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Question MarkSince I have gotten several questions about writing and/or books, I have put them together in a discussion about writing while trans. Here we go:

A reader writes: “I’m genderqueer, but mostly identify as male. I really want to write something from a genderqueer or trans guy’s point of view, but I’m not sure if what I feel can translate over to what other genderqueer people/trans guys feel and it will seem fake and possibly offend them.

“I’m really agonising over whether to have this character, but a) he’s the main protagonist, and b) him being trans and surgically transitioning is pretty essential to the plot. Do I keep the character as he is or find some other reason for him to want body-altering surgery (not necessarily to do with his sex)?”

You really have two questions here, so I will address them both. First, when you are creating a character, that character does not have to feel everything (or anything) that people similar to that character would feel. This character is his own person, and he cannot be expected to represent what all genderqueer people or trans guys feel or to embody every genderqueer person or trans guy. These communities are so diverse that it simply can’t be done.

And representing an entire community is not your goal, anyway. Your goal is to create an authentic character. Your character does not have to feel, think, or act like other genderqueer people or trans guys feel, think, or act. Your character has to feel, think, and act however he does. He is unique.

When you are writing, you can’t worry about possibly offending someone. As a writer, you will (trust me on this one). You want to create a three-dimensional character who is not a caricature or a stereotype. As long as he is authentic and believable, you have done your job as a writer.

With regard to keeping this character in your book, if he is essential to your story (and if he is the main protagonist, then he is), then you must keep him. And if he must transition, then that is what he has to do. If he truly needs to transition, then other body modification will not suffice. Only he can tell you that. Get to know him so well that you will have no question about what he would do. (more…)

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While mentors are an important part of any new experience, for newly out or newly transitioning trans men, they are sometimes hard to come by. But Zander Keig, MSW, and Megan Rohrer, MDiv, decided to solve that problem with the book Letters for my Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect, a collection of essays by trans men reflecting on their transition experience (disclaimer: I have an essay in the book, but I get no royalties or other financial compensation for sales from the book).

Since the book was published in 2011, it has become increasingly popular – with new guys looking for guidance, with “elders” who transitioned years ago, but who like to read about others’ experiences, and with allies wanting to support a trans friend or loved one through transition. I interviewed Zander Keig by e-mail about the book, and here’s what he had to say :

Matt Kailey: Tell us a little bit about the people behind this collection – Zander Keig, MSW and Megan Rohrer, MDiv.
Zander Keig: Megan and I met while we were seminary students at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, in August 2002. Megan is a full-time Lutheran pastor, the executive director of Welcome, a non-profit in San Francisco that “seeks to provide a faithful response to poverty,” and the brainchild behind Free Farm, which has “grown and given away over 3 1/4 tons of fresh organic produce” since 2010.

I am a medical social worker for a federal government healthcare system, working with people experiencing challenges with a lack of housing and employment, as well as dealing with substance abuse and mental illness. In addition, I am a board member for Welcome and TransMentors International, the volunteer coordinator for Trans Youth Family Allies (TYFA), and a regular presenter at Gender Odyssey.

MK: What made you decide to put together this particular collection? Where did the idea come from and why is it important?
ZK: One day I was having a conversation with Megan about what I perceived to be a dearth of mentors in the FTM community. What I envisioned was a way for post-transition trans men to stay involved in the FTM community to provide guidance to their brothers. We decided to publish a book, an anthology of transition narratives, which offers a retrospective lens of the journey taken by the writers. The hope was that, in looking back, the writers could glean a bit of wisdom about the challenges and celebrations they have encountered and share that with the readers. (more…)

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I just got back from a much-needed and all-too-short vacation, and my brain is still on the trip. Therefore, I am presenting an excerpt from Teeny Weenies and Other Short Subjects, written when I was not so exhausted. Remember, Teeny Weenies is available in paperback, e-book, and Kindle format.

Putting the Men in Menopause

Shortly after I turned fifty, I started to perspire. It wasn’t the glowy dew that I had produced as a female and it wasn’t the labor-intensive, manly sweat that I like to think comes naturally to a hard-working, macho man who sits behind a desk and types for a living. It started at the top of my head and crept its way down, as if I had slowly stepped into a sauna, head first and then body part by body part, activating sweat glands that I didn’t even know I possessed, until I was left soggy and soaking, my clothes tattooed to my sticky, wet body. It was nature turning a hose on me as if I were some hormone-crazed dog.

This happened whether I was sitting on a blanket in the sun or directly in front of an air-conditioner turned on at full blast. It happened in bed and it happened on the street. It took me a while to realize that not every place I went was mysteriously undergoing random temperature fluctuations. This was internal – my own personal global warming.

The worst thing about these episodes was that they had a scary emotional component that often went with them. This part happened primarily at night, when things are scarier anyway, when I already found myself lying awake for hours wondering what hideous rare disease I was going to die from, how I was going to pay my bills until that time, and what exactly was going to happen to me when the universe stopped expanding and started to fold back in on itself.

As I pondered these things, a new and unfamiliar feeling crept over me – one of imminent dread and doom, as if something were horribly wrong right at that moment and I just didn’t know about it yet. Maybe the universe was folding in on itself already, and it would all get back to where I was before the flesh-eating-mad-cow-avian-flu caught up to me.

Then, within a minute or five, the wave of heat began moving down my body, inch by inch, or sometimes millimeter by millimeter. I could feel it beginning at the roots of my hair, creeping down my face and neck, across my chest, down my stomach and legs, and out the bottoms of my feet. Then it was all over, leaving a trail of sweat, and a resulting chill, in its wake. It was so powerful an experience that, even when I had managed to fall asleep in spite of all the worldly threats out there, it woke me up to lie shivering in my own perspiration. (more…)

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Question MarkA reader writes: “I’m an author who wishes to include a trans person in her fictional writings. I fear I know little to nothing about trans people as a whole, however.

“And while I believe trans people should be treated as people, I also don’t want to write a woman as cis and then claim later that she was actually trans.  I’d like to portray this character and what she might be going through in a way that doesn’t insult or demean her as a trans woman.

“When mentioning her and her struggles, is a brief mention of her being born male but saying that she is in fact female enough? Do I need to elaborate or is that enough to make it clear she’s trans? Should I actually have her claim to be trans or is it all right for her to say she is simply a woman?

“People are different, even when they share things in common.  So while I think either approach would be fine, I want to make sure that I’m not portraying trans women in a negative light or reinforcing stereotypes. Any information you can give me would be wonderful. Any books or Internet sources you can offer would be appreciated as well.”

As a writer, I find this a very interesting topic, because there are really a couple of “sides” to this issue. One “side” is that there are not enough authentic trans characters portrayed in fiction – books, movies, plays, and so on – and when trans characters do appear, they are usually there to induce pity or for shock value, titillation, or comic relief. Therefore, any time that a trans character is presented realistically and honestly in fiction, it will likely be to our benefit.

The other “side” is whether or not a non-trans person should be writing about trans experiences at all, even in fiction. The “write what you know” ethos has been around for a long time in author circles, and it is there for a reason. If we get too far out of our element, we can write ourselves into trouble. However, if everyone stuck to the “write what you know” philosophy, we would have no science fiction, no experimental fiction, no horror genre, no historical fiction, and the majority of romance novels (and erotica) would never materialize.

There are people who will say that a non-trans person should absolutely not be writing trans characters, but I believe it can be done – in fact, I know it can be done, because one of my all-time favorite authors, Suzan-Lori Parks, wrote a trans-masculine character in her book Getting Mother’s Body. It was fantastic to be reading that book and discover this trans character who I didn’t know was in there when I bought the book. The character was very well written and necessary to the story, and there was no hint of sensationalism or exploitation. But then, Parks won the Pulitzer (for Topdog/Underdog) for a reason.

I also liked the Anna Madrigal character in Armistad Maupin‘s Tales of the City series, but I am not a trans woman, so I don’t know how trans women perceived that character. I was also just beginning my transition when I read that series, and I haven’t read it since, so I don’t know how I would feel about the character now.

I have mixed feelings about whether or not you should have a trans character in your fiction, particularly because you say that you don’t know anything about trans people. But that’s not the question you asked, so I’m going to answer the question you asked, but I’m first going to ask you an important question that I want you to consider: Why do you want a trans character in your fiction? (more…)

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While Nebraska might be a nice place to visit (or drive through on I-80), it can prove intimidating for trans people who are all too familiar with the murder of Brandon Teena near Humboldt.

But now a positive story comes out of the Heartland (and the state of my birth). Author, speaker, activist, and trans man Ryan Sallans introduces his new memoir, Second Son, detailing his both his struggles and his triumphs growing up, transitioning, and remaining in the Cornhusker State.

“I felt that perceptions around Nebraska needed to be changed and Heartland voices needed to be heard,” he says.

Below, he talks about his book, his eating disorder, his relationships, and what’s in store for the future.

Matt Kailey: You have been a diversity trainer and consultant since early in your transition and prior to writing Second Son. How did that come about, and what made you decide to be out as a trans person instead of to transition and assimilate into mainstream male culture?
Ryan Sallans: I was very fortunate to begin my transition and career working as a health educator with a non-profit agency. It was through my work educating communities, and my experience being profiled in the LOGO network documentary Gender Rebel, that I found the importance of sharing stories.

I didn’t plan to “out” myself and use my story as an example, until one day when I was working with some counseling students and they all were looking at me with the same expression, which I knew meant they were thinking, “Why is this guy doing this topic and how does he know so much?” I decided to let go of my filter and “out” myself, which then turned my training into a whole new experience for the audience and myself.

I always work with terminology and society, but then open it up to my story because I feel putting a personal face to a word, label or identity makes the concept real. Being vulnerable with an audience and allowing them to ask me anything allows them to let down their guard and open up their minds to the reality and spirit of a transgender identity.

Throughout my life I have always chosen careers where there is a deep passion attached to it. Even though being out can be scary, threatening and draining, I wouldn’t want it any other way. (more…)

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For the past three days, I have been on death’s doorstep, and it’s kinda scary because I think ze is making chocolate chip cookies and I can smell them from out here – very inviting!

That’s a slight exaggeration (I hope), but I have, in fact, been quite sick. And no, it’s not because I transitioned fifteen years ago (you know how some non-trans people like to attribute our every illness, injury, and general misfortune to the fact that we transitioned). But because I’m too sick to write articulately, today’s post is another excerpt from my new book, Teeny Weenies and Other Short Subjects (see right sidebar for ordering info).

I have been offering up sections of essays, rather than complete essays, as a kind of cliffhanger (in the hope that you’ll want to know the rest and buy the book), but this one’s short, so this is a complete essays from the book. Thanks for reading!

The World’s Smallest Penis

One of the benefits of working at a gay newspaper is that you get to surf very unusual Web sites in search of stories about porn stars or celebrities, so I wasn’t really surprised when I looked across the room and saw my coworker watching an online video that appeared to be a parade of naked trans men who had not had genital surgery.

Of course, this necessitated abandoning my own story and getting up to see what was going on. And as I got closer, I saw who these guys actually were – contestants in a Howard Stern contest for the world’s smallest penis. Now, I could win this contest hands down, but none of these guys were trans men. They were all non-trans men with itsy, bitsy, teeny weenies.

Even though the tape had just started, I could see that the first guy was the obvious winner. I’ve seen outie belly buttons that were bigger. The man was heavy, and that didn’t help, but the fact was that his penis was pretty much not there. There was his stomach – you couldn’t miss that – and below it was a smooth, triangular patch of skin (he had obviously shaved to enhance his chances of winning, if nothing else) with a tiny, round opening (his foreskin?) and a little bump – that was it. (more…)

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Teeny Weenies and Other Short Subjects is available now! My latest book can be purchased directly from the publisher on the Outskirts Press website and on the Barnes & Noble website, and it is winging its way to Amazon.com. It is also available as a downloadable e-book on the author web page through Outskirts Press. (Note: The e-book cannot be printed, but can be read on your computer.)

Teeny Weenies is a collection of personal essays (with one short story thrown in for good measure) about my female childhood, my trans adulthood, and, well, teeny weenies – including mine. When Just Add Hormones came out, quite a few readers contacted me saying that they wanted to know more about my childhood. Be careful what you wish for – a section of Teeny Weenies is devoted to just that – including the excerpt below:

The Disappearance of Richard

I don’t know how the game got started, but one night it just did. It didn’t strike me as unnatural and probably never would have had I not eventually moved from the world of a seven-year-old girl into a grownup system of gender and sexuality that didn’t approve of bending the rules. The game that Toby and I played seemed almost normal – a game of pretend. And maybe it was normal. Maybe it was everything else that was suspect.

Toby was a girl, and that was obvious – at least if you looked close enough. She already had the beginnings of breasts at nine years old, and she didn’t have a penis. I knew this because we often took baths together when I spent the night at her house. But she wasn’t like any of the other girls I knew in 1962 – the girls at school or in my Brownie troop.

Those girls ran screaming from spiders and worms, wore dresses to birthday parties, and served high tea to their dolls. I did these things, too. It was these little-girl activities, more than the lack of a penis or the expectation of breasts, that defined us as girls. Toby was the only one I knew who needed to present anatomical clues so I could nail down her gender. She was different.

Toby was two years older than me, big and broad-shouldered, with a spray of nutmeg-colored freckles across her nose. One canine tooth sat crooked in her mouth, so that it was the first thing anyone saw when she smiled. Her cropped hair was more beige than brown or blonde, and she didn’t seem to care much which direction it went when it decided to go somewhere. Over the three years that she befriended me, she owned two dogs, two salamanders, a guinea pig, a hamster, four chickens, a snake, and an iguana.

She took in neighborhood strays and I was one of them, trying to find my home among the ballerina paintings on my bedroom wall and the various Barbie dolls that were strewn about the floor among a sea of fashionable clothing and accessories. I knew what beautiful was supposed to be, and I knew what a girl was supposed to be, and Toby wasn’t exactly either one of those things. But she was the most beautiful girl I knew. (more…)

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