TransEthics: What inspired you to get into writing for various media establishments?
Katelyn Burns: I never really set out to be a writer or even an activist really. I’ve always been fairly political and my interest in trans politics and theory extend back even into my teenage years. I always did a good job covering my tracks, so all of my reading was done in secret when I was still in the closet. One day, after I had decided to transition but before I had started hormones or come out to many people, I was really struggling with my own body. I’d lost 110 pounds already but still had a lot of internal baggage to work through. My therapist suggested writing about it as a therapeutic method.
My friend Kiva Bay also encouraged me to write and she suggested using Medium as a way to publish it. So I sat down and wrote my first essay My Intersection with Being Trans and Fatphobia. I thought maybe 10 or 12 people would read it. I shared it on my Twitter account where I had maybe 80 followers and kind of zoned out for the rest of the day in a dysphoric haze. 2000 people read it the first day! The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. People wanted me to write more, so I did. I wrote Being Trans in the Paradox of Sports [and] a week later and it was picked up by Sports Illustrated!
Those things aren’t supposed to happen to a struggling closeted trans girl but somehow it did. I had professional writers and editors reaching out to me to tell me that I was talented enough to write for a living. Finally I felt like I had figured out what I was supposed to do with my life. From there it’s been a matter of continuing to push myself to become a better writer and to have a better understanding of the world around me. I’ve never wanted anything as badly in my life as being a successful writer.
TE: At what age did you transition?
KB: 34 – this past year.
TE: Has being open about being transgender been damaging to your career?
KB: I think in some ways it has. My day job has become more challenging in many subtle ways. On the writing front, it’s a double-edged sword. I have a unique perspective that is in demand but seemingly only for trans issues. I track which of my article pitches get accepted and I’m much more likely to have a trans related pitch accepted. And when I’m depending on my freelance income to pay my rent, that means every “no” I get is one less pay check at the end of the month. So not only do I have less pitches accepted about other things, but I also tend to tailor my pitches towards what is most likely to be accepted.
TE: What’s one article you’d like to write right now – today – that you fear may be rejected because you’re an out trans writer?
KB: I’d love to write more about business or economics, or even politics beyond trans issues. I have a background in the financial industry and early on I applied for a full time writer position with a financial publication. My finance creds are very solid, I won’t list them here because of privacy concerns but I have the chops. I never heard back. More recently I applied for a full time staff writer position with a progressive news site right here in my city. I never heard back. I get pigeonholed A LOT as “just a trans writer”. I’m thankful for the editors that I do have that let me write about other things. I just realized you asked for one article, I’m afraid I don’t have a specific one in mind at the moment.
TE: Let’s talk for a moment about politics beyond trans issues. How do you view the current political climate in America?
KB: It’s not ideal at this very moment. I think this is a very scary time to be an American and, by proxy, a citizen of planet Earth. I think what’s coming next will be a tremendous test for the future of liberal politics. It feels like we’re standing on a knife-edge, teetering back and forth, off-balance. The fall could come at any moment. In a lot of ways “alternative facts” is the perfect analogy for the political party currently in charge of Washington. It’s been the basis of Republican ideology for at least as long as I’ve been a voter and it’s been building. Honestly, I knew Trump was going to win pretty early on, despite trying to convince myself that we’d never allow that here in the US.
TE: I assume you’ve been following a lot of the changes the current administration has already made. How do those changes make you feel as a citizen in general, and as a trans woman in particular?
KB: The trends point in a bad direction. I think life for most citizens is about to get much harder than most people realize. As a citizen, for the first time in my life, I’ve contemplated the possibility that I may die in a nuclear explosion. I live on a coast that’s halfway between two major naval shipyards. My apartment would make a great target for a tactical nuke. These are questions I’m asking myself for the first time in my life, I wonder if I’ll ever get to a time where I stop asking these questions.
As a trans woman…. yikes.
I’m lucky in that I live in a queer-friendly, liberal area of a New England state that has state-constitutionally enshrined trans protections. Additionally, those protections have survived two statewide referendums and have been litigated and upheld by the state supreme court. As long as I don’t leave the state, I feel fairly protected, legally speaking.
I think trans people in general should play close attention to the referendum on trans public accommodations rights taking place in 2018 in Massachusetts. I’ve heard off the record that the private polling isn’t great for us so far. If Repeal wins in Massachusetts, I think that we are in for a very, very hard time. If trans rights can’t even win as an issue in liberal as hell Massachusetts, what does that signal to conservatives? I worry that if we lose in Mass, you’ll see a nationwide bathroom bill introduced if the US Congress is still in GOP control at that point. That’s scary but I will die fighting it.
TE: You were at the Women’s March in Washington this last weekend. Did you feel accepted there as a trans woman?
KB: I wasn’t in Washington but I attended my local march in Portland, ME. I wrote an article about it that’s become my most read article of my career. I wasn’t initially sure of how accepted I’d be there, but a total stranger noticed I was cold and offered me a hat and a marching companion and it turned into an incredibly affirming day for me.
TE: My mistake on the location. Did those “pussy hats” make you feel uncomfortable at all?
KB: I get what they symbolize. It’s a reaction to Donald Trump’s video bragging about sexual assault. I certainly don’t want any woman to not yell and scream about sexual assault just to make me more comfortable. It was mostly just my issue because I’ve literally been thinking non-stop about how to pay for GRS and being dysphoric about my genitals that particular morning. (Those hats can be really warm by the way.) I think there’s a line there between subtly erasing trans women while also empowering and destigmatizing vaginas and uteruses. I’m not sure I’m smart enough to dictate where that particular line is.
TE: There are a lot of leftists who are doubting the ability of the Democrats to keep this administration in check. The fear of women and minorities losing rights is very real right now. If you had the ability to advise the Senate Minority Leader, what advice would you give?
KB: I would tell Senator Schumer to remember what Democrats are. I would ask him to consider all of his constituents when setting his priorities. I understand the impulse to deal make. It’s the liberal way to seek progress where possible, but oftentimes this backfires. I don’t trust Republicans to act in good faith and it may come down to Democrats to defend the institutions that form the bedrock of our Democracy.
I wish Democrats would stop obsessing over winning over moderate Republicans. They’re just a voting bloc. People seem to have this idea that the US is a center-right economic, center-left social country. It’s not, it’s much more diverse. These elections are about turning out certain voters. If Democrats tack too far right in an effort to seem “reasonable” they’re going to open themselves up to attacks of “they’re both the same” and they will lose even harder.
I would ask Senator Schumer what a Democrat is. My feeling is he may struggle to answer, and yet we can define a Republican and they just kicked our collective rear ends in the last election. If we can’t define ourselves for our voters, then Republicans have no problem defining us to our voters. We must take a stand.
TE: Agreed. One last question: If you could speak to the world, what one concise thought would you convey?
KB: Trans women are women.
TE: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us this evening.
KB: You’re very welcome, it was fun!