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Why I talk about Fictionmania

On the secret handshakes of trans women and holding the door open a little wider


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 18 2021

17 min read


Before I came out publicly, I wrote an article for Vox under the pseudonym Emily Sandalwood on the power The Matrix had held over my life before I self-accepted. It was the first time I had ever written as a trans woman on a major, public platform, and it was thrilling.

As always when I talk about The Matrix as a trans allegory, created by two trans women pre-self acceptance and talking about emotions that are familiar to me on a deep, intuitive level, my primarily cis readership was absolutely fascinated by something I always assume is well-known. This reaction is good! Understanding The Matrix as a story about trans self-acceptance, rather than an alt-right recruitment tool, is helpful in reclaiming the narrative surrounding that film. (When my friend Erin tweeted a similar comment on The Matrix, she got 80,000 likes. I have jokingly said that every six months, a trans woman can tweet about how The Matrix is a trans allegory and blow the minds of at least 2,000 people.)

The Matrix piece has had one of the widest reaches of anything I’ve ever written because, again, most people don’t intuitively understand that the movie has several potential trans readings, because most people don’t tend to apply a trans lens to everything they watch. (It turns out a lot of you are cis?) And, indeed, in August of 2020, Netflix itself, promoting its documentary on depictions of trans people in film and television, Disclosure, tweeted out a link to the piece.

The tweet set off a minor discourse within ““““““the community”””””” (by which I mean trans people on Twitter). The discourse more or less centered on whether the person writing tweets for Netflix had used the term “egg” properly. I don’t really think it did — “egg” isn’t an all-purpose term everybody who’s trans uses (as this tweet implies), and its usage for trans people beyond trans women is often hazy. But the very idea that Netflix was using the term “egg” at all rubbed some people the wrong way. Was “egg” something we wanted “the cis” to know about?

When I wrote the article in March 2019, I had no idea that “egg” was something we might want to keep within the trans community. To me, the term was always an outreach one — if you are someone assigned male at birth who thinks often about being a woman, here’s a useful way to define yourself, which will hopefully move you a few steps closer to figuring your shit out.

The danger, of course, is that you make “egg” your identity instead of recognizing it as a waystation designed to help you think about your gender identity in a way that will hopefully help you rethink the way you see yourself and the world. But for me, the term is a useful one, a way to better understand oneself. Being a trans person before self-acceptance can be terribly confusing, particularly with how few straightforward narratives there are of that experience. Figuring out a word like “egg” can be a lifesaver. It was for several friends of mine.

I understand why there are trans people who are uncomfortable with a term like “egg” being out there where the cis could notice them. There’s something gross about when something from a very specific population is mainstreamed to a degree where it ceases to have much meaning. (It’s not hard to imagine the word “egg” becoming a vague counterculture thing that becomes about a vague sense of gender apathy. That would be fine, as we need a word for that, but it would detach the word from its original, needed meaning.) And there are certainly intra-community topics I wouldn’t discuss in a forum like this, at least without a lot of thought.

But I think there is value to talking about the strange swirl of emotions that is living in a trans brain before self-acceptance. I wouldn’t have recognized myself without seeing so many people on Reddit and Twitter who seemed to share my rough experience, and the deeper I get into life as a woman, the more I realize that talking openly about this stuff is sometimes the only way to help other people grab hold of the rope they’re tossing themselves.

Like I look at this thing I wrote in 2018 and think, “How the hell was I strong enough to keep going?”

For a while, at the start of this, I had a tendency to think of myself as a man, still, and to think of Emily as some other, better self, who was trying to pull me out of the quicksand. The part where I could think of myself, comfortably, as a woman, and not just somebody who wanted to be a woman came slowly, and it still only arrives in fits and starts. But the surest evidence I have that wanting to be something other than the gender everybody thought you were at birth is real is that the more I tuned in to that wanting, the stronger her grip on me became, and the more I read that sentence and think, "Not her grip. My grip."

The answer, of course, is that I met other women like me, and we formed a community, and pretty soon, other people were looking at us and seeing what we had and realizing they wanted that, too, just like I had back in the summer of 2018, when I was terrified and lurking on the edges of trans Twitter.

Which brings me to Fictionmania.

(A general warning for most of the links that follow in this section offer a rather unfortunate depiction of trans womanhood — and sometimes womanhood in general — as a collection of fetishistic tropes and not as an actual state of being. I am sharing these links because I think they demonstrate my point, and I am trusting that you will accept them in the context with which they are offered, which I will delve into in a moment.)

In Torrey Peters’s excellent new novel Detransition, Baby, one of the first novels by a trans woman from a major publishing house and a book about which I’ll have much more to say at Vox, one character flashes back to an encounter with a cross-dressing man whose enjoyment of dressing in stereotypically feminine clothing seems as if it might mean that he, too, is an egg. The character (who is, when she has the flashback, living as a trans woman) remembers furtively meeting the other man to go purchase items that will help the two realize their femme dreams. They go to a store in New Jersey named Glamour Boutique.

Oh, I thought, like the store that sponsors Fictionmania.

I just took this screenshot of Fictionmania, which looks basically the same now as it did in 2003, when I discovered it.

And then a few paragraphs later, Peters name checks Fictionmania itself, as the character we’re following realizes she knows the name of the store from its longtime sponsorship of the internet’s foremost collection of “transgender erotica.” (I just checked and, sadly, Glamour Boutique seems to have dropped its sponsorship.)

I had one of those tiny moments of recognition, almost like an electric shock. At some point, Torrey Peters and I, two trans women with wildly different life experiences, had both turned to Fictionmania to channel an inexpressible longing into the form of (often poorly written) stories. (Fictionmania has since been supplanted by other assorted sites for many of the younger trans women I know, who often mention the upstart TG Storytime as their site of choice. I am just old enough to be a Fictionmania purist, apparently.) (Also, I would watch a documentary about the rivalry between Fictionmania and TG Storytime, if someone wanted to make one.)

What Peters appears to have done, whether as a questioning trans woman or as research for her book, is visit the actual Glamour Boutique, which is a real store in New Jersey and not, in fact, a weird piece of world building Fictionmania cooked up for itself. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me until reading Detransition, Baby to see if Glamour Boutique exists, but it does. (If I needed any more proof Peters and I were born within 18 months of each other, her characters also reference the truly unfortunate COGIATI test.)

I have tweeted about Fictionmania a few times, and I’ve seen other trans women do so as well. Each time, there’s a vague sense of something tingling on the horizon, a lightning storm drawing closer and closer. The site and the genre of “transgender erotica” in general present ideas about trans identities and about womanhood that are deeply problematic at best. (A lot of the stories are just straight-up horrifying.) The writing there is horrible, with only a handful of writers who know how to structure a sentence, and a lot of it is just pure smut. There’s nothing wrong with smut, but when your very identity is written off by too many people as a fetish, smut isn’t helping.

When Fictionmania, Glamour Boutique, and the COGIATI turned up in Peters’s book, I had the same brief stab of terror many trans women did when they saw Netflix blithely tweet out the word “egg.” Cis people are here! I thought. They could Google Fictionmania and figure out our shit!

And yet it would be really difficult to tell the story of a white trans woman around the same age as Peters or I and not mention these hallmarks of the early trans internet. Fictionmania is a site full of horrible bullshit, but the stories I found there that spoke to me most helped me fumble toward an understanding that I wanted, desperately, to be a woman. I might have gotten there without the site, since my real “egg crack” occurred thanks to a bunch of other things, but Fictionmania at least pointed me in the right direction, which was “away from masculinity.”

Those stories even helped me figure out the type of woman I hoped to be. My favorite stories on Fictionmania were by an author named The Professor, who wrote stories that contained retrograde attitudes on gender relations but were otherwise… let’s say… misogyny light. They concerned “boys” who ran afoul of some magical creature or another and found themselves inexplicably and suddenly transformed into women, usually girls in their teens or early 20s. The stories then typically became straightforward YA narratives, with the newly changed girls tracking down the magical plague afflicting them, but also learning how to be traditionally feminine young women along the way. They made friends. They had boyfriends. They realized how much they loved their new lives and had no desire to go back.

The whole notion of a seemingly typical cis boy suddenly realizing how much better it was to be a girl is perverse when viewed through any lens other than a trans one, but The Professor’s stories worked for me because I wanted to be a traditionally feminine woman with lots of friends and, okay, maybe a boyfriend too. I wanted so badly for a magical creature to take the choice away from me. I wanted to be recreated by someone who knew better than myself, because I lacked the power (I thought) to do anything about the person I was.

That idea of a lack of choice is one that horrifies the handful of cis people who stumble upon transgender erotica. A lot of it involves characters who have choice taken from them via means far more sinister than, say, a wayward genie. A significant portion of the site involves evil stereotypes of domineering women who ensnare an unsuspecting dope in their web, then slowly but surely force him into a life of subservient womanhood. These stories, too often, present as endemic to their premise the idea that womanhood is something no one would consciously want. They drip with self-loathing, particularly the handful written by authors who sure seemed to be cis women.

But look at the lack of choice through the eyes of someone who found themselves thrust, without being asked, into a forced masculinization, and everything makes a little more sense. None of us has a choice in our gender when we’re born. And if you’re trans, that often means being forced into a life you barely recognize. I spent essentially my entire childhood hanging out with other little girls. Yes, I had a couple of very good boy friends, but when I had my fourth birthday party, my mom had to make me invite a boy. I just understood girls better; the world insisted that wasn’t true.

(A note: In the past few weeks, as I’ve been working on this in dribs and drabs, my friend Ari Drennen talked about this point much more succinctly on Twitter. Read her thread, then follow her.)

Nobody asked me if I wanted to grow up with everyone insisting I was a boy, much less go through a puberty that violently wrenched my body from me and contorted it to other ends. My agency was robbed from me as surely as one of the boys in The Professor’s stories, who thought they were living one life, then found themselves having to live another, thanks to a mischievous trickster god or similar. In a world where trans identities were normalized and transition was treated as a fact of life, if you had sat me down at 3 or 4 and presented me with the options, I would have said I was a girl. If you had sat me down at 13 or 14, I would have said so with even more vigor.

But I never got asked that question. My transition has been treated, even by cis people who largely support me, as a choice I made, perhaps for my own happiness. But it wasn’t a choice. It was a reclamation of my own agency, a sudden realization that I need not live my life as a series of preordained rituals and could, indeed, become a person I actually enjoyed being. When I look at the stories I read and even role-played, I see inside of them the woman I am pushing at the bonds the world had placed her in. I was undercutting myself, but I was also telling myself the things I needed to hear.

The reason so many stories on Fictionmania were about men being “forced” into womanhood had nothing to do with taking a dim view of womanhood. It had to do with how hard it is for a pre-self-acceptance trans person to imagine any gender expression as fulfilling and uncoerced.

But that still doesn’t answer the question: Why talk about Fictionmania if I have to spend over a thousand words explaining my motives?

The answer is simple: because somebody will read this newsletter and realize that their love of trans erotica or memes or role-playing stems from something deeper than just getting a few kicks here and there. Someone will read Detransition, Baby because she just thinks trans women are neat and get to the last page realizing she needs to do something about her life already. Someone will follow me on Twitter and slowly realize the gender questions they’ve been asking all along have a renewed intensity and keep swimming to the surface.

Queer identities are unique among humans because there is a distinct before and after. In the after, it’s easy to forget how hard and isolating the “before” could be. I make a point of trying to remember those early, fumbling attempts at being myself, and I still find myself reading pieces I wrote in 2018 and being stunned at just how scared and lonely I felt.

Indeed, when I opened a browser tab to pull up Fictionmania for this article, it was the first time I had ever visited not on an incognito Chrome tab. I was so suffused with shame and fear so long that not being so feels like some beautiful novelty. My life is so much richer now that it feels like I must be lying to myself about how hard it was to get to this point.

But I’m not. I fought my way here, and you can too. When you get here, hold the door open for all those behind you, as much and as long as you can. Even if it means talking about Fictionmania on Twitter sometimes.

Paid newsletter update: I hope to have news on this very soon. I’m working out a couple of small details with Vox Media that I thought were ironed out when I made my announcement and weren’t, actually, ironed out. The conversations I’ve had with my coworkers have been really thoughtful and generous toward my hopes and goals. It’s just taking a bit longer than I expected! Fortunately, I have the okay to go forward with the Avatar recaps, and I’m going to try to start those this week. In the meantime, I thank you for your patience.

What I’ve been up to: This week at Vox, I recommended FX’s A Teacher (which should really be watched in full) and raved about Harrow the Ninth with my colleague Constance Grady. But my favorite piece was this spoiler-heavy look at the ending of Promising Young Woman:

You might love the new Carey Mulligan movie Promising Young Woman. You might hate it. You might be indifferent to it. But one thing seems almost certain: You will have strong feelings about its ending.

Read me: Soraya Nadia McDonald is maybe my favorite culture critic working right now, and her essay on the ways in which “this is not who we are” blinds Americans to the ways in which this is, very much, who we are is an essential read.

Since the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, there have been statements from white people across the political spectrum, including President-elect Joe Biden, that repeat variations of the same refrain: This is not who we are.

I’ve long found these sorts of proclamations baffling, because if one is honest about the history of the United States, it prominently features white violence, terrorism and revanchism, particularly toward Black people, Indigenous people and women. Such attitudes have been codified within our laws and institutions, and it has taken enormous, multigenerational work to chip away at the bigotry that metastasizes within our nation. Even now, we witness the defanging of the Voting Rights Act or the Violence Against Women Act, attacks on Black churches, synagogues and mosques, and the daily deployment of police officers on calls that originate with racist grievance.

In so many ways, great and small, we are not honest about who “we” are. Instead, too often, Americans traffic in mythology and denial to the point that we’re still arguing over whether slavery was the reason for the Civil War, and enslaved Black Americans are falsely identified as “workers” in widely-distributed school textbooks.

Read the whole thing. It’s terrific.

Watch me: The new PBS series All Creatures Great & Small is just terrific comfort food TV. I usually bounce off of shows that are meant to soothe my frazzled nerves, because I too often feel placated by them, but All Creatures doesn’t overplay its hand. It knows that it’s a show about a country vet in 1930s England, and it keeps its stakes commensurate with that premise. The first episode, for instance, largely hinges on the birth of a calf. But it doesn’t forget to have stakes, which too many comfort food shows do. Check it out.

And another thing… How recently have you watched the music video for Meat Loaf’s “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”? Because I assure you it is far weirder than you might remember.

A thing I had to look up: I had no idea Glamour Boutique was in New Jersey, even after reading the scene set there in Detransition, Baby! Now, I do!

This week’s reading music: “Money Machine” by 100 gecs

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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