Why I Hired a Sensitivity Reader

Being one letter in LGBTIQA doesn’t make me qualified to talk about the other letters

The royal romance, which will be titled The Queen Has a Cold, is slated for publication in 2021. I’m currently in revisions to the manuscript, and I’ve hired a “sensitivity reader” who will offer feedback on my portrayal of one of the two main characters. Remy, the heir to the throne, harbors a secret: they’re intersex, and they identify as nonbinary. The palace has forced Remy to perform as a princess until puberty, when body changes meant sending Remy out of the public eye. Remy’s match in this book is Sam, a self-identified lesbian who studies gender and sexuality and understands Remy better than their own family does.

I’m a self-identified lesbian and have been since I was 19. (I briefly identified as bisexual for a few months, which I think were my way of slowly wading into the waters, just as I abandoned all meat except chicken for a year before going full-on vegetarian when I was 16.) I am currently married to someone whose pronouns are flexible and who alternately has labeled themselves as trans, nonbinary, and nonconforming. I can write Sam. I get what Sam is going through, what it feels like to be interested in someone whose identity is outside what you expect yourself to find attractive. I know what it’s like to wonder if this changes your own identity. (It doesn’t! You get to decide how you label yourself, and everyone else has to respect it!)

I am not, however, intersex, and I have not grown up with any sort of secrets about my body the way Remy has. Despite extensive research I have done on intersex, despite friends and colleagues in my life who are intersex, I simply cannot fully fathom that lived experience. It doesn’t matter that intersex people, like trans people, are often lumped into the same community with cis lesbians, cis gay men, and cis bisexuals as if gender and sexuality are the same thing. I welcome that grouping because I think that our community is for everyone and that we are stronger when we are a rainbow of diverse experiences. While I respect the arguments of people who do not see “LGBTIQA” as one community, I would be invoking cis privilege to believe that I was in any way qualified to write about the lived experiences of intersex or trans people.

For this reason, I’ve hired what is popularly referred to as a “sensitivity reader,” someone from within the marginalized group who can tell me if I am unintentionally doing harm by repeating stereotypes, mislabeling or using jargon incorrectly, or misrepresenting experience. The label “sensitivity reader” undervalues the work. It sounds as if it’s someone whose job is to say “wah, you’re making me feel sensitive,” someone whose role in society is to make sure we all coddle each other. Actually, the work these readers do is consulting at a very specialized, careful level. They are reading consultants. And they deserve to be hired and paid as such.

I may actually end up losing money on this book, if sales are dim, because I have hired this consultant. Given the horrors that intersex people have experienced in the past, which you can expect plenty of writing about in the months to come, the last thing I want to do is contribute to the hurt the community has experienced. And I definitely don’t want to earn a profit off a manuscript that has failed to bear any resemblance to real experiences of intersex people.

My consultant has only just gotten the manuscript, so we haven’t yet had a chance to discuss any feedback. I anticipate it will be rewarding to talk to someone about my work, and I equally anticipate that it’ll be painful to hear what I’ve done wrong and where I can improve. But I would negligent not to do this, when the very point of the novel is to raise awareness for intersex and to celebrate intersex and nonbinary identities. When I say “romance for everyone,” I meant it, and that means recognizing when my own marginalization doesn’t allow me to understand the marginalization of someone else.

3 thoughts on “Why I Hired a Sensitivity Reader

  1. Pingback: Interview: Hans Lindahl, Intersex Activism, and Queer Politics |

  2. Pingback: How NaNoWriMo Turned Out |

  3. Pingback: Coming Up for Air | Jane Kolven

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