There was a moment at Capclave 2017, during a lull in a diversity panel, when I looked out at the audience. They were few, because it was a Sunday morning, and I wondered why they were there. Being loopy on doughnut sugar, I up and asked. "Are you here to write about queer folks, or are you here to be with your community?" Everyone was there for the community. And I confess it was a relief.
Most panels with transgender and nonbinary topics are what we call Gender 101. Half of the time is spent talking about what our words mean, moving from the collective dictionary to personal experiences. The writers there want to know how to write us, and in some cases, want public permission to do it. It becomes a cis-centering experience. But that day, I crossed off half my moderating notes and we loosened up, talked about other stuff, things that mattered to us. It felt good to have that space. Afterward, I asked my panelmate Kellan and a few other folks if they'd be willing to do that again, for Strange Horizons.
Here ya go.
For the purpose of basic definitions, "transgender" (or trans) means anyone whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. "Nonbinary" (or genderqueer) refers to those people who do not identify as solely man or woman, but some combination or absence thereof.
Vanessa Rose Phin: You have stepped into the fictional future, through the hatch of a ship and onto a shiny space station. Look around. Where are the trans people?
K. M. Szpara: It's a trick question—I'm the trans person! And I'm dressed like a femme-casual space wizard, who doesn't stand out because clothing isn't divided by gender anymore. I truly welcome the Standard Issue Sack-Dress / Jumpsuit™ look that many near-future stories offer. In gray. With pockets. This is my trans dream! Folks on the space station are wearing whichever version they please, regardless of whether they're trans or cis, binary or NB, femme or butch or androgynous. Trans folks are everywhere, though, relaxing or doing business. Including a rugged trans man who's rocking a jumpsuit and will eventually show me his collection of cyber-cocks.
Ana Mardoll: Oh gosh. The Star Trek Enterprise future I like to envision is one where pronouns are as much a part of introduction as names, home planet, academic titles, and favorite cereal mascot. I love my neo-pronouns and I can't imagine a future without them, nor without other folks, cis and trans alike, using their own neo-pronouns alongside me. I'm also very excited about advancements in body modifications: more options for dysphoric genderfluid people like myself! Why not a future where I can decide breasts are part of my evening attire but not so much a morning thing?
Katherine Cross: I'd like to be cheeky and say "in the captain’s chair," but the truth is: everywhere. I want to believe that if everything goes as we hope, if our world doesn't backslide into despotism and apocalypse, that we will reach a point where transgender identity will become so commonplace as to barely require a distinct name, where play with gender, sexual reassignment, and re-re-assignment are part of a normal lifecourse. I do not believe that our future, even a (relatively) utopian one, entails the end of either gender or transness: dysphoria will be a condition that some folks will always have, I suspect, and "gender" is merely a performative/visual language of self-expression and configuration that will, to some extent, always be a lexical part of any human civilisation. I resist the idea that trans people symbolise anything beyond ourselves, but, if I may invoke Donna Haraway’s notion of an "ironic myth," I think the story we can tell without apology is that we are the future.
Margaret Killjoy: I don’t know where we'll be, or if we'll be. As far as I can tell, trans people have been here forever, in every human society. But the experiences I have as a transwoman in early-twenty-first-century America are not entirely comparable with any of the other conditions of transness that have ever been (or currently exist throughout the world), and I'd be remiss to claim the superiority of the version I have been exposed to. I suspect the current conception won't be the conception we have in the future. Maybe the cis/trans divide will collapse, or maybe it'll be reified, or maybe there will be a strangely specific set of three, or four, or seventeen genders. That doesn't mean that anyone writing science fiction needs to develop some entirely new understanding of transness, of course. It's okay to write about our own experiences in far-flung situations.
Vanessa Rose Phin: What I like best about these visions—beyond, y'know, actually getting to exist sometimes—is how each of your responses acknowledges there is no one right way to be trans, and that includes the futures we imagine (or don’t imagine) for ourselves.
Katherine Cross: I just got through reading and reviewing the new Topside Press anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere, and this is perhaps its greatest strength. Its visions of trans life, whether in fact or in sci-fi metaphor, are as varied as we all are. Transness comes in familiar forms or cultural archetypes (the trans girl punk, say, or the gentrifying middle-class trans man), or in the form of a lizardy collectivist alien, and I adore it. It makes a difference to see this vast panoply of visions, from binary-identified trans people to folks who use neopronouns, represented as fully realised characters whose stories are not only worth telling but worth telling well, and more than once.
Margaret Killjoy: Ooh, I'm a cultural archetype! I guess that's true though. Better an archetype than a stereotype.
K. M. Szpara: I spent a lot of time trying to be the kind of trans guy I assumed I was supposed to be, so that people would take me seriously or respect my pronouns or give me the medical care I needed. That's because the acceptable trans narrative in my world—in the present United States and in Maryland—is narrow. In science fiction and fantasy worlds, I can show futures and worlds where the path is wide. Endless. Where there are no limits on expression. Where people can tell their parents and their doctors and friends and family that they're trans and then they don't have to dress like the menswear section of a department store and stop using an expressive voice and hand gestures and stop wearing jewelry and makeup or liking certain colors, for goodness' sake. When trans people write science fiction, we help redefine the narrative—a narrative largely controlled by cis people.
Ana Mardoll: I think this "panoply of visions" (I love that turn of phrase, Katherine!) is important. Normalization means not having to constantly justify ourselves, explain our existence, and push back against harmful stereotypes. One of the things we still see in community discussions is a hyper-focus on our genitals, our assigned gender at birth, and how much we each personally align to feminine, masculine, and/or androgyne presentations. A lot of science fiction dealing with transness tends to zoom in on things like bodily appearance and societal roles—important topics, but not the only ones, and certainly not ones relevant to my own daily life! I'd like to see more SFF that explores transness in ways other than body alteration and social roles.
Vanessa Rose Phin: What would you like to see covered beyond alteration and social roles?
Ana Mardoll: Romance and relationships, particularly long-term, come to mind: where are the scenes of established couples (and polyamorous groupings!) exchanging morning pronouns over their cup of synthcoffee and their newstablet? Reproduction as an issue: gatekeepers object to gender-affirming surgeries on fertility grounds (nota bene: I was infertile already!), but the science fiction future should have amazing technological advances which provide a host of opportunities to anyone who wants to reproduce. How then do we raise those children? I want to see kids on a starship being raised by happy polyam triads and given room to explore their gender identity as freely as they could possibly want, even as they understand (because it's normalized!) that their own parents' genders may change as naturally and as often as, say, their clothing or hair color.
Society and culture are the playthings of science fiction, and exploration of transness should reflect the rich imaginations in our community. How does our futuristic society adapt to the normalization of transness and things like gender fluidity? Does a gender-neutral pronoun for everyone arise for formal situations like work and school, with personal pronouns reserved for intimate relationships, like how some languages have a formal you (usted) and an informal you (tú)? Would it be a faux pas for a partner to refer to their lover with an informal pronoun while at work? Would everyone then know—or at least strongly suspect—they were in a relationship?
Or do we wear nametags, jewelry, brooches, or some other signifier for pronouns? Do we all have a "status" that we update on the local meshnet, which our AI earpiece reads down into our ear (or our AI glasses flash up in front of our eyes!) whenever we meet someone? I already check someone's Twitter profile and most recent tweets for context when engaging with them; how much more will we collect and consume as technological advances make it easier and faster? Do we have little electronic cheat-sheets for people that flash up at a glance?
Name: Ana Mardoll
Gender: Male (Fluid)
Pronouns: Xie / Xer
Status: Saddened by recent bereavement in family
Avoid Topics: Mother, birthday cake, Earth
To me, the exploration of how transness influences society (and how society influences the words we use to talk about our gender) is more interesting than yet another deep dive into what genitals a main character is currently packing and what they do with those body parts in their free time.
Katherine Cross: How we live, simply. I suppose this isn't terribly radical to say, but I'd like to see our ordinariness as part of more stories. We are, in the end, just people. A story need not centre our transness for it to be a worthwhile story about a trans person. Just as it's long been a trope to present, say, an interracial relationship as the source of a work's driving conflict, it's long been a trope to portray a trans person's (usually trans woman's) transition as the epicentre of conflict, with a fully built-in narrative arc. She discovers she's trans, she struggles to transition, and the story climaxes with surgery (or death, and all the cis characters learn a Very Important Lesson About Tolerance). We could just … not do that? Tell a story, any story, about someone who just happens to be trans? A handful of tabletop roleplaying games have already managed that.
Margaret Killjoy: Yeah, that. Sometimes I feel like being trans is the least interesting thing about me. (I mean, other times it's on my mind every moment of the day, particularly where my safety is concerned.) If I write a character, and the most interesting thing about them is their gender, then I feel like I'm doing everyone a disservice.
K. M. Szpara: I like stories about people who just happen to be trans—those are extremely worthwhile, as Katherine noted above. But I'm also interested in exposing to the general population, a cisgender population, what it's like to be transgender. They don't know shit. They think they do, but they only know the narratives they see or read in media uplifted by other cis people. Speculative fiction literally creates new worlds. It examines humanity through the lens of the other, but we can take it one step further. We are the other. Why not double down? Why not show what it's like to maintain HRT during the apocalypse or what a trans shapeshifter undergoes that a cis one does not? I'm interested in the intersection of trans identity mattering and also not. Because that's how it is in my real life. It doesn't matter until my path diverges from my friends and colleagues. So really it is about telling everyday spec fic stories? It's just that, if the characters are trans, their everyday stories are going to look vastly different from what cis people have read and written, thus far.
Vanessa Rose Phin: There is an anxiety that builds when beginning to read a story, followed by relief when your own existence is validated. When trans identity is normalized, not treated as exotic or fantastical. Not questioned—or at least not questioned in a way that is centered in a cis gaze. What are some examples of normalization done well, and what is the impact of that?
Margaret Killjoy: I'm open to hearing examples, because frankly I don't see them often. Personally, I love stories where a character's transness is less centered but still visible. Maybe my favorite is Sinric, in the TV show Vikings. She (he? they?) exists in a different social context than modern society. Maybe if she were alive today she'd be a transwoman. Her gender is clearly transfeminine, and it's not discussed and it's not questioned. I feel more affinity for her than I do for most representations of transpeople, because she's also a wanderer.
K. M. Szpara: Whoa, I did not know there was a trans character on Vikings, which I wrote off as too straight-looking. The fact that I am now willing to try this television show shows how infrequently we see ourselves well-reflected in media. There aren't any TV shows or movies I watch and see myself in. Trans men (in all their beautiful varieties) are almost invisible. There's only one book I've read—well, technically, am currently listening to—that features a queer trans man and that is Peter Darling, by Austin Chant. For someone who was once a little girl, leaving her window open at night for Peter Pan, queer trans male Peter Pan is pretty much my fantasy!
Aside from recently discovering that book, the one time I ever felt this overwhelming calm regarding representation was when I was reading submissions for Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. I'm not used to stories featuring trans characters. And I've read slush/submissions for other projects before, so my brain fell back into that mode. The first story I read was Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s "Everything Beneath You." I had a moment of pure surprise and joy when I realized the character was trans. And you'd think I'd have learned, but no. I experienced the same euphoria when I read the next story. And the next. Even stories I didn't select were a pleasure to read. I can't wait to read the new one, which Bogi Takács edited.
Katherine Cross: Thinking about your audience is vital for any kind of writing, of course. But marginalised writers of any stripe are expected to cater to one hyper-specific audience at all times—a group of people, outside their experience, that they need to "educate" and "humanise" themselves for. This is what leads to, say, women being pigeonholed into "confessional" or "chick lit," and parallel phenomena for non-white writers. We're considered experts on our own lives only, unable to testify to something larger than the narrow windtunnel of what we've personally experienced. White cis men get to write about "being human"; we can only speak for ourselves. I think when we break ourselves of that assumption—that we're writing testimony to educate those more privileged than we—it allows us to reach that blessed universality. Oddly, in being a trans writer who keeps a trans audience foremost in mind, you make your fiction more, not less, universal. Because in doing so, you reach deeper into what it is that makes us human, and in doing that, those who are willing to read deeply—regardless of their background—will find themselves lavishly rewarded.
Ana Mardoll: This is a favorite topic of mine, the question of centering an intended audience. I'm currently working on a collection of stories in which trans people break or unexpectedly fulfill "gendered" prophecies (à la Éowyn in Lord of the Rings). At the beginning of this project, I put a lot of thought into who I wanted to center: a cis audience needing education or a trans audience seeking escapism? I believe education and escapism can coexist, but one will be prioritized over the other in a work because there are times when cis needs and trans needs conflict.
I decided to prioritize a trans audience because so little centers us as the primary readership. I wrote stories which normalize transness. No deadnames are used. No genitals are revealed. (They're not relevant in the context of these particular stories.) Correct pronouns are used in the narration. When pregnancies are mentioned, I talk about pregnant people instead of pregnant women. The response from trans readers has been overwhelmingly positive and cemented my decision to write trans-centering works as a core part of my activism and existence.
I know I risk leaving some cis readers behind. We've seen cis readers confused by how a man can get pregnant or why a father doesn't seem to realize his daughter is a daughter. I've found it's not hard at all to signal a character's transness to trans readers, but cis readers can miss things which exist outside of their experience. I hate leaving people behind when I could educate them instead, yet I feel the centering of trans readers is an important disruptive act. Asking cis readers to bend themselves just a little to read our works can be a form of education in itself: recognizing how much they've been centered when suddenly they're not. And I've found that centering trans readers can be powerfully affirming to a trans audience: I've been told by several readers how amazing it felt to be the intended primary audience of a story for the first time ever.
Vanessa Rose Phin: To what extent do we need disruption in fiction? What are its most effective forms?
Katherine Cross: Coming from the world of writing about tech culture (Silicon Valley, et al.) this word always gets my back up. I associate "disruption" with uncreative destruction, with cultic chants at tech conferences filled with beards, T-shirts, and shorts. For me, "disruption" is the latest term for capitalism's dislocating, chaos-making effects. But to use the dictionary definition of the word…yes, I think fiction needs more of it, certainly. Perhaps we just need to call it something different? "Tell new stories" has been my rallying cry throughout my career, mostly in talking about videogame narratives, but also genre fiction. As I said, marginalised writers are often expected to sing the same song over and over again. In the case of trans folk, it's tragedy porn luridly fixated on surgeries and visceral transformations, where we die, or are ruthlessly oppressed by bigots and saved by Cis Tolerance. It's a boring, lazy morality story meant to make a specific kind of person feel good, feel redeemed. Disrupting that means de-centering that person, and instead diving into what makes us who we are at this point in time.
K. M. Szpara: Telling our truths is disruptive. There's so much about our identities—about being trans—that we hide away on a daily basis, in order to not be murdered, in order to get through security in an airport, to remain on good terms with our coworkers and families, to access basic aspects of society. I want people to know about how hard second puberty was. I want to share how my emotions have changed and how I've struggled with my gender expression through fashion because of the years I spent trying to appear as the version of "male" others expected, just so they'd take me seriously. I'm angry. I'm a lot of other things, too! But I'm also angry at cis folks for enforcing cis normativity. That I'm scared to walk outside in a skirt. To go to the bathroom. That it's hard for me to have personal conversations with people—and I almost never want to talk about gender with cis people—so science fiction and fantasy are one of the most accessible ways for me to do so. Even if the reader can tell it's autobiographical, it's still fiction. I find I'm able to educate cis readers and give trans readers the representation they/we so desperately need.
Margaret Killjoy: If I understand the idea of disruption correctly, then … I don’t think we need to do it intentionally, or for the sake of disruption. I think that more people, with more lived experiences, participating in spec fic as readers, writers, editors, and publishers will absolutely cause all the havoc necessary—so long as we don't accidentally assimilate ourselves. My day-to-day existence already disrupts society and brings out the bigots, so I figure anyone who can't handle me walking down the street living my life will have trouble with my stories too.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Margaret, I know you have a lot of interest in utopias and dystopias—is writing one a disruptive act, given their history, or something else?
Margaret Killjoy: I love dystopias, and I love utopias even more. I guess it depends on what we're talking about disrupting. I don't think dystopias are disruptive, no. They're essentially the status quo of fiction right now. That doesn’t mean they aren't socially useful—I think the culture that expresses the values of fighting against tyranny is always good—but they don't disrupt the world of spec fic since they are the world of spec fic, and they don't disrupt the regular world because capitalism and authority have more or less fully recuperated them. People can go see The Hunger Games films and cheer for rebels and maybe even get the criticism of the "official" resistance movements, all without drawing parallels between that dystopia and the dystopia that most of the world lives in. (I'm writing from here at the capital of the U. S.)
Utopias matter to me more right now because utopian visions are less nihilistic. It's not about grim, stony determination to fight the existent, but instead to defend the beautiful things we've carved out for ourselves in the world. Utopia is harder to write, because it's harder to get drama out of utopia, but done well it's a fantastic thing. They also have a stronger history of actually inspiring revolt, because people fight when there's a thing they want to fight for, not just fight against.
All that said, solidly morally ambiguous stories might be the most useful of all, because they work better to develop the reader’s ability to determine their own moral compass.
Ana Mardoll: Seconding the love for dystopias. I would love to see works exploring transness within a dystopia. How much of our trans lives are already controlled by a governing authority which can be hostile to our existence? Why do we require permission from the government to change the gender markers on our various paperworks? Does it make any sense at all that we're assigned a gender at birth based on a casual glance at our genitals and we are then forced to carry around that marker for the rest of our lives unless we manage to convince a large number of government officials to change it? Or maybe a Hunger Games dystopia could explore class-based disparity of access where trans people in the Capitol receive different treatment than trans people in the Districts. There's just so much you could do in a dystopia setting and I do feel rather invisible in many of the works we have available. I love them, but so often there is a sense of not being the intended reader for the work.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Speaking of ambiguity and self-development, let's get into the questioning space. It seems to me that there is only one kind of queer questioning story: a one-time event that works like an on-off switch. I modified my pronouns just this week. Again. I don't expect I'm done with it. Where is the lifelong process? Where can the questioning tale go, beyond the storied bolt of lightning?
Ana Mardoll: Oh, I love this question. In the collection of short stories I mentioned working on, I have a protagonist who is questioning their gender identity throughout the story and ends the story still questioning. One of my beta readers remarked on how rare and necessary that is in their reading experience, to have a questioning character remain questioning. I'd love to see more stories like that.
Margaret Killjoy: This is something I’m working on in my WIP right now as well as my life, I guess. When I finally came out as trans, I think some of the people close to me in my life expected some big switch, like I'd reached some tipping point. Whereas what actually happened was that the label I felt comfortable with reached a tipping point—my actual gender didn't change. As I moved through the blurry genderqueer middleground, I finally reached a point where I was enough on the feminine side of all that blurriness to just say "okay, world, I’m a transwoman."
It's hard to capture in writing, because it's hard to do in the real world also. The reason we use language is so that we can be understood by people. But these are things very few readers are equipped to really understand at all. (I suppose that's an argument for more stories though!)
K. M. Szpara: Questioning is hard, though, and is something I'm only now brave enough to work into my characters' identities, because there is pressure for trans people always to be confident. That's the cis-approved trans narrative. We know our identity from a young age, have always been that identity inside, transition to express that identity outwardly, and then are that identity. I hate that we desperately need cis people chanting things like, "trans men are men," because I agree but also … don't? I'm not that confident in my identity at all times. There are many qualifiers to the kind of trans man I am that are crucial aspects of my identity. For so long, I've been confident outwardly for cis people, to win their respect and protection and approval, that it's been hard to accept the nuances in my own identities. I am finally working through that. Likewise, it's been hard for me to give my characters the same leeway. Now that I'm more confident in my own fluidity and nuance, I'm more able to give my characters the same.
Margaret Killjoy: I'm trying to find the "like" button for K.M.’s comment above, because that's it exactly. 👍
Katherine Cross: In contrast to K.M., I think we need people chanting "trans women are women" ad infinitum, because there's no flaw in the reasoning, nor do I think it's inherently supportive of a cis-centric view of our lives. The words are true, and they guard my life. The complexity lies in what "woman" means, and how that can evolve over the lifecourse. Gender has a certain amount of fluidity for all of us, whether cis or trans, trans or genderqueer, across cultures and faiths. We change over time, sometimes in little ways, sometimes grand, but always tweaking and modifying what a given gender "means" socially, in our own little ways. In fixating on the drama of the "sex change," we efface that reality. The notion of gender as stable and fixed was always a lie, for everyone. But it doesn't mean identities (e.g., woman) can't be relatively stable.
Where can the questioning tale go? Everywhere. I think, in this particular way, sci-fi will have matured when it can explore this sort of thing openly without it necessarily being a "trans" tale.
Vanessa Rose Phin: I wonder if, in some ways, our discomfort with questioning narratives is the same as our discomfort with all gender expression outside of a narrow range. Those narrow ranges show up in representations of trans people.
Katherine Cross: What many cis people don’t realise—especially those who say we somehow "reinforce gender stereotypes"—is that we're forced into certain gendered performances in order to win conditional acceptance. In 2017 I still hear from trans girls who say that medical professionals, with power over their lives, doubted the sincerity of their transition because they weren't feminine enough. This mentality stifles us all.
K. M. Szpara: Wow did I spend a long time convincing people I was A Man. And wow was it tiring. I'm still tired from it. But, as we all know, being allowed to identify as A Man comes with a LOT of strings attached. I didn't donate all my "girl clothes" right away because a part of me didn't want to. I tucked away some jewelry and shoes. Kept some scarves. Waited.
Of course, there are items I owned as a girl which do give me dysphoria and which I cannot wear (shirts with certain cuts, my old winter coat, etc.). But I remember the first time I wore a necklace, after coming out. I was terrified that anyone would notice. My mom did, because she notices everything, and she asked me about it. Wearing a necklace is not the sort of thing that should scare a person. I thought my entire identity would be invalidated because of that one accessory. It's taken me years to learn that my gender expression does not define my gender identity. And that I don't need cis validation for either.
Alas, the narratives that make cis people the most comfortable are the ones that show up the most in stories. They're binary, cis passing, masculine or feminine, but not both. They've had surgery and HRT. They're straight and allosexual and so on. They are not like me: a trans guy who likes to wear certain skirts, when it's safe, wears their hair in a bun, keeps facial hair, likes a good high heel. The Man rules can go fuck themselves. But I honestly don't know if I'd be where I am now if I didn't play along with cis expectations; there's a certain amount of appeasing we have to do to prove ourselves to cis gatekeepers, which sucks.
That's why the more comfortable I become with my various identities and expressions, the more comfortable I am writing characters like me. Hopefully those characters show other trans readers that they don't have to appease cis folks. They can be binary and gender nonconforming. Yeah, I can pass as a cis guy if I want. But I'm most myself when I'm expressing outside those lines. I look like the guy shopping for skirts in the women’s section. I'm the high heels you see under the stall door in the men’s room. Those things need to be okay, and I firmly believe that representation helps trans folks feel more confident in that area and cis people more accepting.
Ana Mardoll: I think it's important to remember we're writing inside a culture that questions us in a hostile manner. There are days when I'm hit with imposter syndrome: am I really trans? am I just a cis person who thinks I'm a special snowflake? I can share these questioning feelings with other trans people in safe spaces, but if I share them with cis people, they're going to use those feelings to hurt me, to "prove" that all along this has been a make-believe fantasy of mine.
In that context, it makes sense to me that when I wrote my first trans demigirl character, xie didn’t experience the depth of questioning feelings that I myself do, because I knew that if xie was too "ambivalent" about xer gender identity, some cis readers might use that portrayal to hurt trans people in their lives (myself included). My demigirl character was sure about xer gender because I didn't want any insecurity to be used to undermine xer or me.
Then, too, perhaps there was also some self-insert fantasy going on: I wrote a demigirl who isn't plagued by imposter feelings because I myself would like to be rid of those feelings! I am making an effort to include more room for questioning narratives in my works now, but I do think that the issue is made fraught by the hostile society surrounding us. *shakes fist at cisnormativity*
Vanessa Rose Phin: We've seen this phrase a lot lately in calls for submissions: "Looking for women and nonbinary people." How do you feel about this statement? What might you like to see instead?
Margaret Killjoy: It's easy for me to say this, as someone who is included in "women and nonbinary people," but I'm also just sympathetic to people who are willing to put in the effort to try and am not overly invested in demanding semantic perfection. I remember when it was "women and trans," which is also obviously a problem (since in that context "women" is implicitly cis), but once again it was being said by people who were earnestly trying to be trans-inclusive and have always been welcoming to me. I sort of bristle at the idea that people who are a half (or full) step behind on discourse ought to be chastised—not that anyone here is necessarily doing that, but it's something I see quite often. I suppose if I were phrasing it I'd go for "people of marginalized genders" or "people who experience gender marginalization" or something like that.
Ana Mardoll: *sighs* I dislike that phrasing a lot, though I understand the intent behind it and I don't have a better solution on offer. Obviously the point is to reach out to people who haven't been granted a voice in publishing, which (when we're just talking gender) means "people who aren’t cis men." But then you get these "women and nonbinary people" calls that exclude trans men from things they often shouldn't be excluded from and lumps nonbinary people into a sort of women++ group. This also contributes to the harmful idea that enby people are all afab, or that masculine amab enby people don't exist.
I don't have a solution for this problem, except to urge people to think about who exactly they want to apply. Is it a collection by and about women? Call for women, both cis and trans. Is it a collection about menstruation or abortion or childbirth? Call for people who've experienced those things, regardless of gender, and make sure you're including trans men. Is it a collection about being perceived as female in public? Call for people who've experienced that. And so on. A lot of these experiences don't have a gender and there's no reason to limit the submission calls that way.
I feel it's easier and more inclusive to say what you mean rather than try to shove it into a gender framework. Maybe sometimes that means saying "no cis men because no offense guys but you have other places to submit than here." I don’t know. But I think we definitely need to make an effort to (a) include trans men and (b) stop erasing masculine amab enbys.
Katherine Cross: First off, if you're targeting women per se, the best phrasing (if you want to signal that you're trans inclusive) is to say "women, cis and trans." But in general you need to think about what you're doing with an open call and who you're trying to reach. If all you're trying to do is find a laborious way to say "not cisgender men," think in more specific terms. Are you trying to elevate stories that aren't about men or masculine people? Are you trying to capture the creativity of nonbinary experience? Be specific, and reach out with that in mind. Too often, those sorts of open calls are written the way they are to perform a certain kind of diversity politics but with no further thought behind it, rather like creating a trigger warning for "capitalism." Don’t be rote and thoughtless; the old bit of advice about "knowing your audience" applies here too. Use activist insight to come up with your own answers when need be.
K. M. Szpara: "Women and nonbinary" is not a call that includes me … but I'm also not sure if it's meant not to include me, because cis people are often so bad at expressing the nuances of gender and gender expression. When I've been on panels where, instead of just saying "gay," a panelist looks at me while sorting through her words before vomiting out, "people of the homosexual persuasion," why should I trust that cis people even know how to word calls like this? Do they intend to say "not cisgender men"? Because, if so, they're been unsuccessful in their wording. What about folks who ID as transmasculine and nonbinary? Are they excluded? What about trans people who ID as binary guys but who also ID as femme, who don't consider themselves "masculine"?
For the record, I am very much not here to step into women's spaces: I'm not a woman of any kind. But it's when the "and nonbinary" or "and trans" gets lumped in as an afterthought that I start questioning their intent. Who do they actually mean to include in this call? Because my gender experience is vastly different than a straight, masculine, cisgender man's. It is. I don't consider myself a part of that group unless I'm facing two checkboxes on a form: male and female. Then I'm forced to pick male: it is now my legal gender. I am male. I'm just not the kind that cis society expects. So, it's not that I dislike the call for "women and trans" or "women and nonbinary" authors because I want to be included in it. It's because the person putting out the call doesn't understand that there are limitless gender combinations, and they've included none of the nuances in this call.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Kellan’s going to be very sad unless we talk about sex.
K. M. Szpara: Yes, I will! And I feel like this is taboo when trans folks are having a cis-facing conversation. It's because they're so obsessed with what's going on in our pants. It can be objectifying and fetishizing and people murder us when our genitals don't conform to their expectations, so we do have plenty of reasons to seal them off from this conversation. However. I like sex! Having it, discussing it, writing it. And when I was questioning (that I might not be cis), I was given the impression by cis people—including doctors—that I would become a sexually unappealing person.
So, I wrote characters as I imagined myself. As I was comfortable. As cis gay men. That was sexy to me. It's taken me a long time for me to feel sexually appealing again and, as a writer, I know I can influence what's considered sexy. There are, of course, other themes and ideas I explore in my writing, but the sexuality of trans folks is also important to me. The more comfortable I become with my body and gender presentation and sexuality, the more comfortable I am writing varied characters. No longer am I only able to write cis gay men as attractive. It's not all about dicks all the time (I can't believe I just said that, ha!).
Trans people have sex! Sex involves bodies. Our bodies are political. It's not our fault, but that's the way it is. I know I'm making a statement when my character calls their erection a dick or a clit. (That word, by the way, has to be one that I am comfortable with, one my character would use, and one that won't completely confused my readers.) And when I show that both cis and other trans characters are attracted to them. That their body is sexually desirable and deserving of respect.
But this also leads us back into the future, into space, or a post-apocalyptic world. Lots of trans folks don't get bottom surgery because they're unsatisfied with the option. In a recent story, my protagonist wondered whether he'd miss out on a CyberCock, one day. What's the future of trans bodies? Trans sex? I don't know but, if our community utilizes toys and prosthetics now, I can only imagine the future will be amazing.
Margaret Killjoy: The other day I was telling a cis woman how I felt both completely unattractive/undateable since coming out as trans and also spend way too much of my time pushing off unwanted sexual or romantic advances, and her response was "yup, welcome to womanhood." I also spend way too much of my time trying to figure out how the hell to use Tinder as a non-passing transwoman. How do I sort myself? Who do I make my profile available to? I worry that everyone who is attracted to me is fetishizing me. I'm pretty shy to talk about my sex life publicly, so I won't go into anything in more detail, but yeah, it's frustrating. Maybe I'll talk about it publicly by writing it into a character someday.
Katherine Cross: I definitely echo the others in affirming that this is a difficult subject to talk about because cis people sexualise us in a weird way, either as a fetish object ("shemale" porn) or as sexual predators (see: scads of wankery on both the political right and left). But one thing I think that gets undersold is the fact that trans people love each other and have remarkable, fulfilling relationships, sexual and otherwise, with each other. Among trans exclusionary radical feminists, there's a moral panic that we're out to make cis women into sexual conquests. It's never been true, of course, but also we do not and have never needed the touch of cis people to feel sexually fulfilled.
I wrote a sci fi story about a trans woman computer scientist who invents a sapient AI that I heavily code as trans—the entire story is essentially a heavy-handed trans metaphor because there's all this controversy about the once "genderless" AI declaring herself to be a woman—and I portray their incipient love as a pure and mutually fulfilling affair where their bodies do things most people can't imagine. As a trans woman, having sex with other trans women taught me just how wretchedly wrong and puritanical even our most "libertine" media can be. I learned to de-emphasise genitals and orgasm, how to find tremendous physical pleasure in kink, and how touch can be incredibly pleasurable even at its most vanishingly gentle. Trans women's estrogen intake leaves our skin extra sensitive, and, well, you do the math. The genitals become the least interesting thing, sexually. We're cyborgs, and cyborgs have the best sex.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Those of us who frequent diversity panels at cons usually get the question about which authors to read. The question is asked in a cis-centering space, usually by a cis speaker. Trans people are assumed to know a lot about authors in the community—just as we are supposed to be completely confident in our identities all the time. But I think this obfuscates how isolated and winding our paths can be in reading, especially when we think about access.
What's your experience with reading access and your reading path?
Ana Mardoll: When we talk about trans authors, there's a tendency for cis people to memorize a small selection of the same names and books, because they think transgender fiction is brand new or they haven't heard about our work beyond big press stuff. I'd love to see folks branching out and proactively seeking more! Look for independent stuff, buy from small presses, dig deeper than the same Top Ten Trans Authors lists copied and pasted from blog to blog on Transgender Awareness Week. There's a lot of good stuff out there waiting to be read!
K. M. Szpara: I do have a lot of trans spec fic writer friends, and I make sure to recommend their stuff with as much frequency as possible. Often this means exposing readers to short fiction, when they’re used to novels.
Vanessa Rose Phin: What would you say to a trans/nonbinary SFF fan who wants to know what stories to read?
Margaret Killjoy: To paraphrase Bogi Takács for my answer: find the reviewers who like to trash on everything with a NB or trans character, and read whatever they trash. Or, less glibly, find the pro magazines that focus on inclusion (like, hey, Strange Horizons).
Ana Mardoll: This is the part where I'm struggling not to yell BUY MY BOOKS or reflexively promote all my author friends. Can I plug my friend Xan West’s enormous round-up of trans/nonbinary fiction reviews by trans/nonbinary reviewers? Link.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Yes! Link away. Bogi also did an excellent Twitter thread with sources. I think one we should specifically mention in your recent book, Margaret: A Country of Ghosts, as it is in dialogue with The Dispossessed, and we're all still hurting from the loss of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Katherine Cross: I'll be the fuddy-duddy once more: read the new trans spec-fic anthology from Topside, Meanwhile Elsewhere. I'd also still recommend the second book of Amanda Downum's Necromancer Chronicles for one of the best trans women characters written by a cis person, and the third for a good portrayal of genderqueerness. Not to toot my own horn, but the anthology I appeared in, Nerve Endings, has its share of spec fic scenarios in it—albeit not exclusively.
K. M. Szpara: Everyone's giving good direction above, so I'll add to check out Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, from Lethe Press. I edited the first edition, which came out in 2016, and Bogi edited the second, which came out in 2017.
Vanessa Rose Phin: What are you looking forward to in 2018?
Margaret Killjoy: The end of the Trump era by way of popular uprising that somehow avoids being co-opted by authoritarian or reactionary elements but still eradicates capitalism effectively enough that I can get laser hair removal on my face.
Ana Mardoll: I like Margaret's ideas and wish to subscribe to this newsletter.
Katherine Cross: I don't think anyone, least of all me, can live up to Margaret's panache. For my part, there's a lot in my personal life I'm cautiously hopeful about for 2018; politically, I have faith that we are finally beginning to turn back the tide of recent horrors. In the battle for our civilisation’s soul, I don’t think those who believe in democracy, justice, and equality shall be found wanting.
K. M. Szpara: Mine is personal (though I would also like to subscribe to Margaret’s newsletter). In 2018, almost six years after coming out to myself / questioning my gender, I finally feel like I have a handle on my identity. And I can't wait to work all that into a new novel project. I wasn't armed with this insight, years ago: I couldn't and didn't integrate it into my stories. But I am now.
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