A friend who read a draft of my new novel, Winter’s Rage, suggested I ask someone experienced in transgender issues to read the manuscript. It hadn’t occurred to me that I needed this. While one of my characters in the novel has sex change surgery, I considered it a minor point in the story. But I knew instantly this was sound advice, given current awareness of LGBTQ+ concerns.
My friend offered to look for a sensitivity reader if I couldn’t find one on my own. As it happened, several years earlier another friend had told me his sister had recently transitioned. I contacted my friend and asked if he could put me in touch with her. He gladly gave me her email address, although he didn’t think she read mystery novels or fiction in general.
His sister replied right away. She thanked me for making this effort with my book because she was constantly annoyed by people’s thoughtless and cruel remarks and misused pronouns. I gave her the choice of reading the full manuscript of Winter’s Rage or the relevant sections. When she chose the latter, I emailed her five pages with all the pertinent scenes. She came back with comments I wouldn’t have thought of myself. In addition to these being useful for the book, I found it interesting to hear her perspectives.
On the positive side, she liked that I’d had my protagonist observe my trans person’s physique as not typical for her gender. My reader finds her height can be a problem–she’s 6’3″ in high heels–but she knows other transgender women who have it harder, with barrel shaped chests and very masculine facial features. She found it realistic that my trans character would be depressed and alcohol dependent before discovering who she was. It also sadly rang true for her that my character would experience abuse on social media and from unsympathetic relatives.
But she questioned my trans character’s close friend saying that she’d miss her as a man. My sensitivity reader had heard that type of remark too often.
“Tough shit,” she told the obtuse friend. “This isn’t about you.”
I’d also had my trans character say she’d miss her former self. My sensitivity reader said most trans people she knows can’t wait to shed their old selves. “We love them for getting us this far, but their job is done, and we’re excited to move forward.” I had thought, in that situation, I’d feel nostalgia for a large part of my life I was leaving behind, but bowed to her experience and tweaked my trans character’s sentiments. In addition, my reader thought I’d made the process of changing ID and other documents too simple. I added an explanation that didn’t impact the plot.
My sensitivity reader found no fault with my use of pronouns, but later, during the proof read of the manuscript, it struck me that I might have used ‘he’ incorrectly in one instance. I asked my proof reader for her opinion. She replied that, in her view, ‘he’ was correct in the context. It can be tricky to get it totally right. We also shouldn’t assume all transgender people think alike any more than all women think alike. There might be some who disagree with my decision to leave ‘he’ in that sentence.
By definition, we fiction writers create characters and situations that go beyond our personal experience. The more feedback we get from readers who fill the gaps in our knowledge, the more true-to-life our stories will be. When we don’t belong to a misunderstood and oppressed group, we’re often unaware of its particular issues. A first step in deciding whether or not to seek out a sensitivity reader is knowing when you need one.