This essay is part of a Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.
He gestures me over with ciggie in hand and fidgets his other fingers against my shoulder. I’m so flustered and excited to meet new people that I’ve already forgotten his name.
‘I love your work’, he says, ‘so vulnerable’. And I beam my white-toothed overbite grin in his direction. Then in the same smoky out-breath he introduces me to his friend as: ‘she’, a ‘good girl’.
My throat tickles and clenches.
Is he still talking about me or another poet? I push my wine glass forward in the hope of gasping out a response but he’s already gone, introducing more people to more people and I admire that in him: his face is lit up and his laugh trickles over the crowd as he moves through the room easily as a shifting fog.
I love a good chat and socialising is one of my favourite things. Surprising perhaps, considering I chose the solitary career of writing. But my extroversion turns to anxiety when I am misgendered. I don’t want to pressure people into getting my pronouns right but I also don’t want to feel sad when socialising.
Misgendering makes me feel clammy and displaced in my own body.
And in the case of my new acquaintance, I feel like he can’t ‘love my work,’ read my work, and not notice the trans-ness of it. Do words waft away as soon as he reads them? Are they windswept smoke, breathed in and out, then discarded?
People often don’t realise my being non-binary means they need to do some work. You can acknowledge my queerness by shaking my partner’s hand but you have to actually change language^ to get the trans thing right.
surprise and delight
dusted and shaken
as hands meet
Later I’m sitting on the flipped-down toilet seat in the heavily gendered, single stall bathroom with my wine, biting at my lip and wondering what I did wrong. How did I make this night of poetry readings so terrible for myself? Why didn’t I just write a better, more transparently trans bio in my book, so people would truly understand me? Something specific like ‘Rae uses they pronouns’ or ‘Rae is not male or female’. But that would make me feel even more othered. Cis people aren’t that blatant in their bios because they don’t have to be.
And, most importantly, being misgendered was not my fault. I did not ‘make’ this happen. I did nothing wrong.
At my debut book launch, my publisher handed out a mini zine I’d made about being trans and how to treat me nicely. I had so many fellow gender diverse folks tell me how much this meant. To them, this gesture acknowledged people like me, like us, as being publishable and visible. As a voice to be listened to**
But despite the zine, many people still called me ‘he’ or ‘she’ without apology. I don’t want to be petty or pushy (perhaps I should be?) but some sort of acknowledgement of the mistake is the key. You can call me ‘sh-they-sorry’ for the rest of my life and I’ll still know that you’re trying.
I hear someone outside the toilet door muttering about how they have to use the men’s because the women’s bathroom is occupied. I down the rest of my drink quickly, then with hand cupped, I chug some water from the tiny sink. The bathroom pipes must sit in sun because the water is hot. I recoil and shake off my hand as I watch the simmering water coil down the sink.
reminders of rejection
gnarled and pinched
radical good as
That evening a group of us are eating together after the event and I feel my shoulders finally relax. I know these folks, they’re good people. I pop another too-hot chip in my mouth and eat with lips slightly parted, breathing^^ out steam.
My friend beside me is angrily discussing the shortlist for a poetry prize. We all entered and paid for the excellent privilege of not receiving a rejection but, instead, having to find out our fate via Google.
‘And that would be fine’, she says, taking a sip of her cider, ‘because I’m used to that kind of bullshit. But the shortlist is all white cis straight men. Again!’
I should start a trans only prize, I think to myself. One that isn’t just for poetry but also for unsung arts like zines and fan fiction. A prize for marginalised people creating radical art forms. If only I had the money.
I pick up another chip with pinched fingers and curl my other hand around my phone. I try to resist checking my email while I’m socialising but before I know it I’m watching my small screen as another poetry rejection pings into my inbox. Plus a reminder for my job tomorrow.
‘Who’re you sexting?’ asks my friend with a chuckle and a wink.
I laugh. ‘My temp agency. I have a gig in the morning.’
‘Are you out to them?’ someone else asks quietly, leaning forward.
I shake my head. ‘The shifts are so short and sporadic, doesn’t seem any point.’
‘That must be hard,’ everyone agrees but I just shrug and take a gnarled chip from the bowl, dip it in the weak tomato sauce. ‘It’s just routine’, I say.
they as they
visible and voice
listen and listen
Routine. Like a 50/50 chance of being called ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ at my temp gig the next day because I’m wearing a dark polo shirt with short hair and tiny tits.
Routine, like having my pronouns deliberately changed in a bio for a speaking event because I couldn’t possibly actually really want to use singular they pronouns (could I?) and, as all writers know, mistakes must be corrected.
Routine, like getting private Twitter messages from men calling me all the things they’re probably too scared to say to my face.
Surprise, like coming second place in a prize for a poem that is overtly, overwhelmingly and radically trans.
And, perhaps most importantly, delight*
Delight, like a book signing where someone tells me my poetry means so so much to them. Fuck, am I actually making a difference, an impact?
Delight, like a person saying I inspired them to write poetry about their own non-binary experiences.
I blush and it feels like my cheeks are steaming. ‘Thank you’, I repeat over and over as the fellow poet shakes my hand. ‘Thank you.’
My words could be shifting fog or dust or windswept smoke or steam to some people but they mean something solid and tangible to other othered folks. If you’re someone looking for language to describe who you are, like I was when I discovered the words for non-binary and queer, then the poetry I write (alongside many other talented gender diverse creatives) might just give you some of the tools you need.
words as breath
I am trembling after I win my very first poetry award and, wine in hand, I wobble-walk like a newborn bird over to an admired co-winner and fellow trans person.
‘Congratulations!’ I tell them, holding out my hand. ‘I love your work so so much.’
This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Arts Queensland. This stage of the series has also been funded by Creative Victoria and Arts Tasmania.