If you’ve been reading my Twitter feed, you know I got an unprofessional and offensively worded rejection for a story from an unnamed queer magazine I used to promote.
I spent a lot of time thinking about whether to go public with it. In the meantime, several other authors told me about similar editorial responses they received from the same person. This has encouraged me to go public, as it demonstrates the response I got was part of a larger pattern. I have not asked their permission to share what happened to them – they can come forward or not, as they would like – but I’d like to share what happened to me.
The venue in question is Vitality Magazine.
Let’s start at the beginning.
I’m a Hungarian Jewish nonbinary trans person, specifically agender (my pronouns are e/em/eir/emself or singular they). I’m also autistic and have motor dyspraxia. I moved to the US from Hungary last year and currently live in Iowa. I do not pass well as either of the binary genders, and therefore do not have an option of being in the closet. As both a trans person and a Jew (a target of discrimination in my country), I repeatedly experienced physical violence, social ostracism and harassment in my country of origin. I had to move across the globe to live in a measure of peace. I’m just saying this so that you understand my background – I expect this post will be read by people who don’t know me personally.
I am an author of speculative fiction and poetry. I’ve been published in various SF magazines like Clarkesworld, Apex, Strange Horizons and more. I’ve also been published in specifically queer/trans venues like Glittership, Queers Destroy SF, Here We Cross, etc. As a reviewer, I have been talking about diverse SF in English for over five years, on this site in addition to various magazines, and more recently also on Twitter.
I have had extensive experience with editors in several different countries and in two languages. I have received hundreds of responses for my writing, and I also worked full time as an author of nonfiction for several years. I know what an editorial response to a submission looks like.
What Vitality sent me
An excerpt from the response I received: (quoting a part of the rejection, emphasis mine)
“There is nothing technically wrong with your piece. The present tense is a bit hard to follow (but all present tense is) and I felt some of the interjected worldbuilding (his back tattoo, for instance) was rough and unnecessary. But basically, this piece isn’t a good fit for Vitality because it’s simply… gross.“
First, this is simply not acceptable to say. As an editor, one is producing professional correspondence where such value-laden words as “gross” don’t belong.
Second, let’s examine what the editor found gross.
My piece is a secondary world fantasy story with two nonbinary trans people of color in a warm and loving D/s (Dominant / submissive) relationship. One of them is seriously ill and the other is trying to take care of them. This second person is also disabled and has a motor coordination issue similar to mine. (I naively thought that a story based in part on my own personal experience would be a great fit with Vitality, as they’ve specifically called for such and even sold T-shirts with taglines like “everyone deserves to see themselves in fiction”.) There is no violence. There is no sex, though the characters are shown to be sharing a bed.
There are at least three elements that could’ve squicked the editor out: the transness, the D/s, and the being sick and disabled theme. Judging from other parts of the response, it was the illness/disability theme most of all:
“We’re thinking about adding “no overly gory medical descriptions” to our guidelines after reading this piece… “
I personally don’t think the story had any gore. (I have written and sold both horror for adults and fantasy for children, on both ends of the goriness spectrum.) It did have medical descriptions, quite inevitably given that it has speaking roles for a disabled character, an acutely ill character, and a doctor.
It is impossible to talk in any depth about many disabilities and illnesses without medical descriptions, at least I don’t know how to do so about my own. This wording tells me that disabled / ill people and their narratives are especially not welcome at Vitality. Many (most?) of us trans people are physically, mentally, disabled, chronically or acutely ill, sick, at least in part due to the way the cis majority treats us. We also face significant barriers to healthcare. I personally faced and continue to face significant barriers to healthcare. To exclude such narratives is to exclude the life experience of vast swathes of the QUILTBAG but especially the trans population. This story was a positive portrayal of supporting an acutely ill loved one, with a happy ending (there, I’ve spoiled it…) and people who are kind to each other. It could easily have been about two cis, straight people – it wasn’t a “trans issue story” at all – but it was deeply informed by my life experience.
In addition to the “gross” remark, the rejection misgendered my protagonist (emphasis mine):
“There is nothing technically wrong with your piece. The present tense is a bit hard to follow (but all present tense is) and I felt some of the interjected worldbuilding (his back tattoo, for instance) was rough and unnecessary.“
The pronoun “his” in this rejection refers to a nonbinary trans person who is explicitly mentioned to be neutrally gendered and is never referred to as “him” anywhere in the text.
The editor who sent this response, Jesse Ellorris, self-identifies as a bisexual cis woman from Kansas.
Caveats, and coming forward as a marginalized submitter
An immediate defense can be that the editor in question is inexperienced, and I am being too strict. First, inexperienced or no, a GLBT-friendly venue is NOT a venue that treats trans authors badly at no expense to cis people. I’m quite thick-skinned, but I’m also outspoken and I understand that most writers do not dare to come forward about venues that act in bad faith. There is a considerable power differential at work in editor-writer relationships even when both sides are equally marginalized, which is not the case here.
Second, I am not saying any of the above out of resentment – my work finds markets relatively easily, and I usually send out my pieces again within a day of receiving a rejection, without particular negative thoughts. (This story is out on the market again, too.) According to my spreadsheet, in 2015 so far I received 31 rejections and 15 acceptances from editors, and I did not make any public criticisms of the other responses. I am also currently guest-editing a venue (inkscrawl, a small poetry magazine). Many editors – and authors – can attest to having interacted with me in a courteous, professional manner.
There are many markets friendly to queer and trans writers, and I will continue to promote them. I will just not send anything to Vitality in the future, and I will do my best to warn others about them.
Not only did I receive reports from other writers, but also when I said in public that I had a bad experience with an unnamed queer venue, several people asked me outright if it was Vitality. No one guessed any other market. This also strongly suggests there is a problem with this magazine and that I should come forward.
I thought that even if Vitality doesn’t buy my story, I would still be treated with respect. Like many other writers, I trusted them with my work. It was a mistake. I would like to prevent other people from making the same mistake in the future.
I got this very recent Twitter response to a reader from the magazine (who I don’t know in person), pointed out to me by a fellow disabled trans person after I finalized the above text, but before I posted it. I’m presenting it without comment:
Four people beta-read the above text and offered their very helpful comments – three trans people and a cis person. I am not naming them to protect them from possible backlash, but I am extremely grateful to them.