Yesterday, I came across yet another story with a non-binary protagonist where their gender identity was the main conflict (resolved by True Love™, of course). I’m not going to call out the particular story or author, mainly because if I did so, I’d have to make a really long list of terrible non-binary representation. I have no spoons for that.
The point here is that this is a single example of a thing that bothers me and why I think #OwnVoices stories are vital. The difference in this case is that if an actual non-binary person were writing about their experiences of misgendering, it would read very differently from the outside perspective of someone who is cisgender. We usually would not make identity-angst the primary conflict or central drama in a novel. We certainly would not write it as a “hurt/comfort” story where the cisgender person rescues us from our misery!
This is not to say that cisgender authors shouldn’t write about us. On the contrary, you should! In general, people should write what speaks to them (with appropriate introspection about why it does; you may be surprised at what you learn about yourself). However, there are some things that read differently to me depending on who is writing it.
There’s often some controversy when an author wants to tackle the hard parts of living inside a marginalized existence. For example, authors may get backlash for writing about the painful parts of being fat or queer or disabled (or the intersections of any of those). After all, don’t we deserve stories where we get to be the heroes?
Of course we do. We deserve stories where fat women fall in love and there’s no drama about her size. We deserve queer books where no one gets gay-bashed. We deserve books with disabled characters who aren’t depressed and angry. I would absolutely encourage all writers to create such stories, especially with our input.
But we also deserve books written by and for us which capture some of those more painful experiences. Creative writing is a way to express things we can’t say any other way. Sometimes we need to spill it onto the page in order to heal. These stories can help both author and reader feel like they are not alone.
Those are often best written by people who know from the inside. The way I write a non-binary character experiencing gender dysphoria is different from how someone who isn’t non-binary interprets the expression of those feelings. And I would never, ever “rescue” a character from their dysphoria with a romantic partner. I might write someone who is an understanding and empathetic lover, but that’s quite different from what reads to me as “you’re the only one who will ever love me properly, and you’ve made me whole.”
We’re also not likely to make the entire story revolve around the challenges of being who we are. That may factor into the character’s internal dialog, or it may be part of how they interact with the wider world. But it isn’t going to be used as an “issues” book about our terrible lives as [insert marginalized identity] and how we overcame our self-hate (or worse, how non-[marginalized identity] people cured us of our self-hate).
That’s not to say it can’t be done, but I rarely see good books that truly understand the subtleties. It’s why I avoid many coming out stories, particularly when I know the author doesn’t identify as queer. Sure, many people can relate to keeping aspects of themselves hidden. Many people have had their queer friends and family come out to them. But none of that means you understand the particulars of how that feels if you’ve never done it yourself. (And no, having to keep your author identity secret from people is in no way the same thing as being closeted LGBTQ+.)
Once again, this is not some directive to never write these stories. At least be informed by spending time with the people you’re writing about. This is where #OwnVoices are so important: Read the stories written by people who have lived it, and model your work on that rather than on the many other voices which tend to drown us out. Some of those who shout loudest don’t have our interests in mind but are only seeking to get off our our pain, even if they aren’t directly inflicting it and even (especially) if they haven’t gotten it right.
Remember, it’s okay to admit that you might not be the best person to write a thing after you’ve started it. If you still conclude it’s the story you want to tell, seek input from others who can point you in the right direction. And always, always use empathy to see your words through our eyes, to read and interpret it as we would.