I am beyond thrilled to welcome the ever-so-fascinating Dharma Kelleher to be my Tell Me Your Story guest this month, because does she ever have stories to tell. Dharma writes action-driven thrillers that explore the complexities of social and criminal justice in a world that favors the privileged. She is one of the only openly transgender authors in the crime fiction genre. Dharma lives in Arizona with her wife and a black cat named Mouse. Learn more about Dharma and her work at https://dharmakelleher.com.
Even If My Voice Shakes
“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.”
— Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
— Bishop Desmond Tutu
The worst author marketing advice I ever received was “Don’t be political online. You’ll alienate half your potential readers.” At first blush, it may make sense. But really what it does is enforce the status quo of the white patriarchy and silence voices speaking out for civil rights. And for people like me, silence equals death, as ACT-UP so rightly stated in the 1980s.
Let me explain.
I first fell in love with writing when I was a teenager, tapping out short stories on a manual Smith Corona typewriter back in the late 1970s. I dreamed of becoming a published novelist and spent hours at the local library (where I eventually got my first job) pouring over the latest copy of Writer’s Market.
But my author career was sidelined when, shortly after college, I came out as transgender. It was something I had known since I was five, though at that age I did not know the term transgender or even transsexual. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I came out first to myself and then to the world.
And I lost everything. My marriage, my family, my home, my job, and my church. I did whatever I had to in order to survive. Some of it illegal.
Decades later, I once again discovered my joy of writing through the annual event known as National Novel Writing Month. I spent another eight years honing my craft before one of the Big Five published my debut novel, Iron Goddess, a crime thriller about a lesbian outlaw biker.
One challenge I faced was that publishers kept coming back with “We love this book, but don’t know how to market it.” My agent and I agreed that this was code for “If your book featured a straight man instead of a lesbian protagonist, we’d snap it up in a heartbeat.”
After my publisher opted not to extend the contract beyond the original two-book deal, I made a tough decision.
While I enjoyed writing about a cisgender lesbian antihero, I really wanted to write crime thrillers with a transgender main character. I wanted people like me represented on the pages. I wasn’t looking to write coming out stories or transition stories or romance. Just hardcore thrillers where the protagonist happens to be trans.
But as hard as it was to sell a lesbian thriller, I knew pitching a crime thriller with a trans hero would be an act of futility.
Renee James was only one other openly transgender author publishing crime fiction at the time. And her books were self-published. I realized that if I was going to write what I wanted to write, I would have to walk away from the trad pub route and do it myself.
Four years later, I’ve now published a dozen crime thrillers and am currently writing lucky thirteen.
But as much as I’ve tried to steer my storylines away from trans-related topics, I keep finding myself exploring them, if only as a minor subplot.
Because while the treatment of transgender people in American society had been dramatically improving since I came out thirty years ago, things have taken a dark turn over the past five or six years.
It’s bad enough that murders of transgender people continue to rise. But not a day goes by without some state legislature proposing new laws to strip transgender people of their basic human rights and treating us like we are a threat to women and children and decent society. They are especially targeting trans kids, who already struggle with bullying and high suicide rates. These people are banning our books in libraries and even trying to ban them in bookstores.
At the same time, one of the most successful authors in the world, J.K. Rowling, continues to spread harmful misinformation about people in my community. Portraying us as evil predators, not only on social media, but in her crime novels, which she writes using the name of a pioneer of conversion therapy as her nom de plume.
For those who studied the Holocaust, this trend is eerily familiar. And I truly fear where it may lead.
I would really like NOT to have to speak out against the bullying and misinformation that fuels the physical and legislative violence now aimed at my community. We are fighting for our most basic human and civil rights. We are fighting for our very lives. To be silent in the face of such cruelty and injustice would be complicity.
In my newly released thriller Red Market, part of the story involves the main character Jinx Ballou, a trans woman working as a bounty hunter, offering her home as a sanctuary for a trans girl and her mother, who are being hunted by a weaponized Department of Child Safety. Much like gentile families hid Jewish families from the Nazis during the Holocaust.
This is NOT speculative fiction. This is a storyline that has been happening in Texas and other states across this country for the past year or so.
I know that writing these stories may alienate some readers. And certainly, sharing stories like this will put off some crime fiction fans. It would be so much easier, and considerably much more profitable, to steer clear of these issues.
But I cannot be silent. I will not be complicit. I will always speak out against bigotry and bullying and cruelty and fascism. Because, having been bullied since I was five years old, I know there is only one way to make it stop. And that is to fight back and speak truth to power, even if my voice shakes.
More Places to Go
Donis on Facebook
Type M for Murder