Monday, May 20, 2019

Writing While Trans Part 2: Figuring Out My Brand

As many of you know, I am a transgender woman. But that's not all I am.

I am also a living kidney donor. I'm a wife. I'm a professional caregiver. I ride a motorcycle. I'm a desert dweller. I'm a recovering alcoholic. I'm a rape survivor. I've also been a goldsmith, a librarian assistant, and a web developer.

One of the things that drew me into writing was the fact that the vast majority of queer fiction were coming out stories, romance, and erotica. But there is so much more to life as a queer person than coming out, falling in love and having sex. Where were all the adventure stories, the sci-fi operas, the urban fantasies, and crime dramas with queer protagonists?

Cover art from Iron GoddessMy first series, which was eventually picked up by Random House's digital-only imprint, Alibi, was about a lesbian outlaw biker. Think Sons of Anarchy meets The L Word. Pretty fucking awesome, right? I certainly thought so. My agent thought so.

But before Alibi said yes, publisher after publisher passed. Not because they didn't like it. The vast majority said they loved it, but didn't know how to market gritty biker crime fiction with a lesbian protagonist.

Turns out they didn't understand how to market a thriller with a lesbian protagonist unless it was a coming-out story or had a romantic subplot. God forbid anyone writes about lesbians who actually have a career and a life outside of a relationship.

When Alibi decided not to extend the series beyond the first two books, I realized I had to now start focusing on a new series. With a lot of input from my wife, I decided to write about a modern day bounty hunter who happened to be a transgender woman.

This time I didn't bother going the traditional route. I was going indie. If publishers didn't get crime fiction with a lesbian protagonist, they certainly wouldn't be interested in a thriller with a trans protagonist. Even when the story wasn't about her being transgender. The story was about her tracking down someone who jumped bail. You know, crime fiction.

Now I was faced with the question about how to market my stories. Do I disclose in the book blurb that the Jinx Ballou the badass bounty hunter is transgender? Will that potentially turn away readers who might otherwise enjoy the story and not really care if Jinx is trans? If I don't mention it and readers learn about her past during the middle of the story, will they be turned off then?

Time Magazine cover featuring Laverne Cox
One the one hand, since Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the covers of glossy magazines, the media has finally started to treat trans people as human beings worthy of respect. There's been a sort of trans chic thing going, much like there was a lesbian chic going on in the 1990s. And I'm not ashamed to take advantage of it.

And the crime fiction community tends to be very inclusive and welcoming, anyway. When I reach out to media, such as podcasts who want to interview me, part of my pitch is that I'm one of the few (just me and Renee James, as far as I know) crime fiction authors who are trans.

At the same time, when it comes to the decision to buy, white heteronormative readers tend to stick with what they're familiar with: white, heteronormative protagonists. Not that they're overtly bigoted toward other kinds of protagonists. There is simply a subtle bias, a subconscious resistance, perhaps a fear of the unfamiliar.

Since the launch of Chaser and Extreme Prejudice, the first two books in the Jinx Ballou series, I have tried a wide range of approaches. Disclosing up front that Jinx is trans. And not disclosing she's trans, except in the book. I find the latter the more productive of the two.

Cover art for Chaser
I don't feel the need to disclose everything about who my character is in the Amazon book description. The book description is supposed to hook the reader into the story. And that's what I focus on. A bounty hunter who runs into trouble while pursuing a fugitive and chaos ensues.

Occasionally I will get a review or even an irate email complaining that while they loved the story, they don't care to read about queer characters. I once got a three-star review from a Trumpster who didn't appreciate the liberal agenda that crept into the book. Honestly, I was tickled the little shit gave me three stars.

Bottom line, I don't write queer fiction. The stories aren't about transitioning or falling in love with someone of the same sex. Few if any of my stories have a HEA as far as a romantic subplot is concerned.

Instead, I write crime fiction from a queer perspective. Or better yet, I write gritty crime fiction with a feminist kick. Like Sara Paretsky. Like Stieg Larsson. Like a lot of successful crime fiction authors who aren't afraid to challenge the patriarchy in fiction.

As one of the only transgender authors in crime fiction, Dharma Kelleher brings a unique voice to the genre, specializing in gritty thrillers with a feminist kick. She rides a motorcycle, picks locks, and has a dark past she’d rather forget.

She is the author of the Jinx Ballou bounty hunter series and the Shea Stevens outlaw biker series. You can learn more about Dharma and her work at

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