A letter from Katherine Collins

This morning I received an e-mail from Katherine Collins, whom I have been in conversation with over the past few months.  The letter attached to the e-mail is her own explanation of why her graphic novel, stage play, children’s books, and animated TV series were never brought to full fruition.  What you should know about Katherine Collins is that she was not always Katherine Collins.  Before 1993 Katherine Collins was known to the world as Canadian comic artist Arn Saba who created the much loved newspaper comic strip (and later comic book) “Neil the Horse”.  Published from 1975 to 1991 the “Neil the Horse” comic followed the all-singing and all -dancing trio of Neil the Horse, Soapy the cat, and Mam’selle Poupee anywhere and everywhere a story could be told.  It was in 1993, when Katherine made the transition from male to female, that her career in comics ended “all in one day”.  After experiencing total rejection, Katherine never drew again and is now a social worker living in Canada.

The letter below is a follow-up from a recent conversation I had with Katherine.

I feel very cautious about assigning “blame”, or even cause, to the end of my cartooning
career. That is, blame for anyone but myself.

I would be very ungrateful to ignore the many people who ardently supported me, and
believed in my work. And even if there were clear evidence — which there is not — that
I was excluded or discriminated against, the real attribution for my giving up has to be
to me.

I was not owed success. I was not cheated of something to which I have a natural right.
There is no cosmic obligation, that people must like what is created. If I made unpopular
shoes that nobody wanted, would I be hard done by as a cobbler?

It must be considered, from the very beginning, that perhaps my career died because
my talent was not enough, and my work was not good enough. I can’t judge that. But it’s
certainly not as if the world was blowing a razzberry in the face of Picasso or Rembrandt.
I am not the greatest artist or writer around. I always required assistance with the art,
and other aspects of the execution. I was really as much of an entrepreneur as I was an
artist. My strongest talent was in the creation of the vision for Neil, and its central ethos.
My model was Walt Disney himself, who was not a talented cartoonist, but who had the

I worked hard, over many years, to gain an audience, and I did surmount many
obstacles. I did not give up without a fight — that is, until I did.

I stopped producing work because nobody seemed to want it. But if I had had more selfconfidence,
I would have picked up and carried on. I gave up because I had been
psychologically damaged as a child; not because of a cabal that closed the gates to me.
They did close the gates, but I could have continued to force them open. But I did not,
because I heard the old voices of my childhood, telling me that I am unwanted.

At least as much discrimination is perpetrated upon queer people through the damage
that is done to their self-esteem, as by direct rejection. Some people end up as drug
addicts, sex workers, or as suicides. I ended up as a social worker, so it could be worse.
On the one hand, a wider window of acceptability for styles of creativity would decrease
the unfair damage to many wanna-be artists. On the other hand, not giving up will
always increase one’s chances of success.

I will explore the comics business itself, further below in this document. But first, what
is this psychological damage I refer to? And why is it relevant?

There was an awful lot that I did not know while I was growing up.

I did know that I felt as if I should be a girl, but I didn’t know that it meant anything in
particular, nor certainly that there were others like me, and that there was dawning an
age in which one could do something about it. I just figured it was a thought in my head
which was stray and pointless, and which I had to put aside in order to get on with life. I
may as well have wanted wings.

Also, as odd as it sounds now, I did not know what homosexuality was. I doubt if I ever
heard the term before I was about sixteen, and even then it meant nothing to me. It
seemed like a clinical term which applied to some very few people, in the same way
there were people with, say, club feet. I didn’t really know what it was until I was well
into my twenties.

Therefore, I certainly did not know what it meant to be called a queer or a fag. Or a
pansy, or a fruit. I was called all of these, but for all the effect it had on me, the terms
may as well have been weirdo or idiot. I was always being called something.

And that was the biggest thing I did not know — why it was that so many people were so
cruel to me. It was so omnipresent and prolonged that I considered it a normal part of
being alive. On the street and at school, I was beaten and spat on, kicked, knocked down,
pushed down stairs, cat-called, insulted, and excluded. I had no idea why, except that it
was always boys of the roughest sort who did this, and since I was bookish and artistic,
and definitely not in with the in-crowd, I figured maybe everyone who was “different”
got this treatment.

I also did not know that my father was living in a blind panic that his oldest son, his
namesake, his “junior”, was a sissy. All I knew was that, starting when I was three, my
father seemed to hate me. No matter what I did, it was wrong. I was constantly being
told to be different from how I was. Nothing I did was right — wrong interests, wrong
emotions, wrong clothes, wrong friends, wrong ambitions, wrong ways of speaking and
eating and laughing. I remember countless instances of crying on my bed, unable to
imagine how I could become a different person, because who I was, was wrong. But of
course I couldn’t change it.

What is significant here is that not only was all of this carried out without any explanation
or discussion, but in fact it was motivated by nothing concrete that anyone could
really point to. I didn’t put on dresses, or play with dolls, or decide to be a hairdresser. I
didn’t swish, I was not a gay screamer, I didn’t love Dorothy. Boys and men just honed
in on me with a ferocious instinct. They could “just tell” that something was wrong. They
knew what I did not know.

Just as wolves are reputed to become more deadly when they smell blood, boys and men
can smell “not maleness.” I still don’t know what they sense. But if a person is supposedly
male, and does not qualify by this mysterious silent system, there are no restrictions
on the sadism that may be righteously unleashed on the offender.

Why do males do this? Well, I don’t know that, either.

The makeup of my social persona, and my underlying personality, was of course severely
affected by all this. To begin with, being in truth a female person, with a fairly average
complement of female attributes, but expected (even by my uncomprehending self) to
live as a male, I had no ways of being that actually fit. My ability to be a functioning
hetero male was nearly nil — socially, and later sexually and in relationships. I had
nothing to give to the life I was supposed to live. In effect, I did not live it. I had very
little of an emotional or social life until I transitioned, many years later.

But I did have an intellectual and artistic life. I was talented enough to start getting
attention and approval from a very early age. In elementary school, I sang in front of the
class, and wrote stories and drew cartoons. I was first professionally published at age
sixteen, and success never stopped after that. That was the only life I had, and I put all
eight of my cylinders to work at my creative enterprises. Whatever approval I got from it
was the only approval I got, and I depended on it.

The many years of creating, building up and refining the world of Neil the Horse was
my substitute for growing into an adult role, with the usual web of relationships and
social ties. This cartoon creation was my ultimate expression, which revealed my heart,
my desires, my humour, my cleverness, my pain, my joy — and (I hoped) did so in an
entertaining way, that people would enjoy and love. Yes, love. This was how I hoped I
could feel loved. It was the only way, in fact, that I ever might have felt it.

In 1993, I was “set to go”, with the graphic novel, a stage musical, children’s books,
blueprints for an animated series, and plans for further comic books. It was my grand
blossoming, with a cluster of mature artistic products. They expressed me, and I was like
a performer stepping onto the stage, alone and vulnerable, exposed to the audience’s
approval or scorn. It was my very soul that was up for judgement.

But everything collapsed. And I felt as if, while I was on stage, the entire audience had
quietly filtered out of the theatre, leaving me capering like a fool to an empty house.
(One of Chaplin’s most searing images is of exactly this happening to Charlie.) I had no
emotional resilience. Someone with more faith in herself, and more of a sense of being
accepted and valued as a person, could have bounced back and found ways to continue.
(Trina Robbins has persevered like this time and again.) Instead, I was humiliated, and
from then on wanted only to hide my face from the comics world.

I had nothing more to offer. I could not turn and merely do something else. Everything I
had, and was, had been offered, and found wanting.

The end of my comics career actually happened all in one day. It was in September
1993, but I can’t remember the exact date. I have it somewhere. I think I gave the
wrong date to Bob Levin.

How it occurred was this: I went to the Berkeley office of John Gertz (my businesspartner/
agent), for a meeting. We were to meet with one Johnny Reinis, a prominent
theatre-owner and theatrical producer in San Francisco. He had commissioned from me
a Neil the Horse stage musical, and had been very friendly and enthusiastic up to this
time. I had turned in the first draft of the play (book, music and lyrics), and we were
going to hear his critique.

Before Reinis arrived, John and I discussed other business. It was a shock. The graphic
novel was at this time in production. (I had my hands full — play, graphic novel, very
active transition.) We had been shopping it around for quite a while, and had, to my
increasing dismay, been finding no interest. The slow drip of rejection was becoming
extremely disheartening. But John was well-connected in many aspects of entertainment
and publishing, and had been having more meetings. However, it was dismal
news: the very last of the professional comics publishers on our list had “passed.” The
book was dead in the water.

There was worse to come. We had also been shopping around my elaborately-conceived
proposal for a NEIL animated TV show. (Read the “new” half of NEIL issue 15 for
details.) We had been beating the street with this one for several years, but our hopes
were still high. But no. The same news — the last of the potential producers had turned
us down.

Then Reinis arrived. In short order, he began his “critique”, which tuned out to be more
like a blitzkrieg. He was vile and vicious and nasty, beyond anything I could have
imagined. He was scornful and insulting and belittling and rude and destructive. And
thorough. He went on for at least an hour. He found not one thing he liked, not even the
songs which he had heard before and had liked. He did everything except rip the script
into pieces and piss on it. He stalked angrily out of the office, with steam snorting from
his nose and his hair writhing like snakes.

So it was all over.

I found out a few months later that Reinis had learned, from a third party, about my
transition, and that this was the reason for his behaviour. This is actually the only
verified instance of transphobia directly causing the rejection of my work. He had acted
exactly like all the men and boys who had reviled me in my childhood.

As I told you on the phone, I hung on for a couple more years, trying to sell other
projects. But nothing worked, and I finally just drifted into inactivity. Luckily, for a
while, the satisfactions of my new (female) life were enough to make me forget about
creative work. Ultimately, of course, I have missed it terribly. But I have never managed
to believe in myself again.

A vital question is whether Neil the Horse was perceived as “feminine” work, or perhaps
“gay.” Of course, at the time I was still perceived as male, although I’m sure that some
people (most?) thought that I was gay. I didn’t realize that until later, since I knew I
wasn’t gay (not gay male, anyway), and it never occurred to me that anyone would think
so. Just simple naivete on my part, I guess.

And, as I told you, in public at comics-business events (mostly conventions), all of my
friends were women. I always hung out with the women (who were usually socially
separate from men), and never the men, ever. After my transition, I began to wonder
why nobody thought the situation had been peculiar: not me, not my women friends,
and nobody else, that I knew of anyway. It was just so natural to me — as it has been all
my life — that I failed to think about it. And for my women friends, I suppose that my
energy was already so female that strange alarm bells never went off.

During and after my transition, I began showing up at conventions as Katherine. The
women could not have been more supportive (with a few exceptions**), and I will
always be more grateful than I can say. The men, of course, had nothing to do with me,
but that was the way it always was anyway. But my unveiling must have had some kind
of minor impact in the business — limited, I imagine, to those people who had at least
heard of me.

(** Donna Barr was most unkind, and Diana Schutz quickly grew cold and distant, as
did Heidi McDonald.)

But what people thought of me personally, in the comics business, probably had
minimal impact on NEIL’s acceptance. In the end, whatever happened to my career
most likely occurred because of the work itself. So, did people perceive NEIL as “feminine”?
Really, I don’t know, but . . . if your standard of work being adequately male has
superheroes as its base line, something like Neil would be in trouble. Cute li’l animals
dancing around, people hoofing it across the page, lots of love and romance, pages of
music, pages of paper doll . . . you do the math. I think that most likely, most of the time,
my work suffered not from active discrimination — although it probably happened too
— but more from neglect and indifference.

It is a given, however, that any work that is not specifically “male” (read: crude, violent,
pornographic) must be female. That does not have to be specifically articulated or even
thought, but of course it influences everything, down to the ground.

The old-fashioned unreconstructed sexist does not think very hard or long about the
whole structure of inclusion and discrimination. Let’s say there is an anthology being
put together . . . and it is, of course, mostly superheroes or other violence and soft porn.
But someone says they need more women creators! They go out and find some co-opted
women who will contribute more violence and soft porn — and call it a day. And those
women will represent about 3% of the number of creators in the book. Voila, inclusion!
So, what’s your complaint, chickie?

By these standards, my work would have been somewhere far over the horizon, unseen
and unknown. If by some mistake, my work landed on the desk of such luminous
intelligences as these, they would simply decide that it was in the wrong department,
and they didn’t have to think about it. Voila, exclusion!

I never had any meetings with comics editors or publishers while I was Katherine. That
was not a plan; it just turned out that way. By 1993, when I started to really definitively
transition, meetings and negotiations were being handled by John Gertz. Did the people
he met with know about Katherine? I don’t know. Would it have mattered? Oh
probably, I guess. They would, if nothing else, be reluctant to sign up a person who was
obviously crazy. But we’ll never know.

Beating the male-dominated comics world over the head, for its proliferation of muscleboys,
pin-up girls and one-dimensional female characters, and for its lack of high-quality
female-oriented content, is very old news and does not contribute to any deeper
understanding of the situation. It is all more complex, and much less visible than that.

I think you will never find a meaningful trail of overt discrimination against my work, or
probably against anybody’s. I fear that in researching your hypothesis, of sexism being
actively at work in the comics business, that you will find very few fingerprints. What
has been at work is a prevailing social ethos, and a predominant aesthetic, which serve a
machine that is simply grinding along, down the track already laid out before it, which
no one needs to really think about for its continued operation.

No one in the comics business will ever perceive that my work was “rejected” or
discriminated against. If you ask people about it, they will look at you blankly. My work
was a very small blip on the radar of the comics business, and was never important
enough for anyone to care about. My rejection really came in the form of being overlooked,
tossed aside, ignored, forgotten about, never noticed, or otherwise residing in

This is what happens when sexism-homophobia-transphobia are at work. In these
“more sensitive” days, very few people (although there are some) would consciously
think or say “Eeww, I don’t want to publish that girl-fag-tranny work.” Mostly, they are
just blind to it, disinterested in a way that, if they even think about it, seems to them
like a judgement on the skill or saleability of the work. It is “passive discrimination”,
rather than active, and in a way it is the worst kind, because nobody really knows that it
is happening.

This is of a piece with the unarticulated “necessity” of insufficiently-male boys being
harassed and beaten down, as happened to me. This is the everyday operation of
sexism-homophobia-transphobia. One of its most important tenets is that nothing needs
to be stated, or, indeed recognized. Supposition, assumption, and unknowing acceptance
of fundamental ideas are all that is necessary. This is all about the enforcement of
norms, which are believed not to require explaining.

From 1994 to 1999, I had something new — love. I truly loved, and was loved by, Bobbie
Bentley, my “bulldyke husband.” After she died, I never found another partner, partially
because my love for Bobbie is so strong and undying; but also for a much more sinister
reason. I consider myself a lesbian, obviously. But for the most part, lesbians of my age
have absolutely no use for trans-women. In fact, most of them hate trannies with a
venom. Being a transsexual in any part of society means always being in a “special”
category, always excluded from the “real” people.