This letter is in response to an essay posted in The Antioch Review called “The Sacred Androgen” (you can google it).
Have you ever not been listened to? Here, take a moment and remember a specific instance. Where did you feel it in your body?
It’s frustrating to not be listened to, that’s a fact.
Imagine if your entire experience of living was ignored every day. If every day you had to say to someone “what you are doing hurts me” and then have them tell you that your experience is wrong.
We noticed something special in the prose of the 7th issue of The James Franco Review—multiple pieces utilized the second person. This interested me because as a writer who is queer and has recently come out as gender queer I’ve been exploring ways to tell stories that avoid gendered pronouns altogether and have been especially curious about the second person and the first person plural to this effect.
Of the soon to be published story “3 Juarez” the author, Roy Juarez offered this theory:
“[I]f the very tenses and points of view we find ourselves using can somehow be more inclusive and tell different truths than the ones we’re telling [,] that truly sparks my interest, because my politics and much of what I see that is wrong with the world has everything to do with language.The second person, to me, has some serious advantages when you’re talking about things like othering, prejudice, or racism. It doesn’t say – ‘Suspend your belief by this amount and follow this character around, feel their doubts, experience their failures, reflect on their humanity.’ It’s far more blunt than that, it’s way closer than a camera or a fly on the wall. It’s the golden rule alchemized into perfection; you are literally the character. Their experiences are yours, they ARE you.”
Jennifer Gravely whose story “The Petra Project” also uses second person similarly said that we are perhaps drawn to the second person because it “mimic[s] more overtly the experience of becoming the character while reading.”
There’s a reason why the second person is so urgent and affecting: it puts the reader in the position of listening. This act comes more naturally for some of us more than others.
If you exist in anyway on the internet you have likely seen this—though if you’ve listened I can’t say—that if you are of a privileged group your job is to listen to oppressed communities, not speak for them, and to not defend yourself for oppressive actions. Even if you are just learning your actions are oppressive for the first time.
But this one task, listening, this initial step in becoming —not even an ally—a conscious person in the world continues to be for some, such as Daniel Harris, the most difficult.
But the weight does not fall on just on Harris, but on white cisgendered editors who are not listening at all.
As a young writer who was interested in publishing I had the lucky opportunity to learn under some incredible editors and the main thing I observed through working with them was that they saw their work as holy. You were waiting for the moment of reading something that made you shake. You were listening to the spaces between the lines and at the end of the story—had the writer found all there was or could there be something else waiting underneath? The editor’s job then was to suggest to the writer that maybe there was something more. Sometimes there wasn’t, but very often there was.
I consider reading an act of listening and when I work with the writing of my friends, the writing of students, occasionally the writing in this journal, I’m not talking, I’m not waiting for my turn to speak. I’m hearing what someone has to say, and only after reading do I then make suggestions for this sole purpose: so other people could hear the writer more. So other people can listen better.
Antioch College, which houses The Antioch Review stated that Daniel Harris’s opinions are his own. This is a true statement, but unfortunately his opinions are also intricately linked with the journal and the editors who, I can only assume, read “The Sacred Androgen”
Daniel Harris’s horrifying essay of transphobia and violently speaking about and for a community he doesn’t know anything about is only partly his fault.
Editors of The James Franco Review have shared with me again and again how editing is a collaborative process with the writer. It’s where the editor’s and the writer’s vision meet. If an editor has an attuned ear and has broad vision, this can be a really exciting experience, regardless of whether the editor is an expert on the topic being written about. A writer’s experience of their story can suddenly, brilliantly, open.
If the editor has narrow vision—if the editor has no cultural sensitivity, is biased and racist and knows nothing of these “short comings”, or is busy and doesn’t read the piece at all but just hears the buzzword of Transgender, says well, this author is gay and probably knows enough, and slaps it in the winter issue and on the website, you get an essay like Harris’s published.
Or perhaps you have an editor of similar temperament to Harris—who is angered by being confronted by the privilege of being cisgendered rather than hearing the experience of trans people.
I know editors to be discerning. Wouldn’t they check—is “TGs” the correct way to reference? A quick search on the internet would cause even the most mildly discerning copyeditor to suggest that Harris replace “TGs” with Trans people or Trans community—two suggestions that indicate that the topic of the essay are in fact people, are in fact humans with hearts that beat powerfully.
Wouldn’t they also check—is there a Transgender debate? Doesn’t the term debate mean that something is in question? By putting the term debate after the word Transgender the suggestion is that the existence of Transgender people is in question. I think it has already been established that there is no debate on that front.
From the perspective of global editing, I would expect a discerning editor to ask the author questions such as: Can you explore more your experience of being a cisgendered man and why that term offends you? What is the experience of your gender? What do you feel when someone uses he? Did you have to come to accept that pronoun? Perhaps this essay needs to explore more of your experience.
When I read “The Sacred Androgen”, when I see the response of Antioch College, when I see that The Antioch Review has not even responded, I hear lazy editing.
Dear white cis gendered editors: Hold yourself to higher fucking standards.
Read Gabrielle Bellot’s response: https://medium.com/@Gabrielle_Bellot/on-the-antioch-review-daniel-harris-and-transphobia-9e0b2e9a8ae1#.xzlxcpyly
Sign this petition denouncing Transphobia in The Antioch Review: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1qMjAMIKEw7PffcWENMS9huV8upazWzzyboyp2NEh9Ow/viewform