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Margin for Error

Read Monday, 6 Nov 2017

Fury reflects on the pitfalls and paradoxes of tokenism for marginalised writers.

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Illustration: Jon Tjhia

There is an impossible catch-22 when you’re a freelance writer from the transgender community. Whenever you get work, there’s a little voice in the back of your head that tells you the reason you got this work is because of tokenism. It is not that your work is good, it’s that whoever has engaged you is looking to tick a box. Some publications make you feel this way more than others, offering you work that is only ever about your marginalisation.

This sort of tokenism – along with those disgruntled, bigoted voices in the comments section of every piece you ever write – lay fertile ground for Imposter Syndrome to flourish. In Roxane Gay’s talk earlier this year at the Wheeler Centre, she spoke on this conundrum for women in the workplace. ‘Women are put in really difficult positions in the workplace because you need the job, generally, and so you have to play along [with sexism] to get along and to just survive the workplace. But all too often playing along means you’re betraying yourself, let alone womanhood.’

Coming up in Melbourne

Gay was talking about conventional workplaces where there at least exist some established legal protections for workers. But writers (like models, actors, dancers and other people working in highly competitive, creative and largely freelance disciplines) do not have the same protections as people working in a more formal setting. Their work, and sometimes their livelihood, is often on a knife-edge. Getting published is heavily dependent on building working relationships, so if you speak openly about the difficulties of working with mainstream publications, you run the risk of burning bridges.

Righting and writing wrongs

It’s a weird paradox that, if you are part of a sheltered mainstream, you have to engage in tokenism vigorously in order to move past it. You seek out people because of their marginalisation and you work to build larger networks and further connections from there. In the writing community, when tokenism happens, the editor is often a bright, engaged, compassionate and genuinely lovely person who is seeking to support their marginalised colleagues.

It’s a weird paradox that, if you are part of a sheltered mainstream, you have to engage in tokenism vigorously in order to move past it.

The pitfalls of this dynamic are not necessarily a reflection of the editor’s shortcomings but rather a reflection of a cumbersome process. The task of trying to right wrongs in the greater literary landscape (by always choosing trans writers to write on trans issues, for example) means the emphasis is placed on the writer’s identity first and their writing second.

In many ways, this makes talking about the difficulties of working as a marginalised writer more fraught. To speak openly is to speak about the limitations of your friends on a public platform; limitations you don’t hold against them or judge them for, but limitations nonetheless.

This difficult power relationship between a marginalised writer and their (often mainstream) editor is complicated further by the obligation a writer has to their community. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am more terrified of backlash from the trans community than I am of a stranger threatening to physically assault me in the street – both of which I have experienced several times.

Call-out culture

The terror I have of backlash in my community is twofold. On one hand, I fear ostracisation because if I am ousted from the trans community then I am truly alone. The trans community, in particular, has a well-established ‘call-out’ culture that runs very deep. You do not want to cross a trans person, even if you are trans yourself. I’ve experienced the sharp end of the community’s tongue more than once and, coupled with my pre-existing mental health tribulations, it has always resulted in days of shaking, sweating, anxiety spirals, suicidal ideation and a hell of a lot of counselling. Even now, I tend to avoid trans-run, trans-centered events as they bring me too much anxiety.

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

But that terror also runs the other way. When you are a trans person writing a trans narrative, you are catapulted to a position of prominence. While I am no fan of Caitlyn Jenner, I did feel sorry for her and her baptism of fire. For a long while (and perhaps still) she was the most well-known trans person in the United States and the Western world. Accordingly, many cisgender people measured and judged all trans people by her actions. She carried all of us on her shoulders and so whenever she faltered – such as when she told Time magazine, ‘if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable’ – she not only let us down, she actually endangered our lives. Her platform – coupled with the vulnerability of the people she rightly or wrongly now represents –  gives her a level of responsibility that is comparable to someone in the highest levels of government.

Jenner is a boring, regular, rich, white woman who blundered her way into a role she is not equipped to manage and in which it is impossible for her to succeed. When you are the only trans person to a cis audience, all trans people are measured by your actions. You must be everything to everyone, which leaves no space to be yourself and no space for failure.

When you are the only trans person to a cis audience … you must be everything to everyone, which leaves no space to be yourself and no space for failure.

Running the gauntlet

Whenever a marginalised writer works with a mainstream editor for a publication, the risks for all parties are high. I read an article a while ago written by a trans woman who dismissed non-binary folks as ‘a trend’, as though being non-binary was more to do with fashion than identity. The editor had clearly gone to the trouble of seeking out a trans voice, it was just unfortunate that the trans person they chose used that platform to spread transphobia. The thing is, an editor like this can’t be expected to be up to date on the latest trans-specific lingo or politics. In effect, this writer was sticking their neck out.

By contrast, a cis editor runs a gauntlet if they try to shape, direct or cancel a trans story. A conscientious editor is obliged to recognise their lack of authority on the subject and, as such, their role as an editor is more diminished with a trans writer than with a cis writer. They must defer, or at least proceed with extreme caution. 

While the relationship between editor and writer can be tricky, the relationship between writer and their community can be equally dangerous. I have never seen the trans community demand a publication hire trans editors in response to publishing troubling work from a trans writer. The community only ever calls on the publication to hire different writers – writers whose politics match theirs. I am always aware of how beholden I am to the whims and opinions of my community; a community which is mired with the problems that come from living with trauma; a community which is not always kind.

Try, try again

On all fronts, my livelihood as a writer exists on a knife edge and engaging me in work necessarily means running risks that plainly don’t exist for any of my mainstream counterparts. Because of this, marginalised writers must not be just writers but also academics, educators, role models and diplomats. They are not compensated for these additional roles. They are, in fact, told often – implicitly and explicitly – that they should be grateful they are published at all.

Unfortunately, the only way through these minefields is if everyone charges forward. Perhaps, in terms of practical support, publications could offer additional stipends so that marginalised writers can compensate the members of their community they consult with while writing their pieces.

Other than that, it’s about engaging a wide pool of marginalised writers and hiring marginalised editors. Eventually, after a tipping point of representation is reached, marginalised writers will no longer have to carry whole communities on their shoulders. Equality will be when our failures are easily overlooked – a mere blip in the ocean of representation in our wake. The more we try and fail, the more opportunity there will be for others to do the same after us.

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