(Some notes about content: this post speaks openly about queer and trans oppression and the ways those things are embedded in queer and trans representations in fiction, which includes multiple brief references to violence, murder, suicide, self loathing, and the death and tragedy of queer characters. It also tells a fairly detailed story about my own experiences of internalized queer and trans oppression as a kid. This story mentions, but does not share details about, a queer hating therapist. This personal story references, but does not share details about suicide, addiction, bullying, trauma, and eating disorders. If you want to avoid reading the personal story, skip down to the fifth paragraph.)
The first book I remember reading that had a queer character was Sandra Scoppetone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike. It was a love story about two teenage lesbians, a young adult novel published in 1978. So you may guess that it ended in tragedy. In this case, the tragedy was sexual assault in the context of a violent queer bashing. I also immediately read her other queer YA novel, this one published in 1974. Trying Hard to Hear You ends with the young gay couple getting violently assaulted, and then dying soon afterwards. I read these books over and over again as a young person, starting around age 10. Several times a year, I would reread them again. They upset me deeply, each time. Very deeply. Sobbing for several hours deeply. My mother was puzzled: why did I keep reading them if they upset me so much? Should she take them away from me as they clearly seemed to be causing me harm? When she mentioned this, I begged her not to take them away. I begged her to let me continue to have access to the only queer stories I knew, even though they hurt.
I think back on this now, and it feels so clear: I was attempting to reconcile myself to a likely future of violence, trauma, isolation, and death.
When I first started thinking I might be queer at the age of 17, I asked my therapist about it. She assured me that I was not. What a relief. Queer futures seemed incredibly perilous. The one out queer person at my high school got bullied horrifically. My closeted queer friends were drowning in self-loathing, unrequited secret crushes, suicidality, eating disorders, trauma, and addiction. I was afraid they wouldn’t survive til the end of high school.
I was already struggling to survive, to claw my way out and escape violence and trauma. I didn’t want to be queer on top of that, didn’t want to claim what felt like an inevitable future of more pain, violence, trauma, and isolation, and that was the only queer future I could imagine. A future that was predicted, again and again as I read and reread books and watched and rewatched movies where queer and trans characters died, where queer and trans stories ended in violence, in suicide, in ostracization, where queer and trans people were depicted as monsters, and “justifiably” targeted by violence and murder. It took a few more years before I came out as queer. It took me much longer to come out as trans, because the future seemed so damned bleak if I let myself be trans.
Stories make a difference. Perhaps especially for those who are already marginalized, isolated, afraid, and traumatized. Stories teach us who we might be, what might be possible, what happens to people like us. Stories are important.
I read queer and trans love stories written by cis and heterosexual people with a certain kind of terrified hope. I want these characters to make it, and I’m afraid that they won’t. I want them to survive til the end of the story. I want their love to feel hopeful and happy all the way til the end of the story. I want to read stories that show queer and trans people who are not isolated, who are not constantly targeted by violence, who are not mired in shame and self-loathing, who do not die. I want to read queer and trans stories that are not tragic. I want to read queer and trans stories that have deliciously slow burns and bursting flames of desire, swoony romances and deeply satisfying character arcs where we are rooting for these queers to be together all the way through.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about queer and trans people writing whatever damn queer and trans stories they need and want to. Let characters grapple with internalized queer hatred, let them be worn down by transmisogyny, let them feel bleak and terrified in their closets, let their queer love stories get eaten away by the waves of shame they are struggling under. Let them experience violence and trauma, let them grapple with addiction, let them die if we need to go there. We write these stories because we need our realities reflected, need houses for our deepest fears and the terrifying and awful experiences of queer and trans oppression. I would love it for there to be such an abundance of stories written by queer and trans writers that the tragedies hurt less and just feel like part of the real truth we grapple with, because they are balanced by everything else, all the queer kids go to space and trans kids get to be in plays and queer elders fall in love again and trans superheroes claim their power and queer schoolteachers get kids fired up about injustice and trans people falling for each other and and and. Let there be a huge and tremendous abundance of all the stories we need to write and ache to read, written by and for us.
These stories mean something different when straight people write them. These stories mean something different when cis people write them. As I said in a recent blog post:
“trans writers choosing to engage with trans oppression enacted by cis people that we know so intimately from having been targeted by it in so many ways and internalizing it in so many ways…we are going to engage with it differently. We bring a different lens, the complexity of our personal history, an on-the-ground analysis of oppression that comes from being targeted by it relentlessly. We tell different stories about it, because we are writing from deeper lived experience, because we have different reasons for telling them, and are often writing for different audiences.”
When cis people write trans and non-binary characters, when heterosexual people write queer characters, please leave those kinds of stories alone. Let us write them ourselves, for us. Please don’t write us as tragedy or monster, please don’t reduce us to our queerness and transness, please don’t center our internalized self-hatred, please don’t target us with violence, and don’t, just don’t, kill us off. There is no reason good enough to kill us. I don’t care if your plot hinges on it, if it is the central thing that will help all your other characters grow, if you kill other characters too, if it is there to teach the reader something you think is important, if you are writing a genre that has a lot of killing in it. Just stop killing us off. We are saturated with those stories, and they hurt too damn much.
You know what else hurts? Seeing queer love stories written by cis and heterosexual writers constantly have plots and character arcs that center on internalized queer hatred and misogyny. Yes, even when it is supposedly healed by love. In fact, especially when it is healed by love. I’ve read far too many of these, especially m/m romances where one of the love interests is masc or butch and the other one is femme. These stories are incredibly painful to me as a queer and trans reader, and I’m not alone.
When I started talking about this on Twitter a while ago, many people shared similar experiences with the genre (and also recommended romances that don’t do this, so check out the storify for those as well). Currently, queer and trans writers in m/m romance are talking about feeling pushed out of the genre by heterosexual writers who take up so much space in the genre, and the current increase of gay romance that centers straight men falling for each other (often called GFY meaning “gay for you”, sometimes called “out for you” or “open orientation gay romance”). (The last sentence is full of links to things said by queer and trans writers on the subject, some of them with personal stories about their experiences of queer and trans oppression and misogyny. This is a recent post written in defense of GFY. It is full of queer hatred and is a direct dismissal of queer voices.) GFY is built on a bedrock of queer and trans oppression and misogyny, and also often includes characters who have a lot of internalized queer hatred and internalized misogyny.
Cis and heterosexual writers, please don’t write us queer romance where the central character arc is about internalized self-loathing, internalized queer hatred, or internalized misogyny. Even when that’s facilitated by falling in love. Especially when those stories center straight men getting together. Please don’t write us trans love stories that focus on transition, or on a cis person learning to accept us, or love us, or treat us decently. Please don’t write us queer and trans love stories that treat the possibility that someone might love or desire us as a rare miracle in a tragic and pitiful life that we must snatch up immediately before it goes away without even considering whether we might love or desire them.
I’ve spent the last fifteen years writing stories about queer (and particularly trans) people doing kink with each other, often with a lot of romance involved, but firmly in the erotica genre. (The best of them are collected here.) A good portion of what I’ve written has been gay erotica (often with trans characters). That said, I’ve consistently refused to write gay erotica centering straight men, because those stories are not what I care about. I care about queer and trans readers. I care about queer and trans desire. I care about queer and trans love, not just romantic love, but our love for ourselves, and love within queer communities.
I write stories that center queer and trans kink, for queer and trans kinky readers, because I am queer, trans, and kinky, and want stories like that to read. I write insider stories, stories that document queer kink lives for other kinky queers like me. I write trans and genderqueer stories from my own trans and genderqueer perspective for trans and genderqueer readers. I write disabled and sick queer stories from my own disabled and sick queer perspective for disabled and sick queer readers. These are stories for us, first. Stories to feed us, to act as mirrors, to give us hope.
I write these stories because I need them. Because they are a balm on all of the hurt that comes from being inundated with stories that give us tragic endings and call us monsters and erase us and center straight and cis people and focus on queer self-hatred and center the desires of straight and cis readers. Because I need to remind myself, and other queer and trans people, that our desire is important, our love is beautiful. That’s why I’m so excited to be writing Shocking Violet, a deeply queer and trans polyamorous kinky erotic romance, as my first novel, after years of short form erotic fiction. Because I need to read stories like that. Stories that envision a different kind of possible future for queers and trans people, a bright and glittery future that feels full of all the hope I could not even imagine as a young queer kid looking for queers in fiction.