Note: I do not represent the Trans Writers Union. Rather, the Trans Writers Union represents me, and as such my personal thoughts recorded here do not necessarily speak for other members of the TWU.
In the summer of 2020, it seemed as though every weekend culture magazine in Ireland was giving certain writers a platform to bait and needle trans people, or were offering support to those who actively called for our heads.
I was writing grant applications and submitting work everywhere at the time, to both Irish and UK journals and arts councils, as well as trying to keep some money coming into the household, and the pressure of all this made me feel as though I was going nuts. There is something equal parts destabilising and uniquely boring about seeing the
Big Literary Heads indulging in their fantasy worlds, and I do not mean the books they write.
This fantasy world is one in which suddenly, the morals and responsibilities of being a person in the world disappear, and anything or anyone is fair game for theoretical, abstract debate. The ghouls of radical feminism and their sad little men online have managed to capture the minds and imagination of trans and cis people alike, and I was stewing over it constantly.
I would repeatedly make the mistake of logging onto Twitter in the morning and I’d get stuck for hours, raging over the silence of the collective literary establishment when another gender-critical dog-whistle review was published in the Irish Times.
When I say ‘collective’ I am referring to 99% of the literary establishment, including but not limited to: the writers working for these outlets, university creative writing programs, writing courses, up-and-coming artists who possibly feel they have to remain silent, more established writers who choose to do so anyway, large publishing houses, small presses, literary magazines, their respective editors, and so on. I wrote to the Irish Times to complain about one of these reviews and received no response.
Ireland at the moment seems to be producing huge amounts of literary talent at every level, and people with a vested interest claim that those talents are forward-thinking, with queerness, experimentalism, socialism, and an acute sense of social justice baked in. This, combined with the thickly felt legacy of the abortion referendum, has created a culture that self-identifies as inclusive, considerate and, on the right side of history morally.
I was baffled, then, that whenever popular media outlets published something anti-trans, that these ostensibly progressive writers and publishers stayed silent, and ignored the dull, obvious problem of their colleagues posting hate speech and retweeting hate groups.
The progressive cis writers said nothing about an article in the national paper, written by their peer, that called Germaine Greer’s ‘non-PC candour [a] tonic, and pressingly necessary’. The article also disgustingly referred to women as ‘the last remaining slave class’ at a time when BLM protests were in the news daily. The cis writers ignored constant quiet platforming of the anti-trans agenda by their journalist colleagues and their media outlet employers. The cis writers chose not to speak where it counted.
They decided instead to do meaningless things like retweet a famous trans writer, then plaster the Twitter timeline with grotesque rhetoric from some terf ogre, whenever the ogre did something obviously terrible, bizarre, and most importantly, something that was safe for them to laugh at (I will not name names because I don’t want to be sued).
It is easy for cis people to laugh at people like that, people who have isolated themselves from friends and family and ruined their own lives via their hatred of others. This is because they pose no direct threat to cis people, and it is an easy, transparent move to show theoretical support by pointing at how ludicrous these ogres are to cis people.
This ‘common-sensical’ approach to the issues trans people face actually doesn’t do much for anyone beyond making the cis person feel good, and relevant. Meanwhile, the cis person’s colleagues are still posting hate speech and getting their opinions published in the papers. These people are still getting books published. There is little I can do about this, as I cannot take down the myriad systems that make this true, but I can at least try for some clear-sighted, robust critical conversations about why it is happening.
I kept thinking, what’s the fucking point in writing for this industry? I don’t really care for my work to ‘deal with transness’ in an explicit manner. I hope readers will pick up on my gender weirdness, and it is important they know I am trans, but that’s the extent for now.
However, I do care when editors or other writers I work with can’t seem to use my correct pronouns. I do care when I have no money and have to spend my free time trying to navigate this quagmire of crap even before I can work to pay my rent. I do care when I already have to manage all the class and sexuality stuff on top of it. It felt insane to continue writing with a view to being published when I thought about it for too long.
Writer James Hudson reached out to me towards the end of summer 2020. He was also hugely fed up and upset and asked if we could do something, like make a union, because there’s no way we’re the only ones feeling like this. We had a video call and chatted about our experiences and difficulties.
We both completed an MA in Creative Writing in UCD, mine in 2014, his in 2019, and I was surprised that in such a short time, he had read trans fiction and had trans classmates, while I didn’t even know I was trans when I attended. It was very clear that things were changing quickly, and that we as trans writers needed to know each other.
We were exasperated by whisper networks and the fact that we also had nobody to ask about basic things, nobody to confidently message and ask whether a specific journal is run by a transphobe or not, how to write a grant application, how to get published off the back of our work and not our life stories. We are both at the emerging stage of our careers, and to speak out as an individual was risky, and indeed did not seem to yield any results for me when I tried to do so.
And so, we formed the Trans Writers Union. James and I already knew each other through the Dublin branch of the Small Trans Library, as well as being two of the handful of trans writers with any kind of mainstream publication record in the Republic of Ireland (others include Anna Loughran and Padraig Regan, two poets from Northern Ireland). Our principal aims for the union at the time of inception were:
- to directly ask presses and publishers if they support and are committed to publishing trans people and treating them fairly, and actively working with the union to help foster this
- to create networks of trans creatives, wherein they can meet and support one another in a hostile industry.
To begin with, we emailed publishers and presses in Ireland and the UK, asking if they would commit to working with the union by providing mentorship, free or reduced fees, and opportunities, and told them we were creating a list of trans writers who are available for festival commissions, to write for newspapers and magazines, and for submission calls.
Some replied very positively, and have indeed worked with us in a proactive, heartening manner. Others were non-committal, responding with a simple assurance that they do have a diverse publishing ethos. Others did not respond at all.
We also contacted specific writers and university programs and encountered the same kind of responses. All of these conversations have been made public on our website.
We have forty-two members at present, and this membership is growing. We want the union to be a space for any member to work on something creatively, or to address an issue they feel important, and so we are doing the slow work of getting to know one another and feeling out what our common obstacles and goals are.
We are working across Glasgow and Dublin, with members in the US and all over the UK, and so it is unlikely we will have one physical address. At some point we hope to be able to meet one another in our different branches, but for now we use Zoom, email, and Discord.
I, like many others, have jumped from space to space, trying to find somewhere I can meet people and do things. I want the union to be a space that I can settle into, a place that is slowly growing and will allow people to trust each other and try things out, because as well as our legal and healthcare issues, trans people need to have spaces to sit around and chat, and we need to not rely on friends, dates, or the internet to access basic company and community.
I want to pay attention to and support other trans people in their endeavours, and I want us to ignore terfs and other such agents of chaos, as much as possible, and write and write to our heart’s content.
Anna Walsh is an Irish writer living in Glasgow. Their poetry has been published by the Stinging Fly, Bad Betty Press, SPAM, the Honest Ulsterman, and others. Their fiction has been published by 3ofCups Press, Gutter Magazine, and the Wild Hunt, Their essays have been published by Monstrous Regiment Publishing, Abridged, 3ofCups, and others. They are currently writing a novella and a short story collection.