Anna had been tweeting about a new anthology of queer writing in Ireland, which was proving problematic: being included in the anthology would be a great opportunity for emerging writers like us, but one of the book’s headliners was a cisgender author whose writing on transness had negatively impacted us both personally and professionally.
Thanking Anna for speaking up about the issue, I confessed, “I’ve been pretty thoroughly wracked with anxiety and fear over being Trans in Irish publishing since I graduated.” Then, “in the vaguest sense do you have any thoughts on organising? Like, doing something?”
We had some back and forth about how miserable and isolating it was to be Trans writers. We relied on whisper networks to know which editors ‘hashtag-stood-with-JK’. We were in an industry built on networking and nepotism, forcing us to weigh our dignity against our careers. We were watching British transphobia slowly creep into the Irish literary scene, and it felt like there was nothing we could do about it. Until Anna replied a little later, “A Trans writers union is a great idea I think.”
If you count from the day we went public on November 18, the Trans Writers Union is coming up on its first birthday. If you count from the day Anna and I started talking, it’s already a spry yearling. If you count from the first time Trans writers banded together to publish their work without being demeaned and humiliated, the idea of a Trans writers’ union is probably as old as the printing press.
It’s difficult to explain the necessity of the Union without getting anecdotal. You might be familiar with the broader strokes of literary transphobia: famous authors saying cruel things. But how does this seep into the material reality of Trans writers?
In my BA in English with Film, I was assigned just one text by a Trans author. (So I thought we were irrelevant, unpublishable.) In my MA in Creative Writing, I was told that writing with Trans characters was not relatable to cis readers. (So I wrote stories that were alien to me, for other people’s benefit.) When I expressed discomfort over a cis author speaking for Trans people, I was told that it’s every writer’s right to write outside of their experience. (As if a criticism is on par with a book burning.)
Multiple times, I learned that the same people who encouraged me to my face would also claim online that Trans boys are girls being brainwashed into self-harm. I stopped trusting. And it is impossible to publish without trust in your editors.
This is a sample of the anxiety-inducing onslaught of dicey interactions that turns writing from an already difficult career to an impossible one for Trans writers. But now we have at least one way to cut through this oppressive atmosphere.
In our first year, the Trans Writers Union has amassed dozens of Trans novelists, memoirists, journalists, critics and more across Ireland and the UK. We’ve begun contacting presses to find genuine allies who will listen to us and act with us; connected our members with paid writing opportunities; secured places for Trans writers at literary festivals; launched a mentorship programme for Irish Trans writers; filed a complaint against the Sunday Independent for uncritically reviewing a book of discredited transphobic pseudoscience; and, most recently, launched a boycott of the Irish Times following a pro-conversion therapy article published in August 2021.
To have such a bumper year is a double-edged sword. It means things are bad, frankly. In an ideal world, Trans writers would be valued and there would be nothing for us to do! We would not have to pour so much time and energy into making publishing equitable for Trans people, we would not be enduring vitriol and hate speech for pointing out failures of Irish publishing, and we would be able to just write. (As anyone in Ireland is able to ‘just write’.)
On the other hand, a busy year is good. Anti-trans rhetoric spawned in the UK and US has established roots in Ireland, and it is growing thanks to Irish journalists, writers and publishers. But this year, we refused to let it thrive.
The most famous Irish Trans novel is by a cis man who defends transphobia at Pride; a transphobic book disavowed by the American Psychiatric Association is given a glowing review in the most widely read paper in Ireland; the Irish paper of record publishes an article in favour of conversion therapy for Trans youth. These are not minor problems. Books and newspapers are culture-shaping things. To demand better from their publishers and editors is to demand better for all Trans people and for Ireland.
So happy birthday, Trans Writers Union. You’ve given me one of the busiest years of my life, and I hate it, and I’m grateful.
I only hope that our second year is less occupied with repelling hate speech, that our allies will deliver actions as well as words, and that we’ll have time to nurture the careers of amazing Irish Trans writers who are forced to decide every day: will today be a day I spend fighting for my right to live, or will I get to just write?