in addition to internalized biases about categories we fit into, we also have them about other categories of people, and it’s good to stomp out as many of those as we can. Biased beliefs often take the form of “marginalized people can’t/aren’t/don’t.” Examples include:

  • asexual people can’t have happy romances
  • older people can’t enjoy sex
  • autistic people can’t solve mysteries
  • black people don’t survive to the end of the story
  • trans people don’t have communities
  • disabled people don’t love themselves
  • queer people aren’t loved by their families
  • fat people aren’t happy
  • women aren’t professionally successful

If you’re reading that list and thinking “well, some of those things are true,” you’ve fallen into the trap of confusing stereotypes for realism. And if you’re thinking “well, some of those things are true of some people, even if they’re not true of everyone,” you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that, for the sake of realism, you have to write about people who fit the stereotypes, and you’re not allowed to write about happy fat people and lusty seniors and female CEOs.

So how do you, as a writer, escape those traps and liberate your writing from these toxic ideas?

  1. Let go of “realism.” As I noted above, a lot of our notions of what’s realistic are based on stereotypes rather than reality. Medieval Europe was full of people of color, but accurate portrayals of that are seen as “unrealistic” because of the stereotype that it was all white folks all the time. For a long time it was seen as “implausible” for a queer character’s story to have a happy ending or a satisfying romantic arc. Meanwhile, “realistic” epic fantasy is full of completely unnecessary, lasciviously described scenes of sexual assault. So stop writing to common notions of “realism.” Draw on the best of the way the world is and has been, as well as your most optimistic hopes for what it could be. The real world is very unfair to those on the margins. Use your writing to make up for it. In fiction, write about stereotype-busting characters. In nonfiction, write about stereotype-busting real people, or real people’s experiences of being stereotyped and their reactions to it.
  2. Accept that you’re going to upset and anger some readers. If you write in a way that contradicts common biases, you’re going to be challenging a lot of literary and poetic traditions as well as demanding that readers become aware of their own problematic beliefs. That’s great! Allow yourself to do it and enjoy doing it. Some readers won’t get what you’re doing and others will hate it. Some editors won’t buy it. But others will get it and love it and throw all their money at it. It will be professionally and personally challenging, but if you go in knowing that and feeling secure in your choices, you’ll be fine.
  3. Include lots of marginalized people, and diversity within a given marginalization. My trans male character, Nathaniel, meets four lesbians over the course of his book. One thinks he’s a masculine woman and flirts with him, one is suspicious of him because she distrusts men, one adopts him as her younger brother, one simply sees him as a person to do business with. This lets me explore the many ways that lesbians and trans men interact, without making or implying any sort of blanket statement about how lesbians view trans men or vice versa. Including diversity within a marginalization makes it easier to spot your own biases; for example, if all four of these very different lesbians were unhappy in their own romantic lives, that would suggest I’d internalized the idea that queer women can’t find real love.
  4. Actively love and affirm the marginalized people you write about. When I first outlined Nathaniel’s story, I threw in a bunch of “crossdressing Regency heroine” tropes and then realized that every single one would be agonizing for a trans man. I didn’t want to put him through that. I changed the outline again and again, building a world and a story that explicitly supports his identity and existence and worthiness of love. Is it “plausible” to have a cis person in Regency London apologize for misgendering a trans person? Who cares? I enjoyed the hell out of writing that scene and giving Nathaniel the satisfying experience of asserting his identity and having others defer to his assertion. If you’re writing an essay about real people, write it from a place of empathy for them and celebration of them.
  5. Actively love and affirm your marginalized readers. Rose Lemberg, a splendid author who very deliberately writes about marginalized characters for marginalized readers, recently wrote in a blog post, “I do not want to break [the reader’s heart]. I want to unbreak—something perhaps more viscerally necessary for those of us who feel broken by the world and by their reading experiences in the world. I am good with that.” Think about how your work can not just refrain from causing harm but affirmatively unbreak your readers. Turn those “can’t” and “aren’t” and “don’t” phrases into “can” and “are” and “do,” both for the readers who have already found joy and success and those who need hope and encouragement on the path there.
  6. Actively love and affirm yourself. The more you believe that you are worthy of love and can achieve your goals and build a fulfilling life, the easier it will be to write those things for the people you write about—those who don’t share your marginalizations and those who do.
  7. Work with targeted beta readers, aka sensitivity readers. Just as you’d run medical matters by a doctor and would ask a New Yorker to check your references to the subway system, consult with a beta reader who knows what it’s like to have a marginalization you’re writing about. Those readers are invaluable for identifying biases that you may have missed. I didn’t even realized I’d internalized the cliché of “fat people can’t feel confident and secure about their bodies” (despite knowing many people whose existence disproves that belief!) until a larger friend gently critiqued an outline in which a fat character worries that an athlete couldn’t possibly find him attractive. If possible, pay your targeted beta readers; if not, see if you can set up a labor exchange of some kind. Deliberately exposing oneself to painful writing, and critiquing it in detail, is hard and emotionally vulnerable work, and it deserves compensation.
  8. Outline and re-outline. Even if you’re usually a pantser, don’t invest writing time in a draft that’s going to have to be rewritten from scratch because it’s based on biased premises. Outline, and then go through your outline and strip all the obvious biases out, and then do it again and again. Engage a targeted beta at the outlining stage whenever possible. After a certain point, of course, you do have to accept your imperfections and write your imperfect work, but investing in planning will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run.
  9. Look at what your work says, not just what the people in it say. If your queer protagonist asserts that queer people can be great parents but all the queer parents in your piece are incompetent failures with miserable children, or if your disabled character’s teacher says she’ll never be able to support herself and she then becomes a successful lawyer, your work says something very different from what your characters say. In the end, your work is what your readers will listen to and believe.
  10. Never rest on your laurels. Even if you become this moment’s paragon of sensitivity, the world will change around you, and you’ll need to keep up with it. Even if you write a trans woman so beautifully that trans readers weep to see it, you may fall into cliché when writing a disabled man or a person of color. Be proud of your successes and then keep working to improve.

Once you’ve written your outline or your first draft, here’s a quick evaluation you can do on your own, before you bring on the targeted betas:

  • In my work, [marginalization] people can  _____ but can’t _____.
  • In my work, [marginalization] people are _____ but aren’t _____.
  • In my work, [marginalization] people do _____ but don’t _____.

Go through that for a variety of marginalizations and watch for red flags like “these people are all unhappy” and “there’s only one of this type of person, and he only appears briefly to make a point” and “no one of this category even appears in the work.” It’s okay to make the deliberate decision to omit certain categories of people; for example, if what you really want to write is a short poem about Presidents Nixon and Kennedy chatting over dinner in the Afterlife Restaurant, you’re not going to have lots of marginalization representation, and that’s fine. But maybe their server doesn’t have to also be a white guy.

As for coming out in a letter (and I’m very honored that you asked me for help with such an important and tricky thing), here are some suggestions on how to make that particular writing task as easy on yourself as possible:

  • Check in with yourself periodically to see how the pros and cons of outness are balancing out for you. You can even schedule those check-ins on your calendar or to-do list, if you’re worried about letting it slide forever. Only you can decide when your own personal benefits of outness outweigh the costs. Once they do, I think you’ll find the courage is easier to work up, because you know you’re doing the right thing for yourself.
  • Start writing your letter in a separate document file before you’re ready to send it, so that when you are ready, it’s as easy as copy, paste, click.
  • Write your first draft as though you were writing it on behalf of someone you love: “Dear friend, I’m writing to tell you that R.W. is trans. I am so proud of him for recognizing his truth and living the life that’s right for him. Please join me in respecting and honoring him by using these words for him…” Save that draft as a reminder that you are your own best friend and best advocate. Then revise it to speak more directly for yourself, but keep as many of the affirmations as you can.
  • Coming out is an act of love and respect for yourself. Be explicit about not just asking for similar respect from the person you’re writing to, but expecting it: “Coming out is scary and hard, but I know I can count on you to be awesome about it and support me as I transition and come out to others.”
  • Offload as much of the post-coming-out work onto others as you can. Include a list of trans 101 links so the person you’re writing to can read up instead of asking you questions. If you’re already out to a mutual friend or relative, ask that person to be the designated recipient of inquiries (“I’m sure you have lots of general questions about things like what it means to be trans. Please send them to Aunt Louise. She and I have talked a lot about this and she can tell you most of what you want to know. I’m happy to talk with you about more personal things like how I chose my new name”). Set up email filters to automatically forward replies to a friend who can warn you before you read them if there’s anything problematic or upsetting.

At first I wasn’t sure how the two halves of your letter fit together, or how to answer them in one post. But I think they come down to the same thing: learning how to honor yourself and people like you as you move into a new chapter of your life. You’re in a difficult place right now, but I promise there are many good things on the other side of it. Keep reaching out for support and making a practice of cherishing yourself.

I wish you the best of luck with all your writing, and much joy of living the life you want to live!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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