- anna anthropy is a game designer, archivist, and thirty-something teen witch. Her next book is a guide for kids making their own video games.
- Rose Fox is a senior reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and the co-editor (with Daniel José Older) of Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History (Crossed Genres, 2014).
- AJ Odasso is one of the Senior Poetry Editors at Strange Horizons.
- Vanessa Rose Phin is the senior articles editor at Strange Horizons.
- Nisi Shawl’s AfroRetroFuturist novel Everfair comes out from Tor this September. Her story collection Filter House co-won a James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and she’s co-author of the acclaimed instructional handbook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. She’s active on Twitter and Facebook, and promises to update nisishawl.com soon.
- Cynthia Ward has sold stories to Asimov's SF, Shattered Prism, and elsewhere. She edited Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West, V.1-2. With Nisi Shawl, she coauthored Writing the Other. Her short novel, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess, is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press.
Vanessa Rose Phin: The word "queer" has had many meanings, from a pejorative, to an academic term, to a range of identities. For some members of the QUILTBAG community, the word "queer" is still firmly in the pejorative range. For others, the word is seen as Othering what is actually normal. Those in favor argue for its inclusivity, and its acknowledgment that all queer folk are constantly butting up against social notions of conformity. What has been your relationship with the word "queer"?
Nisi Shawl: Queer is what I call myself. That term’s fluidity for me is consonant with the fluidity of our sexual identities as we move through life. At sixty, I have been many kinds of queer, represented by many of the letters in the various acronyms we use to describe ourselves. "Queer" covers them all in my book, as well as covering the transitions between these non-normative states.
Rose Fox: The older I get, the more attached I am to queer as a verb as well as an adjective. I love its vast umbrella-ness, and its inherent transgressiveness. If someone called me "a queer," yes, that would be othering and unpleasant. But to me, reclaiming it from its history as a slur doesn’t just mean making it an acceptable word to print in newspapers or say in mixed company: it means celebrating that we’re not "normal." We’re a minority, and we’re not ever going to be a majority. I have personally never wanted the kind of monogamous spouse-and-two-kids white-picket-fence assimilationist life that gets all the mainstream attention. (Even as I’ve benefited from marriage and recognize its value, I remain stunned by how quickly it got traction politically and in the press compared to things like wanting to fight AIDS or stop the murders of trans women of color or battle the epidemic of queer youth suicides.) I want to challenge heterocentricity, challenge heterosexism, challenge stereotypes, challenge binaries of all kinds, challenge restrictive concepts of family, challenge our language and attitudes around being "closeted" or "stealth" or "out" (and the intense pressure for outness even when it is demonstrably not safe for many people). I want to queer shit up. That’s what being queer means to me—accepting that my literal existence turns the dominant paradigm on its ear, and grabbing that and running with it.
anna anthropy: I don't think I trust umbrella terms in general, and "queer" in particular has become so vague that I can't find my relationship to it anymore. I feel like verbifying queer is something people do to divorce the word from anything related to who and how people love, so that now Pixar is queer, whatever pop culture Jack Halberstam is into this week is queer. Queer is a style, queer is a look that the hip young people gentrifying my city wear. Queer your hairstyle, queer your wardrobe. I'm kind of over queer. For me it's more useful to be specific. I don't think of myself as "LGBT." (Or "QUILTBAG.") A lot of the time I don't even think of myself as "trans," that being the umbrella term that includes AFAB as well as AMAB experiences. I'm a trans woman, and whether I'm "trans" or "queer" depends a lot on context—who's asking and how and what do they mean?
Rose Fox: Anna, I definitely agree on specificity being valuable too. As a genderqueer person with an agender partner, I’m constantly reminded of the nuances of non-binariness, never mind transness, and I appreciate that we have ways to distinguish our very different experiences of gender (I am the polar opposite of agender—all gender all the time!). But I also like that broad terms leave a lot of room to move around. I guess I see broad and narrow terms as complementary, and inviting complementary experiences: sometimes I enjoy knowing that a big umbrella term still works for me no matter what part of its shadow I’m in, and sometimes I enjoy insisting that a small term make enough room to contain all my multitudes. I have yet to find that Goldilocks term that fits just right from the get-go, though. Maybe there isn’t one, for me.
AJ Odasso: In contrast to what Rose has said, for me, increasingly over the past decade, "queer" has proved to be the Goldilocks term I was always looking for. Finding my way to a clear articulation of identity hasn’t been easy; as a teenager growing up Mormon in rural Pennsylvania, I knew from about the age of fourteen that I was anything but straight. At the time, that manifested primarily in the acknowledgment that I was attracted to women as well as to men, so, up through the end of college (~2005), I tried "bisexual" on for size. That proved problematic, though, because it was during college that I came to understand that I was attracted to people regardless of gender identity, and I had an inkling, even if I couldn’t yet articulate it well or bravely, that "bisexual" was simply too bolted to the binary. I spent the next five or six years ditching labels in favor of just saying, "I have the potential to be attrac ted to and/or fall in love with anybody"; it was during that time I ended up marrying my most recent male partner instead of my most recent female one, which, irritatingly, seemed to cause a collective sigh of relief on the part of some people in my life. It became vital to me that I emphasize the fact that my identity as bisexual-or-whatever-I-was had not vanished; circa 2012, when I had the first of two surgeries that indicated I’m on the intersex spectrum, I started reading everything I could find on what that meant. It was also around then that my active presence in online fandom communities led me to Tumblr, which, as most people reading this are probably aware, is a place where discourse surrounding identity politics and terminology absolutely thrives. For the first time, I was exposed to the identity terms it turned out I’d been looking for all along: pansexual, panromantic, genderqueer, neutrois. However, I co uld also immediately pinpoint that these constituted quite a keyboardful-slash-mouthful of text, and I found it frustrating (as I’m a fan of brevity in both the labels I use for myself and in the titles I give my poems). As the acronyms go, I use LGBTQIA+ and QUILTBAG pretty interchangeably, but I started saying "I’m queer" as shorthand, and only tend to unpack it when pressed. Queerness is my defining characteristic, whether in reference to my pansexuality, my fem-leaning neutrois gender identity, or the fact that I’m intersex. Given that my marriage of eleven years is ending due to the fact that my partner seems to have decided what I’ve been all along is too queer for their taste (internalized homophobia is an ugly thing), this identity—my queerness—matters more than ever.
Otherwise, I’m in agreement with Nisi and Rose, as I’m obviously pro-queer-as-label, but I also fully understand Anna’s reservations. It does depend on who’s asking, who’s looking, and I’ve been known to modify my response in kind. Ninety percent of the time, I’ll just say "I’m queer," but there are times when the more specific labels (or even none at all) are safest. I’m part of several neurodiverse writing communities, so I think it’s worth mentioning that neurodiversity also falls under the queerness umbrella with respect to how I view myself. The term neuroqueer is gaining currency; the literary theorist in me is excited about this development, because of course there have been critics like Hortense Spillers and Cathy Cohen who have discussed queerness as an attribute of not just LGBTQIA+/QUILTBAG individuals, but also as an attribute of members of other "normative" social classes and marginalized g roups who are, demonstrably, treated by the establishment as queer. The fluidity, inclusiveness, and fundamental instability of queerness are the attributes that draw me to it. It’s a label that’s always expanding, shifting its borders inclusively as need dictates, and I love that.
Cynthia Ward: I first heard the word queer as a teenager in small-town Maine in the 1970s. A phrase like "he's a queer" referred to nonconforming sexual orientation, often pejoratively. However, queer had a broader meaning of odd (like woods-queer, which outside of Maine is cabin fever). If someone identified me as queer in the senses meant in this roundtable, my reaction would depend on the context, but I would see it as incorrect, since I identify as straight, cisgender, romantic, allosexual, and monogamous. These identities are spectra, not points, and they fit me comfortably. Using these terms doesn't feel like I'm misleading others (or lying, or co-opting).
In my experience, Americans typically use the word normal to force people into boxes, or strap them to Procrustes' bed and stretch or lop off their limbs. It's a useful word for oppressors and people afraid of their shadow selves.
Vanessa Rose Phin: You represent a wide swath of speculative fiction involvement, from fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose, game design and web design, editing and teaching and art. You are creators of SF culture and, at times, its gatekeepers. Where does inclusivity fit into your work?
anna anthropy: "Gatekeeper" is a weird word for a struggling freelance game author who is almost entirely self-published, but I also have experience with it. There was a hot minute when some press around the idea of a "queer games scene" consolidated around a community where trans women were doing prominent work, and I think people were so confused about trans women having a presence in any kind of an art form that wasn't just memoir-writing that there was a sudden conversation about how these powerless trans women were somehow keeping out the kinds of queers that are USUALLY centered in an art form.
Anyway, that's a roundabout way of saying I make games, though lately I'm trying to shift my efforts more to teaching. Enabling people who don't come from engineering backgrounds (that favor white males) has always been a big part of my agenda. I'm working on a book for kids about learning to make games that's going to be announced sometime soon.
Nisi Shawl: I am all about inclusivity. When I edit or review a book or assign someone to review something, I put much unseen effort into making sure my TOC or coverage or whatever are as inclusive as can be. For Stories for Chip I created a spreadsheet to track various demographic parameters of submitters and contributors. Which is not to say I ticked off every box for every category, or rejected stories because a category was overrepresented. There are no East Asian contributors, for instance, while several of the contributors are South Asian. No one who identifies as asexual. And so on. But I wanted to be aware of what I was accepting. And I wanted to notice when and if intersectionality occurred—did we have many gay white men? Queers of color? To me all this was as important as the genres and positioning of the offered texts. I knew that in order to pay respect to Delany’s own marginalization, I needed to pay attention to matters such as c ontributors’ race and sexuality, and I found ways to do it.
When considering which books to review for The Seattle Times, I take a bunch of factors into account, and the dominance or non-dominance of the author’s paradigm counts in my consideration. That includes their sexual and gender identification. So I’ve reviewed the work of a fair number of the infamous cis hets, such as N. K. Jemisin and Matt Ruff, but also that of a fair number of lesbians, bisexuals, and others open about their nonconformity in this area, such as Nicola Griffith and Geoff Ryman. I have a similar approach to assigning reviews at Cascadia Subduction Zone, though the possibilities for queering coverage increase in those cases. I asked Craig Gidney to cover Tanith Lee’s Space Is Just a Starry Night because I know he’s a fan. He’s also a man who loves men. This meant greater representation of that d emographic group. Hurrah!
Of course you must first recognize a difference in order to include it, and that may be why, at times, I fall short of my ideal goal.
AJ Odasso: I’ve had such a small number of short stories published since 2005—that’s when my poetry started to get published—that I really wouldn’t call myself significantly entrenched in fiction (at least not yet). Although I’ve been serving as a Strange Horizons Poetry Editor since mid-2012, the last thing I consider myself is a gatekeeper. Or, to put it more specifically: if I’m a gatekeeper, then I’d like to think I’m sitting there constantly reading submissions and refusing to actually lock it! I made it clear from the moment I submitted my application to Niall four years ago that my number-one aim was to publish more diverse voices, specifically new diverse voices, and if there’s one statistic of which I’m extremely conscious, it’s that I’ve published more first-time poets at SH than I ever remember seeing back in the days when I was still just a starry-eyed undergraduate reader of the publication. Three quarters of these new voices have identified as queer in some way, and I don’t think that’s coincidence. It speaks volumes to the lack of opportunity that queer voices—and women’s voices, and gender-nonconforming voices, and voices of color, and voices who are all of the above—have found in the speculative fiction publishing milieu. In both the verse I write and in the verse I publish, I aim to be as disruptive of the status quo as possible; I aim to be as queer as possible. It’s only in the past five to six years that I’ve found the tools (not to mention the courage and the support) to grow as vocal as I hope I’m becoming. To me, inclusivity isn’t just an aspiration or a goal. It’s an imperative.
Rose Fox: I can’t really talk about my work at PW, other than to say that I don’t feel like a gatekeeper there. My job is to provide coverage of the genre and to show it as it is, in all its vast complexity. It’s been totally fascinating to watch SF transform over the fifteen years I’ve been a reviewer and an editor; I love my bird’s-eye view.
When I was freelancing as a book editor, I always encouraged my authors to make their fictional worlds reflect the real world. We’re all conditioned to write about cis het white abled men, and I loved being able to help people break that conditioning (which they were always eager to do). I also helped them with issues of craft, such as finding ways to convey a character’s accented speech without using clumsy eye dialect.
Editing Long Hidden with Daniel José Older taught me a ton about what I wanted to see in stories, how writers who’ve honed their craft can pull off things that newer writers really struggle with, and how many different forms diverse stories can take. It wasn’t until I pulled L. S. Johnson’s "Marigolds" out of the slush pile that I realized how desperately I needed queer stories with happy endings. And at the same time, that slush pile gave me a sense of the limitations on our visions. There were hardly any trans stories (and I love the two that we published, but I also recognize the problem in having two trans characters both reach a better understanding of their identities through magical outside intervention). Many of the queer stories were full of clichés, and a lot of writers seemed to feel their characters could be either queer or trans or non-white but not more than one of those at a time. Truly intersectional stories like Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and "Super Bass" give me a great deal of hope on that front, though. Wildeeps in particular feels like it comes from about thirty years in the future. I can’t even imagine how much work Wilson had to put in to scrub present-day cultural concepts about race and gender and queerness from his mind and his writing, but his work is more free of them than anything else I’ve read.
Cynthia Ward: I remember intuiting as a teen that everyone wasn't like me, and that fiction was supposed to reflect reality—broader reality, that is, not my immediate situation (such as my Maine high school of one thousand students, which had four people viewed as biracial and no out LGBTQ+ people). The wording of my insight betrays my membership in a lot of significant dominant paradigms, I'm sure. I didn't know the word "inclusivity" back then, but that was when I started working toward it in my writing.
I wasn't a gatekeeper until recently, when I edited Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes 1-2 (WolfSinger Publications). The anthologies came about because I wearied of Weird West anthologies in which most everyone seemed to be straight, white, Anglo, cis, allo, etc. I've lived in the Western United States since 1983, and even with my limited knowledge of Western history, I knew damn well it wasn't like that. I asked for diverse submissions in as many online fora as I could reach, and I made selections with inclusivity in mind. While I didn’t use a spreadsheet like Nisi, or choose or eliminate stories based on demographic parameters, I had a Word doc where I tracked demographic parameters of authors (where known) and of stories and characters. I noticed a fair number of cases where people wrote outside of at least some of their identities, in which I find a source of hope.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Because I can’t resist Fun Home references, did any of you have a Ring of Keys moment? Where you read or saw something that rang true about your identity, and thought yes, I could be that? I could write about that?
Rose Fox: Oh, YES. Genderqueerness wasn’t really on my radar at all until I saw the photography of Zoée Nuage, and specifically the Mirror Series. My eyes got all big and I thought, "You can do that?" I’m not even sure what it is that Nuage was doing that I wanted to do, but I knew I really really wanted it. Within a week or two I was buying men’s shoes (hard to find in a size 5.5, but I managed). It totally changed my world.
Nisi Shawl: So many identities, so many moments. When I was in junior high a woman came to speak at my school about being a lesbian. Some of what she said rang true for me. I went home and told my mother I thought I might be homosexual. "No you’re not," she said, with what I thought at the time was great authority and now recognize as great desperation. I’m sure she believed I had plenty of obstacles to living happily without opting for this additional one of a nonconforming sexual identity.
Later, in college, I chanced across a comic book about polyamory. How nice to have a name for what I wanted! To know others wanted the same thing!
AJ Odasso: Ironically, the only part of the musical I’ve seen is Ring of Keys as performed at the Tony Awards. I’ve read the Fun Home graphic novel, and I love it. What I’ve heard about the musical leads me to believe I probably wouldn’t like it given how it differs from the book; as it is, I read the graphic novel for the first time two weeks ago. I’ve been a fan of Dykes to Watch Out For since college, though. I have fond memories of watching Bechdel speak in the gazebo on Boston Common after Dyke March in 2004. It was my first participation in a public Pride event.
There were a number of moments early in my life that let me in on the fact that I’ve always been a little too androgynous for some people’s comfort, but I can see them now in retrospect so clearly. The typical one, I guess, was the frequency with which I got mistaken for a boy between toddlerhood and about the age of twelve or thirteen; I only tended to be in dresses on Sunday, so the rest of the week was something of a crap-shoot. At the age of four, I insisted on dressing just like Ernie from Sesame Street; with my hair cut neatly to my chin thanks to the fact I’d taken a pair of Crayola safety scissors to it myself, I’m sure your imagination can fill in the rest! In all seriousness, though, my Ring of Keys moment was a combination of the opportunity to safely explore my identity while I was an undergraduate at Wellesley and subsequently learning what I learned on the medical front just as I was becoming aware of expanded identi ty terminologies online. I have my fandom community to thank for that; they’ve been extraordinary. We support each other; we ask questions together. That’s family.
Rose Fox: The retrospective analysis of childhood queerness and transness is so interesting to me. I definitely had a crush on Princess Glimmer on She-Ra when I was five or six years old, and remembering that helped me form a queer identity in my teens (though it still took me a while to figure out why I was so very very fond of some of my female friends). But I had no sense of myself as gender-transgressive at all until I started looking back as a trans-identified adult, because every time I tried to wear masculine clothing, my mother—who is totally accepting of me now, I hasten to add—would tell me it "wasn’t flattering." She was right, because I had no idea how to dress my body in that style, but the net effect was to steer me away from any kind of gender identity exploration. And since I was and am very comfortable being femme, I didn’t have a strong urge to push back and say "Okay, then help me find flattering menswear" or research butch fashions or anything like that. I just stayed in my assigned gender lane until I was in my late twenties, cut my hair very short for the second time, and realized that maybe there were other options.
anna anthropy: I can’t answer this question since I uncategorically refuse to watch any of the Fun Home musical.
Vanessa Rose Phin: So much of our experience is about finding the right words. Adjectives and identities, and the almighty pronoun. How have you seen language change in the last decade or so? Where do you think we’re going, or should be going?
Rose Fox: Anyone who hasn’t seen language change in the past decade, or even the past year, hasn’t been paying attention. As for where we’re going, I think the most interesting linguistic things are happening in non-binary spaces, especially in languages where the gender binary is so baked in that it’s almost impossible to refer to oneself in a truly neutral or un-gendered way. Will third linguistic genders develop there, or more neutral language? Will people get used to the idea of mismatching adjectives and nouns, or alternating between them, in order to indicate binary-busting? There’s a lot of language hacking going on in that space right now and it’s fascinating.
Nisi Shawl: Words are my jam! I don’t think we’ve found the best ones for description of sexual identities yet, but how fun to get to try different approaches and figure that out! I heard, for instance, that young Eastern city-dwellers had begun using "yo" as a non-gendered pronoun. We’re in a moment of play and experimentation in this regard, and this makes me so happy.
AJ Odasso: Nisi, I couldn’t agree more! The play and experimentation are thrilling. The most exciting recent(ish) development in the realm of language, to me, is the reemergence of singular they/them pronouns. Even though she/her pronouns have been with me since birth and I quite happily accept them, I’ve also made a point of saying I love the fairness and neutrality of they/them and therefore am thrilled to also accept those if someone finds it easiest to use them (for example: my circles of friends, both online and off, are populated by such a dazzling array of identities and preferences that they/them has simply become the lingua franca at social gatherings). As an editor and an inveterate linguistic nitpicker, I adamantly distance myself from the purists who insist that they cannot be singular; given one of the earliest instances of singular they in English occurs in Chaucer’s Cant erbury Tales ("And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, they wol come up and offre in Goddes name, and I assoille them"; The Pardoner’s Tale), I’m sorry, the purists’ argument is invalid! Language finds a way.
Cynthia Ward: I was born in 1960 and I've seen so much change in language! In my youth, queer was not an identity anyone would admit to, let alone embrace. My English teachers crushed the commonplace singular use of "they/them" out of me so thoroughly, I must consciously relearn their use as singular pronouns. I saw the introduction (or reintroduction) of the honorific Ms to remove the use of marital-status markers for women, and I'm seeing the introduction of the honorific Mx to remove gender markers.
I'm reminded of an interview I heard with the actress Maggie Smith on NPR. She remarked that she's so old, she has breakfast several times a day. The passage of time doesn't feel that rapid yet, but it's gotten fast enough that it feels like terms of identity are changing and expanding constantly now. Judging by others’ responses, it sounds like this has less to do with my age-related perceptions than with genuine acceleration of change, and I hope so, because it’s all to the good, I think.
I wonder if we'll reach the point where identities and terms don't matter outside of specific situations, as in Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton (a.k.a. Triton)? It seems a worthy goal.
Rose Fox: Pronouns interest me too, but there the issue is abundance of choice and the minute nuances of whether and why one might prefer ve/vim/vis over e/em/eir or vice versa. I suspect that within 20 years everyone will have gotten pretty used to both epicene and explicitly neutral "they," which is almost a shame—I’d much rather we have one pronoun for "gender not stated/known" and another for "gender not binary" and maybe even a third for "absence of gender." As it is, "they" has to include me (genderqueer) and my partner (agender) and our baby (no internal sense of gender yet) and that is enough to stretch even the stretchiest pronoun almost to the breaking point.
anna anthropy: I worry that the Internet has given young queer people a lot of charged political vocabulary but no context with which to express nuance. I mean, it's easy for me as a thirty-something to complain about "callout culture," and I think there are always pressure on marginalized people, especially youth, to tone down their anger and be more "patient" with people who are being oppressive. But I think that often because our oppressors are often out of our reach and our communities are so insular we often end up turning those vocabularies on other vulnerable people. Language is something you have to be real real careful with. I'm looking forward to the future when we only communicate through emoji.
AJ Odasso: Charged vocabulary without context or a guidebook on nuance can be problematic, true. At the same time, though, I feel like it’s part and parcel with the experimentation and play that Nisi has cited. Without the opportunity to figure out how they work, new vocabularies are useless. I do agree with Anna in the sense that we have to be careful with language, but we also have to be willing to take mindful risks with it, too.
Vanessa Rose Phin: One of the ways of allowing for gender and sexual diversity is by playing with the unmarked state: purposefully leaving certain descriptions blank, vague, or understood by the reader, where usually, queerness would be marked. What has been your experience with this practice? In which circumstances have you seen it work well? Are there limitations?
anna anthropy: I think there's both "positive" and "negative" kinds of representation, not in the sense of being constructive versus harmful, but in the sense of explicit affirmation of an identity versus non-denial of an identity. In most media the latter is no substitute for the former, but I work in games, where a lot of the action happens in the second person. When you as the audience are being offered space to embody your own character, it can be a huge betrayal to be suddenly told in the middle of the story that you're straight or male or white or cis or allosexual or binary. Who's allowed to be the everyperson? I think there can sometimes be a lot of careful craft in deliberately creating space for identities rather than tacitly erasing them.
Rose Fox: I’m really strongly opposed to the "trick the reader" thing where you get partway through the book and then surprise! This person was female/black/queer all along! It seems very unlikely that at no point would a character think about anything related to their queerness until suddenly the story requires it. That’s not what queer lives look like, in my experience. The world requires us to be aware of our queerness a lot of the time. We’re aware of our safety; we’re aware of passing or not, being closeted or not, the things we say or don’t say when we meet someone or talk with our colleagues. If we’re looking for potential partners, we’re sizing people up not only to figure out whether we’re interested in them or they’re interested in us but to figure out whether it’s safe to approach them. And many of us exist within queer communities, or seek those communities if they aren’t eas ily found or joined. (An SF story that depicts this really well is A. M. Dellamonica’s "The Cage.") So if you’re writing a story where you want queerness to be the unmarked state, you can’t do that through the het gaze, and I’m not sure you can do it at all unless you’re building a setting that does not inherently mark queerness, like in Tanya Huff’s Quarters books. In our present world, we are marked from the day we realize who and what we are. You can’t just claim the privilege of the unmarked state by not mentioning or actively obscuring someone’s gender or race or queerness or transness. You have to work harder than that.
AJ Odasso: I don’t think I have much to add to what Rose and Anna have said, at least not in the realm of fiction, but I’ll attempt to put this in a poetry context. So much confessional poetry (genre, literary, and otherwise) has been the site of this very act—confession, statement, declamation—that I would argue a kind of queerness is built into the very medium itself. Verse can take any form, speak in any voice; it can express between stanzas, in the placement of caesuras, more than is actually articulated in its lines. The fact that I am queer and the fact that I am a poet are, in my view, inextricably linked. Not even prose permits me to speak my experience as I wish to speak it; poetry has proved just as ideal a medium as queer has proved an ideal label. Historically, poets are an indisputably queer bunch. Writers are, really!
Nisi Shawl: I’ve only seen one extremely talented writer, Kelley Eskridge, pull off the lack of demarcation ploy—that’s in her Mars stories, collected in Dangerous Space. Most of the time readers set the character an author carefully leaves uncategorized to the default state. So unexciting. There are ways to address the tiresomeness of the burden of description placed on those of us depicting characters outside the dominant paradigm. Generally speaking, omission isn’t one of them. I refer you to the book I co-wrote with Cynthia Ward, Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, and to the Writing the Other-related classes I teach with her and with K. Tempest Bradford.
Cynthia Ward: It seems very late in the cultural day to write a generic "surprise! protag is queer/black!" story/novel. It requires significantly suppressing and distorting the characterization, culture, and other aspects of the work to surprise the reader (and assumes such omissions and distortions won't be noticed). It also strikes me as an extreme manifestation of "othering." You’d have to think of someone as far from the norm to make their race or sexual orientation a surprise.
As far as "surprise! protag is female!" fiction, I've seen almost none outside of Marion Zimmer Bradley's swords & sorcery stories about Lythande, which I read in the mid-1980s. Withholding the gender information did create some noticeable distortion of the prose, but it still made for a radical read at the time.
Because gender is (so far) extremely marked in English-language fiction (and nonfiction), its careful omission can have powerful effects, as in Nisi Shawl's example, and in Vonda N. McIntyre's novel Dreamsnake.
Vanessa Rose Phin: And now, hop with me into family life. You know the families I’m talking about: dad, mom, two and a half kids, and if we’re lucky, a nonconforming gerbil instead of a dog or cat. The ultimate symbol of social conformity . . . except it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be. What’s our status in SF about families? Where do we need most to expand?
Cynthia Ward: On my way to the computer to tackle this question, I found a Jehovah's Witness flyer in my door promoting the religion's wholesome mainstream Christian-ness with an image of a happy family: white cisgender man, woman, son, and daughter. That is one potent, tenacious, and destructive stereotype. And it's one we may see more frequently, as those who've bought into the false binary paradigm attempt to reinforce it.
For the last several years, I've mostly read nonfiction for research, so I can't comment knowledgeably on where we most need to expand. In every direction except the one on the religious flyer, I suspect.
Rose Fox: I’d like to see more nebulous and unstructured families, more intentional families, more families that include aunties and uncles and auncles who may or may not be related by blood. Let’s move beyond the idea that "family" must be documented or legally recognized or formalized.
AJ Odasso: "Auncle" may be my new favorite word! While I’m fortunate that most of my blood family has come to accept who I am and how I express myself, I still maintain that the family I’ve found in various online writing communities has been the support network that has most permitted me to thrive and find my voice (and it seems to be like that for the majority of young queer writers with whom I’ve spoken). When I do write prose, I persistently write about found families, and I don’t think that this is a coincidence. To an extent, we really do tend to write what we know. "Mov[ing] beyond the idea that ‘family’ must be documented or legally recognized or formalized" is a succinct and moving way of putting it, Rose.
Cynthia Ward: The idea of the intentional/non-blood/non-marital family resonates with me, as well, and it appears frequently in various forms in my fiction, though I get along well with my blood family. This is partly because intentional families are relatively common in SF, which I've read more than other types of fiction. It's partly because I'm a significant and sometimes solitary outlier in my nuclear and extended blood family in several ways (deliberately childless, divorced, atheist, arthritic, live on the other coast, read SF, write, etc.). And it’s partly because I have an intentional family, as well as a blood family, and it started to coalesce decades ago, although I’ve discussed it with like one intentional-family member ever (I really am a repressed Maine Yankee, aren’t I).
Nisi Shawl: Let’s rescue and rehabilitate that "family" concept. In nonwhite, non-Western families there’s often less dependence on biological relationships and more interest in proximity, affection, shared work, familiarity, and so on. I had an Uncle Buck and an Aunt Eula when I was in grade school who were not, in legal terms, relatives of any sort. But they lived nearby, they looked out for me and my sisters. Relationships like this form the background to some of my SF stories, and I’d like to see more of the extension and expansion of familial roles reflected in the works of others as well. Though there are already some great examples of this. One of my favorites is Ben Rosenbaum’s "The First Gate of Logic," which first appeared in the anthology Stories for Chip, which I co-edited. And Kai Ashante Wilson deals with family in this speculative mode in at least two of his stories: "The Devil in America," and "Legendaire."
Vanessa Rose Phin: Recent sci-fi seems to be grappling with this idea of group connections that are not familial, but connected by some kind of commonality. I’m thinking Sense8, Stross’s The Affinities, and a lot of Octavia Butler’s work. We’ve always had psychic stories in the genre, of course, but I feel the Internet is changing our discussions around what it means to be part of a group. That it isn’t always a bad thing to be connected to a hive, as it were.
Rose Fox: Vanessa, isn’t that what a ton of YA is about, but in reverse? All these variations on the theme of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat, and people (usually teens) who feel they do or don’t belong with the group they’re assigned to or born into?
Nisi Shawl: True, Rose—the movie Divergent comes to my mind, and I’m sure there are many more along those lines. It doesn’t seem reversed to me—unless, I guess, you’re talking about the protagonist’s family-of-intent choosing them rather than the other way around.
Vanessa Rose Phin: I agree that the join-the-club aspect is strong in YA. It mirrors the teen quest for peer groups at the moment when they become, in a psychological sense, more important than family. I’ve always had issues with the Sorting Hat and similar structures—it categorizes people into four predetermined norms created and maintained by adults, and characters often end up either focusing on their individualistic exceptions or conforming to the norm so completely that we buy into it, too.
I guess what I’m trying to stick my finger on is how the Internet has (potentially) changed the discussion about folks being part of a group so connected that most stories would have ended on a note of individualism or antagonism rather than portray that connection as a good thing. And what that means for gender- and sexually-diverse groups.
Cynthia Ward: Yes, until I read your story "Peg," Vanessa, I hadn’t really encountered a work of fiction in which close mind-linkages (telepathy, etc.) are presented in a positive and balanced light (while leaving humans human). Such works can be too claustrophobic, or end up too controlling, which is not a good place for either side. Often, it seems, they are dystopian.
On occasion, they go too far in the other direction. If I recall correctly (it’s been decades), Spider & Jeanne Robinson’s SF novel Stardance assumes total mind linkage will result in a liberating, even utopian experience for the human race. Being familiar with my own grim, bloody, selfish, insecure, anxious, irrational, and bigoted mind, I can only assume fully linked minds would lead to the extinction of the human race. The Stardance Trilogy’s clear inspiration, the Arthur C. Clarke novel Childhood’s End, posits a similar situation more believably—the humans with linked minds become a posthuman new race! Not a usable model for day-to-day existence.
In the context of the Internet, my partner and I were originally quite surprised and thrilled to find atheist communities. Then the irrationalities and hate speech and so forth became clear . . . ironically, the same old sins many atheists deride in believers. So we’ve greatly cut back our participation and memberships in online atheist groups. It’s clear to me that, barring posthuman transcendence a la Childhood’s End, we don’t leave our human limitations behind in online communities, however close-knit.
This isn’t to say online communities can’t or won’t work. Just that we need awareness of our limitations to achieve healthy and sustainable online communities. The good connections and balanced outcomes you mention are possible, Vanessa; they just require as much work (or more) as offline communities.
The explosive growth of online communities and social media makes me suspect formal manners will make a big comeback, actually.
Vanessa Rose Phin: In my day job, I’m editing a textbook on human gender and sexuality. In the text, asexuals got just one sentence. So let’s give asexuality more loving here. SF has had its share of asexual characters, and we have our own tropes (robot, anyone?)—is there a character you’d consider a good representative of asexuality? What would you like to see more of?
anna anthropy: I feel like for me, as someone who has been sliding into and out of and around the ace spectrum for a while, what's useful for me in media is depictions of romance and affection that de-center sex. I was working on a trashy teen witch game a while ago where romance scenes could play out either as make-outs or hand-holding or just sharing space, player's choice, with all of the options given equal weight and significance by the game. I think we could talk a lot about what is and is not an "asexual character" (does it only count if the character explicitly identifies as ace?), but what I've always found more pragmatically useful is representations of intimacy that weren't sex-centered.
Nisi Shawl: I haven’t come across many outstanding ace characters in my reading. Which bites it, because I’ve written two myself. I think. I hope. Only one appears in a published work so far, and I don’t want to say anything more about either of them—I want readers to tell me whether I got them at least close enough to right to be recognizable.
Cynthia Ward: I have seen one unambiguously asexual representation of asexuality so far: a non-protagonist character in Alex Dally MacFarlane’s story "Selin That Has Grown in the Desert," in Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft. I enjoyed many aspects of the story, but as her potential marital partner, the asexual character functioned as something of a narrative convenience for the protagonist, to my mind.
An ambiguous case (do stories of induced asexuality count as representing asexuality?) is Bruce Sterling’s excellent, Hugo Award-winning novelette, "Bicycle Repairman," in which the protagonist uses medication to suppress his libido.
I have written two or three (unpublished) so far (a protagonist and an antagonist, not in the same works, and Sherlock Holmes, too, if you read him as asexual. More on Holmes below).
I'm familiar with characters who have been defined as asexual in retrospect (SF mad scientists, almost anyone in The Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes), which strikes me as problematical. Depicting a character as generically nonsexual, or generically secular, does not automatically mean "asexual" for the one or "atheist" for the other. Such depictions are unmarked states, on which readers project sexuality and life philosophy, and typically project the dominant paradigms. And Sherlock Holmes, created before the modern concept of sexual identity was even created/formulated, ends up being retconned as allosexually gay and as allosexually straight, as well as asexual.
Given my limited experience, I would like to see more unambiguously asexual representation in general.
AJ Odasso: I’m glad to see asexuality discussion here—not only on the literary front, but also because I’ve been giving it a lot of thought within the context of my identity. Demisexual is another term in the mix with which I’ve found definite resonance, and I was initially surprised when I learned it was considered part of the ace spectrum. To identify as both pansexual and demisexual, I’ve found, occasionally means to raise eyebrows (all the more reason to hold up my shield that has QUEER emblazoned across it in appropriately to-scale TNR). I can definitely say that I haven’t read any mainstream fiction featuring ace characters, let alone protagonists; transformative works, of course, are another matter (fandom makes readily available what publishers and booksellers do not). With regard to asexual representation in poetry, I do read a lot of poetry, and I can honestly say that I have yet to see a poem in my slush pile that is obviously classifiable as an asexual one—however, we have definitely published asexual poets at SH, so the question then becomes how they classify their work. Is all of my poetry queer just because I’m queer? Part of me is tempted to say yes, but part of me is also tempted to say no, not necessarily, because often subject matter or other narrative factors play into how a piece is received from reader to reader. Which in and of itself, maybe, is as queer as queer gets.
Cynthia Ward: I've also discovered I have some resonance with one definition of the term demisexual. I need an emotional connection (not necessarily returned) to feel attraction or arousal. This doesn't feel queer to me, because society has instructed me for my entire life that this is "what all women are like," along with teaching me that men are women's aromantic wild-oats-sowing opposites—although men are granted an option of flexibility. A few will "get it out of their system and settle down," or they might change if you can just get them to the altar. . . . Damaging binary much?
Rose Fox: I’m starting to see asexual and demisexual representation in romance, which is lovely, but it’s still very scarce there, and almost impossible to find in SF. I say "almost" to hedge my bets—it might be there somewhere! But I can’t think of an explicitly, canonically ace character that I’ve encountered in the genre.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Tor.com recently posted a list of five examples on the asexual spectrum, and the Asexual Agenda listed quite a few examples in 2013. From these and other lists, webcomics (and blogs) seem to have picked up asexuality faster than other media. Anna mentioned the Internet-based community earlier as a source of new vocabulary, a place to find and differentiate identities, but also a place that fosters insularity. The Internet shapes our fiction and perceptions of what it means to be queer, however this term applies to us. Where do we see queer communities forming or splintering in our various speculative fields going into the next decade, the next fifty years?
AJ Odasso: I’m going to speak specifically about poetry again, seeing as everyone else here is much more qualified to speak about fiction than I am. My hope is that the marginalized voices finding a place in genre poetry will eventually find greater success breaking into mainstream markets. Note that I say "My hope is that" and not "I predict that," because I’ll admit my optimism is cautious (and prognostication isn’t my forté). Mainstream literary poetry only seems interested in queerness if it’s (usually white) cis gay and lesbian content; while I’m aware that queer trans poets are making headway in the non-genre poetry world (see, for example, Vetch: A Magazine of Trans Poetry and Poetics), we still have a long way to go on the representation front. As an intersex poet who enthusiastically keeps an eye out for other intersex poets, I’ve recently discovered the work of Aaron Apps (Dear Herculine and Intersex: A Memoir). About four years ago, when various medical issues started me on the road to self-discovery, I ran across the chapbook work of Thea Hillman (Lettuce and Nuts & Chews). I’m sad to say Aaron and Thea are the only others I know of, so if anyone else is out there, please get in touch! Intersex creators are far better represented in the realms of memoir and screen. Aaron has written memoir, as has Thea; there’s also the writing of Hida Viloria and the documentary/film work of Phoebe Hart (Orchids: My Intersex Adventure) and Lisset Barcellos (Both).
Cynthia Ward: Like AJ Odasso, I am not a prognosticator and can only express hopes. I remember being starved for female characters with agency for much of my life. I hope we’ll create a future in which everyone reading SF can find their identities so plentifully represented, they won’t feel hungry, or even think of hunger. And I hope it’s the same way in their world.
Rose Fox: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from SF, it’s that I should never try to predict the future! But I think we will continue to see tensions between structure and nebulosity, between those who find value in assimilation into the mainstream and those who see it as being coopted and constricted. This plays out not just socially but in practical questions like "Do I shop my queer book to a big publisher that might want me to change it or a small queer press that might not be able to promote it, or do I self-publish it and do all the work myself for what’s likely to be minuscule return?" I don’t see that divide getting narrower anytime soon, though its parameters will shift as the definition of "mainstream" changes and as markets change. So when you talk about queer communities splintering, that’s one of the things I think of—the big five/small press/self-pub choice that puts authors into group s almost whether they like it or not. Some authors do move around and branch out, but a lot of queer authors struggle so hard to be published at all that once they find a way to get their books out there, they’re very reluctant to jeopardize that or take chances.
We haven’t touched at all on those sorts of practical considerations for writers trying to get published, but they’re pretty major. We decry the whitewashing of covers but no one talks about the straightwashing of jacket copy. (For example, Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory is about a queer woman, but you’d never know from any part of the lengthy blurb. Nor does any press about N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season mention that several characters are queer and one of them spends a fair amount of time being part of a polyamorous triad.) I know multiple authors who’ve had publishers or agents say "Does that character have to be gay?" or, even more bluntly, "I’ll buy/rep this book if you make that character straight." Small presses are doing absolutely heroic work but have minimal market share and are often slow to pay, which consideration is compounded for marginalized people who have fewer opportunities to m ake money; double that for self-publishing. And I’m sad to say that I think that is also going to continue for a long time. The way the publishing industry is thrashing around and chewing its own tail over race right now does not fill me with optimism for the eventual similar focus on queerness and transness.
Nisi Shawl: What if my forthcoming novel Everfair changes everything? The book’s main romantic arc is a lesbian love story. There’s also a happily polyamorous relationship, and the royal marriage is part of an instance of highly functional polygamy. Then there’s a second lesbian love affair, and a brief focus on two homosexual men who form a partnership as well. And more. No character suffers for any of this "deviance." And Everfair is being published by Tor, which is a pretty big publisher for our field. I’m holding my breath.
I’m not sure I can see too far into the future. What’s going on now is a whole lot of niche-ification. We’re on the margins, yes—but those margins are self-aware. Those brave independent publishers you’re talking about, Rose, are also lean, mean, audience-satisfying machines. We who demand inclusivity will get it by any means possible. As Eileen Gunn finishes her fantasy novel about Samantha Clemens, wielder of the pen name Mark Twain; as I finally sell my YA in which the heroine crushes out on a polyamorous bisexual martial arts instructor; as all our greatness continues to manifest in literary form, watch us have an amazingly fantastic time publishing it.