He, She, and We: How to Support Trans* Individuals

In a society that stigmatizes people who cross over the supposedly rigid line between “male” and “female,” we can support our transgender friends. We can help them shape lives that are easier, safer, and happier—all by listening to their needs and using their preferred pronouns.

Transgender, adj. “Denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender.”

When I was probably sixteen, one of my friends quietly came out to me as transgender. To be honest, they were just as confused as I was about the whole label and what it could mean for them. This friend, who we’ll call B, had been assigned female at birth. She had come out as lesbian to me already, and I’d accepted that.

But when B confessed that she didn’t feel comfortable in her own skin, and was thinking about transitioning to using male pronouns (being called “he,” rather than “she,” for instance), I didn’t know what to think. Here was my friend, revealing her deep unhappiness with her assigned gender. I knew she wasn’t talking about cross-dressing, even though that was my first instinct. (We’ve all seen Ru Paul’s Drag Race, right? Eddie Izzard, anyone?) But not all cross-dressers are necessarily transgender, like B.

British comedian Eddie Izzard became famous for his unique brand of humor as well as his love of crossdressing. He still identifies as a heterosexual man, however.

I was honored that my friend trusted me enough to disclose such sensitive information, but at the same time bewildered by the idea of fluid gender identity and the existence of a spectrum of gender identity rather than a binary. To top it all off, how was a teenager like me with a tendency for foot-in-mouth blunders supposed to use the right pronouns all the time, after years of knowing B as a girl?

When B confided in me, I failed to understand that she wasn’t asking me to be a perfect ally. “Just try, for me—please,” she was asking. At a southern high school where “f*g” was a common slur, B just needed a close friend she could trust to understand her situation. He wanted one person who would at least try using his preferred pronouns and not keep shoving him into the cramped box of society’s gender expectations. So when B confided that he was searching for ways to bind his chest, I listened. Yes, sometimes I lapsed and used female pronouns, but I did my best to ease B’s already difficult journey to explore his gender identity in a safe environment.

Even if the idea of people being trans* perplexes us, we should endeavor to understand them and help them feel comfortable. For my friend B, the existence of a support system made up of family and friends was and is vital. If someone you know presents as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, you can make a difference in their lives just by using their preferred pronouns. In a Williams Institute survey of more than 6,000 trans* individuals, 41% reported suicide attempts (compared to 1.6% of the general population). By using their preferred pronouns and helping alleviate the gender dysphoria (manifesting in depression, anxiety, self-hatred, etc.) our trans* friends experience through simple gestures of respect and kindness, we can help them not only survive—we can help them live.

Confusion about transgender people is understandable. There’s no established set of manners for how to politely treat someone as their preferred gender, particularly as someone’s gender identity can be a delicate topic depending on where they are emotionally in their transition. They could even be confident in their gender identity but still hesitant to come out as trans*—after all, 226 trans people all over the world were murdered because of their identity from October 2013-September 2014. (November 20th recently marked the Transgender Day of Remembrance for the hundreds of trans* people lost to transphobic violence.) For some trans* people, living as their true gender identity could mean risking their lives, their relationships, their jobs, and even their housing. So should we really expect every person who lives outside the gender binary to shout their minority status from the rooftops?

Is it any wonder that determining exactly how many transgender people live in the U.S. is so difficult? The latest estimate is 700,000, or 0.3% of the U.S. population—but because few nationwide surveys have ever asked about gender identity (partially because respondents might not answer truthfully about a sensitive subject), no one has a clear, statistically sound number.

Regardless of the size of the transgender population, however, they should no longer languish as an invisible minority even among the LGBT community. We should allow their voices to be heard, their complex experiences to be shared and exalted or mourned, and their beauty to shine. It all starts with accepting and affirming their gender identities. When a friend shares their transgender identity with you, try to understand. Don’t betray their trust—exceed their expectations by accepting and loving them. Use their preferred pronouns, and allow them to live happily as they truly are.

As Brynn Tannehill explained in her keynote address at Transgender Day of Remembrance Louisville:

“Being loved requires friends, partners and family to embrace a belief that runs against our cultural dogma, to speak up and act despite the stigma of being seen with ‘those people’ and embrace a marginalized people who are not their own. This is why loving a transgender person is a truly revolutionary act.”

We should all strive to be those allies.

Want to learn more about transgender identities and how to support trans* individuals?

How to Deal with Tough Subjects in Writing

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, whether you’re a journalist or a poet, if you’re a writer you’re bound to encounter a tough topic. Writers are often moved to depict situations that can test the limits of our empathy, our tact, and our writing abilities.

Your face when you realize you're in way over your head with this piece.
Your face when you realize you’re in way over your head with this piece.

For example, what happens when you set out to write a story about a sexual assault? The survivor of the attack may not feel comfortable revealing their name, or the triggering details of their trauma, or even the fact that they were violated at all.

And that’s their right. Any further pressure on them to reveal details they want to remain private only further violates the survivor. We, as writers, should attempt to adhere to the same ethical guidelines as journalists. (The same respect can apply to a survivor of a shooting, or someone who attempted suicide. The list, sadly, could go on and on.)

But, in our hypothetical scenario, even if you gain access to the survivor—in a limited way, or not—the question remains: How do I handle their story with care and sensitivity, while still depicting the horrible reality of what happened?*

  • Be Accurate

Whether you’re writing fiction based on a sensitive experience or a factual news article, you owe it to your subjects/characters and readers to get it right. (My former Intro to Journalism professor’s mantra of “Get it right, don’t assume, no clichés” still lingers in my mind whenever I sit down to write, even though I’m no journalist.)

What happened, exactly? Especially if you are writing about an actual event, you’d better fact check your work to death. Can you imagine the subject of an article about how they survived a shooting at their high school reading it, and being struck by the fact that you got the school’s name wrong? Or that you miscalculated the amount of students and teachers injured or killed? Your subject wouldn’t exactly trust you as a writer after such a grievous error.

The old “Who, When, What, Where, and Why” are not always all required for a story, depending on its specifications, but if you include them then you had better get them all right.

  • Be Compassionate

This can often be the hardest—how can you empathize with your subject, but still manage to stay calm enough to write? It can be tough, but the best advice I can give is to listen. Do your homework, ask smart questions, and be willing to listen to the person who had the experience you are trying to depict/portray/explain. How did they feel at the time? Did those feelings change? What background information can you give to paint a full picture of the traumatic event, including all the messy human emotions and heartwrenching details. That’s not to say you should sensationalize unnecessarily—do your best to tell their whole story, but with honesty.

  • Be Nuanced

There’s nothing more frustrating than reading about an experience and only seeing a flat, simplified version of reality (or, in fiction, a mere shadow of a representation). In a recent Writing Excuses podcast, the hosts talk about disability in narrative with a woman named Charlie Harmon who has gradually been going blind for most of her life.

While disability is not necessarily a traumatic experience, Harmon notes how many writers fail to capture the nuances of disability. Writers who write blind characters can often just assume they know what being blind feels like, instead of talking to people who are blind and gleaning valuable details. Harmon, for example, slides her cane across the ground instead of tapping it, which is a common depiction of blind people walking with canes in movies.

Including such nuances can help all writers portray tough subjects in a way that readers will notice.

A powerful example of a piece by a writer who handled a sensitive topic with both brutal honesty and remarkable grace, helping his subject reclaim her dignity, is Eli Sanders’s “The Bravest Woman in Seattle”  [HUGE trigger warning for sexual assault, despite the careful handling of the story.]

*Disclaimer: I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a pretty sheltered college student who has (thankfully) not experienced many horrible things. These are merely my suggestions for dealing with a difficult, often sensitive, topic.

Smitten (Review of Courtney Milan’s “Unraveled”)


Unraveled is what happens when Courtney Milan perfects the historical romance novel. Pardon me, she doesn’t “perfect” it—she bulldozes over tired tropes and constructs something complex and wonderful out of the ruins. After publishing her debut novel in 2010, former law professor Milan has since reinvigorated the genre and won several awards for her work. Her refreshing new approach to the genre has drawn jaded former fans of historical romance back to the realm of ripped bodices and declarations of undying love. Oh, and did I mention most of her books are self-published e-books that usually cost about five bucks on Amazon?

Smite Turner’s tale, Unraveled, ends Milan’s Turner brothers series with all the satisfying goodness of a steaming mug of hot cocoa after a chilly winter day. In this final installment, we finally get to learn more about the mysterious Smite Turner, the younger brother of a duke and the older brother of a renowned scholar.

Unraveled = delicious hot cocoa, if hot cocoa also made me cry.

The characters in this novel surprised me with their depth. No flat caricatures for Milan—each main and secondary character breathed new life in Unraveled, regardless of their past appearances. Smite’s not the emotionless automaton that he seems in the first two Turner books, but his character hasn’t dramatically changed since his scenes in Ash and Mark’s stories, either. Viewed from a new perspective, Smite’s odd reticence and black-and-white view of morality just make sense. He fears intimacy because of his trauma-filled past, not because he’s too proud to hang out with Ash. He values justice over everything because he wants to prevent the starvation and abuse he experienced himself. I’m a huge sucker for well-timed context for old characters in a new setting, and Milan delivered.

Speaking of the Turners, Milan elevates the “brothers” trope to new heights—both in the overall series and Unraveled specifically. As common as “brothers” series are, I’ve never read a romance novel that connects separate stories so well. The Turners each overcome their insane mother’s abuse in different ways, but the full background unfolds throughout the trilogy, finally resolving by the end of Smite’s tale. The realistic, loving, and often painful sibling relationships between Ash, Mark, and Smite kept me coming back for book after book, and they concluded so perfectly in Unraveled.

Milan never overtly compares the hero to a cat, but Smite is a stern but cuddly cat-petter who shies away from being “pet” himself. AKA, this is Smite’s face when he’s not looking at Miranda. A+ implicit analogy.

Not that Ash and Mark Turner aren’t great heroes, but Smite won over my affections within the first few chapters. He’s an odd soul who seems like this gruff, be-wigged magistrate, but actually secretly likes petting cats. (The heroine discovers Smite’s clandestine affection early on, and teases the exalted “Lord Justice” for it.) With his blunt, often tactless quips, Smite reminds me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock—if the sociopathic BBC Holmes actually worried about the consequences of his actions. I love that Milan wrote a hero with honesty rather than ambition, and though Smite had some tough times in his past he isn’t a typical hopeless rake at the beginning of Unraveled.

And then–enter Miranda Darling, a tough young woman who’s known hunger and hardship on the streets of Bristol, just like Smite. One of my favorite qualities of Milan’s books is her examination of class boundaries. So many romance novels only focus on the elite of Regency/Victorian England. (Dukes, check. Viscounts, check. But blacksmiths and seamstresses? Hell no.) In Unraveled, not only did Milan throw a magistrate and a lawbreaker together; she didn’t shy from the realities of Miranda’s life and forget about the socioeconomic gulf between a brother of a duke and the daughter of an actor.

Contrary to what most historical romance novels would have you believe, not everyone in Regency or Victorian England had enough to eat, let alone go to balls every night.
Contrary to what most historical romance novels would have you believe, not everyone in Regency or Victorian England had enough to eat. Milan acknowledges the gap between rich and poor in her books.

The main romance, more than the crime procedural subplot that weaves through the background of the novel, is what made me savor every page. On the surface, Smite and Miranda couldn’t seem more wrong for each other. He’s common-born, but educated and powerful. She was raised by a troupe of penniless actors and has a secret love of danger. However, both characters know hardship and what it means to be alone. They navigate their difficult pasts together; they are not broken, and they admire each other for surviving.

Miranda and Smite have been betrayed and abandoned and hurt, but they don’t just despair. Thankfully, there’s very little bosom-clutching anguish in Unraveled; Smite and Miranda help each other heal, but the magical power of love doesn’t swoop in to save the day either. Of course, Smite and Miranda are flawed so they mess shit up, but at least their love story resembles the meeting of two traumatized souls in real life.

However, they’re not all doom and gloom. Smite and Miranda also had a sweet little inside joke that carried through the book:

“‘Miranda Darling,’ he said in repressive tones that would brook no argument.

So why was it that she heard ‘Miranda, darling,’ instead? Maybe he paused for emphasis. Maybe he paused to indicate a comma. Never had one little punctuation mark mattered so much.”

Finally, I appreciated that Miranda and Smite did something incredibly rare for a romance hero and heroine—they communicated. When faced with a threat of blackmail, the typical romance heroine keeps valuable information from her lover, until the sordid secret bursts forth in a shower of angst and pent-up tension. Milan knew that romance readers have seen that trope a million and one times, so she made Miranda intelligent enough to avoid that trap altogether:

“It seemed to be a matter of basic, common sense. When one is threatened by a shadowy criminal figure, one goes to the magistrate that shares one’s bed rather than the shadowy criminal figure.”

It was SO refreshing—and allowed Smite and Miranda to actually team up in order to foil the main antagonist, instead of worrying about the problem separately.

We read romance novels for the warm and fuzzy feelings at the end, and the final book in the Turner series ultimately felt like a snuggly blanket Milan had knit from some really heartbreaking yarn. I wrapped myself in Unraveled and didn’t surface until I turned the final page and felt the satisfaction all the way down to my toes. I won’t give away the ending—because spoilers—but Smite’s story satisfied me like no other final romance plot has.

[Courtney Milan’s suggested reading order of her books can be found here.]