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Get it right

Is it okay for cisgendered, heterosexual people to write about issues affecting the queer community? Mya Cole investigates. Illustration by Hope McConnell.

I’m a cisgendered female and I’m pretty sure I like men, but am prone to being indecisive so don’t stick any labels on my forehead just yet.

However, I don’t consider myself to fall under the LGBTQ umbrella, which raises the question: What right do I (or any other cisgendered, heterosexual person for that matter) have to write an article or speak out about issues affecting the LGBTQ community?

How does a writer approach a topic they know little about, having never experienced these issues first hand? Is it okay for non-LGBTQ people to write about LGBTQ topics? I decided to find out.

I took to the good old internet, posting in various LGBTQ Facebook groups asking people’s opinions on cisgendered, heterosexual folk writing about issues that affect the queer community. Lucky for me, a couple of lovely people took the time to help me out:

Ben Michael from New York identifies as genderqueer/non-binary. The thing that most bothers them about how LGBTQ people are referred to in the media is the incorrect language that is often used to describe gender identities.

“What upsets me the most is the way we talk about other genders; people using ‘transgendered’ as a past tense verb or ‘transgenders’ as a collective noun, instead of the proper ‘transgender’ as an adjective that modifies person/people nouns.”

Adding an ‘ed’ to the word transgender makes it sound as though something has been done to the person, and is just one of the ways we (cis heteros) get it wrong.

Criminal defence lawyer Christina DiEdoardo illustrates this sort of language misuse perfectly in Time’s December 2014 issue, saying: “One day John Jones was leading a normal, middle-class American life when suddenly he was zapped with a transgender ray!”

Another point Ben made is that transgender characters being played by cisgender actors in films and TV shows is essentially synonymous with able-bodied actors playing disabled people.

They used the example of ‘The Danish Girl’, directed by Tom Hooper, in which Eddie Redmayne (a heterosexual cisgendered actor) is cast as a transgender woman. Ironically, able-bodied Redmayne also plays the disabled Stephen Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’, directed by James Marsh. Note that both directors are cis, hetero, able-bodied men, but that’s a story for another time.

Tamsin* from Auckland, who identifies as non-binary, says it’s okay for non-LGBTQ people to write about LGBTQ issues: “Of course it's okay for cis/hetero people to write about trans/queer people. The most important thing is to make room for marginalized voices to speak and, in spaces where trans/queer people aren't listened to, speak up for us.

“Trans people are, for the majority, excluded from the media and are spoken about rather than being able to do the speaking.”

So, I guess the moral of the story is the more people speaking up for the LGBTQ community the better, regardless of the writer’s own identity — we must make room for marginalized voices to be heard.

And a final word from Tamsin: “The more cisgendered and straight people who have our backs, the more cisgendered and straight people will listen”.

*Tamsin did not wish to disclose their full name.

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