“Guest author, Beth Burnett.”

I had my first author appearance today at the trans family support group at the LGBT community center in Cleveland. I was terrified, because terrified is what I do. I was anxious about any number of things. Will they hate me? Will I make my pitch and ask for questions and get nothing but dead silence? Will this group which consists mostly of transgendered people wonder why I think I have the ability to write a trans character that they will find believable or interesting? What if my voice completely shakes? What if I pass out, can’t talk, forget what I’m supposed to say, screw up dreadfully?

Yeah, that’s me. Ms. Confidence.

My sister Dorothy went with me. When we got there, right on time, there was no one there except the couple who run the group. I was worried that no one was going to show. However, people started to filter in as we got closer to the start time. As we got very close to start, I decided to make a quick bathroom break. Well, I got locked in the stall! It wouldn’t open. I tried unlocking it, relocking it, jiggling the lock and it wouldn’t open. I had this moment of panic where I thought that I was going to have to try to crawl under the door at my first author appearance and could just picture someone walking in as I am stuck halfway through! Finally, I yanked on the door and it slammed open. Later, on the way home, Dorothy said, “I forgot to tell you this earlier, but guess what happened to me in the bathroom?” I said, “Did you get locked in?!!” She said, “Yes!” I was like, “Thanks for the warning!”

Back to the meeting. We arrived with business cards and fliers. Per the advice of my mentor, Linda Kay Silva, I had a giveaway. I marked three of the business cards and let the people know that someone was going to win a free book at the end of the session. That got them all talking a little before we even started.

The meeting started with everyone in the room introducing themselves. I introduced myself in turn, but didn’t really give any info about myself and told them that I wanted to save it so they would all feel inspired to ask me questions after my speech.

There were about twenty people there. There were three young people, maybe teenagers or possibly early twenties. Some people who looked to be in their thirties, the rest older than that. The only ones who seemed uninterested were the three youngsters. Everyone else looked excited to have a “guest author.”

After the introductions, I got up and stood at the head of the room, so I could make eye contact with everyone there. I had written a speech, but at the request (read: order) of my mentor, LKS, I didn’t bring it. Instead, I decided to wing it.

I started off with my name, the name of my novel, etc. Then, I realized my voice was completely shaking. So, I said this:

“Some writers are also natural born performers. They can get in front of a crowd and suddenly, they are in the spotlight, working the crowd, getting the laughs, and selling themselves without a care in the world. I am not one of those authors. I have terrible stage fright right now. But I try to live by the motto of ‘Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.’ And that’s what I’m doing.”

At that point, they all got interested. Every single one of them, including the youngsters smiled at me when I met their eyes. One woman gave me a thumbs up when I looked in her direction.

I went on to say, “I had a whole speech written that I was going to give today. It was a delightful speech. I read it to the dog. I read it to my mom and she loved it. I practiced it in front of the mirror. I totally had it down. But when I woke up this morning, I realized that I didn’t want to give a delightful speech. I want to talk to you instead about the lack of transgender representation in the media. So, please excuse me if this sounds a little stilted, but I didn’t get a chance to practice this one on anyone, not even the dog.”

They laughed and I suddenly relaxed. My voice stopped shaking. They were all smiling at me, every single one. Then I asked them to give me a show of hands of how many of them thought transgendered people were fairly represented in mainstream media. No one raised their hands.

I said, “Off hand, two transgendered characters come to mind. There’s the transgendered character in Silence of the Lambs who was… oh, yeah. A serial killer! And there was that stupid Jim Carey movie… Ace Ventura? Sean Young’s character was a Male to Female transsexual. The big joke was that she had made out with Jim Carey earlier in the movie and when Carey found out that she was transgendered, he yells “Einhorn is a man!” and runs into the corner to puke. Really funny, right? Right. It just seems to me as I was looking for lists of transgendered characters in mainstream media, what I was finding were predators or criminals or “sneaky” transsexuals who pretend to be something they’re not in order to fool the poor, innocent cisgender, heterosexual males. Give me a break.”

A couple of people actually said “Yeah!” at this point. I was not even close to nervous at this point. I felt like they all wanted me to succeed by now. It was pretty awesome.

Then I said, “I don’t claim to be some Pulitzer prize winning novelist who penned the next Great American Novel in which the transgendered people are so believable and rich and well-rounded that everyone in the world will read about them and change their ignorant minds immediately!” (They all laughed again here.)

“I never had any intention of writing a novel at all. I mean, I was technically a professional writer. That is to say, when I was working as a bartender at a beach bar in the Virgin Islands, I wrote short stories on bar napkins and sold them to drunk tourists for five dollars a pop. Of course, the laws in the Virgin Islands are a little more lax than they are here, so more likely than not, I was a little drunk writing them, too. Most likely, they were all used to mop up spilled drinks. Still, I was broke, but content. I might have told people that I wanted to write a novel, but most writers do say that, whether they actually intend to do so or not. ”

Another person actually said, “Right on” here and everyone laughed again. I could totally get addicted to this stuff.

I went on. “But one night, I was sitting with a group of supposedly enlightened and educated friends. They were different races, but they were all gay. The ages ranged from the mid 30s to the mid 50s. As drunk gay people are wont to do, we started talking about gay politics, and stuff like that. I simply mentioned that I thought the T in LGBT was largely ignored by the community as a whole. Well, I was attacked. The transphobia coming out of the mouths of so many of these people was depressing. And I was shocked and appalled at some of the ignorant things I was hearing. I guess I’m naive, but I honestly could not believe that people who have suffered from oppression and bigotry because of something that they can not help or change would turn around and do it to someone else. So, yes, I was shocked. And frankly, I was pissed. And when I get pissed, do I beat people up? No, I’m a total wimp! Instead, I write nasty things about them!” (Another big laugh here) I wrote several blog posts about it, then decided that since fiction is my forte, I needed to go a little deeper. What I really wanted to do was to write a light, funny, romantic book which happens to contain transgendered and gay characters in which all of the so-called “fringe” people are completely normal and the only ones who are idiots are the ones who judge my characters! Basically, the bigots were the bad guys. My book involves the good guys… my FTM character, the straight ally, the pot-smoking single mom, the big, sexy butch lesbian… they are all beautiful and loved and valid. They’re flawed, yes. But they’re good.

I think the important thing about my book is that is may contain subject matter that some people find uncomfrtable, but it isn’t in your face. It’s sweet and light and non-confrontational. It addresses the issues without pounding it down people’s throats. It calls out the bigots without calling them bigots. I have had several great reviews on this, including a few from straight Christians. And the reviews from people who have never really had any dealings with trans people are saying that they will never be able to look at someone, regardless of gender or orientation without realizing that it is not their place to judge.

THAT is some kind of amazing! So, while I really want all of you to read my book and love it, which I think you will, what I really want is for “mainstream” society to get a hold of this novel, read it, and possibly change their minds. Wouldn’t that be a trip?”

At this point, taking the advice YET AGAIN of the lovely Linda Silva, I said, “Before I ask you if you have any questions, let me ask you a question. Is there anything that you would like to see addressed in my next novel as I continue to write transgendered characters?” There was silence for a few seconds, then a few people started speaking up. One wanted to know if I would talk about the process. One wanted me to address the high suicide rate of trans people. Another thought that it would be good if I could talk about depression and loss.

Then, I said, “Does anyone have any questions?” (I was armed here… Linda warned me that there might not be any questions, or people wouldn’t know what to ask. If that happened, I was going to say, “One question I am often asked… “) But there was a moment of silence… then one lady said asked a question. By the time I finished answering that, three hands were in the air. Everyone had name tags (total bonus for me) so I just called on everyone by their names. I spent AN HOUR answering questions!! An hour! They asked all sorts of things:

Did you miss your characters when you were done writing the book?

How long did it take you to write?

What are you working on now?

Why would you leave the Virgin Islands to come back to Ohio? (That one got a lot of laughs.)

Do you think bigotry should be confronted with anger or patience? This was a great one for me to answer. Earlier in the session, before I spoke, a sweet trans woman said that she didn’t mind ignorant comments as long as they weren’t spiteful. A few other people scoffed at her and said that ignorance is ignorance. I was able to address her comments for this question. I said, “As XX said (I am not putting names here because not all people are out) if the questions are not meant in a mean-spirited or ugly way, I think you can use it as a learning tool. A case in point, I recently had cause to confront some of my own bigotry in regards to religion.” Then I talked a little bit about that and they were all nodding and smiling. The lady who had made the original statement looked very excited that I called her name and agreed with her in my response. It was really cute.

“What color is your mini-van?” (What? LOL… I had mentioned earlier that I was going to drive to California in my mini-van. But I thought it was an odd question.

“Is it true what they say about fiction writers?” (Said with a bit of a leer.) Me: I don’t know… what exactly do “they” say about fiction writers?  “That you use your family as your characters.” (Looks at Dorothy.) Everyone laughed.

“Why do you think there is so much bias in the gay community against trans people?”

“Do you have any MTF characters in your book? Is there going to be one in the next book?”

It was an incredible time. I think that right from the beginning, they had empathy for me because I was nervous. I forget who gave me the advice to tell them I was nervous, but it was spot on. I’m also glad I didn’t bring the speech because it felt more like a conversation than a speech.

After the meeting, I was approached by almost everyone there and they all thanked me for coming to speak and said they couldn’t wait to read my book. A few people actually said, “Wow, I’ve never met an author before!” which almost made me laugh, but didn’t. (Not laughing at them, mind you, but at someone being excited to meet me.) The teenagers (or twenty somethings) who were so bored at the very beginning, but so excited a few minutes in, made sure to come over and tell me how much they loved it. They ended up asking more questions than anyone else, and asked for my Facebook information so they could find me there.

All in all, it was an incredible time from start to finish. I tried so hard not to be nervous and I hate that my voice shakes like that. I don’t know what to do about that, but hopefully the more appearances like the one I have, the more comfortable I’ll feel with them.

Quick funny side note. My sister Dorothy kept smiling encouragingly at me… so as I was looking around the room as I was speaking, I would often glance at her for encouragement. Well, at one point, when I was talking about bigots being forced to confront their bigotry, she claims I was looking right at her the whole time! She said she was thinking “Hey! Stop, they’re all going to think *I* am one!!”

In the end, the entire thing was awesome and I am so glad that I went. And again, as seems to keep happening these days, I was confronted by the fact that things are rarely as bad as I think they’re going to be. Wow, I sure don’t seem to be able to swallow that lesson, do I? 🙂

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Fiction Writing

3 responses to ““Guest author, Beth Burnett.”

  1. you go girl……and don’t just say yes to anything……from your loving saints coffee server.

  2. Excellent Beth!!! You were a complete success and it feels great doesn’t it?

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